Women’s Work… That’s WHAT, Exactly?

Why are we still talking about women and careers? Why are we still defining women’s work? Wasn’t this covered in the 70s?

The questions are posed by a friend, and without sarcasm. A male friend.

I answer with impatience, wishing we had indeed “covered it” in the 70s.

Maybe because we’re still living with ladder hierarchies and men have fewer obstacles in those structures. Maybe too little has changed, and women expected we would push through in more ways than we have in these 40 years. Maybe because women’s work remains primarily focused on family in society’s psyche.

Maybe because in a bad economy, since women continue to earn 77 cents on the male dollar, the cost-benefit analysis of childcare keeps women at home caring for the kids, or in lower-paying, go-nowhere part-time jobs, putting them at greater financial risk.*

Maybe because barriers remain higher in certain fields than others, the sciences being one – along with executive leadership and government. Maybe because if a woman wants a career, really wants a career – whether it’s paleontology or running a business – she’s still faced with a difficult set of decisions as soon as she has a child. Maybe because her options narrow immediately after, unless she has the means to pay someone for a good amount of help, or another parent steps in as the primary caregiver.

Maybe because men and women must be in this together.

Women in Science, The Atlantic

I turn to the latest article I’ve seen in The Atlantic, which kicks off this conversation and my irritation. I think back to another contentious column on famous female writers with only one child, also appearing in The Atlantic, and I remember thinking it was only common sense.

One child is a lot less chaos than a houseful of children. Parenting involves work. Why is this so difficult to understand?

But this latest data focuses specifically on female scientists in academia, concluding, as its title indicates, that “For Female Scientists, There’s No Good Time to Have Children.” Referring to national data, Nicholas Wolfinger writes:

The married mothers of young children–that is, children too young to attend school–are 35 percent less likely to get tenure-track jobs compared with married fathers of young children. The same women are 33 percent less likely to get jobs compared with unmarried women who aren’t the parents of young children.

Looking to both marital and motherhood status, he points out the need to relocate as well as “publish or perish,” both of which work against taking time off for parenting. The data indicate that men in similar positions are more likely to have the traditional stay-at-home helping spouse and co-parent.

Why do marriage and motherhood have such profound consequences for women’s job market prospects? Married female scientists are almost always in dual-career marriages, while only around half of male faculty have wives who work full-time…

… the rigid academic career structure really doesn’t offer women any good time to have children…

Parental Leave: Fathers Should Take it Too

While parental leave is being provided by some universities, Mr. Hilfiger states that only when men as well as women take advantage of parental leave will the stigma be eased, leading me to conclude that when both sexes stand up and say “family matters, not just career,” then we may be in a position to strike something of a greater balance between our overloaded work lives and the family time we feel equally compelled to attend to.

(On a side note, as I continue reading Ms. Sandberg, I’m wondering how this fits with “leaning in,” given the realities of our child-bearing years, not to mention our divorce rate.)

The Atlantic article continues:

… both men and women must take parental leave and tenure-clock extensions (such is the lesson from Sweden, where use of parental leave expanded when men were urged to make use of it).

These increasingly common practices are good medicine, but they’re not enough. A new mother might get a semester or two off after childbirth, but then what? A bolder policy would be a reversible part-time option for tenure-track faculty. The most recent data we located showed that over half of American corporations let parents go part-time, but less than ten percent of colleges and universities do so.

While the comparison between academia and corporations is not lost on me, I wonder about the contention that more than half of our corporations “let parents go part-time,” and of course that statement doesn’t define the nature of the organizations nor the positions, much less the extent of pay cuts versus commensurate responsibilities, nor the potential loss of benefits and acquisition of relative invisibility which may occur.

Ever stepped into that particular abyss as a working mother?

The way back isn’t impossible, but it’s damn difficult, and adds to the cumulative earnings and opportunity gaps.

Dual Careers: Yours, Mine, and Other Terminology?

Setting those issues aside for another time, it’s worth noting that Mr. Hilfiger’s position on fathers is in concert with that of Scott Behson, who writes on fathers, work, and families. His writing frequently addresses the necessity of fathers taking parental leave – and talking with their spouses about goals and responsibilities. He also writes on the advantages of dual career marriages, including a more egalitarian situation in terms of work and parenting, rather than placing all the eggs in the male bread-winning basket.

Touching on a topic of terminology for a moment, I will reference an excellent article by Brussels-based global talent management consultant Dorothy Dalton, who refers not to dual careers but congruent careers. It’s a concept that feels pragmatic and manageable, though it requires a shift in the way couples interact – heavily dependent on ongoing communication.

In a post I strongly recommend, Ms. Dalton dissects the phrase “successful dual careers,” and noting that “dual” means consisting of two elements or parts, she offers examples of dual career configurations:

… two individuals within a relationship pursuing their own goals… characterised usually by the woman being caught below the glass ceiling while her partner strides purposefully to the top;

… both members of the partnership supporting one career… trailing spouses or stay at home parents then have to deal with a parenting gap;

One career/one job… the woman compromising to accommodate family needs.

Reality Check: Congruent (and Fluid) Careers

All of these are dual career approaches, aren’t they – the last being the traditional mode of one bread-winner and one homemaker/caregiver?

Ms. Dalton suggests a change of language and with it, mindset – “Congruent Career Strategies.” This altered terminology recognizes the growing contemporary understanding that two incomes are a necessity, that our family lives change over time, that “dual” does not reflect the intertwined nature of real life, nor the sharing of domestic responsibilities.

She writes:

… congruent career strategies (meaning when careers are in harmony or alignment)… both careers are considered jointly and equally. Not just that there are two separate elements… Focus might indeed switch between the two parts at different points. The main difference is that this would always be in line with consciously stated and discussed goals and a jointly agreed harmonious vision…

Family, Flexibility, the Future

As I consider the conversation that began my morning, as a male friend asked why we’re still discussing women and careers, I’m reminded that we need to keep talking about women, families, and careers until no one poses the questions he did.


My hope is that eventually it will be “usual” that individual choices, regardless of gender, will extend beyond college and graduate school into the “real world;” it will be accepted that both men and women care about raising families, and are willing to share the work of parenting; sufficient options will exist to support people in a variety of work configurations so they may utilize their education, training, skills, and experience – essential to earning a living and contributing to society – while still having families.

Impossible dream? Maybe. But we have examples of aspects of society to look at in Scandinavia, from which we can learn.

And without dreams, how do we ever make progress?

*See the discussion at “Stay At Home Moms With Kids in School“