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Childless: How the Most Ambitious Women Choose not to Be Sidetracked by Family

For the first time in history, three women could sit on the Supreme Court. There's a subtle, yet powerful, message being sent to working women across the nation: If you want a perch at the pinnacle of your profession, it's easier without kids.
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For the first time in history, three women could sit on the Supreme Court. If it happens, two of them will be childless. Whatever the reason for this personal decision by Justice Sonya Sotomayor and recently nominated Elena Kagan, there's a subtle, yet powerful, message being sent to working women across the nation: If you want a perch at the pinnacle of your profession, it's easier without kids.

And not just kids, without husbands. Ever since Kagan was 13 and dressing up in a judge's robe, she has been preparing for this job. From law clerk to Dean of Harvard Law School to Solicitor General, she has been doggedly, diligently riding the legal hamster wheel, checking off boxes and moving ahead toward the ultimate career brass ring. Same holds true for Justice Sonya Sotomayor. But why have they chosen to do it without a family?

Some speculate that there is a fear among ambitious women that they can't rise to a preeminent position if they start a family because of the intense job pressures -- late nights, long trips, the need to be available 24/7. Let's face it, could Justice Sotomayor really schedule car pool from One First Street, N.E.?

This town is littered with examples of women who have given up having a family to advance their law careers. Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice comes to mind. So does a litigator at a high-powered law firm who spends 70 hours a week either on the road or at her desk. Not a lot of time left in that schedule for changing diapers or pushing a stroller in the neighborhood.

Ask any woman who has had the privilege to serve at the Office of the President how long she was able to keep her career together before her family life careened off the rails. Even C.J. Craig, who played Press Secretary and later Chief of Staff in the popular tv series West Wing, was single.

It's easy to turn the lens on my own profession. Uber-star ABC World News Tonight anchor Diane Sawyer, while married to movie producer Mike Nichols, does not have children. And remember Joyce Purnick, who in 1998 caused a stir among reporters at the New York Times for admitting to a commencement audience at her alma mater, Barnard College, that she wouldn't be metropolitan editor if she'd had kids? She said she never decided not to have them, it just happened.

While the pressures for women may be too great at the upper echelons to withstand adding the mommy title to their resume, the incentives also play a role. These high-powered jobs come with perks: proximity to power, financial security, and let's not forget the occasional invitations to the President's box at the Kennedy Center.

But being childless doesn't have to be the only way.

71% of women in the workforce have children ages 6-17. And for the first time in history there are more of us working than men. So why -- with the numbers on our side -- are so many working women climbing the ladder frustrated with the lack of corporate flexibility? Why aren't more companies offering job shares and telecommuting? Why isn't this cacophony of unhappy voices being heard?

The problem lies at the top. Senior corporate executives, predominantly men, with a handful of women who have paid their dues by working 10-12 hour days at the office away from their kids, set the tone and policies for working mothers. If they sat in the cafeteria and listened and watched, they would realize that these mothers, who still bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities, don't need to be at work all week to be productive and plugged in -- thanks in great part to technology.

While some bad apples have tainted "working" from home by underperforming when not in the workplace, the answer is not eschewing flexibility, rather it is incumbent upon corporations to set meaningful performance goals for employees and to hold employees accountable no matter where their desks are.

Flexible work arrangements may not have been possible in 1957 when Sandra Day O'Connor made a choice to stay home for eight years and raise her three children before returning to the workforce in 1965, first as Arizona's assistant attorneys general, and ultimately as the first female Supreme Court Justice. Nor would it have been as easy when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was raising her two children; Jane, born in 1955 and James in 1965.

As a working mother of three (10, 6, and 2), I can vouch for the fact that holding down a full-time corporate job would have been easier without the endless middle-of-the-day doctor appointments, teacher conferences, and "Mom have you seen my soccer cleats?" phone calls. But it was doable thanks to my BlackBerry.

Of my four best female friends in Washington, three are lawyers, one is a business woman. All are or have been at the upper echelons of their professions. All of us have two or more children. We do it. We juggle conference calls and crying babies, we tuck in kids before going out on a weeknight to business dinners; we schedule time to look at email while on vacation. And while my friends and I are making it work, we'd all tell you it takes a toll on your health, and your sanity.

Recently, I traded in 60-minute daily commutes and 10- 12-hour days in an office building for the flexibility of owning my own company and setting my own hours. I've never been happier. But not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur.

I know many women who struggle each day to find the elusive balance between work and family. If being childless is not an option for you, it's time to raise your voices, demand flexibility in your workplace and show the world that yes, you can work full-time and be productive members of a corporation without being chained to a desk just because that's the way it's always been done.

Lauren Ashburn is President of Ashburn Media Company in Washington, DCand worked as a Managing Editor for the Gannett Company for ten years.

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