The Blog

Marissa's Baby -- Harbinger of Social Change

As the debate about what's possible for working women continues, I have news about what this means for the increasing solidarity among men and women as they strive to create new models for working families.
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Marissa Mayer's baby has arrived, and just in time for National Work and Family Month! As the debate about what's possible for working women continues, I have news about what this means for the increasing solidarity among men and women as they strive to create new models for working families.

Although Mayer's situation is extremely unusual, with her great wealth and discretion about how to spend her time, it is remarkable that the board agreed to hire a pregnant Mayer as CEO. This episode in our social history is a sign of progress, a very visible example of the new options available as people aim to pursue lives that fit with their most precious values. Mayer was able to make her choice not just because of her financial wherewithal, but because her choice is now culturally legitimate. Even five years ago it would not have been possible.

We're going to see more possibilities, if research by the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project is any indication. In 1992 we surveyed Wharton students and this past May we asked the same questions of Wharton's 2012 graduates. In part, the surveys explored attitudes about two-career relationships. We asked whether they agreed with these statements:

  • Two-career relationships work best when one partner is more advanced than the other.
  • Two-career relationships work best when one partner is less involved in his/her career.

In 1992, men were much more likely to agree with both statements than were women. Our preliminary analyses show that in 2012, however, there is a convergence of attitudes: Men are less likely to agree with those statements than they were 20 years ago, but women are now more likely to agree; both have changed. Compared to graduates 20 years ago, young men graduating today are more egalitarian in their views and women are less so, perhaps because they are more realistic.

Men and women today are more likely than the previous generation to share the same values about what it takes to make dual-career relationships work. There is greater solidarity among men and women and therefore more flexibility about the roles that both men and women can legitimately take in society. Young men are realizing they have to do more at home than their fathers did, and today's young men want to do so.

Our surveys also asked men and women to indicate how strongly they agree with these statements:

  • It is easier for men to combine the demands of work and family.
  • Pursuing a demanding career will make it difficult for me to be an attentive spouse or parent.

In 1992, we saw no difference between men and women, but in 2012 we find that women are more likely than men to agree with those statements. Again, women today have a less sanguine view of what's possible. How can this be good news?

While it used to be that women had aspirations for hierarchical advancement that were lower than those held by young men, today those aspirations are the same for men and women. But now women's family plans are changed; that is, in 1992 79% of women graduating from Wharton said they definitely planned to have children, while in 2012 only 42% made this claim. There is now greater awareness of constraints, and expectations are being adjusted accordingly. Sounds like reduced freedom, right? But perhaps, with a more clear-eyed vision of what is to come - and with men and women holding more aligned views about the value of work and family - people will take more focused, concerted action to chip away at the established order and more successfully pursue new options.

In 2000, when Jeff Greenhaus and I wrote -- in Work and Family - Allies or Enemies? -- an agenda for action based on the findings of our research about the lives and careers of Wharton and Drexel alumni, we recommended a reshaping of the division of labor at home, changes in society's gender ideology, and helping young people choose careers that fit their values. Our new data indicate that things are shifting, in the right direction.

Marissa Mayer is just one very fortunate person. But as a simultaneous new CEO and new mother, she represents a new prospect of what is possible. We are at the cusp of the emergence of new models as young people are increasingly active in carefully, consciously, and deliberately crafting their roles, to pursue lives that fit with who they truly want to be.