By Saraphin Dhanani '16 and Carine Ilunga Wete '16
“How many of you would prioritize having a career over a child?”
Nearly all hands shot up as Professor Julie Matthaei proposed the question to the students in her Feminist Economics class. Matthaei, who has witnessed and championed for feminist transformation since the mid-20th century, was left baffled by students’ prioritization of a career over childbearing. During this time, second-wave feminism permeated American thought, with feminists advocating for equality between sexes, challenging their roles as traditional housewives by seeking access to the paid labor force. Betty Friedan, a late 20th century feminist exponent in the late 20th century credited with sparking the beginning of second-wave feminism in the United States, researched what prompted the unhappiness amongst several college educated women living in material comfort and raising a family and children. Friedan described the unhappiness as “the problem that has no name.”
The response from Feminist Economics students to prioritize having a career over children highlights a shift in priority from the mid-20th century. This study seeks to better gauge what Wellesley College students prioritize in their work-life balance as they look to the future. We aimed to critically analyze the intersectionalities of race/ethnicity, class, and gender to understand students’ future plans after Wellesley in terms of career prospects and raising children, and their attitudes towards the role of the devalued traditional homemaker by encouraging students to question their own priorities. In order to answer these questions, we distributed a 27-question survey among the Wellesley College community, with the goal of receiving 250 responses from each class year.
In Fall 2015, 2,178 students were enrolled at Wellesley College. Though the goal of this survey was to gather 250 responses from each class year, 210 total responses were gathered from the entire student body, with a majority of responses from the class of 2019. Thus, this survey captures approximately 11.5% of the student population at Wellesley.The figure below displays the breakdown of student responses by class year.
To further break down the characteristics and intersectionalities of the respondents, questions about race/ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation were presented.
Most of the respondents (60.5%) identified with being White American. ~30% of Wellesley College students identify with being Asian/Asian American, ~7-9% being Latina, ~7-9% being African American/Black, and ~42-45% identify with being White/Caucasian. Our data is not a perfect depiction of Wellesley College students--Asian/Asian American students and international students are underrepresented, White American students are overrepresented.
Furthermore, as of Fall 2015, Wellesley College is made up of 13.3% international students. Of the students who responded, 7.6% of students responded as being international students. Thus, this survey does not completely represent the international student population at Wellesley.
Of the 210 students surveyed, students were asked to select one socioeconomic class their family identifies with. A majority of student responders identified being Middle Class and Upper-Middle Class.
61% of the students who responded reported receiving financial aid, accurately reflecting the student body as a whole (~58-60% of students receive financial aid).
A majority of the students (~63%) identified with being heterosexual.
III. Analysis of Career Prospects
The popular opinion at Wellesley is that most students are interested in careers in investment banking and/or consulting after graduation. The incredible number of banking and consulting jobs offered at the Career for Work and Service (CWS) website adds to this widely held belief. This survey aims to capture the intersectionality between ethnicity and class in order to understand the correlation between the selection of future career plans, students’ socioeconomic class, and the influence of their cultural upbringing in making career choices. To gain such understanding the survey asked students about what their ideal career was and what was most important to them when selecting such a career. Surprisingly, banking and consulting were not on the top of the list. Ideal careers at Wellesley ranged from becoming a TV producer, an actor, a novelist, prime minister, a professional opera singer, head of NASA, and an auto mechanic. Also, when asked what was most important to them when selecting a career, passion for one’s job was the top choice (86.6%), followed by location (70.3%), and salary (62.2%). Surprisingly, having women in high managerial roles in the company was the least important to Wellesley students when selecting a job/internship.
Impact of Resources Offered and Race/Class Upbringing in Career Prospects
To better understand how resources at Wellesley College impacted students’ decision to pursue a particular career, the we asked whether students thought Wellesley College (via the CWS, staff, academic departments, professors, etc.) provided the resources for them to pursue their passions, explore their interests, and feel supported in their ideal career selection while at Wellesley. The majority of responses received highlighted that academic departments and one’s professors were most helpful in providing the resources needed to explore one’s passions and interests. Networking with Wellesley staffs (Class Deans, Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, etc.) or networking within student organizations were also mentioned as a positive way to explore one’s interests. On the other hand, most students at Wellesley felt that the CWS was the least helpful in providing the resources needed to pursue one’s passions and interests. Responses varied from “the CWS is a joke” to “the CWS is trash”. Most unsatisfied students blamed the quality of the service, the vagueness of responses, and the focus on banks and finance jobs as some of the reasons for their unhappiness with the CWS. These students wished the “CWS was as ambitious as Wellesley students...because CWS isn’t going to get you a job so you have to do it on your own”. On a positive note, some of the few students who were happy with their interaction with the CWS mentioned that the CWS was a great place to start to get one’s resume and cover letter checked; the CWS was helpful with fellowships or jobs/internships for humanities or social science majors, but not helpful when it came to alternative careers outside of banking/law/consulting careers.
