Career Fair

By

In my house, there is no debate about which gender is better at math
and science. Clearly the women are. I have an undergraduate degree
in government and emotional scars from my high school calculus
course. My wife has a bachelor's degree in applied mathematics, a
doctorate in operations research, and a tenure-track job at one of
the nation's top universities. I would like to think that crafting
the sentences you are now reading takes some intelligence. But
don't expect me to solve discrete optimization problems using
binary variables that involve multiple simultaneous decisions. That
is what my wife does in her work. Or so people tell me.On the other hand, I hope that I'm an above-average father. With the
help of an understanding employer, I've modified my professional
life to spend more time with my two kids--working mostly from home,
reducing my hours, and moving from a steady stream of
deadline-oriented work to projects that allow me more control over
my schedule. I've passed up some financial and professional
opportunities, but I was also on hand to see my boys wobble through
their first steps and drool through their first cookies. No regrets
here. Besides, women have been adjusting their work lives to their
family's needs for decades, just as my wife still does today. I
guess you could say I'm just catching up.

But perhaps there's more catching up to do. On the whole, women are
still far more likely than men to subordinate their careers to
family life, either by taking time away from their jobs or by
shifting into less demanding work. Fast- forward ten or 20 years,
and most of these women have not gone as far as men who began their
careers at similar times--if, indeed, these women are still in the
workforce at all. This phenomenon, more than overt discrimination
or intelligence disparities, is likely the main reason why women's
pay and stature lag in some high-powered professions. Thus the
dilemma that Harvard President Lawrence Summers raised, albeit
clumsily, a few weeks ago: Should society try to mitigate this
effect?

You don't have to be a Neanderthal to think that something about
having two X chromosomes may naturally predispose women toward
taking care of family. If humans indeed have that sort of genetic
hard-wiring, then even a truly nondiscriminatory workplace would
still have more men than women. But it's hard to know where
genetics stop and social expectations begin. Are men who choose
work over family simply following chromosomal orders? Or are they
taking advantage of cultural standards that allow them to shirk
parenting responsibilities? Nor is it even clear that biology
should be destiny. After all, it is one thing to accept the idea of
women, as a group, preferring a different work-family balance than
men. It is quite another thing to force women, as individuals, to
face harsher trade-offs in life simply because of biology. And that
is precisely what happens--as the economist Brad DeLong recently
observed--in jobs that are "structured as a tournament, in which
the big prizes go to those willing to work the hardest and the
smartest from their mid-twenties to their late thirties." For the
most part, a man in this tournament can delay parenting until his
forties or seek a wife who will do the parenting largely on her
own. But a woman who postpones childbearing past her late thirties
risks a troubled pregnancy or none at all. And, while she's welcome
to seek a Mr. Mom, she's unlikely to find one.

Public policy can go a fair way toward making the choices facing
working women less stark by expanding child care and offering paid
family leave, just as most of Europe does. Large employers can also
take action on their own, granting workers flexibility without
ending opportunities for advancement. Such reforms have not just a
moral logic, but a practical one, too, given the talent squandered
when you marginalize half the population. Among other things, it's
not as if a woman who works fewer hours in her thirties cannot
contribute more substantially to her field in her forties and
beyond. As another well-respected economist explained a few years
ago, "Helping parents with child care is not only good for
families, it is also good for the economy, because it helps all to
participate in the workforce to the full extent of their abilities
and wishes."

The economist who said that was none other than Lawrence Summers,
back when he was serving in the Clinton administration. This
shouldn't be surprising. Liberals have always been the ones
championing such ideas, because so many conservatives have qualms
with women working outside the home, government regulating the
workplace, or both. But liberals have also been known to talk about
work-family issues too exclusively in these terms, as if the proper
combination of subsidies, regulations, and affirmative action will
magically produce gender parity at work. There are bound to be some
jobs where flexibility and success really are at odds. A physician
determined to manage a Little League team might not be available
when critically ill patients need emergency surgery; a scientist
who can't commit to more than 35 hours a week might fall hopelessly
behind in a field where the pace of discovery is too fast.

Determined families with sufficient financial resources can usually
find ways to make child care fit even these demanding work
schedules. But, just because you can schedule kids around your work
doesn't mean you always should. Here, it seems, the right sometimes
makes more sense than the left, since conservatives are far more
willing to admit that outsourcing child care can have downsides.
So, rather than trying to eliminate the career compromises that
come with a family, which will never happen completely, an
enlightened society should also try to make sure that men do more
of the compromising. And, while public policy or employer attitudes
can encourage such behavior, ultimately the most effective pressure
to change will come not from politics but from culture, via
messages carried by the media, role models, friends, and family. It
would be nice to think that more men would reach this conclusion on
their own. But, let's face it: Many of us just aren't that bright.

Loading Related Articles...
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.