THE BLOG
04/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Peaceful Revolution: Rhodes Scholar Mothers Face Inequality Too

A great deal of our popular discourse on "successful women'' is centered around the alleged question of "work-life balance.'' Can a professional woman, at the top of her career, really, ever, "Have it all?''

For many, the words "Rhodes Scholar" represent Success with a capital ''S.'' As a woman -- and one of the first among us to be a Rhodes Scholar -- I've always been interested in what, precisely, defines "Success" for our generation, and what will define it for generations to come. It is interesting and I must admit, disappointing, that at Rhodes Scholar reunions, women are still shepherded to panels on "work life balance." And that we are told -- by our Rhodes women peers -- that we are "redefining success." Why can't we succeed on the same plane as the men?

When I have conversations with my female friends and colleagues, especially those of my generation, they often gravitate towards a particular theme: we are privileged to live now and to have been young then; the first beneficiaries of the gift of equal opportunity, and the chance to have it all. But, if we don't have it all, what do we have? More importantly, what do our daughters have, if women are still seen as needing to "redefine" success in order to succeed.

I have often taken it for granted that I am living the life for which early feminists fought. My husband and I both have demanding careers, we are both ardent supporters of equality; we have an exuberant household and three engaging children. But then, some years ago, I met up with a close friend who leads a life as busy as my own. She heard out my eulogy to our good times before gently, but rightly, pointing out the paradox of our lives. We have it all, in the sense that we have a career as tough as any man's while retaining management of the household and primary care of the children. But the traditional model would not have required anyone to take on all this.

Is this really what women of our generation have achieved: a readiness to take on more than our fair share under the euphemism of "having it all?" A sense of "juggling" and a media that keeps telling us we don't quite have it right? Seeking the answer, I launched the Rhodes Project, a comprehensive survey of the first generation of women Rhodes Scholars' lifestyles, occupations, values and beliefs. This cohort of women, can, to an extent, serve as a marker of progress on the women's movement over the last 30 years.

Our surveys and interviews cover a broad range of topics, which we will be addressing through our Web site and publications to come. What I think will be of particular interest -- if no particular surprise --are the inequalities (both at home and at the workplace) that Rhodes mothers face: 81% of Rhodes mothers said they had "limited or turned down career opportunities because of their children" while only 43% of their (mostly male) partners had. At the same time, 48% of the women said they did not spend as much time with their children as they wished. Finally, 48% said they found it harder to get promoted or recognized at work because they were female, and 40% said they felt that way specifically because they had children.

I also wanted to explore gender equality at its most intimate and subtle: in the home. I found that partnerships (mostly) with men are important (indeed, finding a supportive partner was the second most popular definition of success), but gender relations play out complicatedly. Only 66% of our women were "very happy" with the division of household management, proving that we can't get away from old standards. At the same time, 45% of our women contribute 60% or more to household income. And while 74% of the women were happy with the support their partners offered their careers, that happiness was skewed toward high earning women, begging the question: what about those women earning less?

The women with arguably some of the best educational opportunities are fighting the same fight as women of all levels of income and education: a reality of being pulled in two directions, of fighting to get their professional contributions recognized, of dealing with partners who -- whether consciously or unconsciously -- expect them to shoulder the burden of rearing a family. "Success" with a capital "S" apparently doesn't mean escaping that old specter of the double-bind.

I don't think I've yet found the answer to the question "what do we have?" But I do know, as women, we have a common cause -- a common fight for real equality -- that is not over yet.

A Peaceful Revolution is a blog about innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.