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Summers: focus on the family

Anne Applebaum’s column in today’s WaPo focuses on the family-work trade-offs that have gotten short shrift in the Summers brouhaha. Here’s my favorite snippet:

Too often the missing component of the debate about the dearth of tenured female scientists, or female chief executive officers, or women in Congress, is the word "family." But Summers did call the work-vs.-family choice the most important problem for women who want tenure: In academia, as in other professions, high-powered employers "expect a large number of hours in the office, they expect a flexibility of schedules to respond to contingency, they expect a continuity of effort through the life cycle, they expect . . . a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women." It isn’t ability or discrimination that hold women up most, in other words, but the impossibility of making a full-time commitment to work in a culture that demands 80-hour weeks, as well as to family in a society unusually obsessed with its children.

We all know this anecdotally, but research confirms it. A British sociologist, Catherine Hakim, recently concluded for example that out of 3,700 working-age women she surveyed, about a third were fully focused on their jobs, about a third were fully focused on their families, and about a third wanted a mix -- meaning, invariably, that they took the sort of job that doesn’t lead to fast-track promotion. If these numbers hold there never will be a 50-50 split between men and women at the highest professional or managerial levels of anything: The ratio will always hover around 2 to 1.

Is this nature or nurture? I don’t see that it matters. What matters is that those women who want to become high achievers can do so, but those who want to stay home some of the time aren’t forced, by economics or social pressure, to take high-pressure jobs.

Discussions - 6 Comments

Gee, I would prefer if my husband stayed at home to change diapers and I would have a career. I guess my hubby would not oppose to that idea as he could waste more time on this blog.

Joe: I knew you would get comments about this post.

For what it’s worth, Anne Applebaum has three small children, and still manages her job at the Post as well as writing Pulitzer-prize winning books (Gulag), so I think she keenly feels the tradeoffs.

Feminism has told women that they can have it all without sacrificing anything - careers, raising children, taking care of the home. Although we expect women to be superwomen, they simply cannot do it all (no one can - obviously not men who have been poor fathers for many decades pursuing wealth with little regard for helping their wives or spend time with their children) and something has got to give. Either their careers suffer, they refuse to accept the responsibility of raising their children and stick their kids in day care and let an institution raise their kids for them, or they just are overworked and overstressed from a lack of sleep and too much responsibility. Women (and men) have a choice to set their priorities - careers, power, money, and advancement, or family and relationship will come first. Of course, there is a balance in there for both men and women, but priorities will be revealed in actions. And, will anyone say on their death bed, looking over their lives, "I wish I had made more money."

People need to slow down, do without the latest gadgets and expensive consumer goods, and decide what is important in their lives.

Thanks, Steve. I should note that I have shared in childcare since the birth of my two children (now 9 and 7), which is one reason why I haven’t devoted 80 hours/week to my career. I currently am responsible for a portion of their home-schooling as well as a portion of the "soccer mom" duties (yesterday, for example, I shuttled my daughter to tumbling at the local Baptist church and my son to swim team practice at the local Jewish Community Center). I also read with both of them, put them to bed (my wife was at a home school coop meeting), and worked with my son on his Pinewood Derby entry. Most of my blogging and other scholarly writing is done at the expense of my sleep, not at the expense of my wife.

I have many friends--male and female--inside and outside the academy who have traded more family time for greater professional success. I’m glad I was around for the first steps and the first words, and I’m glad that my family and my dog miss me on the rare occasions I’m gone.

The original point of feminism was to give women a choice. The suffragettes didn’t want to see women forced to stay at home. They wanted to open up the worlds of work and politics to women, if women chose to pursue them.

So now, women have a choice: Devote oneself completely to work, devote oneself fully to one’s family (as a stay-at-home mother), or find some mix of the two by taking flexible jobs.

As for myself, I’d like the third one. I don’t have children yet, nor am I married. I’m in law school. I realize that my desire to balance work and family means that I’m not going to be a partner in a high-powered firm. That’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. There are opportunity costs for every decision we make; women happen to be keenly aware of the the trade-offs.

Thankfully, there seem to be (at least around me) more young men who place emphasis on family. They don’t want to make partner, either, if it means spending 80-hour weeks at the office and never seeing the wife and children. I hope that as they get married and start families, they will keep this order of priorities. Balancing work and family shouldn’t be solely a woman’s concern.

Dear Woman without a Child yet,
Do you think that you could make a partner in a law firm if you were a man? Are you smart/strong/self-confident/determined enough to make one? Would you want to make a partner if it did not hurt your children? If you said "Yes" to all the above, then why not to eat your cake and keep your cake. Marry somebody who likes domestic bliss and staying at home or wants to be self-employed. I think that the world could be a nicer place with more stay-at-home dads. Maybe they would appreciate all the mundane work women get to do all day. After all, staying at home with a baby does not mean (unfortunately) playing with the baby all day long.

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