The Freedom to Choose to Have it All

29 Nov 2018

Why should young professionals have to choose between careers and families? Robin Fretwell Wilson argues for proactive effort at the graduate school level to end the “either-or” dilemma.

STI Experts

Law professor Robin Fretwell Wilson does not shy away from hard questions. She is committed to seeking solutions where many see only conflict, defending the idea that protecting one freedom need not come at the cost of another. She was awarded this year the Thomas L. Kane Religious Freedom Award, she directs the Fairness for All initiative at the University of Illinois, supported in part by the Templeton Religion Trust and the First Amendment Partnership, which hopes to provide other proofs-of-principle in state law that gay rights and religious liberty need not be in tension, and founded the Tolerance Means Dialogues discussions around the country aimed at harnessing the insights of millennials about how to bridge differences in our society over issues that have divided us. Her latest book, The Contested Place of Religion in Family Law, examines the clashes between religious liberty and the personal realm of the family  When she participated 10 years ago in the Rethinking Business Management Experts Meeting, she authored a chapter that encouraged society to avoid making people choose either career or family to the exclusion of the other. That chapter, Keeping Women in Business (and Family) – excerpted here – is equally relevant today. 

Newly minted young professionals in business, law and medicine navigate taxing careers in which they have heavily invested at a time when people their age once formed families. For a growing segment of these professionals, work and family have become either-or propositions.  Massive debt-loads, staggering salaries, grinding work schedules, lengthening career tracks, and begrudging corporate cultures all set career and family on a collision course. 

The media has chronicled extensively the growing “opt-out revolution,” in which women professionals are exiting the workplace in droves. Less appreciated is the converse phenomenon: huge numbers of professionals who remain in the workplace but opt out of family. These men and women forgo parenting and stable, long-term relationships in surprisingly high numbers, believing that they cannot have both. This depressed childbearing and family formation by those in whom society has invested most should be of deep concern. It is bad for children, bad for business, bad for the women and men themselves, and bad for everybody.

In many ways, young professionals learn to treat work and family as either-or choices at the very beginning of their graduate professional educations. The intense time demands and pressures of graduate professional education teach students early on to place professional obligations over the personal. Consequently, graduate professional schools must change the perception that work and family cannot coexist. Until graduates leave prepared to advocate for and take advantage of family-friendly workplace policies, work and family will continue to be either-or propositions for many professionals. 

Graduate programs can do much to change the calculus that young professionals engage in when deciding whether to combine family and work. They should not only tangibly support a student’s choice to have children during school, but should also better equip him or her to insist on workplace changes that make it easier to have families while working. Educators can support family by modeling good behavior in their own institutions, decreasing the admission age for women, giving preference in admissions to applicants with children, providing financial support for student-parents in the form of scholarships and better loan terms, establishing alumni mentoring networks, and outlining for students the real costs f various practice settings for forming and maintaining families. Once armed with stronger expectations that they can have both, these young professionals will be important agents for transforming the workplace form the inside out. 

This chapter does not make any normative judgements about the value of one path over another. Some people want to stay home with their children, others want never to have children. Graduate education that takes family seriously should make both paths easier to navigate, and ultimately more livable.

Fretwell Wilson followed that introduction with sections looking at:

  1. The Paths Young Professionals Take
    1. Signal Importance for Women
    2. Begrudging Corporate Cultures
  2. The Impact on Society
  3. Doing the Math
    1. Racing the Biological Clock
  4. The Role of Educators in Making Family More Achievable
    1. Modeling Good Behavior
    2. Grooming New Professionals Earlier
    3. Giving Real Preference to Families
    4. Providing Networks of Alumni Mentors
    5. Family-Friendly Career Advice
    6. A Voice for Change
  5. Perceived Drawbacks

She proclaims in the conclusion, “…abdication of family robs all of us of a vibrant, functioning community – weakening the economy, weakening families, weakening the professionals themselves.”