The Double Shift: Managing Careers and Families

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Ninety-four hours a week: Just thinking about this number—the time devoted to professional work, housework, and caregiving by the average woman with children on the faculty at UC-Berkeley—is enough to make one cry sabbatical. And it’s 13 hours more than what her male counterpart spent on the same tasks. 

“This tells a very tiring story,” says Dr. Mary Ann Mason, the professor of social welfare and dean of the graduate division at Berkeley who gathered the numbers and presented them at a Penn conference titled, “‘Mommies’ and ‘Daddies’ on the Fast Track: Success of Parents in Demanding Professions.” “I can see why graduate students may say, ‘I don’t want to go [into academe]. It’s not necessarily a life I can sustain.’”

Pointing out the pressures borne by working parents—and envisioning ways to make academics, law, business, medicine, and other professions more equitable and family-friendly—was the subject of a conference sponsored by the Alice Paul Center for Research on Women and Gender, part of a series of events marking 30 years of women’s studies at Penn. 

Keynote speaker Claudia Goldin, the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard and a former faculty member at Penn, described the evolution of women’s career and family lives over the past 100 years. Women who graduated from college at the turn of the last century up until World War I made a clear choice between having a family or having a career, Goldin said. Those who chose the latter path “spoke of their careers as teachers, librarians, social workers, and nurses as higher callings. A career, in fact, liberated them from the constraints of marriage and household duties. This was the opt-out for them.” The women who graduated in later decades pursued jobs, then families; families, then jobs; and careers, then families —with mixed results.

About 15 or 20 years ago, Goldin began to notice college women talk about expecting to have both a career and family at the same time. “It sounded like career and family. These were not three words, but one word. They spoke as if timing was not an issue, or simply was not going to be an issue.”

It’s too early to tell what percentage of the group that graduated between 1980 and 1990 has managed to have it all. But it is clear that timing has been a struggle for many working mothers, whether accumulating billable hours in the quest to make partner at the law firm or managing all the duties of an assistant professor.

A sore point at the conference was “The Opt-Out Revolution,” a recent article in The New York Times Magazine by Lisa Belkin, describing an exodus of women from the high-powered career track to full-time motherhood. The women who were quoted voiced few regrets and felt they were making the best decisions for themselves and their families. But according to Pamela Stone, professor of sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at City University of New York, the article overstated the magnitude of the job exodus and failed to shed full light on the reasons behind their actions.

In her own study Stone interviewed 43 women who gave up their high-powered jobs to stay home with their children full-time. Contrary to the impression given by Belkin, Stone said, “This was a very difficult decision for these women. They were extraordinarily conflicted about this.” 

One reason for job flight was an office culture where long hours were the norm and part-time work was either not permitted or was stigmatized. “I never envisioned myself not working,” one study participant said. “I just felt like I’d become a nobody if I quit. Well, I was a nobody working [part-time], too. So it was sort of, ‘Which nobody do you want to be?’”

Another factor was the lack of help for what Stone calls the “second shift.” These professional women’s husbands worked long hours themselves and weren’t around to help support them in child-rearing and simply creating a sense of “a family unit.”

One woman who quit her job said, “It was nice having a choice, but it wasn’t the right thing to do at this time in my life.” According to Stone, “they often used ‘choice’ rhetoric in framing their position, but with their husbands gone 50 percent of the time, it’s not clear how much choice there is.”

Dr. Heidi Hartmann, professor of economics at the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research, wouldn’t let mothers or fathers off the hook. “Even though the rhetoric of the women’s movement supports the choice of women to stay home, I think most of us view it as a waste, especially for highly educated women” and “shouldn’t make it a socially acceptable alternative,” Hartmann said. 

Dr. Amy Wax, a professor at Penn’s law school, found Hartmann’s words too harsh. “I don’t think there is any benefit to being judgmental,” she said. “Tolerance is in order here. Ultimately, working moms and stay-at-home moms have to make common cause on a whole set of issues.”

Mary Ann Mason drew two figures on the board—ovals and rectangles that represent heads, necks, and torsos.

“As you can see, men have a big head and a tiny neck, and women are rather thick-necked,” she said, adding, “Women do have something of a body problem, a bulge at the hips.”

Mason wasn’t critiquing physiques. She was comparing the number of men versus women who comprise tenure-track faculty, second-tier faculty, and clerical staff at her institution. Only 325 women are on the tenure track, versus 987 men. Women dominate the second level, with 256 working as lecturers, adjuncts, and in other academic non-tenure track positions compared to 130 men. And the clerical staff is composed of many more women than men. 

That “body problem” is perpetuated in the differences between mothers and fathers in the academy. Men who have early babies—within five years after earning their Ph.D.s—are 38 percent more likely to receive tenure than women with early babies.

But tenure outcome isn’t the only measure that should be sought when studying equity, Mason said. “We should turn the study on its head and look at the effects of career on family outcome.” Only 44 percent of women who are tenured within 12 years of earning their Ph.D. have children, compared to 70 percent of men. Women faculty were more than twice as likely as men faculty to indicate they had fewer children than they wanted. 

Working with the Sloan Foundation, Mason has proposed some family-friendly policies for Berkeley, including a flexible part-time option for tenure-track faculty with substantial caregiving responsibilities; emergency back-up childcare programs; and postdoctoral fellowships to help parents who have taken time off reenter the academy.

“The only way to sell this to the whole faculty, not just to the mothers, is to talk about this as a major recruitment tool for the best and brightest candidates,” she said. “We should be the model for all professions, not the lag behind.”

Every year Penn’s Amy Wax gives her students a questionnaire asking if they would give up some income in their first law jobs—dropping down from, say $150,000 a year to $90,000 a year—in exchange for working 20 percent fewer hours. “The answer is yes from almost everyone,” she says. “And yet we don’t see that happening.” Wax argues that there are cost-efficiencies to be gained in a family-friendly firm, where all employees work reasonable hours. The challenge is assembling a group of people who share these preferences, “so we don’t get people jumping ahead to out-compete.”

The implications for both men and women were highlighted by a University of Michigan study, which found that law-firm associates who took time out or worked part time to raise children were less likely to make partner. For men, working part time or taking a leave to care for children carried significant penalties in the bid for partnership—more so than it did for women, said Mary Corcoran, professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at Michigan. “When we did our simulations and made the man take one year off from work, we found the likelihood of him becoming partner was zero.”


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