A young Harvard grad finds some hard truths in the controversial statements about elite female professionals made by Harvard President Lawrence Summers
By Caille Millner, Pacific News Service
SAN FRANCISCO – Jan. 21, 2005 – Lawrence Summers may be right.
The Harvard president has taken a lot of heat this week for his speculations on why there is a shortage of elite female scientists. On the first and most criticized of those hypotheses, that there are “innate sex differences” that make women less competitive than men in math and science, I’d like to see Summers’ research. But on the old charge that having a family makes it difficult to rise to the top of your profession, sadly, Summers is onto something — and proving his point are three women of no less authority than Jennifer Aniston, Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom and Condoleezza Rice.
All three of these women are making their own news this week. TV star Jennifer Aniston is separating from her film-star husband, Brad Pitt. Court TV’s photogenic legal analyst Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom is getting a divorce from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Condi Rice, meanwhile, is forging through Senate confirmation hearings on her way to becoming the first black female Secretary of State. The Newsoms acknowledged that the demands of their respective careers drove them apart, and the buzz on Pitt and Aniston is that Pitt wanted a baby now, but Aniston wanted to focus on her career. As for Rice, it’s often been commented on that she is unmarried and has no children.
There’s no coincidence here. When I was at Harvard College just a few years ago, there was never any question among young women that we would have both successful careers and successful families. Why not? We were certainly smart and industrious, and we expected — as no other generation of women had before us — to have help, both in the form of enlightened partners and comprehensive child care. Most important, we believed that we would be psychologically prepared to handle the joyful sacrifices that one has to make in order to raise a successful family. We didn’t really know what the costs of those sacrifices would be.
The message that leadership at home and in the boardroom can come at no personal cost is the message young women in elite institutions hear over and over again — and it’s one that they’ll keep hearing, if Summers’ critics have their way. One of the sentences in the protest letter that a Harvard faculty committee sent to him reads, “[Your comments] send at best mixed signals to our high-achieving women students in Harvard College and in the graduate and professional schools.”
Unfortunately, the working world is nothing but mixed signals for women. Now that I’m out in it, I can see that I didn’t get enough information on the sacrifices that I’ll have to make in order to make it work when I do have a family. (Presumably, neither did Aniston or Guilfoyle Newsom.) To get to the top of my career, I’ll have to put my work first for many years — whether that means working 12-hour days throughout my twenties or dumping a sick child with a baby-sitter in order to meet a deadline in my thirties. Even presuming that I become a wealthy woman like Aniston or Guilfoyle Newsom and can afford the best of childcare and household help, are these really sacrifices that I want to make? No.
The only one of this week’s newsworthy women to grasp the illusion of having it all at an early age was Rice. Admittedly, she might be single for cultural reasons — another Harvard scholar, Orlando Patterson, has said that the African-American marriage rate is the lowest among all racial groups in the United States. But even if Rice is alone by default, not design, she certainly used her time wisely. She devoted herself to her profession and avoided the complications that occur when you have a child and a boss who both need you, right now.
That’s not to say that Rice’s choice has come without sacrifice, either. Raising a family is a hard job, but it’s one that most people wouldn’t trade — and at some point, Rice no doubt wrestled with a yearning for one of her own. It’s still true that many people find a powerful, single woman to be deficient, or at least somewhat pitiful. When President Bush announced Rice as his candidate for Secretary of State, absolutely every man I spoke to made inappropriate comments about Rice’s sex life. I’m not sure if those comments made them feel better, but they certainly made me feel worse. Maybe that was the point. I’m only 25, but I’ve already passed up opportunities for commitment because I wanted to further my career — and sometimes I do get lonely.
Feelings aside, Rice’s choice may be the most realistic. American employers simply do not value families as much as they value their bottom lines, and therefore positions of tremendous power will always be incompatible with family life. So I don’t believe young women at Harvard, or any other college, should be sheltered from hearing provocateurs like Summers. It’s better to hear a harsh reality early on than to be surprised when it pops up later.
PNS contributor Caille Millner, 25, is co-author, with Oral Lee Brown, of “The Promise,” forthcoming in April from Doubleday.