The Plight of the Alpha Female: Women remain scarce in the most elite positions. And it’s by choice.
Are we witnessing “the end of men”? You can see why the idea—also the title of a new book by journalist Hanna Rosin—makes sense. Women obtain the majority of college and graduate-school degrees. In their twenties, if they don’t have children, they outearn their male peers. They’re the primary wage earners in a rapidly growing percentage of households. American women even won more Olympic medals than their male compatriots did this summer. But for all of women’s success, there’s one area in which the rumor of male demise has been greatly exaggerated. At the top of every industry, men remain in charge. Finance, law, medicine, business, government, media, academia—you’ll have a tough time finding enough alpha-level women in any of these fields to fill a Davos conference room.
Feminists have come up with some theories to explain the dearth of women in the C-suite: those in the running would necessarily be aggressive, a trait that men in power don’t like to see in women; executives and boards don’t believe that women are capable of the highest-octane work; women lack men’s sense of entitlement in the pursuit of fame and fortune. But “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” a recent, widely discussed Atlantic cover story, should help redirect the conversation to the obvious: it’s the kids. The author, Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, described leaving “work I loved”—being the director of policy planning at the State Department, and the first female one, at that—to spend more time with her troubled teenage son. She had discovered, you see, that running a government agency means that you don’t see your kids much.
Slaughter stumbled onto a truth that many are reluctant to admit: women are less inclined than men to think that power and status are worth the sacrifice of a close relationship with their children. Academics and policymakers in what’s called the “work/family” field believe that things don’t have to be this way. But nothing in the array of work/family policy prescriptions—family leave, child care, antidiscrimination lawsuits, flextime, and getting men to cut their work hours—will lead women to infiltrate the occupational 1 percent. They simply don’t want to.