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Women, Work, and Identity
By Elizabeth Perle McKenna
Delacorte 286pp $23.95

Loving Our Children without
Sacrificing Our Selves
By Joan K. Peters
Addison-Wesley 251pp $24

In the past 30 years, women have achieved astonishing success in the workplace. They make up half of the U.S. labor force and are infiltrating the highest levels of management. But for many women at the pinnacle of their careers, this revolution has been strangely unfulfilling. A 1995 Fortune-Yankelovich Partners poll of 300 female executives found 87% making or seriously considering a major life change. Other surveys show women craving more work-family balance and leaving long-term careers to start their own businesses in record numbers.

Elizabeth Perle McKenna taps into this dissatisfaction with When Work Doesn't Work Anymore: Women, Work and Identity. In a very personal book that's likely to garner broad interest, she finds a fundamental dissonance in women's experiences. As they strive for the traditional symbols of success--challenging careers, money, and power--they find themselves neglecting the personal and family lives they hold dear.

This problem, according to McKenna, stems from the fact that when women entered the workforce in droves, they did it on men's terms. Eager to have economic power and to leave the Donna Reed-housewife style of life behind, women became like immigrants from foreign lands--molding themselves to fit the existing workplace and accept its values. Unfortunately, the American workplace has been ''built around men's need to be defined and valued by what they do, not who they are.'' In that world, employers ''require long hours and 'face time' for any recognition, reward, or advancement.'' So even though the demographics of work have changed drastically in 30 years--some 65% of women are employed--work often remains ''a place built for men with full-time wives at home to take care of the rest of life.''

McKenna arrives at this analysis partly via her own experience, a rapid rise through the ranks of the publishing world. Like many women coming of age in the '60s and '70s, she was excited about having a career and tantalized by the rising salaries and power that came her way. But as the publishing industry consolidated and restructured, her intense work life began to take its toll. McKenna found herself moving from job to job under a frequently changing cast of bosses. Reduced autonomy and an ever-increasing work load, combined with the added burden of having a small child at home, made her job's huge claim on time and emotional energy intolerable--and she quit.

The author admits that she was able to walk out on work in part because her husband has a ''good job.'' But she stresses--and demonstrates with profiles based on over 200 interviews and a survey of 1,000 others--that many women who are unable to quit work are burning out and longing for more balance in their lives. Few are clamoring to stay home full time: Most once loved their jobs and want to work. They are single and married, mothers and nonmothers, and employed in fields as diverse as investment banking and acting. A hefty 55% of the women she surveyed contribute more than half of their family's income.

So, McKenna asks, how can they obtain more harmonious lives without quitting? She says it's important to value time as much as treasure. ''Earning money gives women power and freedom and an independent identity apart from a man or family,'' she concedes. But, McKenna warns, the constant pursuit of consumer goods chains both women and men to a never-ending cycle of more and more work at the expense of all else.

In the final analysis, women have to stop believing that they can ''have it all.'' It's unrealistic, she believes, to expect to achieve success as it's traditionally defined while serving as a family's primary caregiver, housekeeper, and in myriad other domestic roles. Pursuit of this ideal creates stress, depression, and ultimately, burnout.

McKenna's book is somewhat short on answers for nonprofessionals and others who do not have as many choices as she. But overall, she believes that a second revolution has to take place for work to really work for women. As a start, she says, women should be far more forthright about bringing their personal concerns into the open at work--thus making it more acceptable for men to make their wants known, too. For their part, companies should guard against penalizing or marginalizing those who insist on more flexible work hours. And ultimately, men have to contribute much more to family life. Here, McKenna approvingly quotes feminist author Gloria Steinem: ''There is no such thing as integrating women equally into the economy as it exists.... Not until the men are as equal inside the house as women are outside it.''

Joan K. Peters also sees women struggling to balance work and family. In When Mothers Work: Loving Our Children without Sacrificing Ourselves, she portrays women experiencing guilt for leaving children at home at the same time as they feel they are shortchanging their families, employers, and themselves. But Peters' book is predicated on the idea that women should work; that they can garner huge satisfaction on the job while raising happy, well-adjusted children.

Peters cites research showing that work is as key to self-esteem and intellectual satisfaction as it is to paying the bills. Moreover, women who find it impossible to balance career and family are not always benefiting their children by staying home, she says. Rather, kids profit intellectually from exposure to many people, she argues, and ''maternal employment creates an opportunity for [them] to form other close connections,'' at day care and with other relatives.

The torrent of guilt that surrounds the working mother, writes Peters, results from trying to meet an unrealistic goal. When conservative politicians and pundits point to a lapse in family values, they are quick to point the finger at working mothers. Even Penelope Leach, author of many popular books on child-rearing, says that giving birth ''makes it impossible for women to seek self-fulfillment that is separate from fulfillment of [the baby's] perceived needs and wishes.'' Peters argues that such attitudes represent dangerous attempts to turn back the hands of time.

The author profiles a dozen or so families that have tried, with varying success, to share parenting and work responsibilities. Her examples--such as the scriptwriter and composer who have ''a truly 50-50 marriage, which they maintain in a seemingly nonchalant way''--are sometimes irksomely perfect, and the prose can grow cloying. Most of these people are self-employed in careers that seem to allow remarkable flexibility. But the anecdotes drive home a point: ''Solving the mother puzzle will require mothers to relinquish some of their personal responsibility for nurturing the young and to demand that others--fathers, extended family, caregivers, the American workplace, and the government--take on more.''

In the end, both When Work Doesn't Work Anymore and When Mothers Work are part of a rising chorus that's calling for deep changes in U.S. society. Employers, they say, have to adjust, judging workers by their ability to complete tasks, not by the amount of time spent in the office, for example. Men must take on more family responsibilities, and everyone could benefit by trading material expectations for more personal time. Women have made great strides over the past 30 years, but, as these authors show, the ideal society remains some distance away.



PHOTO: Cover, ``When Work Doesn't Work Anymore''

PHOTO: Cover, ``When Mothers Work''


Updated Sept. 4, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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