For all the years that I have been teaching a course titled “Women and Leadership” – both at the Harvard Kennedy School and at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth – one of the running themes has been what most women experience as a tension between family and work. While the demographics of my students skew toward women eager “to lead,” the theme has become a commonplace, a constant commentary on the stresses associated with trying to “have it all.”
Until recently these stresses have been owned nearly entirely by women, especially by those who are intent on having one or more babies while at the same time striving toward achieving a successful career. The “biological clock” was thought to tick for women, not men, the former not the latter saddled with the issue of how to get ahead while first being pregnant and then parenting young children.
But, in the last year or two, in the wake of sometime studies suggesting that men too had some sort of biological clock, our attitudes began gradually to change. Moreover now, with a major new study just out of Sweden reporting that children born to middle-aged men are more likely than those born to younger men to develop mental difficulties ranging from autism and schizophrenia to attention deficit and bipolar disorder, the discourse will have to shift. Now whatever the concerns associated with when to have a baby and when to focus on career will have to be more equally shared.
The new study is by no means the last word on the subject. Researchers are quick to say that the results will have to be replicated, and that the vast majority of children born to older fathers will in any case be just fine. But the evidence is accumulating and suggestive if not stark: men are not immune to some of same concerns about when to have a baby that for years now have bedeviled women.
This is not to say that gender does not matter. When last I looked women were still the ones able to bear babies and when last I looked women were still the ones able to suckle them. Still, the fact that men now also need more carefully to decide when to have a baby should in time change the debate. It should in time make more accommodating the workplace, which generally continues to require a commitment incompatible with raising young children – especially in a society that usually provides no obvious, affordable day care alternative.