In order to gauge the intersectionality between class, gender and career selection from Wellesley students, the survey asked students two specific questions: (1) how much did students’ cultural upbringing or socioeconomic background influence their career prospect; (2) did students feel pressured to select a particular major in order to secure a job after graduation.
Students from a more privileged background were divided between trying to reproduce class by going into more “prestigious” careers (as expected by their family and social circle), while others felt that their privileged background allowed them to select careers that paid less or paid nothing at all. A student mentioned she wanted to become a full-time homemaker upon graduation from Wellesley because her privileged background (money, upper social class) allowed her to do so. As she would be debt-free upon graduation from Wellesley, she would like to be an elementary school teacher because “no one else in [her] family is a teacher... but [she] thinks it is important work that [suits her].” Only students from highly privileged background (4-6 responses) shared they wanted to become full-time homemakers upon graduation because they could afford to. Students from lower economic backgrounds felt pressured to find job/careers that allowed social mobility in order to take care of themselves and their loved ones. Another observation was that regardless of one’s socioeconomic class, students’ exposure or lack of exposure to certain careers also influenced their selection of prospective careers Students from affluent families felt pressured to pursue careers that reflected their social status. At times these students were able to use their personal connections in order to get coveted internships or jobs. Furthermore, these students were encouraged by their loved ones to major in Economics, STEM, and Computer Science. Students who loved these majors felt right at home while students who did not particularly enjoy them either decided to opt out and major in something they truly liked or double major with a second major that matched their true interests.
IV. Children and Work-Life Balance
Along with students’ career prospects, the survey asked whether students wished to have children, and if so, whether they want to have a children with or without a partner. Over 60% of students had prospects of having children in the future, and over 80% preferred to raise their child with a partner. Upon gathering data of students’ career prospects and their future work-life priorities, students were then asked to prioritize either a career over children or children over a career.
Very similar to the responses from students in the Feminist Economics class, 52.5% of the students who were surveyed would prioritize a career over having children.Most students explained their desire to be financially stable before having children, and many others recognized that at this point in their life, they would choose a career, but in the future things might change. A number of students also explained that they were in charge of their own life, and rather than abiding by society’s expectations of child bearing, they would rather challenge that norm and live their life prioritizing a career.
One notable response was from a student in the class of 2018 who also recognized the limitations of the education system for failing to promote the balance of a career and childbearing simultaneously. According to this student, the education system must adapt to women’s desire “to work, have children, and balance other responsibilities if it [wishes to retain] students in STEM fields.” Another student echoed these concerns, but cited the workplace as being sexist against women and making it difficult for women to have successful careers while raising children and having a family.
Interestingly, almost all the ~17% of the students who prioritized having children over a career self-identified with the upper class. Similar results were more evident when students were asked if they would prefer to be a full-time homemaker upon graduation. ~94% of students responded that they would not want to become a full-time homemaker and would choose to join the paid labor force. A number of them reasoned that they did not want to be financially dependent on another person, and therefore, would rather join the paid workforce. Students also recognized that society devalues traditional home-makers, and as a result, they would rather earn respect for their hard-work in the paid labor force. Of the 2.9% of students who selected they would rather become a full-time homemaker upon graduation, 4 of out of the 6 students came from a middle-class background, and they all self-identified with at least the White American identity. Thus, the privilege of race and class does allow students who fall in these categories to be more flexible and open to unpaid labor in the household when choosing their career paths.
And finally, in order to value the devalued traditional homemaker, the study asked if students would choose to take time off of the paid labor-force in order to raise children. Approximately 47% of students surveyed said they would take time off the paid workforce to raise their children.
