To understand why female lawyers, doctors, bankers, academics, high-tech executives and other, often expensively pedigreed, professionals quit work to stay home, you need not search their souls for ambivalence or nostalgia. In fact, searching their souls guarantees that you won’t get the story, because it’s not to be found in individual decisions and personal stories, which are always complicated and hard to parse, but in the structural realities of the American workplace. And by this I don’t just mean the family-unfriendly policies of the kind Marissa Mayer is accused of advancing—though refusing to let workers telecommute doesn’t help, and let’s not even talk about how few American companies have on-site child care or adequate parental leave. I mean that among the professional and managerial classes, success at work requires more hours in the office, more hours on the computer at home, more trips out of town, and a much less predictable schedule than it did in Betty Friedan’s day. The life of a Joan or a Peggy at an advertising agency looks almost easy by comparison….
When I meet young female undergraduates and graduate students today, which I do when I speak at universities, I don’t find them neo-traditionalist or lacking in aspiration. They don’t seem to want to stay home with their kids. They have every intention of using their formidable educations to achieve professional success, just as I did when I was in college. And like me back then, they don’t really grasp what that will require.