08/07/2012 11:26 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2012

More Women Deciding They Can't Have It All


A lot of attention has been paid recently to Yahoo announcing that now-former Google executive Marissa Mayer has become its CEO and Mayer's subsequent announcement that she was six months pregnant. Such news shines new light on the question now very much in the news of whether women can "have it all." Recent comments by Facebook COO and parent of two Sheryl Sandberg about leaving the office at 5:30 p.m. suggest perhaps women can reach the top professionally while having a family. Yet Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent Atlantic magazine cover story, "Why Women Really Can't Have it All," suggests otherwise. As we approach National Work and Family Month in October, it's an important question to ask.

For most parents, but particularly for women, reaching the top of any profession while raising a family is difficult. Mayer got her Yahoo job on the strength of her Google career, most of which took place before she was married. She became CEO of Yahoo before her first child was born.

Rising through the ranks of corporate America after having kids is more difficult. That is why fewer than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Rising through the ranks of any organization is a challenge while raising a family.

Women with children earn less than women without a family. Women pay a 5-7% wage penalty per child. Most (at least 2/3) of working women who have children take some maternity leave (average around 10 weeks), leave the workforce all together or patch something in the middle which reduces their impact at work and have to deal with bias in many cases. Taking any extended time away from work gets in the way of continuity and experience. Moreover, as a parent of young children myself, I know that I was less productive at work when I had the small children than before. Sleep deprivation, nursing and constant care impact work. Women also still do the majority of child care, house/domestic care in a family, 20% more than men. From 1985-2008, mothers increased their time devoted to child care to 13.9 hours a week, up from 8.4.

Trying to "have it all" can be particularly challenging for the poor and middle class. Child care is very expensive. In Massachusetts, the average annual cost of child care is $17,000 per child. In New York, it's more than $13,000. If a couple has kids, someone has to take care of the kids. If they don't have family willing or able to help and lack the financial resources to hire child care, some parent, often the mother, must spend less time in the workforce to care for them.

For single women, having a family and a child can be a huge barrier. For hourly workers, its a real challenge, as they often lack flexibility, so their taking time off to be with a child too often can cost them their job.

The tradeoffs women have had to make, combined with the recent recession and a lack of national work/family supports, have led many to decide they can't have it all, and instead they leave the workforce all together. In 2012, the percentage of women in the U.S. workforce declined to 57.6%. It hasn't been that low since March of 1993. Women's labor participation (working or looking for work) topped out at just over 60% in 2001 and has been flat or declining since.

We all have to make trade-offs in life. People have finite resources of time and energy and the more one puts in one area, like family, the less available for other areas, like work. It may be that without more robust work/family policies, many women have decided that the costs of balancing work and family are just too high to try to have it all at once.