Women lead nearly half of US households, yet still lag behind in science

The role of women in the workplace is a perennial topic of discussion as we collectively aspire to the ideal of gender equality. I’d like to juxtapose two interesting trends about women in the US that seem to be much-discussed this year.  The first is a study released this week by the Pew Research Center that has been grabbing headlines with the finding that 40% of households with children under the age of 18 have women as the top earner.  These so-called “breadwinner moms” break down into two distinct categories: those who out-earn their husbands, and those who are single parents. The former (37%) are affluent, well-educated and mostly white, while the latter (67%) tend to earn less, are less likely to be college educated, and mostly non-white.

Now let those numbers stew for a moment, while you consider another set of facts.

The US National Science Foundation finds that, while women earn around 50% of the doctorates in science and engineering, they comprise only 21% and 5% of full professors in science and engineering respectively, as reported in a special section of the journal Nature earlier this year.

Let’s combine these two pictures.

Nearly 3 out of 4 adults surveyed in the Pew study said the growing number of working mothers made it harder for families to raise children.  In science, the overlap between a woman’s reproductive years and those critical to career advancement (graduate school, postdoc) are responsible for a dramatic decline in the number of women who even apply for faculty positions. Women were much more likely than men to decide against careers as research faculty if they planned to have children, or already had them, during their postdoc (28-41% vs. 17%-20% respectively). From personal observation, the worst scenario seems to be for academic couples who often have to struggle to find jobs in the same city let alone the same institution (while dual-hires do occur, it’s far from guaranteed however family-friendly the institution). Meanwhile, the gender gap in science is pervasive and grows as one looks at successively higher levels: women receive less funding on average, are much less likely to be asked to serve on scientific advisory boards, and less likely to hold positions at successively higher ranks within academia. Is it any surprise then that many women simply opt out, or are forced to?

What gives?

Well, of course it seems that women have to sail against headwinds of bias that are encultured in both genders at a very young age that positions of leadership and power are masculin. Scientists of both sexes tend to judge females more harshly than males (where do you stand? Try the Implicit Association Test). This applies both inside and outside science, since the flipside of the Pew data is that men are still by and large the dominant wage earners (how many single dads out there and how much are they earning, I’d like to know?). If you do the math, it means that in households with kids under the age of 18 just under 15% of them are headed up by women who are out-earning their husbands despite the increasing fraction that are getting college or even graduate degrees.  This is not news.

The less examined issue is the model of “success” pursued by the US.

What does it take to be “successful” in science or anything else? What does it take to be in that 15%? If Sheryl Sandberg is your role model, i.e. someone who delights in answering emails at 2 a.m. and being on the go 24-7, then we’re in trouble.  Because the imbalance is not just about women, it’s about our priorities in life.  Too often, in the US you are expected to “work hard and play hard,” but what isn’t mentioned is that when you work hard, someone else has to pick up the slack. What these numbers are telling me is that it’s still women that are doing the picking up.  This is because it is still more socially acceptable – and indeed expected – that men pursue professional aspirations while women tend to household matters, regardless of whether they both work.  Clearly, in a workplace that is blind to the family circumstances of individuals, one expects that a household in which one partner is wholly devoted to their career and the other chooses to be devoted to raising a family will be more efficient in advancing the professional aspirations of that single professional, than a household in which both must work out compromises in terms of career and family time (or geographic location). Although it doesn’t matter in principal which sex does what, these data and what I actively see around me suggest that it’s still predominantly women opting to dial back on their careers.

Clearly, the implicit difficulty of balancing family and career stem from the fact that there is an overwhelming social pressure to devote one’s life to one’s career in order to succeed, and there are very few voices advocating for a more holistic understanding of success for either women OR men. This is why there is a certain degree of backlash against feminism classically construed. Why is it that we’re debating whether women can have it all, without asking men the same? How do men feel about working manic hours and sacrificing time with their children in order to make the next deadline, prepare for the next meeting, or meet whatever yardstick of professional achievement is placed before them? It’s time to recognize what constitutes a good enough life.

In science as in anything else, it’s also easy to see that a competitive environment selects for a certain kind of personality, male or female. The words “energetic,” “assertive,” and “dominating” come to mind. The same attributes likely influence the outcomes of decisions in households with dual-career couples. To be sure there are women with these attributes, but as I look around my peers I must say they are not in the majority. It’s not that women have simply to be asked to join the alpha male success club, but that the nature of the club needs changing. Gender-based social norms run deep, and they are self-reinforcing.

Institutionalizing gender equality means providing paternity as well as maternity leave. And in science, it means recognizing that people of a certain age are mature adults regardless of where they are in their careers – i.e. male and female postdocs should be permitted to fulfill family duties without suffering more than those who have no such cares. Family-friendly policies such as on-site daycare centers and maternity or paternity leave in any workplace are necessary steps to balancing the demands of work and family but they only go so far.


Advancing women, societally, means that we recalibrate our expectations of both sexes.

 

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