For at least half a century, activists representing women’s rights have claimed that what women want are to be treated professionally like men. To ensure this goal, top policy battles have included things like access to abortion, pay equity in the workforce, and recognition from male peers—to great success. And to many in this camp, the number of women who dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic represent the undoing of many of these hard-won victories.
A recent Bloomberg feature was a case in point, arguing that post-pandemic chaos coupled with new restrictive abortion policies in dozens of states have pushed women to the proverbial edge. Stressed with finances, overworked at home, underpaid at work, and unable to find or afford decent childcare, the author wondered when women would reach a breaking point. “For years now we’ve been telling ourselves, if we can just get hired, if we can just get paid fairly, if we just lean in—and then, through the pandemic, if we can just hold on until schools reopen, or vaccines become available, or this week’s crisis has passed, things will be better,” writes Claire Suddath at Bloomberg. “But it’s not getting better. Right now it’s getting worse.” She goes on: “My daughter will grow up in what seems to be the most precarious time in recent memory to be a woman in America. Fifty years of progress is unraveling.”
But what if that’s the wrong story? What if women actually don’t want what feminists have told us for 50 years that they do? And what if that’s what the pandemic workforce dropouts are telling us with their actions?
It’s true that as Suddath writes, the pandemic did hit women hard—something dozens of publications have observed since 2020. Per Gallup, while “only” 9 million men lost their jobs, 11.5 million women did. Working mothers had it especially hard, as they continue to do the lions share of childcare, household chores, and what women often refer to as carrying the “mental load”—schedules, to-do lists, groceries needed, Grandma’s birthday, doctors’ appointments, etc.
And yet, the pandemic was hard for many people, including working women, but also children, the unemployed, the elderly and more.
Again, the instinct to panic is understandable; I’m a working mom, too. But is it really as bad as it was 50 years ago? Not even close.
Back then, women were relegated to a handful of hourly-wage jobs, like waitressing or administrative work, or nursing, if she was lucky. They didn’t have “careers” to speak of and they certainly didn’t come close to earning the wages women do now, inflation notwithstanding. Now, in some states, young women out-earn men—unthinkable in 1970.
Pandemic or not, women can now thrive as a CEO or an engineer, surpassing men in earning doctoral degrees, in fact.
Perhaps more importantly, many women don’t want to compete with men at the top levels of professional employment. Almost half of women told a 2019 Pew Research Center survey that working part-time was best for their families. That means that nearly half of women, if given the choice, wouldn’t be putting in 80 hours a week at the office but working in some kind of part time capacity that left time for family.
Moreover, contrary to the prevailing narrative, largely due to the shift in accepting remote work options, women’s employment gains post-pandemic have “outpaced men’s.”
Despite how hard the last two years have been for women, it’s never been better to be a working woman in America. The third wave of feminism tricked women into thinking if they could thrive in the workforce, they’d be happy. Women quickly learned they also still wanted a family. Now, they try to do both and it’s not only a balancing act, but it’s one they don’t see their male peers juggling.
Despite evolutions in workloads and parenting, this may always be the case because it’s nearly impossible to treat parenting like a job and divide up responsibilities equally: Someone has to raise the children and oftentimes, it’s actually the women who want to do it. They just also want help financially—and rightfully so.
Olympian and tennis great Serena Williams just announced Tuesday she was leaving professional tennis for good. She said she couldn’t raise her family and focus on her business and give her all to the game. This is okay: In fact, it’s good.
Women can have it all: They just can’t have it all at the same time. Because they don’t want to.
Nicole Russell is a mother of four who has worked in Republican politics. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, and the Washington Examiner. She is an opinion columnist at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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