To judge by the public reception of Sylvia Ann
Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, you might
think it was the first time American women had been admonished not to pursue
high-powered careers when they could be having babies. Hewlett argues that the
more women achieve in the workplace, the less likely they are to marry or to have
children. Sound familiar? It was news to Maureen Dowd, who devoted two New
York Times columns to the book and proclaimed a "baby bust" among
well-educated women. Time magazine produced a worry-inducing cover package
centering on Hewlett's book and posing its message in the starkest possible
terms: "Babies vs. Career." In The New Republic Online, Michelle Cottle
described how a friend of hers "burst into tears halfway through the Time
article and had to stop reading." It wasn't long before a full-fledged "Baby
Panic" was declared on the cover of New York magazine. "Honestly," Dina
Wise, 29, told New York, since Hewlett's book came out, "I've never felt
At the center of this ruckus was not only a centuries-old antifeminist saw but
a figure who has spent two decades fixated on proving that feminism hurts women
families. Since the mid-1980s, Hewlett, an economist, has repeatedly attacked
feminism for undermining the traditional family and forcing women to make painful
choices between childbearing and professional work. Wrote Hewlett in her 1986
A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women's Liberation in America: "The chic
liberal women of [the National Organization for Women] have mostly failed to
understand that millions of American women like being mothers and want to
strengthen, not weaken, the traditional family structure. For them, motherhood is
not a trap, divorce is not liberating, and the personal and sexual freedom of
modern life is immensely threatening."
Although you wouldn't know it from the credulous reception of Creating a
Life, Hewlett's first book was roundly criticized and debunked by feminists,
including Betty Freidan, who called it a "deceptive, backlash book." In her 1991
bestseller Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Susan
Faludi recounted how Hewlett's work, which approvingly cited the Eagle Forum's
Phyllis Schlafly, was to become a cornerstone in the antifeminist edifice. "For
next several years," wrote Faludi, "hundreds of journalists, newscasters, and
columnists would invoke Hewlett's work whenever they wanted to underscore the
tragic consequences of feminism." And the pundits would have no shortage of
material to point to: Hewlett's 1991 book, When the Bough Breaks: The Cost of
Neglecting Our Children, and her 1998 volume, The War Against Parents:
What We Can Do for America's Beleaguered Moms and Dads, co-authored with
Cornel West and Eric West, would promote a bleak message nearly identical to the
one in her first book. The only difference was that by the time she'd teamed up
with West and West, Hewlett had managed to reinvent herself as a pro-family
centrist, winning accolades from liberals and conservatives alike.
The message of her work, however, remains wholly consistent, and it still
deserves close scrutiny. More than 10 years after Faludi and Friedan's harsh
critiques, Hewlett writes in Creating a Life, "Nowadays, the rule of thumb
seems to be that the more successful a woman, the less likely it is she will find
a husband or bear a child." Whereas her previous books focused on abandoned
housewives thrust cruelly into the marketplace by feminist social changes, this
one, originally titled Baby Hunger, examines high-achieving career women
who find themselves bereft of children in middle age. Once again, Hewlett
concludes, women have been hurt by their movement into the workforce. Indeed,
with women's accomplishments comes an epidemic of childlessness and epidemic
unhappiness. "Almost half of all professional women are childless at age 40,"
Hewlett writes. "By and large, these high achieving women have not chosen to be
childless. The vast majority yearn for children." It's a yearning likely to go
unfulfilled, Hewlett predicts in an interview with New York, since after
age 35, a woman's fertility simply "drops off a cliff."
Hewlett, now a board member of David Blankenhorn's Institute for American
Values and head of the National Parenting Association, says her goal is female
empowerment. She wants to help younger women "avoid the cruel choices that dogged
the footsteps of their older sisters." Young women should be "highly
intentional," "give urgent priority to finding a partner," and try to have
children in their late twenties. (Hewlett had her own first child at 31 and her
fifth and last at 51.) Young women shouldn't focus so much on building their
careers, and they should be prepared to plateau for a while in order to have
kids. Otherwise, Creating a Life proposes, they'll face old age alone,
with nothing but regrets for company. "My concern," writes Hewlett, "is that many
of today's young women seem convinced that their circumstances -- and choices --
vastly improved ... . But is such easy confidence warranted? I think not."
Hewlett's attack on young women's "obnoxious" "sense of entitlement" does not
appear to have had an empowering effect on many readers. New York's
Vanessa Grigoriadis summarizes another message that comes through loud and clear:
"husband hunting, settling for less, trading in a high-powered career to maximize
the returns to our ovaries."
