Problem Defined, but Cause Unknown

Oct 19 2011 Published by under Women in Medicine, Women in Science

So last week I gathered in Chicago with a group of accomplished women who make me feel positively small. Such awesomeness rarely gathers in this large of a group; some of these women even wore snazzier shoes than I did.

We slogged through the work of Vision2020's Second Congress. We all agreed on major strategies for the five national goals, especially the need to communicate problems of inequality. We also agreed that, in many cases, we still need to understand the root causes of inequality. Why do women earn a mere 77 cents for every dollar a man gets, a pay gap that increases with educational level? Why do women leave the workplace before they achieve senior leadership positions?

Over at Academic Women for Equality Now,  I examined the "leaky" pipeline question today. There can no longer be a question that women leave corporate and academic worlds before retirement; the question now becomes the why. Three things have been suggested:

  1. Work-life balance makes mid-career women "choose" to step onto the mommy track, which may also be the elderly parent track
  2. As women evaluate themselves in middle life, they leave to follow their passions
  3. After years of subtle, perhaps unconscious, bias and a few bumps on the glass ceiling, women may take their toys to a sandbox they control

I am sure all of these influence women's choices. I am curious what you believe is the most important reason women leave their career path in mid life. Are there any other reasons they might choose to become a consultant or open a cupcake shop? What have we missed?

12 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am fascinated by your bullet points which emphasize personal choice, that which makes one happy, etc. My view is that men in US culture are tremendously more focused on making a success out of their job, career advancement, fortune and fame rather than "choosing" that which most makes them happy.

  • becca says:

    I'd argue that in many career paths, women don't truly threaten the patriarchal status quo until middle life. Female grad students and postdocs in biosciences face in some cases very different problems than female PIs. So it's not the accumulated papercuts of injustice (3.), so much as the fact you no longer have time to rest and recoup between battles, which have suddenly gotten much uglier (as well as more frequent).

    DM- my view is that men post-hoc rationalize their choices as what they "had" to do to succeed, and women post-hoc rationalize their choices as what they "chose" to do to be happy, but that neither motivation actually plays more than a bit part in the emotional decision making that dominates careers. The most common reason for leaving a job is a bad boss, I see no reason not to suspect that the most common reason for leaving a career is a toxic interpersonal culture.

    TLDR: People are assholes. People are less assholish to younger women because they want to screw them and/or can belittle them.

  • SciWo says:

    Burnout, constant exhaustion & stress* that take toohigh a toll on physical or mental health.

    *From being on the career, mommy, & elder parent track simultaneously.

  • drugmonkey says:


    You fail to appreciate that post hoc *description* of what are largely unconscious influences that shape behavior is not the same as "rationalization".

  • WhizBANG! says:

    I would also argue that many "choices" are not so much. If one member of a couple needs to take on disproportionate amounts of unpaid family responsibilities, it's usually the woman. Biology perhaps, but more likely because she only earns 77% of what the male spouse brings home.
    I do believe the cumulative exhaustion of subtle sexism by midlife leads women out of the corporate world, not because they suddenly find their passion, but because they no longer give a rats ass how others think they should be. You won't advance me like the boys? I will play elsewhere with my own rules. Men are usually finding traditional success by then.
    I like the point that women become threatening professionally in midlife, although we also become less visible as we become less fuckable.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Arguing the philosophy of what represents "free" choice is a distraction, Pascale. becca has rather the right of it, we are all shaped in our choices. Nonetheless we have statements and actions to go by.

    Is it more or less optional to have a child or to refuse to work for money within the confines of majority US culture?

  • Quick question: rather than overall averages, does anyone have solid data on the income disparity within couples?

    • WhizBANG! says:

      I have heard it generally parallels the overall wage gap, although I can't provide a source. Since the wage gap persists throughout all educational levels (indeed increases with more education) unless a professional woman marries a high school graduate, it is likely that he will out-earn her. The wage gap is greatest between ages 45-65 as well, because the early gaps (10% 1 year out of college) get compounded over time.

      • That's kind of what I thought. People generally marry within a similar educational level, right? I'm thinking that might be more significant than has generally been given credit. In most cases, if one partner is earning significantly more than the other, that partner's career is going to be prioritised when deciding where to live, for example, or who will scale back their workload to cope with children. The gap will increase with time on a *household* level, which given that heteronormaty is still, well, the norm, translates to a national level.

        So why is it normally the male within a household who is earning more? Career choices? Discrimination in employment? Mate choice? I know some of these are the same answers as at the nationwide level, but I think the question is different.

  • GenomeGal says:

    I think that 3 creates a situation where women are neither as successful nor as happy as they could be if they went the route of 1 or 2. As a pragmatist, if I can't be successful even when I push myself so hard that I am unhappy I will, as you so eloquently put it, take my toys to a sandbox I control. If 1 or 2 (or both) make me happier, at the end of the day that's all that matters.

  • Another faceless mom-to-be scientist says:

    When I had the sit-down talk with my boss to inform him of my pregnancy, he felt the need to tell me that there is no time for a life outside of my chosen career path, and that life must be organized around work and not vice versa. I was taken aback, as I have never seen anything less than well-intentioned from this person and don't think it was meant to be harmful. I suspect this is just the reflection of the prevailing attitudes in the field: that all else must be sacrificed for work and making choices in life that distract from work, and there are so many people willing to sacrifice all that those of us who make foolish decisions like havin' teh babeez are just second-class job candidates.

    At any rate, I felt a stunning lack of support- the implication was straight up, that I can have the awesome career or the family but not both. Don't get me wrong, I pride myself on kicking ass despite suboptimal conditions. And I'm sure it is not like this universally. But if I happen to spend the rest of my career up against these types of headwinds, my tolerance for bullshit has limits far short of a career worth of that. It might be my choice to leave, but what kind of choice is that?

    • WhizBANG! says:

      It's not really a choice. Most of the BS women face isn't spelled out like that, either. Bosses, in the back of their minds, may choose men for high profile work that advances a career because the woman in question has kids and they believe that she wot want additional workload. It may not even surface to their conscious brain where they could examine and question their assumption. It has been hard wired into their operating system.

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