Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Birth Rates and Women's Careers

Yesterday, for a brief moment, two of the top five most emailed stories on Slate commented on each other in an interesting way. One was about the falling birthrate among native born American whites. The other was Female Academics Pay a Heavy Baby Penalty:
Our Berkeley research team has spent more than a decade studying why so many women begin the climb but do not make it to the top of the Ivory Tower: the tenured faculty, full professors, deans, and presidents. The answer turns out to be what you’d expect: Babies matter. Women pay a “baby penalty” over the course of a career in academia—from the tentative graduate school years through the pressure cooker of tenure, the long midcareer march, and finally retirement. . . .

The early years are the most decisive in determining who wins and who loses. Female graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who have babies while students or fellows are more than twice as likely as new fathers or than childless women to turn away from an academic research career. They receive little or no childbirth support from the university and often a great deal of discouragement from their mentors. . . . .

Before even applying for the first tenure-track job, many women with children have already decided to drop out of the race. They have perceived a tenure-track job as being incompatible with having children. . . .

What makes academia so difficult for mothers? In large part it is because it is a rigid lockstep career track that does not allow for time out and which puts the greatest pressure on its aspirants in the critical early years. Most Ph.D.s are achieved and tenure granted in the critical decade between 30 and 40, the “make or break decade” as we call it. It is also the decade in which women have children, if they have them at all. Low fertility is not a coincidence among tenured women; they believed they must wait to get tenure (average age around 40) before beginning a family. The university does little to provide a more flexible career path or to put in place family responsive programs that would make it possible to balance work with babies.
What is a conservative to do? Most middle class women want to work and many are very dedicated to their careers. So if you want middle class women to have more babies, you have to help them combine work with motherhood. How? Well, you might try the sort of measures European countries use, things like requiring employers to provide paid maternity leave and to count that time toward seniority, requiring universities to give female professors more time to earn tenure, requiring that male and female employees be promoted at the same rate, or even paying large subsidies to parents. In other words, use the power of the government to force family-friendly social change.

But if that sort of state interference in the workplace makes you squeamish, what can you do to combat the steady fall in birth rates among educated women? European pro-parenthood policies may not work very well, but the evidence suggests that they work at least a little. In a libertarian world, in which the cost of raising and educating children is born mostly by the families and employers cut parents no slack, the birth rate will continue to fall rapidly and the population will get older and older. Do conservatives care more about keeping government small or favoring a family-centered society?

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