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Where Have All the Women Leaders Gone?


May 9 2013
Seeking lives that steward our giftedness wisely and well.

I kissed dating goodbye when I was 19 years old. For me, the whole purpose of dating was to find a husband, a life partner, and on one fine fall day, I decided it was foolish to try and find a suitable match when I didn't even know myself. Who would I be trying to find a match for? Besides, college was for building an identity and a career, not finding a husband.

Earlier this spring, Princeton mom and alumna Susan A. Patton penned a letter to the editor of the Daily Princetonian advising women to find a husband while pursuing their degrees. She told them that career advice wasn't the only thing they needed while in college, and that finding smart men to marry would only get harder after they graduated. Patton's letter created a media firestorm, at one point crashing the newspaper's website. Many decried Patton's letter as a quintessential example of Ivy-League school elitism; others claimed her rhetoric channeled the 1950s, when many women went to college solely in pursuit of an M.R.S. degree.

Elitism aside, Patton's advice isn't as off-base as some have made it out to be, because her observations of younger women's preoccupation with relationships over their career, unfortunately, appears to backed up by data on women in leadership.

Women's enrollment in graduate programs has dropped across disciplines, including law, medicine, and seminary. Businesses lament that the pipeline of female leaders is going dry, and that once current leadership moves on, there will be no women to replace them. Meanwhile, the new domesticity has plenty of women embracing life at home.

Some of the enrollment decline for graduate schools may reflect a troubled economy. The "dry pipeline" may be due to women turning away from leadership roles because the expectations for women leaders are so great. Still, other women may be discouraged that despite the great gains women have made in the last half-century, the numbers of women in senior-level leadership positions indicate we still have far to go.

For the last half-century, women, especially Christian women, have chaffed between competing, anemic ideologies about how we should spend our lives. In part, that's why today's women aren't as interested in ambitious careers and high-level positions. We have yet to receive a robust, comprehensive vision of what is possible in a single human life.

On one hand, the surrounding culture promotes boundless opportunism, unencumbered by familial obligations. This view prioritizes ambition and success over relationships, so we wait to get married and wait to have children, far past the prime age for bearing children. Prior to the 20th century, it would have been scandalous for a woman to admit she had ambitions beyond that of a wife or mother; today, in the secular culture, it's just as scandalous to admit you really do want to be a wife and a mother.

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Where Have All the Women Leaders Gone?