Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Mrs. Degree

The New York Times gives us a little article with the title: Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood. These types of articles are a recurring event, happening every few years since the 1970's: the story how highly educated women are deciding not to work, after all, or not to work full-time. The story is also always written as a purely private decision, astonishingly pristine in having nothing to do with the way the labor market is structured or the fact that it is women who are expected to care for the children, or indeed having nothing to do with anything else except the young women themselves. They just wake up one morning having decided that they don't want to be lawyers or physicians or economists, after all.

It is very hard to judge the relevancy or validity of such stories because of this recurrent appearance. It can't always be true that suddenly women are acting differently than they have just done, and mostly these stories appear to be planted to have the newspaper's circulation go up.

So I am hesitant to interpret this newest wave of the same story as indicative of actual change. In fact, if you read the article carefully the fact that this is not a change in actual behavior is fairly obvious. For example:

For most of the young women who responded to e-mail questions, a major factor shaping their attitudes seemed to be their experience with their own mothers, about three out of five of whom did not work at all, took several years off or worked only part time.

Then contrast this to the survey results the article talks about, a survey about two Ivy League colleges, which found that sixty percent of the interviewed freshmen and seniors (all women) planned to take at least some time off or to work part-time. Exactly the same percentage as with the mothers' cohort!

Then you might point out, if you are a sharp-eyed reader, that this means that forty percent of those interviewed don't plan to take any time off at all, and that the time others plan to take off may not amount to much more than a few years. In fact, if you read the article really carefully you will find that seventy percent plan to continue working either full-time or part-time, and that among the remaining thirty percent some, at least, are only planning a short career-interruption.

Just think about this. Then think about the title of the piece: Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood. Hmmmmmm.

And then think about this bit:

Yet the likelihood that so many young women plan to opt out of high-powered careers presents a conundrum.

"It really does raise this question for all of us and for the country: when we work so hard to open academics and other opportunities for women, what kind of return do we expect to get for that?" said Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of undergraduate admissions at Harvard, who served as dean for coeducation in the late 1970's and early 1980's.

It is a complicated issue and one that most schools have not addressed. The women they are counting on to lead society are likely to marry men who will make enough money to give them a real choice about whether to be full-time mothers, unlike those women who must work out of economic necessity.

It is less than clear what universities should, or could, do about it. For one, a person's expectations at age 18 are less than perfect predictors of their life choices 10 years later. And in any case, admissions officers are not likely to ask applicants whether they plan to become stay-at-home moms.

I can almost hear the gently purring threat there: We should weed out those applicants who plan to take any time off during their working lives, because they are going to waste the education and our investments in it. Because this would be hard to do based on what naive eighteen-year old students say, let's just use sex as a proxy and weed out most women.

This is an argument that was once used to set maximum quotas on women in medical schools. It was believed that the expensive training, federally subsidized to boot, should be only available for a few women because allowing women to enter freely would fritter away the expensive education on people who will never wield the scalpel. Similar arguments are brought out all the time to "explain" why there are so few women in whatever area of the society you might look at.

We don't do this with men. Men are brought up to expect that they work full-time all their lives, that they are somehow not capable of taking breaks and staying with their children, and we don't even ask young men entering college about their home-family balance plans. Because it is not seen as their problem. Or their choice, but it is a choice with a very large price tag in terms of lost retirement income, for example.

I probably shouldn't have written about this story, given that it is a nonstory as I have demonstrated above. But I find it annoying how these stories are written, the woman deciding on her very own or at most thinking about her mother's role in the family and wondering if she should replicate it or not. The writer could have mentioned how the media has been full of articles and books discouraging women by writing about the horrible difficulties of combining career and family (but only for women) and of articles and books about the solution of opting out (but only for women). The writer could have mentioned how the maternity leave is still about three months long and how very few companies allow highly educated people to work less than eighty hours a week. Or stressed a little more the 24/7 upbringing of girls into the care-giving role in this country and the almost total lack of societal support for this.

But it is more fun to just make up a story and go and interview some people (mostly those who are not planning to work full-time) and then to suggest that this is a really severe problem for the elite colleges, one having its roots in the young women themselves. Though it's not really a problem at all because the young women themselves don't see it that way, perhaps because at eighteen thirty is really, really old and most of ones life will take place before that age! Perhaps because they are mostly eighteen and have not spent very much time thinking about the issues and absolutely no time at all trying to live them. Maybe next time they should interview those fifty-something educated women who have actually lived through this all, or even some women who don't have the luxury of deciding on anything but full-time work without any career considerations. Though naturally this would be a lot less fun and interesting to debate.
Thanks to sb for the link.