We can stop blaming women for the glass ceiling—especially when child care is scarce

It’s not just about putting your hand up.
It’s not just about putting your hand up.
Image: Reuters/Adrees Latif
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At the root of many popular explanations for a persisting gender gap in the United States is the idea that women hold themselves back—be it a lack of confidence, prioritizing family over work, or even a fear of becoming too successful. But a study in last month’s issue of Harvard Business Review convincingly debunks that notion.

In a survey of over 25,000 graduates of Harvard Business School, men and women responded similarly in terms of career goals and importance of family. Men and women prioritized job titles and professional achievements at almost the same rates, with women rating “opportunities for career growth and development” slightly higher than their male counterparts.

But despite their similar goals, career outcomes diverge significantly for these men and women—59% of men said they were engaged in work that is meaningful versus 49% of women, and 57% of men held senior management positions compared to 41% of the women.

In the case of this study, that difference can’t be chalked up to women opting out of the workforce to care for children. Only 11% of women had left work to take care of their children full time. Most US women work full time in their child-rearing years—in 2011, 65% of women with children under the age of 6 worked 35 hours or more a week.

So if it’s not motivation that is holding women back, what is? There’s a convincing case that the lack of affordable child care is a major factor.

Tamara Straus, editorial director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley, argues in the Cal Alumni Association’s California magazine that the United States is sorely lacking when it comes to comprehensive and affordable child care. “Instead, we have ended up with three months of maternity leave, 16 days of vacation, and a hodgepodge of ‘choices’ that depend on whether we have a man, money, or family to help us along.”

Straus notes that the United States once had a government-subsidized national child care system—but only during World War II, when the federal government shelled out about $100 million so that women could work in factories and other crucial wartime industries. But when the war was over, the system was abruptly scrapped, and has never since come close to being revived.

“What we have is elite women (and men) blathering on about choice, and billionaire executives passing themselves off as role models for working women, while refusing to acknowledge, let alone celebrate the women who help raise their children and manage their homes,” she writes.

With that perspective in mind, it not hard to see structural disadvantages, not motivation, as the primary cause of the gender gap.

“Try harder. That’s the message that women hear all around. Try harder to be happy. Try harder to be skinny. Try harder to be a good employee, mother, wife, daughter, friend…Try harder to succeed. But, as the HBS study reminds us, when there’s a whole lot of trying without commensurate succeeding, then you have to start to consider that the game is rigged,” concludes New York Magazine’s Lisa Miller.