In a recent New York Times article David Leonhardt makes a point that we on this site have been discussing for years: as the gender gap closes in terms of equal pay for equal work, mothers continue to be underemployed and struggling. The market favors those who can put in long, uninterrupted hours, weeks, and years building their careers, and those people tend to be men — whether or not they are parents—and single or childless women.
People who have to be out of the office by 5 sharp to pick up a child from daycare or afterschool are often not looked on as team players. Those who need to take time off when a child has the flu or a “camp” arrangement falls through during spring break can be considered unreliable. And those who stay home for a year or more because they believe this will provide the best foundation for a baby, or because it simply makes more sense economically than paying for a sitter or daycare, often find when they’re ready to return that the field has moved on; that their knowledge and skills have become obsolete; and that their contacts are no longer viable.
I have experienced all of these phenomena. Now that my son is older and fairly independent, and I’m able to reimmerse myself in my work, I hear complaints about other women who aren’t “dedicated” to their jobs. When I point out that a particular woman has competing obligations, the answer is often, “Well, that’s her choice. Nobody made her have children.”
Aside from the fact that that isn’t always true — for example, I used to work in a halfway house for pregnant, homeless teenagers, many of whom had been raped by their foster fathers and then denied medical care—it’s a tradeoff that women are disproportionately forced to make. (Yes, I know that there are many dads who are primary caregivers, especially, it seems, in academia — but this arrangement still is not the norm, and it’s still not reinforced by our culture.) If we want children, we have to be prepared to fall behind in our careers. “You can’t have it all,” we’re told repeatedly. And those of us who choose to have children, obviously, find the rewards of parenthood well worth the sacrifice of some ambition.
But as Leonhardt points out: The last three men nominated to the Supreme Court have all been married and, among them, have seven children. The last three women — Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Harriet Miers (who withdrew) — have all been single and without children.
A snappy opening paragraph does not, of course, make a case. But his example is striking, especially when we consider that these are women with educational and material advantages not available to most of us. If attorneys and judges who are mothers have trouble achieving their vocational potential, what happens to high school graduates?