Including Scale-Backers in the Conversation About Women and Work

The Atlantic recently published a seven-part series exploring what happens to women’s ambition after college. By virtue of their attendance at Northwestern University (a raised eyebrow here, but… ok) the interviewees were all identified as ambitious women. The women followed similar trajectories of pursuing ambitious professional paths after graduation from college, but once children arrived the women’s paths diverged.

Three unique pathways were identified among these women. First, high achievers remained focused on careers after children. In order to remain successful, they were likely to deputize a chunk of the parenting responsibilities; in so doing were able to stay highly successful in the workplace while having families. Next was the opt-out group who left their careers to focus on family. These women poured their ambition into parenting and other non-professional (i.e., unpaid) projects. Finally, there were the scale backers, who are described as “having one (super-flexed) leg in every realm.” Perhaps not surprisingly, it was the scale backers who reported that their efforts to create a balance of work and family life left them exhausted. And despite around the clock effort, the scale-backers still felt as if they were falling short everywhere.

As a scale-backer, myself, I’m particularly interested in this group. The authors shared the numbers, and while it’s hard to make much of this small sample, about a third of the women fell into the “scale backer” group. This chunk of the sample is notable, because this group existing in between leaned in and opted out most goes unnoticed in the public conversation about women and work. I realize it’s a bit self-serving, but I think this article provides a wonderful opportunity to be more comprehensive and inclusive in the ongoing conversation about work-family balance.

As our society continues to progress, there will be more and more ambitious women who decide to take advantage of modern opportunities to keep a foot in professional life, even as they partake in the joys of parenting. They aren’t simply privileged (though certainly it is a privileged position to be in), they also struggle to maintain the balance and not let anyone down in either important world they have been fortunate to stay active within. I hope we continue to explore scaling back as an option for women (and men, too), particularly during the early years of parenting. But let’s be honest about the pros and cons, the challenges and joys, of each of the possible paths available to ambitious individuals. And let’s keep the conversation going.