Two interesting news tidbits concerning women passed my desk this week. One, that women aged 40 and over are increasingly dating younger men, and two, that despite some noteworthy advances, women in business are still making considerably less, and holding less prestigious posts, than men.

As a child of the 1970s, I grew up with the women’s liberation movement and expected the gains to be much greater since Gloria Steinem and Co. burst onto the political scene. But after three decades, women CEOs are a distinct minority in the corporate world despite the increased numbers graduating with honors from top business schools, and there’s only one woman chief executive at the top tier of accounting firms, Lisa Cines of  Rockville, Md-based Aronson & Co.

KPMG, for example, sent out a press release this week announcing that of its 115 new partners, 26 are women. While it’s better than none, and the firm’s committed to building up its X-factor to 20 percent of all partners by 2008, it’s still a baby step in an era where I expected leaps and strides.

As my colleague, Melissa Klein, gleaned this week during a conference for women accountants, while women are entering the accounting profession in record numbers, they represent less than 14 percent of partners/shareholders at all public accounting firms, and the number of women at senior levels is still low.

How to explain it the disparity? It’s more complicated than you might think.

The parity problem can’t be laid solely at the old boys’ network’s front stoop. General Electric just completed a study of its 135,000 professional workers and found that women quit at a higher rate: Annual voluntary turnover of the women is 8%, vs. 6.5% for the men, according to a story in Fortune magazine about the country’s most powerful women. And research firm Catalyst reports that 26% of professional women who are not yet CEOs don’t want those jobs.

So in some cases, it’s not that women couldn’t get high-level jobs, but that they’re choosing not to even put their hats in the ring.

The reason, of course, is obvious. Many women, especially as they hit their career peaks in their mid-30s and 40s, are desperately trying to fulfill twin, polar desires – to be a perfect mom and realize their business ambitions.

We all know now that the old Enjoli perfume commercial where a woman brings home the bacon and fries it up in a pan is pure Madison Avenue fantasy. When our children cling to our suits at daycare and plead with us not to go to work, we wish more than anything that we could quit the rat race and spend our days being a soccer mom. But when we land an important client, beat the competition, or are hot on the trail of an investigative story, we’re all adrenaline rush, eager for the next challenge, the next job that will stretch our limits even further, the next rung on the ladder to success.

Though it’s often called a balancing act, those of us who are in the trenches know it’s more akin to civil warfare, with the battle raging on two landscapes – neither one of which we can  bear to completely give up.

All I can say is that the women over 40 who are taking up with these younger men must either not have children, or ones who are already grown. After the daily battle we face, the rest of us couldn’t possibly have the energy.

 

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