New Insights into the Mommy Track, Part 2

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

This is another blog about women's career issues, prompted in part by my recent research for Quick Nontraditional Careers Guide: Eight Steps for Defying Traditional Gender Roles, which will be published in June. Last week I wrote about a study that found high-skill women suffer a greater wage impact from the mommy track than do low-skill women. This week I’d like to discuss another study, this one showing that highly educated women face different levels of wage damage from the mommy track depending on their occupation.

Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, economists at Harvard, in “The Career Cost of Family”(PDF), find that the earnings penalty of the mommy track is decreasing in many high-end careers. Specifically, many of these careers, especially in health care, have become more family-friendly than they were in the past, perhaps because of the increased presence of women in them. Corporate and financial occupations, on the other hand, are not progressing as rapidly.

Like last week’s study, this one is based on longitudinal research. In this case, the subjects were a very high-powered group: graduates of Harvard College between 1969 and 1992. The study found that although women are increasing their presence in high-level occupations, they are tending to choose professions and specializations within professions that offer the greatest flexibility of work hours.

The really interesting part of the report, called “Occupational Vignettes,” explains how and why women are moving into certain professions and specializations.

Among the fields of medicine, women account for 42 percent of workers under 45 years of age. In the specializations ob-gyn, pediatrics, dermatology, child psychology, and medical genetics, they account for more than half of all practitioners. “They exceed their average of 42 percent but are less than 50 percent in allergy and immunology, family practice, psychiatry, pathology, public health, general preventive medicine, internal medicine, and forensic pathology.” The general trend is that women are opting for specializations with fewer regularly occurring on-call, emergency, or night hours, and they’re avoiding those with the longest residency or fellowship requirements.

One of the most dramatic increases in female participation has been among veterinarians. In the 2007–2008 academic year, 77 percent of the DVM degrees went to women. Why? “Compelling evidence suggests that the increasing ability of many veterinarians to schedule their hours and reduce or eliminate on-call, night, and weekend hours has been a contributory factor.” Regional veterinary hospitals and emergency centers are serving this function, lifting the burden from veterinary practices. “About 40 percent of female veterinarians in private practice in 2007 (versus 27 percent of male veterinarians) stated that they put in no emergency hours.” It is also becoming more commonplace for veterinarians in a private practice to be employees rather than partners, an arrangement that encourages greater job flexibility.

Women with MBAs have a very different experience. The researchers find that these women “have the lowest labor force participation rates, the longest periods of job interruption when they have children, and forfeit the largest fraction of their income when they take time off.” Although they start out with pay equal to that of male MBAs, a decade later they are earning 55 percent of the men’s earnings. The researchers found three roughly equal factors that account for the bulk of the difference: different training prior to receipt of the MBA (e.g., fewer courses in finance), career interruptions (usually the mommy track), and shorter work hours (also usually the mommy track). Those MBA mothers with high-earning husbands are most likely to quit working or opt for self-employment; the others tend to cut back on work hours. The reduction in participation and work hours is actually greater three or four years after the first birth than in the first couple of years. “It is as if some MBA moms try to stay in the fast lane but ultimately find it is unworkable.”

In pharmacy, women account for almost 70 percent of new degree recipients. Like veterinarians, pharmacists have shifted from being stakeholders in a business (more than 35 percent were self-employed in 1970) to being employees (0.6 percent were self-employed in 2008). Optometry has made the same shift, and women are now 66 percent of new degree recipients.

The report ends with a chart (below) that shows the 87 highest-paid occupations from 2006–2008, with different shapes representing different industries. (The chart is based on data from the Current Population Survey.) Horizontally, the further to the right, the higher the earnings. Vertically, the further below the zero line (which is near the top), the greater the earnings gap between men and women. You’ll note that, as a group, the business occupations (red squares) have the biggest gap.

Note also that the technology occupations (green triangles) have the smallest gap. As an explanation, the authors of the report speculate, “One possibility is that the technology occupations are so recent that their work organizations are structured to deal better with a labor force that needs greater work flexibility.” Regardless of the reason, this small gap is one more reason why women should consider STEM careers. For more on this topic, see Quick STEM Careers Guide: Four Steps to a Great Job in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math, due out next month.


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