That message is dangerous, and not just because of its antifeminist
provenance. If young women take Hewlett's advice seriously, more of them may have
kids -- but so, too, will more get divorced, become single moms, or opt not to
become high achievers in the first place. Why? Because Hewlett isn't just
ideologically motivated -- her predictions are just plain wrong.
The problem with Creating a Life begins with
Hewlett's data. She compares
high-achieving women with high-achieving men, then blames differences in life
patterns on women's high-powered, baby-hostile jobs. But the variables that
determine people's life choices are infinitely more complex. How do
women compare with other working women? How do married women compare with single
women? Had Hewlett asked even these simple questions, she would have found a very
different set of answers to the question of why high-achieving women have fewer
I had Heather Boushey, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in
Washington, rerun Hewlett's analysis on a larger sample of women. Whereas Hewlett
relied on a 520-person National Parenting Association study of women between the
ages of 28 and 40, we used the March 2000 and 2001 Current Population Survey
(CPS) data representing 3.8 million high-achieving women and 29.8 million other
women working full-time in this age group. Jointly conducted by the U.S. Census
Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the CPS is routinely used by social
scientists to get up-to-the-minute snapshots of American work and family life.
Just as Hewlett did, we counted as high achievers women who worked full time and
either earned more than $55,000 per year or had a graduate or professional
degree, such as an MBA, Ph.D., J.D., or M.D. But we also did something Hewlett
didn't do: We compared high-achieving women to their less accomplished sisters,
instead of to men, so that we could distinguish the effect of achievement from
the simple effect of being a working woman.
The CPS data yield a much more optimistic picture than the one in Hewlett's
book. High-achieving women between 28 and 35 are just as likely to be
successfully married as other women who work full time, according to the national
data. Fully 81 percent of high-achieving women between ages 36 and 40 had married
at least once, as had 83 percent of all other working women, though only 62
percent of high-achieving and 60 percent of all other working women remained
married, thanks to America's high divorce rate. In other words, there is no
achievement-related marriage gap. When Hewlett writes that "the more a woman
succeeds in her career, the less likely it is she will ever have a partner," she
is dead wrong.
Not only is there no significant achievement-related marriage drought among
women 36 to 40, there isn't a baby bust, either. The CPS clearly shows that many
high-achieving women who marry and have children delay childbearing until after
age 35 and then successfully start families. Because of this late-thirties baby
boomlet, married high-achieving women are exactly as likely to have had kids by
ages 36 to 40 as are all other married women who work full time. (The figure is
percent for both groups.) Hewlett's data obscures these facts by lumping women
between 36 and 40 in with the under-35 set and failing to separate women into
married and never-married subsets.
The division by marriage is crucial, because it reveals the real disparity
that Hewlett's data elides: High-achieving women are far less likely than women
in the general population to have children out of wedlock. Only 7 percent of
never-married high-achieving women between 28 and 35 had had children, according
to the CPS. In contrast, fully 32 percent of other never-married working women
had done so. One hardly need look farther afield to explain why only 60 percent
high-achieving women had children at ages 36 to 40, whereas among working women
generally the figure is 66 percent. High-achieving women are simply much more
reluctant to take on single motherhood.
The so-called baby bust thus has far less to do with female accomplishment or
age-related infertility than it does with the persistence of traditional values
among economic elites. For high-achieving women, it might as well still be the
Eisenhower era, which was the last time the nation as a whole had such a low rate
of unmarried births. Because of high-achieving women's greater behavioral
conservatism, it is marriage -- not degree of professional success -- that is the
single largest determinant of whether they will have children.
So why don't these women just get married? The answer is, they do. Remember,
high-achieving women are just as likely to be married at 28 to 35 and at 36 to 40
as are all other working women. And once they marry, they are just as likely to
have kids, though they tend to do so somewhat later in life. The difference is
that the ones who don't marry rarely have kids.
According to Hewlett, however, delayed childbirth is a serious problem -- not
least because women who choose it may falsely believe that technology will help
them overcome the natural decline in their fertility as they age. She recounts
cautionary tales of regretful women in their late forties trying unsuccessfully
to turn back the clock with increasingly invasive rounds of fertility treatments.
Young women, warns Hewlett, have been "lulled into a false sense of security"
that assisted reproductive technology will "let them off the hook." "Warm, fuzzy
media stories about miracle babies," she told People magazine, "mean bigger
queues of 42-year-olds with deep pockets lining up to do in vitro fertilization
[IVF] seven times."
