Understanding the gender gap in science -- a personal perspective

In 1981, the economist Lester C. Thurow wrote an article for the New York Times entitled "Why women are paid less than men." If you have a subscription, you can still read it on the Times web site. My copy comes from an anthology I edited in 1992. Thurow's conclusion:

The decade between 25 and 35 is when men either succeed or fail. It is the decade when lawyers become partners in good firms, when business managers make it onto the "fast track," when academics get tenure at good universities, and when blue collar workers find the job opportunities that will lead to training opportunities and the skills that will generate high earnings.

But the decade between age 25 and 35 is precisely the decade when women are most apt to leave the work force or become part-time workers to have children. When they do, the current system of promotion and skill acquisition will extract an enormous lifetime price.

The year I placed Thurow's essay in my anthology, 1992, is a significant one. Greta and I were both 25, and we had already had our first child. Greta was on track to become a scientist, and I was an up-and-coming textbook editor and writer. Why didn't our child doom Greta to failure?

Greta now has a reputation at Columbia, where she was then a graduate student, as something of a wonder: the rare female student who had a baby (actually, we had a second baby in 1993), then didn't drop out of the program, and did land a tenure-track job. How did she do it? First of all, she really is a wonder: she's one of the most disciplined people I've ever met.

But she was also fortunate that I was willing to be flexible with my career. I quit my job at HarperCollins and worked freelance -- editing, among other things, the anthology in which Thurow's essay appears -- when Jim was a baby. That worked pretty well until he was about six months old and stopped taking so many naps. Eventually we put both of our kids in day care, and that worked for a while, too.

But as both of us advanced in our careers, things began to get more complicated. More travel was involved for both of us, and the kids' school and activity schedules required a lot more parental involvement than just dropping them off at day care. By the year 2000, it simply got to be too much. Neither of us was willing to ask the other to make a career change, but it was increasingly clear that one of us would have to. I decided that it would be me. I sold my half of my publishing service business, and went back to working at home. I would be a part-time writer and part-time stay-at-home dad. I was 33. Greta had just gotten tenure at Davidson College; by Thurow's benchmark, she was a successful scientist, right on schedule.

Sometimes when I tell women about what I've done, they say I'm a hero. I don't think I am -- I'm doing exactly what I want to do. Certainly being a writer isn't easy, and I'm still not as successful as I'd like to be at it, but every time I think about the sacrifices I'd have to make to have a more lucrative career, I decide it isn't worth it. But if I had been a more typical man, who wanted a more typical career, I'm not sure Greta would be the scientist she is today. If I had insisted on staying in New York so I could advance my career in publishing, would Greta have been able to find a tenure-track job there? Would she have even finished graduate school?

A new study (PDF) was released recently which confirms Thurow's 25-year-old argument, applying it specifically to women in science:

Children make it less likely that women in science will advance up the academic job ladder beyond their early post-doctorate years, while both marriage and children increase men's likelihood of advancing.

Jake at Pure Pedantry has an analysis of the study, pointing out that he has never observed active discrimination against women, but also noting that the social structure of the world of science tends to favor men.

Thurow's proposed solution to the problem is to stop closing doors for people at age 35: why should the decade between 25 and 35 be the magical period when careers blossom? Why shouldn't a woman -- or a man -- be able to drop out of the work force for a decade, and then hit the ground running when she returns?

I'm not sure that's possible. After all, I don't really want a high-powered publishing career anymore, with its travel, and its deadlines. I prefer the flexibility of writing when I want to, and dropping everything for a ski trip or a hike when I want to do that. I think taking a decade off really does change a person. From my perspective, what needs to be changed in the system is the automatic assumption that it's the woman who'll drop out of the power career track. Why shouldn't men be equally likely to pare down their careers in order to take care of their family? Why not address the gender gap from the back door, by encouraging men to slow down, instead of asking women -- only women -- to speed up?


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This is a good post. I think that women get hit twice with this problem, though. First, they get hit in the way you're describing -- having kids might make you have to stop/slow your career at just the time when it matters most. This is the biggest hit.

But there is still some systematic sexism in science, too. People see a married young woman (or even worse -- a pregnant woman) interviewing for a job and they think (even subconsciously) "she'll drop out when she has kids." The problem is that it IS subconscious. And with fewer female role-models, women also have a hard time getting through grad school without as many people to relate to.

It is really too bad that society is structured so that men cut back on their careers much less frequently than do women. Though, part of it is biology -- women have to take a mandatory leave for parts of pregnancy and nursing. A lot of couples think, "well, you're already the one on leave...why don't you just stay that way?"

Unfortunately, I have thought of no solution to the problem!

By Katherine (not verified) on 17 Nov 2006 #permalink

Coming from the same PhD institution as Greta, and probaby from the same department, the expectation of a career "slow down" for married/pregnant female grad students was still there almost a decade later. I encountered a very explicit bias against the "Mommy Track" (yes, an actual quote from my Graduate Advisor) in my lab and again during my subsequent postdoc. I was deterred by those opinions, I'll admit it.

Now that scientific training is taking much longer (e.g. two postdoc stints is not uncommon these days), it is almost preferable to have very young children between 25 and 30 -- while in grad school or a friendly postdoc position that has more time flexibility and less administrative (grant-writing) responsibilities. I waited until the end of my second postdoc to have my child, and now I'm a little leary of taking on the committment required for a well-done job search and starting a tenure-track position while my daughter is still in the toddler stage. Add that to the fact that my non-academic husband makes more than any institution's starting academic faculty salary and it is pretty clear which career is more expendable. Luckily for me, there are many insitutions willing to have nontenured research academics hanging around as long as money is floating in.

NIH actually has a special career development award (one of the subtypes of "K" award) for people who have left biomedical research for personal reasons--having kids, etc.--and seek to return.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 18 Nov 2006 #permalink