Achievement and Women: Challenging the Assumptions (with Barbara Richardson)

What role has the desire for achievement played in the lives of successful women? Some social scientists have explained contemporary female achievement patterns as a result of the imprint of early socialization: girls are taught to conform and are discouraged from going as far, or as fast, as boys. Others claims longstanding social and economic inequities stand in the way of women, no matter how strong their desire to succeed. 

In a major new analysis, Debra Kaufman and Barbara Richardson challenge many of the traditional theories and findings of achievement literature. They reexamine the meaning of achievement in both the public and private lives of women, and they pose new questions about the interplay of gender and social inequality—and how these factors affect eventual success.

What is common to most analyses is the assumption that the motive to achieve is irrevocably established in early childhood. Debra and Barbara suggest rather that the process is ongoing and dynamic; far from being fixed at an early age, the achievement drive changes throughout life to reflect social standing; position in the life cycle; and, above all, the different opportunities accorded the individual. The desire to succeed, they argue, is a function of both historic time and individual timing, as women negotiate and renegotiate their roles throughout their lives. 

Achievement and Women begins with an analysis of the intrapsychic process of acquiring and maintaining the motive to achieve. Chapter Two contains a detailed critique of the socialization literature that stresses the relationship of early gender learning to later success. There follows a discussion of the economic impact of industrialization on the sexual division of labor, and a look at the occupational sphere, showing that achievement motivation is often shaped by am individual’s position in the labor market. (This includes an examination of the special problems faced by professional women.)

Integrating psychological and sociological perspectives, Chapter Five examines the way in which achievement is affected by longevity and mobility and by the gradual reduction of fertility. Finally, Chapter Six reviews the current literature on women and the family, marriage, divorce, remarriage, and widowhood.

Organized around the four main stages of the female life cycle, the structure of the book illustrates one of its principal tenets: achievement must be examined as part of a lifelong process. Debra and Barbara have brought the reality of women’s private and public lives back into the evaluation of human performance. Their book provides a new starting point for social scientists attempting to understand the complex relationships between will, talent, and opportunity—for both men and women alike.