Yet again, however, the data does not support Hewlett's panic-inducing
conclusions. Older women are not flocking to health clinics to have their
clocks turned back. In 1999 only 3.8 percent of women who had assisted
reproductive technology (ART) cycles, most of which involved IVF, were 43 or
older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many clinics
won't even conduct the procedure on women over 44 because the success rate is so
low and the odds of miscarriage are so high. Nearly ... 13 percent of ART users
in the 1999 study were in their twenties; the majority fell between the ages of
33 and 37 and had medical conditions that impeded their fertility. Moreover, more
than twice as many couples sought ART to overcome male-factor infertility as
"diminished ovarian reserve."
Fertility, after all, is not an absolute property but a capacity that exists
within couples and that varies in an individual depending on his or her partner.
Hewlett's book focuses entirely on female fertility, but nearly half of all
infertility problems fall on the male side of the equation. In May, for example,
scientists definitively demonstrated for the first time that male age has a
powerful impact on a couple's fertility. "[Thirty-five]-39-year-old men had
significantly reduced ... pregnancy probabilities relative to younger men,"
reported a team of American and Italian scientists in Human Reproduction.
Sperm banks have known for years that genetic defects and health problems
accumulate in men as well as women over time. To protect clients from the
"potential hazards related to aging," the American Society of Reproductive
Medicine recommends that sperm banks avoid donations from anyone over 40. Just to
be sure, some banks set the age bar for donors as low as 35.
Just as a man's fertility may appear to increase if he partners with a younger
woman, an older woman will see her fertility jump if she selects a younger man.
Human Reproduction reported that 35-year-old women whose partners are 40
or older have a significantly decreased chance of conception each month. Having
older partner can shave a 35-year-old woman's chance of conceiving each month,
from a best-case shot of 29 percent to a worst-case chance of 18 percent -- the
equivalent of tacking years of decline onto her reproductive capacity. That
shouldn't be any great surprise, because she is adding years -- her
This new research suggests a tantalizing proposition for single women
listening to a loud biological ticktock: To boost their odds of childbearing,
they should date men their own age or a couple of years younger. Instead, most
women marry men about two years their senior. Though your average 36-year-old
female executive might not find it socially acceptable to date a 29-year-old man
(or vice versa), she could still very happily work things out with, say, some
nice, stable 34 year old. In the end, this could make a world of difference for
her childbearing capacity -- and make her marriage more egalitarian to boot.
Preliminary studies predicting these findings were available when Hewlett was
writing her book. But not only does she never consider male fertility, she seems,
at times, to attribute all fertility problems to female aging. Such is the case
with Hewlett's story of 47-year-old Holly Atkinson, a "Grace Kelly look-alike"
and physician working in the e-commerce sector. When Atkinson was about 30, she
married a man who was not only 17 years her senior but had also undergone a
vasectomy. He got the vasectomy reversed, but soon afterward Atkinson discovered
that she too had a fertility problem -- a non-age-related medical condition
to do with a ruptured appendix. The couple was told that IVF was their only shot
at having a child, but they did not pursue it. The marriage foundered when
Atkinson was in her late-30s; the couple divorced when she was 40. Now remarried,
Atkinson is too old to have kids even if she didn't still have her other
impediment to childbearing. It's a sad story. But what it demonstrates about the
consequences of the "cruel tradeoffs" between career and family is less than
Hewlett's message, she insisted in a late-May letter to The New York
Times, is a "a profoundly feminist" one. That claim is nothing but spin.
Rather, Hewlett's pessimistic message to women remains as antifeminist as when
she explicitly went on the warpath against women's groups: If you want kids, you
need to give up your ambitions.
She writes: "Knowing for a fact that only 3 percent of breakthrough generation
women got married for the first time after age 35, and only 1 percent had a child
after 39, does serve to focus the mind and makes it easier to address the
real-world compromises involved in actually getting married and having children."
She recommends that "young women wanting both a career and children should think
about avoiding professions with rigid career trajectories."
Unfortunately, virtually every career that requires a graduate or professional
degree has a rigid career trajectory: law, medicine, and the academy among them.
In fact, young women, like young men, often choose such fields precisely because
they want a clear career path.
Business is a more flexible arena and MBAs have much less rigid trajectories,
but Hewlett sees no hope for women there either. "Childlessness haunts the
executive suite," warns Hewlett in Creating a Life. Corporate America is a
must-avoid if you want kids, because "42 percent of high-achieving women in
corporate America are childless, and this figure rises to 49 percent among
ultra-achievers." These figures are "for many ... fraught with pain and loss."
Why women in corporate America should be less likely to have kids is unclear.
