Opinion | Op-eds

For women, success can mean more than obtaining a high-paying job

  • Role models? | (l. to r.) Cameron Russell, CC ’09, Donna Kalajian Lagani, and Kat Cole. All three women spoke on a panel about female leadership at the Columbia Women’s Leadership Conference.

Just 75 years ago, women were told that the source of a good, satisfying life was marriage and a family. Women who went to college were expected to marry, have children, and focus their attention on raising those children. Today, we reject that model adamantly and with a certain degree of horror. “Women are more than that,” we say. “We need strong, independent women,” we chant. 

We talk about equal employment. We talk about leaning in and getting our voices heard. And we talk—often and loudly—about equal pay. These topics come up everywhere: in newspaper articles, in conversations with family, and in panel discussions like the one Spectator held on April 6. I do not doubt that these are critical topics, and I believe that any conversation about gender equality and dynamics is valuable. And I certainly will not deny that, both financially and emotionally, equal pay for women is a necessity.

But it is not everything. College women are now being exhorted to find high-paying corporate jobs in the same way that they once were urged to find a husband. Media, technology, finance, business—these are the fields that allow women to make that money, so this is clearly where women need to go. One of the panelists at the Columbia Women’s Leadership Conference specifically told her mostly female audience to go into the tech business because “it’s a good job. You can make a lot of money.” Of the 50-plus information sessions that the Barnard Career Development office lists as having been held last semester, more than two-thirds of them were related to business, finance, and technology. A small handful were related to education, but none above the high school level. 

What does this say to college women? That they should aspire to these careers above all? That a big salary should be their priority?  Of course, I recognize that a certain degree of financial stability does facilitate happiness. But there are plenty of miserable wealthy people, men and women alike, in this city alone to prove that it is not everything.

Men are not pushed with this same degree of urgency into such careers. There is a sense that men can choose how they want to be successful, that they can find a satisfying life in any number of careers. But apparently women need high-power positions in high-power corporate companies to be successful.

So what happens to the women who want to be artists, academics, intellectuals? What about women who want a place in a male-dominated field—from choreography to academia—but do not want to don business suits and high heels? What about women who do not lust after a corner office as the symbol of a life well-lived?

Women are no longer pushed into motherhood as the only means to a fulfilling life. But there is a whole new kind of pressure on American college women today: the pressure to climb the corporate ladder, to reach for ever higher-paying jobs in media, technology, and business. What about the women who aspire to more than that, or to something different? The idea seems to be that women who do not want to challenge men in the corporate world are taking the easy way out, or not pushing themselves as hard, or are content to let men run things. But since when is academia easier (whatever that means) than media, or being an artist more conformist to traditional roles than being a banker? It is time for a panel of female professors, artists, and critics. Let’s not lock today’s women into a higher-paying and more powerful, but equally confining, version of the lifestyle in which our grandmothers were trapped.

The author is a Barnard College sophomore majoring in history.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Alumna posted on

When I was a senior at Columbia a few years back, I was interested in working at a government research position for a few years and then eventually pursuing a PhD. I felt like there was a lot of pressure at Columbia to go into banking or consulting, and that a lot of other paths were viewed as inferior. I personally had thought of this as more of a "Columbia" issue than an issue for women only, although I see the author's point. I'm female but primarily attending the general coed career events when at Columbia, rather than events for women.

I think the important thing is to support fellow women/Columbia students in pursuing whatever path appeals to the individual and to recognize that there are many different paths for different people.

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Anonymous posted on

I think this article is a little outdated. No one pushes women into anything. Women themselves push themselves and judge other women. I think there is a push at Columbia (or any elite school) to be successful. That is why we came here. And that affects both men and women equally. I think quite the opposite; men have a much narrower vision of success (do a profession and make a lot of money) where women are allowed to be successful in a number of non monetary ways.

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Anonymous posted on

While I see your point, I think your point would make more sense if women and men were already equally represented in fields like finance and technology. But we aren't. These are the fields that disproportionately few woman go into because of early-life societal pressure to be caring rather than assertive. I think what Barnard is trying to do (to some degree) is to provide a counter-pressure to that ambient social pressure, to tell women they don't have to conform. Perhaps they are starting to do this to too great a degree, and perhaps they have other motives, but I think that as of now they are only balancing the numbers between those who want to go into nonprofit and intellectual work, and those who aspire to highly profitable careers.

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Anonymous posted on

While I see your point, I think your point would make more sense if women and men were already equally represented in fields like finance and technology. But we aren't. These are the fields that disproportionately few woman go into because of early-life societal pressure to be caring rather than assertive. I think what Barnard is trying to do (to some degree) is to provide a counter-pressure to that ambient social pressure, to tell women they don't have to conform. Perhaps they are starting to do this to too great a degree, and perhaps they have other motives, but I think that as of now they are only balancing the numbers between those who want to go into nonprofit and intellectual work, and those who aspire to highly profitable careers.

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Anonymous posted on

Terrific article! It is a challenge for young women today to find careers that not only challenge them but also nourish their minds and souls. College students and graduate students today are inundated with panels about -- and recruiters for -- major corporate interests. Universities should present a more well-rounded set of mentors and opportunities, to encourage students to pursue careers in education, human rights, the arts, etc.

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Maryann Wolfe posted on

Nice take on the issue!

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