A number of Wellesley students who selected taking time off of the paid labor force to raise a family were hoping to get maternity leave benefits from their jobs or taking time off during the early years of their child’s life-development. Their reasoning for choosing to take time off was that they too were raised by a stay-at-home mom, and their moms’ support built the student's’ character and allowed them to excel in school and extracurricular activities. On the other hand, quite a few students who refused to take time off mentioned that their mom took time off and had a hard time getting back into the labor force. While such forces do exist that deter women from wanting to take time off of the paid labor-force, some students had a contingency plan. They hoped to establish a career and financially secure themselves upon graduation in order to have the means to raise a family and take time off the paid labor-force. Moreover, students also cited their plans to continue working part-time from home in order to continue building their resume.
From this study, the “problem that has no name” amongst Wellesley College students is manifested in the feeling of discontent with the students’ own accomplishments thus far and feeling pressured to seek out the next best opportunity, only to be left burnt-out. Two questions in particular led to this conclusion: (1) What do you think “having it all” means?; and (2) Do you feel proud with your accomplishments thus far, or are you constantly seeking the next best opportunity, or both.
When asked students’ overall satisfaction with their experience at Wellesley and what “having it all” meant to them, most students surveyed shared how they love Wellesley and are happy with their overall experience here. They felt grateful to be here and said that Wellesley has been a great place for them. Wellesley has provided them with a “very good education,” allowed them to learn a lot about themselves, their strengths and weaknesses; enabled them to become “stronger, more open-minded, smarter individual”; given them an opportunity to study abroad and to interact with amazing professors; and form great friendships at Wellesley. A few responses highlighted how frustrating their experience at Wellesley has been due to the stressful environment, grade deflation policy, GPA outcome, and the lack of professors of color to mentor them.
When asked how happy students felt with their accomplishments thus far, most students surveyed shared that they were happy with their accomplishments at Wellesley, but were not content, as they are always looking for the next best opportunity. A number of students cited the cut-throat, competitive culture at Wellesley that makes students feel they have not done enough or not doing enough. Furthermore, the lack of adequate resources (CWS) to meet the demands to pursue idealistic careers and interests might also be a contributing factor in students’ discontent with the College’s lack of support. Comparing oneselves with other students has allowed students to push themselves to their highest potential, but also contributed to feelings of unhappiness, unaccomplishments, and ‘hollowness”. This is the feeling that “has no name.”
For 21st century women at Wellesley feeling ‘hollow’ has a different meaning from Betty Friedan’s 1950s college educated women. According to the students who were surveyed, hollowness for Wellesley students means not being able to use one’s education to better society or the inability to choose between having a career and/or a family. But in today’s society it is much more acceptable for women to prioritize their career over having a family and it is also somewhat expected that women should ‘have it all’ and balance it all. Women are expected to have a career, take care of their household while looking fit and glamorous all the time. For Wellesley students who were surveyed “having it all” means being happy, healthy, having a fulfilling career that challenges them, traveling, feeling financially secure, giving back to the community, having healthy relationships and family. Almost none of the students mentioned finding the right balance in juggling work and a family as their primary concerns for “having it all.” It is also understandable that, for the most part, Wellesley students are still young with no marriage or children concerns in view at the moment. They understand that “having it all” comes in bits over time and not necessarily all at once; that “having it all is “an impossible and damaging fallacy that we created to further devalue the household and child-rearing work that women traditionally do”; that “balancing it all means sacrifices in some arenas of your life to succeed in others.”
The present-day superwoman expectations society has on women has them feeling weary. But as Mei Mei Tuan ‘88, Managing Partner and Co-Founder at Notch Partners, LLC, stated at the Wellesley Effect campaign event last month, “Women don’t have to have it all at once.” Wellesley women have been afforded to choose which direction their life is heading and how to best live their lives apart from society’s pressure. Wellesley College students should strive to strike a balance between work-life as they look to the future, and keep an open mind by embracing all facets of life at different points in time. This includes valuing unpaid labor and homemaking activities just as much as paid labor is valued. Such shifts in cultural attitudes are mandatory in order to truly accomplish equality between the sexes and pave the way for systematic policy changes that promote work-life balance for both men and women in the workplace.
While the research analyzed the intersectionality of race and class on future career prospects and work-life balance, it felt short of meeting our goals by failing to look at the effect of gender on career and life goals of Wellesley College students. Furthermore, gathering diverse responses from students from different ethnic backgrounds would have made this study more representative of Wellesley College students. These additions would have presented a more complete analysis of our findings.