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Jan. 24, 2005

By Carol T. Christ


After Harvard President Lawrence Summers speculated about why so few women succeed in math and science careers, most of the ensuing controversy focused on his statement about innate genetic differences between men and women. Another reason that President Summers gave for women’s comparatively small representation in those fields—indeed the reason that he assigned most importance—should give us equal occasion for debate. President Summers argued that the statistics reflect the reluctance or inability of women who have children to work 80-hour weeks.

Summers’ remark begs the question of why the 80-hour week should be a requirement for success. Putting aside for the moment the fact that many women do work 80-hour weeks, we must ask why the length of the work week is a Procrustean bed to which people must adapt.

Thirty years ago, Professor Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote a seminal essay about this subject, “Inside the Clockwork of Male Careers.” Hochschild argued that our society’s conception of “the career” has embedded within it assumptions about time that form as powerful an obstacle for women as gender discrimination. In this, she conceived of time not only in a daily sense—the juggling of tasks and responsibilities for which the waking hours of a day never seem sufficient—but in regard to the span of years within which an individual achieves professional success. Jobs that provide entry to the most prestigious professions—including leadership positions in math and science—have notoriously long hours. You prove your worth by the time you invest. The heavy commitment of daily time leads to advancement along a linear career path, on which relative achievement is measured by age—a full professor by 32, a partner by 36, a CEO by 40. Because age so often provides an important measure of success, competition takes the form of working longer and harder than the next person.

The clockwork of Hochschild’s male career depends upon the work of others to care for home and family, whether an assortment of professional services and people, or a traditional wife.

In spite of all of the changes in women’s lives in the past three decades, we have not sufficiently challenged this structure. It is still the case, as President Summers’ remarks illustrate, that the task of balancing work and family is seen as women’s problem—her reluctance or inability to work 80-hour weeks – rather than a difficulty inherent in the career system itself. Until we change this system, we will not have gender equity in the most demanding professions.

Change needs to happen along two lines. First, we must challenge the daily time demands of many professions. We not only need part-time jobs; we need part-time jobs at high levels that allow for professional advancement. It is puzzling that some fields—law, medicine and finance come most readily to mind—have at once greater demand for high level jobs than job opportunities and excessive work hours. Increasing the number of jobs would both create more professional opportunities and improve the quality of employees’ lives. We have to challenge the perverse incentives in our “7-Eleven” culture, in which we as individuals are “open for business” nearly every hour of every day.

Second, we must reexamine the trajectory of careers. A number of fields share the assumption that you must remain singly and consistently engaged in your chosen career to achieve a high level of success. Nonsense. We need to encourage careers in which people can take time off, or work part-time for a period of years, and not sacrifice the opportunity to advance. Borrowing an image from policy analyst Nancy Rankin, if careers are highways, we need at least as many on-ramps as off-ramps.

But policies are not the only things we need to change. At the same time, we must change the stories we tell about peoples’ professional lives. Recent media stories have focused on high-profile women dropping out of the career world in order to raise families. We need to tell stories about the ways women compose lives with different shapes. Madeleine Albright’s recent autobiography, “Madame Secretary,” provides an example. Marrying right after graduation, Albright held two entry-level jobs—as a reporter for a small daily paper and as assistant to the picture editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica—before the arrival of her children. She then did not hold a full-time paying job for 15 years, although she was hardly idle, earning a master’s and a doctorate and volunteering in numerous capacities. Albright was 39 years old before she began the sequence of positions that ultimately led to her becoming secretary of state.

Careers should not be a Hobson’s choice: adapt yourself to the male model or give them up. If the first feminist revolution was about equity and the second feminist revolution was about aspiration, the third is surely about the structure of careers. We need to invent a new model of telling time that keeps time for families as well as careers.

Carol T. Christ is president of Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Consistently ranked among the nation's foremost liberal arts colleges, Smith is the largest undergraduate women’s college in the country.

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