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Why Are Young Women More Ambitious? They Have to Be Why Are Young Women More Ambitious? They Have to Be

Why Are Young Women More Ambitious? They Have to Be

by Nona Willis Aronowitz
April 21, 2012


The headline of a new study by the Pew Research Center claims to have discovered "A Gender Reversal On Career Aspirations." But upon closer inspection, the study appears to imply that young women are more ambitious than men their age across the board. Sixty-six percent of 18 to 34-year-old women rate their career high on their list of life priorities, compared with 59 percent of young men. This figure hasn't really "reversed," but it has shifted markedly in the past 15 years—in 1997, only 56 percent of young women felt the same way, compared to 58 percent of men.

Today's young women aren't planning to make any sacrifices on the home front, either—they're prioritizing their personal lives, too. The amount of young women who say that having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in their lives has risen nine percentage points since 1997, from 28 to 37 percent. For young men, that stat is trending in the opposite direction—from 35 percent in 1997 to 29 percent now. More young women than men care about being a good parent—59 percent, compared to 47 percent of their male counterparts. It looks like young women are more likely to be thinking consciously about their priorities, period. Do dudes just not give thought to their futures at all? 

Perhaps guys aren't mulling their life priorities because they trust that marriage, parenthood and career usually work out better for them in the longrun. They're right about that. When women begin their careers, they earn virtually the same as their male peers (95 cents to every dude dollar), but as they near their early thirties, the pay gap widens—women have kids, take maternity leave, and stall their careers for a few years, or else they get passed over for promotions and yearly raises. By the time a women nears retirement age, she earns around 75 cents for every dollar a man her age earns.

Although marriage is lower on young men's list of priorities, they'll fare better when they eventually tie the knot. Numerous studies show that married men are happier, live longer, make more money, and experience less stress, while married women are rewarded with more housework, less money, worse sex and a few extra pounds. And while women are consumed with the problems of "work-life balance"—trying to maintain a successful career while raising a family—men seldom feel as much pressure or face as much doubt about their ability to "do it all." Women still end up performing the majority of the parenting, regardless of their jobs, and despite public platitudes revering the work of motherhood, the lack of universal childcare and inadequate (or nonexistent) parental-leave policies set women up to fail.

No amount of girl power—or denial—can obscure these deep-set gender dynamics. Women are acutely aware of the need to be especially ambitious in order to succeed—the same extra ambition any marginalized group needs to climb the career ladder and crack glass ceilings. It's the reason more women are getting college degrees, and the reason why many women try more intently to find a mate at a younger age (although that's changing). The sexual economy, as well as the professional one, are simply skewed in men's favor, especially as the years go on. Why wouldn't they be more relaxed about their life choices?

Photo by (cc) Flickr user gcoldironjr2003.

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