Atalanta and the No-Choice Generation

Free to Be...You and Me, the iconic 1970s album about gender equality, was the soundtrack to my childhood. Marlo Thomas and a cast of popular actors, musicians and personalities recorded a series of songs and vignettes which challenged stereotypes about what men and women were supposed to look like, feel and do. "William's Doll." "Ladies First." Rosey Grier singing, "It's All Right to Cry." I still know all the words. But the story with the most wear on my cherished vinyl recording is the tale of "Atalanta."

Atalanta's father, the king, has decided to marry his daughter off to the winner of a three-minute foot race. Atalanta, beautiful, wise and crafty, agrees to her father's terms as long as she can enter the race too. Atalanta (Marlo Thomas) and Young John (Alan Alda) wind up running the race as equals and finish in a tie. Young John renounces whatever claim he has to Atalanta's hand and the two become fast friends. The story ends, and Atalanta and Young John go their separate ways to see the world on their own terms.

Thirty-five years later, I have lived Atalanta's dream: I've traveled the world. But I've also had a high-powered career, been a stay-at-home mother and now, returned to the workforce. As I read the media coverage about the challenges of working women in America, I have to wonder what would have happened if Atalanta and Young John had reunited... and had a baby.

Assuming that Atalanta would have been gainfully employed while pregnant, would she, after baby, have leaned in so she could make the most of her potential as a professional? Or would she have opted-out, and then years later attempted to re-enter the workforce? Would she have felt that no matter which option she had pursued, she just couldn't have it all?

All I know about Atalanta is derived from the words used in the narrative of her story. Listening to them today, I am struck by an exchange that she has with her father. As he muses over whom he will choose for her husband, Atalanta says, "You don't have to choose, Father. I will choose."

Herein lies the source of the frustration for today's grown-up Atalantas: after baby, a woman's right to choose her career path becomes extremely limited. Sound familiar? It should. A woman who desires the right to choose, the ability to control of her fertility, is labeled "Pro-Choice." Unfortunately, many women who wish to control their careers have "No-Choice."

Here are some reasons why.

Companies are not required to offer maternity leave. The United States is the only country in the industrialized world which does not have a federally mandated program for maternity leave. Companies which do provide leave can position this offering as a "benefit." Stated another way, women who take advantage of a maternity leave program are considered more financially burdensome to a company. Which is probably why, in 2012, only 11% of all workers had access to Paid Family Leave.

Childcare is expensive. In raw numbers, the annual cost for childcare for an infant in 2011 ranged from $4,600 (Mississippi) to $15,000 (Massachusetts). The cost for childcare for two children exceeded median rental payments in all 50 states. Put another way, it's more expensive to have an infant in childcare than it is to enroll a child in a state's public university in 35 states.

The school day is short. Because the school day is shorter than the work day, working parents without free alternatives for childcare can either pay for after-care or have one partner downshift their career. Typically, the downshifter is the woman, who may accept a part-time position and/or sacrifice pay to have more flexibility. This phenomenon is a major driver behind the gender pay gap. Currently, a woman makes 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.

The pressure is miserable. The seminal paper, "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness" describes how increases in professional opportunities for women have resulted in women being less happy. Much of this paradox is credited to the emotional responsibility that women still bear for the well-being of their families, even with both partners working. Not surprisingly, a 2013 survey showed that 74% of respondents believe that the increase in working women has made it harder to raise children. And then there's this humdinger: 51% of people believe that children are better off if a woman is at home and not working.

No wonder women are frustrated.

However, the United States is in a unique position to tap into the power of its female constituency. Today, more women are graduating from college than men. 25% of the US gross domestic product is attributable to women who have entered the workforce since 1970. Ensuring an encouraging environment for those women who have the desire to work should be a national economic imperative.

Major legislative initiatives are necessary to tackle the challenge of gender inequality in the workplace. But the difficulty of implementing change cannot be a deterrent to reaping the benefits. Unfortunately, about 80% of the members of Congress are men. And while I applaud those men who see the value and not the threat of improving opportunities for women in the workplace, there simply aren't enough women in government to elevate this cause to the level it deserves. Yet.

Look out Congress: the Atalantas are coming. And they will help define what "Free to Be... You and Me" really means.