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Don’t blame having kids for steering women away from the C-suite

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A new workplace equality study released Wednesday by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. reiterates many of the depressing facts that those keeping tabs on this type of research already know: Women lag behind when it comes to getting promoted, reaching upper management and setting their sights on the C-suite.

However, what jumped out for me was a question the researchers asked about why women are less likely to aspire to a top job. They asked those who said they did not aspire to a top position about the factors that drove that decision, and broke out their responses not just by men and women, but also by who does and does not have children.

Just 35% of the women without kids said that they were worried that it would be too difficult to balance being a top exec with “family commitments,” compared to 65% of those with children. But women with and without families shared one major concern: the stress of such a job (58% of women with kids, 55% of those without).

Here’s why I believe that’s important: Whether explicit or implicit, the idea that women are also mothers (or will eventually become mothers) is bound up in 99% of our conversations about women’s workplace equality. Indeed, as someone who covers such issues, I’ve always found it a little awkward that I don’t have children (let alone a spouse).

And when we look for solutions that will help advance women’s careers, we often focus on children. There’s the recent spate of companies rolling out new parental benefits, including Netflix’s (NFLX) unlimited parental leave policy, IBM’s (IBM) breast milk shipping benefit and KKR’s (KKR) traveling nannies. Then there are societal prescriptions, like the recent suggestion by Andrew Moravcsik, husband of Anne-Marie Slaughter, that we need to make it more acceptable for men to be the “primary parent.”

I don’t mean to imply that balancing a career with having children isn’t a huge struggle for many women and that there isn’t value in addressing the issue mom-work balance. But it’s important to consider that the way to the corner office is not magically clear for women who do not have children. They must still contend with blatant sexism, unconscious gender bias, the double standard about “aggressive” women, the B word—the list goes on. No wonder Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg suggests that the path to top jobs is disproportionately stressful for women.

I hope this study will remind people that all women wrestle with the unique dynamics of being female in a working world that’s still set up to cater to men. And while we should continue to help alleviate the burdens of working moms, we cannot fall under the delusion that solving even the trickiest childcare issues will eliminate the many stresses that stop women from desiring that seat in the corner office.

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