Column: ‘Having it all’ doesn’t have to start now

For college women, now is the time to pursue the career of dreams.

Planning for the future in college usually means choosing a major, thinking about potential careers and deciding whether or not to attend graduate school. But for many college women, it also means thinking about how a potential family fits into a career.

The ultimate question of “having it all” boils down to this: Should I work or stay home with my children? The media looks in awe at those women who seem to achieve the impossible: balancing family life with a successful career. For college women, the question can be on their minds before they even have a partner.

But even in 2014, women with degrees are leaving the workforce to stay home with their children. In fact, 58.8 percent of women were participating in the workforce (employed or actively looking for employment) in 2013, a decrease from the 60.7 percent participation in 1999.

We’ve all heard it before: Men significantly outnumber women in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. Women aren’t leading in other fields, either: Only 18.5 percent of the U.S. Congress are women. Women hold only 16.9 percent of board seats of Fortune 500 companies.

MU enrollment data shows little deviation from these trends. Only 32.4 percent of MU students enrolled in business majors are women. Women made up only 16.4 percent of students enrolled in the School of Engineering during the Fall 2013 semester. This rate is not much greater than the 13.6 percent of engineering jobs held by women in 2011.

We need women in these fields to promote innovation, problem solving and creativity. When women aren’t in STEM, politics and business, the needs and desires of women are forgotten. This kind of oversight happens often in technology development: Early voice-recognition software was calibrated to male voices and could not recognize the female voice. Airbags for cars were designed by men for men: They didn’t take into account the differences between male and female bodies, which led to the deaths of many women.

So why aren’t women jumping into these male-dominated fields? A fear of imperfection could be to blame for the lack of women in these fields.

Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard, recently studied the reasons so few women are majoring in economics. Goldin looked at how grades in an introductory economics course affected the likelihood that a student would pursue a major in economics. What she found was that women who earned a B were less likely to pursue the degree than women who earned an A.

That makes sense, until you compare those results to that of male students. They were just as likely to pursue an economics degree if they earned an A in Econ 101 than if they earned a B.

In her 2010 TED Talk, Facebook COO and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg said women tend to underestimate their abilities. Grades might be a big part of that, as grading in the humanities and social sciences has been found to be more forgiving than grading in STEM majors.

So, a female student who earns a B in an economics course might see it as a sign that she is unable to succeed in the major, while a male student wouldn’t see the grade as a setback in pursuing a degree in the field.

If we want women to succeed as leaders in politics, business and science, we need to get over this "unattainable" idea of perfection. The “Can anyone have it all?” debate is keeping women from accepting failures and pursuing challenging careers. While women are concerned with having it all at home and in the workplace, men are continuing to push for job promotions and higher salaries.

Sandberg highlights this trend in her TED Talk. The idea is this: When women in the workforce start thinking about having children, they begin to disengage from their careers. They stop seeking promotions and stagnate in their current positions. This can happen years before a woman actually has children.

But after all of those years of preparing to leave a career, what’s left isn’t nearly as exciting as what could have been. That’s why Sandberg urges women to lean into their careers: so they’ll want to go back after they have children.

Disengagement is a problem because it also prevents women from re-entering the workforce after having children. Sandberg said she understood how difficult it can be for a woman to go back to work after having a baby and that it takes a really compelling career to get someone back into the workforce.

So what’s a 20-something to do with all of this information? Well, for one, stop worrying about planning your career in a way that gives you an exit when you want to have children. If women focused more on building successful careers and less on worrying about leaving the workforce when the time comes, the transition back to work could be much easier.

Pursue the fields that really interest you, even if it doesn’t seem possible to “do it all” when you’re 30. Travel the world, and be an international reporter. Earn a Ph.D., and become a successful researcher. Reach for top positions in companies that get you excited about going to work every day. Take organic chemistry on your way to becoming a doctor, even if you get a B.

But whatever you do, don’t worry about “having it all” until it’s time.

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