Career Fair

by Jonathan Cohn | March 14, 2005

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.

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