Business Insight: Working Women and the Curse of the Ancient Trade-off
I recently binged Netflix’s Bridgerton, a soapy depiction of London’s Regency era marriage market where high stakes debutante balls and cutthroat gossip abound as families compete to position daughters for a shot at an eligible bachelor. A young woman’s entire future hinges on this moment. Will she catch the eye of a wealthy man and have a secure future or is it a one-way ticket to shame and spinsterhood?
While the depiction of a do-or-die marriage market in Bridgerton teeters on farcical, the damage of not securing a partnership with a man was very real for women throughout human history, and the sting of not getting married is still alive and well.
This is because socially imposed norms place value on marriage and family for women. Why? Social norms rarely arise randomly. A deeper reason resides within the realm of biology. Biological and environmental selection pressures over time become catalysts that evoke social values.
For 99% of human existence, if you were a woman, you were almost certainly a mother. Birth control and modern medicine were non-existent. Yet war, predators, disease, and famine were abundant. Ancestral women needed to keep themselves alive to keep their children alive.
Men could take risks and go to war knowing their children would be cared for. Women could not. A thousand years ago, if women left home to work and wage war, children’s food and prenatal home would be gone or seriously jeopardized. Children would die or never be born in the first place.
Any ancestral woman born with a penchant for waging war, taking large risks, and not caring for children would be much less likely to have surviving children to pass those genes to granddaughters. This is how gender differences, and social values that support them, emerge.
Women’s survival and the survival of children (and by extension the human race) depended heavily on division of labor. Because long-term investment from men who could help provide food, shelter, and protection was critically beneficial for survival, natural selection pressures forged the evolution of brain circuitry that endowed women with a strong desire for marriage and family. This was true 10,000 years ago, in Regency London, and now.
While the speedball-fueled desire to be “chosen” is strong (thanks, biology!), women’s brains don't focus only on marriage and family. Women become interested in and perform as well as (or better than) men in literature, medicine, engineering, finance, agriculture, music, legislature (the list goes on).
So, women have “the push” toward career and personal gain (just like men). BUT we also have “the push” toward marriage and family (more so than most men). Because women’s ability to support a family through paid work has not historically brought access to husbands who manage unpaid care work at home, women typically have to make a trade-off — excel at nurturing or competitive roles.
This trade-off can cause conflict. Even though most of Bridgerton’s female characters “leaned in” to the excitement of marital etiquette, some were depicted as loathing the idea of being married. I, too, turned away from dating at first. I was a high school nerd who got straight As and was obsessed with investment banking. I even started an investment club as a teen.
Then, in my 20s, a man asked me out. Bam! The excitement catapulted me into a euphoria that left little room for thoughts about markets. I liquidated my investment club earnings to purchase the Prescriptives make-up line. I skipped class to socialize and skipped rent to buy more clothes. I became bulimic and was evicted because of my desperation to be desirable to a man.
Hindsight led me to believe mine was a devastating portrait of the push and pull many women experience between goals that are independent (career) and nurturing (family). When success in marriage seemed possible for me, I dove in headfirst. Although I never gave up on my career aspirations, dating was top-of-mind. The guilt and shame of putting career before family continues today.
My personal experience led me to research this trade-off. As I suspected, women become more ambitious and prioritize high-profile careers when there are few men around. When men are present, women prioritize family over career.
Other work found a similar pattern. Women prefer more risk and career-related competition in same-sex groups. Cross-cultural work finds that, in matrilineal societies where women are in authority, women are more competitive than men are. Women in competitive MBA programs report lower desired yearly compensation, lower motivation to compete in the labor market, and less desire to travel for work when they believe men will see their answers.
In private, these same women desire similar workplace outcomes as men. Women also publicly report more life goals than men, wanting to excel at family and career. This suggests that women experience internal and external pressure to trade career for family.
How can we support moving women’s intrinsic career motivation into public expression? We have to change what we value. We show and tell young girls that we value their nurturing behaviors (“my sweet angel”). We show and tell young boys that we value their competitive behaviors (“my champ!”).
We still implicitly value nurturing women and competitive men. We must make a deliberate effort to overcome default norms to ensure boys and girls hear, see, and feel that their value is found in competition and nurturing. This narrative must thread through our homes, schools, governments, and workplaces. It must guide our behavior.
Once the narrative changes, the division of labor will become even more fluid. The current cultural climate is already moving the needle in the right direction. Our research shows that men are contributing more at home, and the more they contribute, the more satisfied and productive women are at work.
Organizations must shift their core values. Companies that prioritize the balance of career and family through flexible programs for all employees, and ensure both men and women feel rewarded for taking advantage of them, stand to benefit in multiple ways, from greater access to a diverse pool of highly skilled talent to a healthier bottom line.
When women feel safe to lean into their career aspirations and men feel safe to lean into their families, the trickle-down effect can translate to many positives — greater personal wellbeing, closer families, better marriages, faster innovation, and a more efficient economy.
Part of our reality today flows from what worked best years ago. But when outdated social values like those portrayed in Bridgerton no longer serve us, we have the power to uproot the remnants and change course. Let's flip the script.
Kristina Durante, Ph.D., is a professor and vice-chair of the Department of Marketing at Rutgers Business School and research director for the Center for Women in Business. She has authored several articles on the psychology of women and families. She routinely speaks on her research across the globe, including in a recent TEDx talk.
Illustration courtesy of Getty Images.
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