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Hidden costs of career success

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 10, 2002

To the outside world, high-achieving women who have risen to powerful positions appear to be living a golden American success story. They hold lofty titles, enjoy corporate perks, and earn impressive salaries.

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But for many of these women, success has exacted a heavy price at home: They never had children. Now, in their 40s and 50s, most find it is too late.

"They forgot to make time for a personal life," explains Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of a poignant new book, "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children" (Talk Miramax, $22). Childlessness, she says, "haunts the executive suite."

Yet most of those in what Ms. Hewlett calls the "breakthrough generation" – the first women to overcome barriers in male-dominated fields – did not intend to be childless. In interviews with Hewlett, they tell sad stories about how children were crowded out of their lives by "high-maintenance careers and needy partners." Some also blame themselves.

Whatever the reason, many express regret about their permanently empty nests.

Unlike high-achieving men, who take for granted being able to have a career and a family, these women faced an either/or choice. They spent their 20s and 30s nurturing careers instead of children, working long hours, even relocating when the job demanded. By age 40, some struggled with infertility. Others were single or were married to men who did not want children.

Hewlett understands why trailblazing women needed to focus intently on careers. "But we underrated or failed to see that women would end up paying a huge price. If we replicate men's career story, we can't replicate their family story, and it leaves too many women making sacrifices."

To measure those sacrifices, Hewlett interviewed 100 women. She also conducted a nationwide survey last year of nearly 1,200 high-achieving women whose incomes put them in the top 10 percent of salaries. It focuses on two groups: those 41 to 55 – the breakthrough generation – and those 28 to 40, their younger peers.

At least 42 percent of women in corporate America are childless at age 40, a figure that rises to 49 percent among those in the highest echelons. Just 10 percent of 40-year-old men who earn equivalent salaries are childless.

In addition, only 60 percent of women in this breakthrough generation are married. Successful men, Hewlett explains, may not want to marry a peer. "If you're a high-earning man, there's a whole bevy of young women who think you're great and can ease your life as your partner," she says. "But professional women in their 30s find it hard to find such men."

As a result, she says, high-achieving women are unlikely to get married after the age of 35. They are also unlikely to have a child after 39. Yet 89 percent of younger women believe they will be able to get pregnant into their 40s; many pin their hopes on new reproductive technology.

Hewlett traces the roots of the situation to a variety of circumstances and messages. Young women are told they need to spend the decade from 22 to 32 building a career. That coincides with prime childbearing years.

The arrival of "the pill" in the early 1960s gave women freedom to postpone childbearing. Later, assisted reproductive technology gave them confidence – much of it unfounded – that they could always have a baby. As Hewlett puts it, "We went from needing to fear our fertility to squandering our fertility – in about 30 years."