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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Career Coach: More on Women, Majors and Careers
September 13, 2009 - 5:53pm

Two very intelligent and thoughtful responses to my previous post, on women and majors, caused me to reread the post to try to determine where my communication skills had gone off the rails. I still don’t see where I blamed women workers for anything, but one of the problems with writing is that because you know what you mean to say, you assume that that’s what you are saying. So I want to backtrack a bit before letting the topic go.

“Penny” wrote, “The suggestion that women avoid the ‘hard’ fields comes very close to Larry Summers’ remarks that women are underrepresented in science because they just don't like it.”

I think my statement that “women continue to constitute the majority of professionals in fields such as education, the social sciences, arts and humanities, in which salaries remain low” could have been read as attributive rather than descriptive. I did not intend to imply that women enter the lower-paying fields in greater numbers because they are unfit for, or unenthusiastic about, math and hard sciences. If that was how it sounded, I apologize for sloppy writing.

Roberta Adams objected to the implication that women are “occupation deflaters.” She ruled out any comparison between conditions in the US and in China and the former USSR countries because of cultural differences. She cited biological differences as a determinant of some employment gaps: “visual acuity in males as a group is proven to be consistently sharper through temporal and spatial measurements when contrasted to females. Science-based positions in NASA occupied by a majority of males, may well demonstrate the relevance of this statistical determinant. A prevalence of male pilots in military and commercial aviation is similarly formulated.” And she reminded me that secretarial jobs “have always provided entry level employment opportunities and do not necessarily require substantive educational credentials. Due to the preceding reasons, these jobs did not generously compensate either men or women.”

I hesitate to tangle with Roberta Adams. She has won pretty much every dispute we have had since we first met in the fifth grade. However, I don’t think the experiences of women in other cultures is irrelevant, because my point is that no profession is objectively more valuable than others, and across cultures, “women’s work” tends to be less prestigious than that of men, even if “women’s work” would be considered “men’s work” in another country.

Regarding women as “occupation deflaters,” I may not have been clear. Here is what I meant to say:

My understanding is that before typewriters came on the market, in the mid-1800s, secretaries were men, and the position was fairly prestigious and well paid. They did basically what secretaries do now, except without the technological tools. The job was a stepping-stone to higher positions. Then, with the advent of the typewriter, women, particularly factory workers, began to see "typewriting" as a less strenuous way to earn a living. They ended up doing the same job as the male secretaries but as more and more women entered the field, the money and prestige drained out of it.

Secretarial work is quite demanding, in my experience (my mother was a career secretary, and I tried it once and threw the entire office into chaos). It's true that one doesn't need a college degree to perform secretarial duties, but that could be said of plumbing, carpentry, baseball, or any number of other skilled fields that are well paid (and should be). The difference, again, is that when women come to dominate a field, the work it entails becomes seen as "women's work" and therefore devalued.

I hope the “harder” scientists will help me out with the visual-spatial skills issue. I had understood that these differences were now believed to be 1) minimal, 2) not necessarily innate, 3) not particularly relevant to the tasks most scientists are asked to perform, and 4)usually dragged out to justify excluding women from fields they are perfectly competent in. However, this is out of my area of expertise, and correction would be appreciated.

I could be 100% wrong about all this — I usually am if Roberta says so. But that’s one of the joys of blogging, particularly blogging for academics: I get challenged by some really smart people, so I’m getting smarter myself.


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