Over the past few years, there has been a great deal of discussion about why women aren’t achieving as much in their careers as their male counterparts, even though women have been enrolling in and graduating from college in greater numbers than men since the 1980s. Explanations for this gender gap range from women aren’t “leaning in” enough, to entrenched sexism in the workplace, to husbands’ careers taking precedence, to a lack of social supports for mothers in American society.
But when we discuss the issue in a macro way, we don’t hear the stories of men and women who are making career choices not as statistics in a think piece, but as part of an often complicated balancing act between various interests and responsibilities in their lives. Here is the third interview in an occasional series, Best Laid Plans, about how career decisions get made over time and are altered by the unpredictability of life.
Name: Leah Drilias*
Occupation: Associate director at a think tank
Partner’s occupation: Assistant professor
Location: Washington, D.C.
Hi, Leah. What were your career expectations when you first started working?
I took the Foreign Service exam and wanted to work for the State Department.* I wanted to be a consular officer and be in the Foreign Service until I was 30, and then I wanted to move back to the States and get knocked up. But I wanted this adventurous 20s.
What was your life situation at that time—did you have kids or a partner then, or did you expect to in the future?
I was single. I did have a parent in poor health, and that was a complicated situation, and I was torn up about it. What ultimately happened in my career was I passed the Foreign Service test but didn’t end up getting a job. After passing the Foreign Service exam and an oral exam, you get placed on what’s called a “list of eligible hires.” They hire top to bottom, and your position changes as more people pass their security and medical clearances. There are things you can do to get moved up that list, like take a language test, which I didn’t do, in no small part because I was in love and waiting to see how a relationship panned out (it didn’t).
Even though it was a huge disappointment at the time (it took from 1999 to 2003, or from 24 to 27, when all my friends “launched” into motherhood or grad school or anything, while I waited to find out that what the guy I was with really liked about me … was that I was leaving), I still don’t regret it. Not just because the path I ended up taking led me to the life I have now with my husband, Michel, but because I would have been a State Department employee in the first years of George W. So I spent my early 20s working a perfectly respectable job investigating finance violations for the state campaign board, but I didn’t end up having the future I envisioned.
How does your current work situation match up with your earlier expectations?
Awesomely well. I hadn’t made that connection before. I work at a think-tank that looks at foreign policy and has connections around the world.
How does your current life situation match up with your earlier expectations?
It’s different. My husband and I decided not to have kids, so that’s different. By the time my husband and I met each other, we didn’t want them. I was 34 and he was 28. I can’t put my finger on why. I think a lot of it was a full understanding of the responsibility that kids entail. After the extensive conversations I had with my friends, I was like, Jesus, that sounds terrifying. As I got older, I started to think I’d be less good at it. And part of my reason not to have children is I will have care-taking responsibilities in the future. I’m the only child of divorced parents.
In your family, whose career has come first?
We met in 2010 in Minneapolis. Michel was a graduate student then. I didn’t think it was going to be a long-term relationship initially because he was six years younger. Then there was this looming deadline of his entering the academic job market. So, I think we struck a deal pretty early on that the first move would be his, but every other career decision should be a joint one. He worked for seven years for his Ph.D. At the time, I had a job I loved in Minnesota. I was the operation director of Take Action Minnesota. We did ballot initiatives to stop voter ID laws and against an amendment to ban gay marriage. But, I knew we were going to move away when we got serious.
One side note, which I find funny now. When Michel went on the job market, we had been together for a year. I made a big deal out of feeling like I couldn’t move somewhere with him—especially to like, the University of Northern Michigan—without being married. That was my romantic bid for marriage. I felt like I was too old to say I moved somewhere for my boyfriend.
He got a job teaching in D.C., and moving here turned out to be ideal. The job I ended up getting was a promotion from my Minneapolis job. I worked in politics; he got a job teaching. There was no way it could have been better. I worry that this is anti-feminist, but I think about how I’m glad … it’s less stressful on me to be the one who followed. Every time we’ve had something about living here that’s not great, I think, “Oh, thank God I wasn’t the one who dragged him here.” Because the guilt would kill me. He doesn’t feel guilty. He feels just fine. Which is healthy! But I would feel strangely and vaguely responsible for our happiness.
What is your housework division of labor?
It has changed due to the high level of vermin in D.C. Our baselines are different. I’m pretty fanatically clean, and Michel’s baseline is he’s not bothered as much by a lack of cleanliness. I do laundry and ironing. We are pretty gender old-school in that respect. I would say 70-30.
[Ed note: I also spoke to Leah’s husband, Michel, who says: “I would say it’s more like 50/50. Or maybe 60/40. I do dishes, I help with the shopping, I’m the only one that cleans the bathroom. I’m not like a super mechanical guy, but I do some fix-it-up kind of stuff around the house. I’m the one who deals with the DC government, if we need to do something at the DMV.”]
How much time per week do you spend on leisure (hobbies, entertainment, solo exercise)? Does your partner have more or less leisure time than you do?
I’d say 10-15 hours of leisure a week, mostly running and watching TV. He has about the same. We both have issues with workaholism. I leave for work at 8:30 a.m. and I come home around 7 p.m., and then I do a couple hours—an hour or two hours of random work-related emailing—at night. And we both generally work one day on the weekend.
Is there anything, in retrospect, you wish you’d done differently?
My whole 20s (laughs). But actually no. We’re pretty happy. I’m pretty happy.
Correction, Jan. 26, 2015: This post originally said misspelled Leah Drilias’ last name. It also stated that Drilias worked for the State Department. She wanted to work there but never did.