The figures seem especially odd given that during the 1990s, pro-family workplace
policies have been adopted much more rapidly at major corporations such as Morgan
Stanley, the IBM Corporation, and CitiGroup, than at, for example, law firms or
small newspapers. Furthermore, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), paltry
protection though it is for working moms, doesn't even apply to companies with
fewer than 50 employees. Yet in Hewlett's study, women aged 41 to 55 who worked
for small firms with no FMLA legal protection did much better at having kids --
percent had them -- than their sisters at companies known to have superior
Either FMLA and flex-time don't work or something else is going on here -- a
problem, for instance, with how Hewlett defines "corporate." Her "Corporate
America" category includes anyone working for a company with more than 5,000
employees, regardless of profession. But working for a massive organization does
not make a woman what we normally think of as a corporate executive -- namely, a
business professional, sometimes with an MBA, working in the private sector.
Hewlett's so-called executives are culled from all her subcategories and can be
anything from lawyers at international firms to human-resource managers at
pharmaceutical companies to staffers at the Pentagon. "Obviously it kind of runs
the gamut of sectors," admits Hewlett in an interview. When Hewlett does divide
the women by sector, it turns out that "business professionals" aged 41 to 55 in
fact have a much lower childlessness rate: 33 percent.
That figure is probably closer to a real-world one, though it still doesn't
tell us what the childlessness rate is among married businesswomen. After
Fortune magazine convened its annual Most Powerful Women in Business summit in
March, the magazine decided to test out Hewlett's thesis on a group of real
corporate executives -- CEOs, presidents, and managing directors from companies
such as Southwest Airlines, Lehman Brothers, and Ford. Fortune's
conclusion: "What planet is she on?! ... Hewlett's statistics -- 49 percent of
women earning over $100,000 are childless after 40 -- don't jibe with our
Rather, the magazine found that 71 percent of the summit's 187 executive women
had children. One-third of them even had "househusbands." Wrote Patricia Sellers,
"Apparently, Fortune's bigwigs have figured out the having-it-all thing
better than the women in Hewlett's survey."
None of this is to say that people with demanding careers don't face related
personal problems. Interestingly, according to studies conducted by the American
Bar Association (ABA), female corporate lawyers suffer the most grinding work
hours and disrupted personal lives among professional women. "Compared to female
physicians and college professors, women lawyers are less likely to be married,
to have children or to remarry after a divorce, and are significantly more likely
to be divorced," reported a 1999 ABA Journal article. This, despite the
fact that, according to American Lawyer, every major American law firm now
provides some kind of "mommy track," and despite the encouraging news that
associates who have worked part time at one point or another have been made
partner at 56 of the top 100 law firms.
The ABA Journal proposed this explanation: "Overworked, overburdened
and squeezed by time, lawyers ... exhibit communication and intimacy breakdowns
peculiar to their professional training and work environment." Female and male
attorneys alike, the article reported, suffer from an adversarial conversational
style, perfectionism, hyper-developed reasoning skills, difficulty with emotions
and hyper-intellectualism. These traits can make them shine in the courtroom but
tough to deal with outside it.
Even in Hewlett's data you can see a hint of this effect: 46 percent of her
male lawyer-doctor group is childless, compared with 42 percent of similar women.
It's the only one of her subgroups where the men are more likely to be childless
than the women, but she doesn't bother to mention that in her book. And she
doesn't use it to argue that men should avoid law and medicine if they want to
If, in the end, Hewlett's book makes women think a bit more clearly about
their lives and helps them approach their romantic fates more deliberately, it
will have done a service. But if, at the same time, Creating a Life
promotes the false notion that women must stop striving for professional
excellence in order to have families, it will have done us all a very grave
When high-achieving women have children, they do so with
husbands they can rely on. They work at firms with more workplace protections and
better health care than most women, they can afford to take time out of the labor
force to spend with their infants, and they have major incentives to return to
work and to continue their careers. As mothers, they have the highest labor-force
participation rates. They pay taxes, own houses, and contribute to the economy,
all the while raising kids who are likely to be as smart and successful as they
are. They don't divorce as frequently and they don't have children out of
wedlock. Their lives may not be easy or simple, but they have advantages
lower-income, less-educated women do not have. What we need in this country is
more high-achieving women, not fewer, so that one day women will have the power
to reorder all workplaces to be more child-friendly.
A baby panic is not warranted: The evidence shows that once high
achievers get married, having children, for the most part, takes care of itself.
If young women want something to worry about, they can worry about finding
someone they love and enjoy spending time with. I suspect that most of them are already
on the case.