The question of what, exactly, holds women back professionally is a complicated one. It tends to involve a lot of impressions, rather than data, which is frustrating for trying to have a rational conversation.
So I’m thrilled to see a study published in Annals of Internal Medicine (hat tip to Vicki!) that attempts to address this question. Looking at hundreds of young researchers who’d received K08 or K23 awards from the NIH (selective, early career awards), the study authors tried to understand these researchers’ duties outside of work. The idea is that by understanding these differences, people might see if extra-work duties might affect people’s careers.
The study has some problems. The researchers attempted to figure out hours devoted to paid work and domestic duties. No surprise, women claimed to spend less time at work and more time on housework and childcare. However, to get at that, the researchers asked people to estimate hours spent on a typical day for domestic duties, and a typical workweek for working. If you’ve read my books, you know there are big problems with this. We are clueless (I don’t know exactly how many hours I devote to things without measuring) and we lie (we give socially acceptable answers — sure I read to my kids for 6 hours a day! And I work 60 hours a week. Trust me!)
But there are some other discoveries that are more interesting. First, the women in this set were not much less likely to be married/partnered than men (88.8 vs 92.5 percent) or to have kids (79.2 vs. 83.2 percent). You can be on the research fast track as a woman and have a family. Indeed, your odds aren’t that much off the hot-shot young male researchers. Good to know.
Second, the majority of these promising young male researchers had wives who work. Only 26.1 percent of the male researchers said their spouse/partner was not working or unemployed. Of those whose wives worked, the majority had spouses who worked full-time. You can be a promising young male researcher and have a spouse with a career. Also good to know
Of course, the numbers here are much different for women. Only 7.2 percent of the female researchers had partners who were not working. And the breakdown of spouses working full-time vs. part-time is also different for men and women. For men, 44.9 percent of spouses worked full-time, and 28.1 percent of spouses worked part-time. For women, these figures were 85.6 and 7.0 percent, respectively.
Because these numbers are so different, the breakdown in who stays home with a sick kid, or if there is a disruption in normal childcare routines, is much different too. For women, 37.5 percent said it was them, 12.9 percent said it was their spouse, and 34.2 percent said they alternated (15.4 percent said “other” — presumably back-up care, relatives, friends, etc.) For men, only 7.3 percent said it was them. Some 46 percent said it was their spouses, and 37.6 percent alternated. Only 4 percent chose other. These differences are driven almost entirely by the employment status of the spouse. Since the vast majority of women had spouses who worked full-time, very few could say automatically that the spouse would cover. Whereas quite a few men could say that. When spouses were employed part-time, 50 percent of both men and women said their partner would cover. When spouses were not employed, the vast majority of both men and women said their partners would cover.
But this situation applies to very few women.
There are several ways to look at this. I’m encouraged to see that relatively high percentages of both men and women alternate with their partners. We certainly hear a lot that men like to be involved in child raising, and as more women pursue “big” careers, these numbers start to bear this out. Of course, given the proportion of men vs. women who can assume that they will never have to cover a disruption, you can see why it might be easier for men to advance than women. When it comes time to jump through the next hoop in a research career, will some promising female researcher have a childcare emergency the week before a major grant proposal is due, and not do as good of a job on it as she could?
Maybe. That’s one reason I like to plan multiple steps ahead when the stakes matter. It’s also a reminder of why back-up care, work-from-home arrangements and the like are good if organizations want to keep women on the fast track. They help everyone, but women may be more likely to be in situations where it really matters. Of course the real benefit probably comes from having friends and family who can help out, as I’m not sure how many families will ever bring a sick kid to a back-up care facility, and knowing an aunt can help out might make you more willing to take stuff on — knowing it will definitely get done no matter what. There’s not much organizations can do in that case. They can’t give you an unemployed cousin who’s bored and doesn’t mind covering at a moment’s notice.
Who deals with childcare disruptions in your house?
Photo: Snow, an occasional disruptor, as snapped by 6-year-old, also an occasional disruptor…