Mommies' remorse

by Rob Horning

22 November 2006


A recent NBER study finds, unsurprisingly, that the burden of child rearing derails women’s academic careers in the sciences: “Women are less likely to take tenure track positions in science, but the gender gap is entirely explained by fertility decisions.  We find that in science overall, there is no gender difference in promotion to tenure or full professor after controlling for demographic, family, employer and productivity covariates and that in many cases, there is no gender difference in promotion to tenure or full professor even without controlling for covariates.  However, family characteristics have different impacts on women’s and men’s promotion probabilities.  Single women do better at each stage than single men, although this might be due to selection.  Children make it less likely that women in science will advance up the academic job ladder beyond their early post-doctorate years, while both marriage and children increase men’s likelihood of advancing.” The explanation for this seems obvious, as Matt Yglesias points out: structural sexism. “Here, as in much of life, women and men are now allowed to compete on ‘equal’ terms. The terms, however, were set up long ago—by men—before that was the case, operating under the implicit assumption that the competitors would be men who, if they had children, would have wives at home to take care of the children.” Part of this structural sexism would have to be a matter of socialization, through which women are encouraged to be nurturers and to find fulfillment in the drudgery of child rearing—thus girls are invited to see motherhood as the culmination of their existence, as the capstone that will complete them as women. Anyway, as Julian Sanchez explains, we have to address this early socialization if we are unhappy with this outcome—like the libertarian in good standing that he is, Sanchez implicitly argues that women should bear the responsibility of their choice to have children and its career consequences (assuming it’s a choice—the essence of social conservatism is to prevent women from making choices about motherhood. As Amanda Marcotte puts it: “anti-choicers are pretty consistent in their worldview—they believe that women are second to men, that women should be punished for having sex, and that pregnancy is god’s way of enforcing women’s second class status.”) Choice in this instance is its own reward, apparently, and not a burden dumped on women (tough biological break for them) that society should structurally compensate for.

Obviously the “internalized stereotype” account points to an element of potential unfairness in the early socialization of boys and girls, but once the preferences are there, I’m not sure to what extent we should regard outcome differences flowing from them down the line as cases of additional unfairness. Or, more to the point, I don’t know what the remedy could be, given that they are nevertheless now genuine preferences, beyond trying to change our educational policies for the next generation. (Raising the further thorny question what kinds of differences in socialization should be seen as inherently pernicious.) Least ambiguous seems to be the case where average levels of interest in hands-on childrearing just differ biologically across genders—here “fairness” doesn’t seem to enter into it at all, unless we want to consider “maternal instincts” as a kind of unlucky genetic disability for which society should compensate people.

In other words, if we want more women to work as academic scientists, we should discourage them from motherhood early—why? Because motherhood, is hard, distracting, indivisible work, at least in Megan McArdle’s view (emphasis added):

Some things I believe:
1. For most people, the most rewarding jobs have the highest degree of autonomy and cognitive content.
2. Those jobs cannot be successfully divided. A very smart expert working 80 hours a week will be more productive than two equally smart people working forty hours a week. Because their jobs involve facts and ideas linking up in new and unpredictable ways, the more time they spend accumulating facts and ideas, the better they will be at their jobs. And the higher the informational component of the jobs, the trickier the handoff between two people. Increasing worker autonomy increases coordination problems exponentially.
3. Whether or not you think they are overpaid, most people with these jobs are making a very valuable contribution to society.
4. Whether you assign it by gender or not, the “Mommy” role is a real thing, and it is not divisible. The gay couples I know with children have found themselves falling into traditional “Mommy” and “Daddy” roles, and not because they’re uncommitted to overturning traditional gender norms. Becoming a parent means taking charge of another person’s entire life, and this is a difficult job to split between two people: imagine having two personal assistants, with neither one in charge, running your life. The co-ordination costs are large for the parents, and made larger by the fact that highly standardized routine is the best way to inculcate good habits in a child. Splitting the labour between two people does not mean that each of them spends half as much time on childcare.
5. Professional organisations cannot produce the same level of output with a significant number of people working half time. Such arrangements are easily incorporated when they are a few exceptions, but when half the team is unavailable at any given time, the coordination problems mount rapidly. Anyone who’s worked for both European and American firms can vouch for the fact that all that glorious European vacation makes everything take a lot longer in Europe than it does in America, because at any given time someone who has a critical piece of information, or decision-making ability, is missing.
This leads to the following conclusions:
1. Even for parents who outsource most of their childcare, having children will make at least one parent less valuable to their employer.
2. The idea of (in essence) splitting one high-powered job between a couple who then spends the other half of their time on childcare, as a substitute for having one high-powered career and one stay-home spouse, is probably not going to work.
3. Ceteris paribus, couples composed of two professionals will see at least one career suffer from the decision to have children.

Her ultimate conclusion is essentially an endorsement of the status quo: that maybe girls should be socialized for motherhood (it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it), and exceptions like herself will just have to be strong enough to swim against the tide. The alternative would be for your society to die out from attrition, to suffer the decline and fall consigned by demography—if we don’t produce new generations, we have no workers to support us in our old age and no one to carry on our traditions, etc. But her reasons are interesting—motherhood, as an irrevocable decision, may lead to greater happiness, since, as Daniel Gilbert argues, we adapt to accomodate and rationalize choices we can’t reverse. There is presumably no mommy’s remorse. (You can see the seductive elision available to social conservatives here—they can try to conflate irrevocable choices with the eradication of alternatives—shifting the irrevocable decision back to the egg’s original choice of an X chromosome in the fallopian tube.) And motherhood may be a more rewarding job than the ones women typically surrender—again, as a stolid libertarian/economistic thinker, McArdle assumes that if you choose motherhood over your job, it’s because motherhood offers you more utility at the margin. (And maybe it’s lamentably true that women in our current society garner more social recognition for mommying than for scientific inquiry.)

I’m less sure these “choices” women are making aren’t coerced—it’s easy to authorize the coercion along the lines McArdle has delineated—that it’s for the good of society. And I think women end up with the burden of family care not because it’s so fun and superior to office jobs but because men have taken care to rig society in such a way that it falls to women, leveraging advantages held over from pre-capitalist economic formations. (So basically I agree with Yglesias.) Children are necessary, but caring for them involves a lot of self-sacrifice, which capitalist economics assumes doesn’t really exist; rational choice militates against having children, since it’s not clear that the pleasure they may bring will compensate for surrendered wages and costs of upkeep; the magnitude of the reward is not likely to compensate us for the risks taken—unless you a brainwashed by childcentric ideology. Thus women, in order to make such sacrifices, must simply be volunteering to remove themselves from that economy. It seems as though how the inevitable childcare burden is distributed in a society is one of the primary ways it stratifies itself. Also, is it basically true that a growth-oriented capitalist society may come only at the expense of one that truly values and rewards domesticity?

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