Saturday, July 25, 2015

Elite Young Women Now Plan For Career Interruptions. So the New York Times Tells Us.

This NYT story about young women planning more career pauses than their mothers has a couple of weird bits, starting with the headline.  That's because the evidence quoted in the piece is predominantly about very highly educated men and women in elite colleges, and I'd be willing to bet  that few of the mothers of those people went to Harvard Business School,say.

But I get the point, of course, and that is to compare generations of women.  One study Claire Cain Miller, the author of the article, cites is about Harvard MBAs from various generations, both men and women.  Miller writes:

A survey of Harvard Business School alumni, released as part of the school’s new gender initiative, found that 37 percent of millennial women and 42 percent of those already married planned to interrupt their career for family. That compared with 28 percent of Generation X women and 17 percent of baby boomers.

As an aside, I couldn't quite figure out what "interrupt" means from the survey report itself (which doesn't include the questions asked). Does it mean only time taken off from the labor market?  Or does it also include choosing to work part-time or picking a more flexible (but probably less remunerative) job?

Similar numbers for men in those cohorts were 13% for millennial men, and miniscule percentages for Generation X men (4%) and baby boomers (3%).

But what's more important than the comparison between the expectations of,  say, women of the boomer generation and millennial women is to ask whether those expectations materialized.  

The data for the millennials is somewhat meaningless for that, given their young average age.  But note that while only 17% of baby boomer women expected to interrupt their careers for family reasons, 56% actually experienced them.  Likewise, 28% of Generation X expected such interruptions but 43% experienced them.

Thus, unless millennial women and men are much better planners than the men and women of earlier generations, those expectations might not predict very much, in any particular direction*.  It's also worth pointing out that female Harvard MBAs  in the baby boomer and older generations  were often path-breakers who had higher career expectations than the women following their footsteps, and this makes straightforward comparisons between the generations trickier.

Still,  the difference in the percentages of millennial women and men who expect to interrupt their careers for family reasons does not bode well for increasing women in various decision-making rules in business (though the much-increased percentage of millennial men over earlier generations expecting career interruptions may presage future changes in the allocation of childcare duties).  That's because the labor markets currently punish those who interrupt their careers and make future promotions much less likely.

The final weird point is perhaps how those above percentages are used.  For instance, the majority of the millennial women interviewed in that study, 63%, are not expecting to interrupt their careers for family reasons.  But that's not news.

The same study could have been used to analyze many other aspects of gender differences in the experiences of Harvard MBAs, too.  Women are doing quite well in some aspects (many more women are now in line management (70% of those interviewed) rather than in staff positions), not so well in other aspects (women are less satisfied with their careers, on average, than men, and some of that appears directly to reflect those thorny decisions about whose career should come first and who should be responsible for childcare and household chores).

But certain topics are prioritized for wider dissemination.  I can't help feeling that they are those topics which tell us that mothers can safely be left responsible for all child-care and all the opportunity costs that entails while the rest of the society can concentrate on other things.  I also very much doubt that we will see a reversal of this article any time soon.  Yet the data exists, including in the Harvard MBA study I quote here.

So are these young elite women** more realistic about their futures than previous generations of women?  Before trying to answer that question it's good to remind ourselves of the lack of true parental leaves in this country, of the basic hostility of the labor market towards any worker who doesn't seem to put the job first and of the very slow change in traditional gender roles at home.

The lack of flexibility and/or its high costs to the workers ultimately hurts both male and female workers on all income levels, especially on the lowest income levels.  I'm not sure that the best response to that is to tell us how a few elite women have figured how to cope with the facts on their own, unless we also have a more widespread campaign to change the underlying obstacles I've described.

*It could be, of course, that expecting such interruptions makes some women choose so-called mommy track jobs.  That, in itself, could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
**The study covers racial and ethnic differences, but by its very nature its focus is on a very privileged group of men and women.