Young women now hit `The Wall’ later – and it shocks them

SOMETIMES I’m invited into private schools to talk to girls about women in the workforce. The audiences of 14 and 15-year-olds have no experience of what it’s like out there, but they do have a strong sense that the world will be their oyster. Their teachers tell them that if they work hard, they will do well. Employers come to their schools and brag about how many women they now have in their company and how they’re looking for more.These girls grow up thinking that their world is different to their mothers’, and that bright young women can take their rightful place in it. They’re the kind of girls who grow into Dr Fiona Stewart’s disillusioned Generation X’ers.

Talking to them about how rough it still can be for women is like trying to talk to first-time pregnant mothers about parenting. The mothers are preoccupied with the present and can’t think past the birth. They don’t want to hear about how tough the early months of mothering can be. They’re anxious enough as it is. The girls are similarly resistant to taking in unpleasant facts. They need to believe that it will be all right.

Gen-X women with high expectations, according to Stewart, often end up blaming feminism for disappointment in adult life when they find it impossible to “have it all”: when the professional race is exhausting, when they can’t do the superwoman job-and-babies number, or when their relationships have caved in or never kicked off because they concentrated too fiercely on career achievement.

Stewart rightly points out that these disappointments are not failures of feminism but failures of society to accommodate the way feminism has raised women’s expectations. In some cases, personal problems might be a contributing factor too. Stewart’s findings might not apply to young women overall because she did not interview a large random sample. And she recruited her subjects through advertisements, so it is possible that dissatisfied young women were more likely to respond and therefore skewed the results. On the other hand, maybe she’s struck something here. Maybe young women are angry at older women for having somehow let them down.Either way, this debate is not about a generational divide.

Stewart’s findings are more likely to be the result of a generational change in the age at which educated women become politicised about “the feminine condition”. As individuals, women tend not to become feminists until they have hit “The Wall”. For older feminists this happened much earlier in life. In their 20s they were told that they couldn’t work or study and also be mothers. Those in the public service lost their jobs if they married. Women were paid less than men for the same work and many jobs were assumed to be closed to them altogether.The Wall was clearly visible.

Today young women are encouraged at school, nurtured at university, and welcomed into junior ranks of the professional workforce. The wall has moved, and they don’t see what’s left of it until they hit it in their 30s.

This is the age at which they discover that they cannot give their children what they need and work crazy hours climbing the corporate ladder; that the employers who were happy to encourage them in the role of handmaiden are reluctant to share real power with them; that the notion of genuinely equal pay is still just a notion.And if Stewart is right, they then blame older women, rather than a recalcitrant system, for their troubles. Stewart has reported that one young woman who found she could not do the career and the baby simultaneously blamed “bloody feminist rhetoric” for her disappointment. Where did she get her feminism? Out of a Weeties packet?
No one ever told me I could have it all; maybe that’s a side-effect of a working-class upbringing. This is, after all, a largely middle-class debate among privileged Anglo women. Can’t complete the PhD and get up six times a night to the baby? Tell that to the migrant mothers for whom economic restructuring has meant long shifts worked at short notice for employers maximising the new workplace “flexibility”. Or to the unemployed public-housing mums who have to water down milk for the kids. Or to battered women too scared to leave the men who provide for their children. They are women who really do have little power over their own lives. The women Stewart interviewed have much more freedom, and for some of them to say choice is “the mustard gas of their generation” is nauseating.

Choice always involves a path foregone as well as a path followed, and it involves some grief. Negotiating that is one of the tasks of midlife.

Former sex discrimination commissioner Quentin Bryce is one of many older feminists who have been quite sympathetic to younger women. “I often find myself telling ambitious thirty-somethings that they can’t hold down a full-time, demanding, professional role, have a second child and finish the MBA this year … You can have it all, but you can’t have it all at the same time.”

That’s what the next generation of schoolgirls needs to hear, too. As well as being instilled with confidence that they can succeed, they need to understand about glass ceilings and blokey workplace dynamics; about the struggle to balance work and family; about how, historically, women’s progress has always stalled under pitiless economic conditions and governments that support markets rather than people. If young women are to be resilient, they must be alerted to The Wall. Suggestions on how to get that message past the optimism of youth are welcome.

First published in The Sunday Age.