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Envisioning a Career Path With Pit Stops


In the month of January alone, researchers concluded that high I.Q. diminishes a woman's chances of getting married; men in demanding jobs prefer to wed women willing to be old-fashioned stay-at-home mothers; men looking for long-term relationships would rather have them with women lower on the job ladder than higher; the number of women who have never had children is rising markedly; and employers do in fact hold working mothers to a higher performance standard and working fathers to a lower one.

Rounding this out with a flourish were the remarks of Harvard University's president, Lawrence H. Summers, who wondered whether women lag behind men in mathematics and science because they were born that way.

Of all these demoralizing tidbits, the one getting the most attention is the suggestion by Dr. Summers that one cannot ignore the role of genetics when women fail to rise through the ranks. That remark certainly rankled me, but something else he reportedly said - largely ignored in the resulting firestorm - troubled me more.

Though there is no exact transcript of the off-the-record meeting in question, Mr. Summers is reported to have said there were fewer women on the math and science faculty at the country's most elite institutions because those jobs simply entail more time and energy than women with children were willing to give. Work less, get less - doesn't sound all that explosive, does it? And that is the problem.

Imagine for a moment that the entire transportation system of the United States - the infrastructure of highways and bridges, the airports or lack thereof - was now exactly as it was at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Adding faster cars and behemoth airplanes would only tax that infrastructure, not modernize it. Similarly, the design of the modern workplace is a product of a long-gone era. Enter in your 20's, work at breakneck speed until your 50's, supervise until your 60's and then retire; that map is an artifact of a time when most workers (read: men) had support staff (read: women) back home.

But a modern woman's life journey (and the life journey of any parents who actually wish to spend time with their children) requires a different road, one with detours and slow lanes and onramps and offramps. She still gets there - maybe slowing in her 30's and sprinting in her 50's. Hers is not the wrong road - unless you assume the archaic infrastructure to be the right one. And, as Dr. Summers's comments illustrate, far too many of us do.

A newsgroup I belong to, one of Ivy-educated women, has been bursting with debate about Dr. Summers's comments since they were first reported by The Boston Globe on Jan. 17. One member wrote: "Let's face it, no matter how equal parenting ever becomes, having children will always be more hindering to a woman's career than a man's." Another member responded: "I disagree with you. It's only more hindering now because that's how our society is set up. It is possible to imagine a society where things could be otherwise."

So let's start imagining. Joan Williams, director of the Program on WorkLife Law at the law school at American University and the author of "Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It" (Oxford University Press, 1999), has been doing so for a long time. The ideal worker, she says, is still defined by single-minded devotion and 24/7 availability.

So of course men tell researchers they want traditional wives - that's arguably their best chance of succeeding in the world as it's now constructed. And of course there is a spike in the percentage of professional women who have opted not to have children. That choice is their own best route. And of course women are hesitant about entering science and mathematics - realms whose structure, because of both entrenched tradition and particularly rigorous research requirements, is described as especially hostile to the timetable of parenting.

To help workers reach different destinations, we must revamp outdated roads - ones that do not work for more than half the working population. It means building a tenure track that does not create a black hole during the prime child-bearing years; it means assuming that child-care leave can last years, not weeks, and that systems will exist to keep workers up to speed while they are away; it means a partnership track not only for the young and tireless but also for the older and wiser; it means scientific research grants that allow for pauses - like maternity leave and child-rearing time.

Some progress has been made toward a family-friendly workplace. "Flextime" and "telecommuting" and "job sharing" have entered the lexicon full force in the last 15 years. But these policies and others like them merely change the structure of a working day, not the structure of a working life. And changing lives must be the ultimate goal.

This column about the intersection of jobs and personal lives appears every other week. E-mail: