Friday, June 22, 2012

Success and Having Children in Taiwan

Go read this now.

Why Women Still Can't Have It All

This is really a USA-based article, but still worth a read, very thorough and very articulate. A lot of it holds for Taiwan, too, but then I also think a lot of women in Taiwan choosing not to have children are doing so not for work related reasons (most jobs, let's face it, are not really worth the sacrifice, and those include a lot of low-to-mid-level Office Lady positions - although I fully recognize that a job that may not be "worth it" to me might well be very much worth it to another woman, so take my words with a Himalayan salt lamp-sized grain of salt).

I touched on this a bit the last time I wrote about the low birth rate in Taiwan - on how the main reasons are a feeling that they can't afford to have children, that they want to enjoy now-possible freedoms and comforts their parents didn't have, and gender-based expectations of who is going to take on more work raising kids is still a huge issue. It's huge in the USA, too, but, err, huger here. If that's a word. I also mentioned that the working world, if you work for a larger or international company, is actually friendlier to women, with guaranteed maternity leave and a culture where grandparents are more likely to provide free childcare (the same does not hold for smaller companies, where women are routinely kept back because of a fear they'll have kids and stop being useful to the company).

I didn't touch on what this article covers - women at the absolute top and their decisions on choosing to have kids...or not to.

In the course of my daily work I'm exposed to a lot of women at the top of their careers. CFOs, heads of departments, Taiwan CEOs, legal counsel, physicians and researchers, general managers. While I'd say it's 50-50 regarding whether those women have children, it's also far more likely that you'll find unmarried women and married women without children in those positions.

I'd say that of these - speaking only from my experience - about half don't have children, and of those about a quarter are unmarried. The unmarried women at the top that I know of seem to have no desire to tie the knot (good for them - marriage is not the be-all and end-all of a woman's life or the most important of her accomplishments): I can't come up with any examples of very successful Taiwanese women who are unmarried but have a desire to be. Far more common is marrying and not having children. One woman, who was at the top but has recently resigned from a very high-level job in finance (it even made the United Daily News), is unmarried with a child. Not notable in and of itself, but worth noting in a reflection on high-ranking women in Taiwan and the family decisions they make, especially as her departure was big enough to be reported on (I've met her - she is a very decisive woman).

The striking thing is that you'd expect, if you were so minded, to hear these women say "I would have liked to have had children, but I put my career first", or "I had always intended to have children, but then when I was finally ready it was too late" (something you do hear in the USA - at least in online comments: women who had always thought they'd have kids and then woke up one day and realized they'd never actually done so and it was either too late or almost to that point).

But they don't - most of them will very matter-of-factly tell you, if they are so inclined to tell you anything, that they had never really wanted children, or had decided early on not to have them.

I can't speak for the husbands of these high-powered women I know who do have children; I don't know them. I've been told that they're not that different from the sort of (stereo)typical "allows gendered expectations of child-rearing to continue" man you'd expect, but I don't have that on first-hand knowledge.

That's something - and seems to me to be a strong difference in attitude. A lot less ambivalence, and a lot more decisiveness. I guess if you live in a society where it's more expected that you'll have children (and a son at that! Gah!), you are more likely to be more decisive if you decide not to have them. This may have influenced a decisiveness in my own tone regarding not having children - had I stayed in the USA I might have continued to be a bit more ambivalent, because I would have had the social room to do so.

This leads me to believe that women in Taiwan who reach the top of their fields who don't have children are choosing not to not because being at the top of your field requires so much sacrifice that they forgo this kind of family life, but because they're the sorts of women who wouldn't have wanted children regardless. It's just who they are. I can relate to that - I don't want children, but it's not because of my career. I could realistically have both. It's just who I am (I might write more about that in a future post, or not).

In that way, they may be more like Peggy on Mad Men (bear with me - I've barely seen the show - please do correct me if I'm wrong and Peggy's wanted children all along) than the all-too-common-on-Internet-comment-threads American women who wanted children but wanted a career more, or who had intended to had children but ran out of time while chasing a career. My experience has shown that Taiwanese office culture is not nearly as much like America in the '60s (ie, Mad Men) as a lot of people assume it is, but still, this says something. It says something about the pressures and expectations women face in Taiwan and, as a result, who gets to the top and who doesn't.

In the end, this is true for women in Taiwan, the USA and elsewhere:

We currently live in a world where men make more money for equal work. This means that it's all too common that the parent who stays home or takes a hit to their career is the wife - because, hey, you've gotta earn a good wage for the family.

We also live in a world where, in order to get to the top (at least in the corporate world), you have to basically sacrifice yourself to your company. This is true everywhere. In Taiwan, I feel that many people have to do that anyway, even if they don't get to the top - in the USA you have more of a choice to work reasonable hours (but if you want to be "successful" in the typically expected sense, you'd better make the sacrifice). This means that the parent or parents who take that path will be giving up something - you can't have a real commitment to family and work those hours.

The difference? Women might be more likely to cut back as a result. It's not true that the working men of yore could have a career and a family - he could, but unless he was truly 9-to-5, he probably didn't get to spend as much time with that family as he would have liked. They couldn't have it then, and they certainly can't have it now, with working hours what they are.

So "making it" in the traditional sense, where you have to give up time with your family, isn't going to work if we want a truly equal world.

And we can't change things until we admit that and create a working culture where you can succeed and still have enough control over your schedule to spend real time with your family, and get rid of gender-based expectations of who will do the brunt of the child-rearing and who will take the hit to their career to make that happen.

Then, we need to create a world where a woman who wants children can discuss how it will work with her husband without the lingering expectation that she'll make the sacrifices. She'll be able to enter that discussion knowing that they'll work something out together and he's just as likely to take the hit as she is, and that the hit, importantly, won't be that bad, or that career-damaging.

Then, and only then, will we have equality, or something like it.

No comments: