Mothers on the Fast Track

How a New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers

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Sample Chapters
Chapter 1: The “Mother Problem”: Up, Out, or Sidelined?
Chapter 7: Second Chances for Mothers on the Fast Track

Press & Articles
San Francisco Chronicle Magazine feature

“It’s 51 percent!” exclaimed my assistant Judi, thrusting new registration figures before my eyes. “Women are 51 percent of our new graduate student class. This makes history!”

This was the year 2000. I had just become the first woman Graduate Dean at the University of California, Berkeley. Berkeley confers more doctorates than any other university in the country and the university’s 11 professional graduate schools cover almost all the professions, from law to public health to journalism to business administration. There are nearly 10,000 students in all.

As I greeted this incoming class of 2,500 new graduate students, more than half of whom were women, I realized that this was a moment of achievement hoped for by the women of my generation who had struggled to open the gates to high-status, male-dominated occupations. Achieving graduate degrees, we believed, would lead to professional and economic equality. We hoped that once a critical mass of women entered the “fast track,” the power balance between men and women would inevitably be achieved in boardrooms, courtrooms, and university classrooms.

I was excited and proud when I announced this historic first to the evenly mixed audience of young graduate men and women. But too soon my enthusiasm was tempered by a familiar reality check at a faculty senate meeting that same afternoon. Looking around the chamber, I saw only a few female faces. As a long-time faculty member, I was accustomed to this dynamic — at Berkeley, only 23% of the tenure-track faculty are women, a number that has been stagnant for about a decade. This is not simply a chronological lag. Last spring, women received 46% of the doctorates granted at Berkeley, but this fall only 26% of the new faculty hires on campus were women. This ‘hiring gap’ of nearly two to one has been the norm now for four decadesi.

Women are even less visible in the administrative power structure. At the first meeting of deans I attended that fall of 2000, I stood out as the only woman at the conference table. “You’re in a box by yourself,” the dean next to me commented, studying the organizational chart of deans. Alas, it was true. Equal student participation in graduate studies is a step forward, but it’s not the occasion to declare victory in academia.

The imbalance between near-gender equity at the beginning of the race towards career success, and male dominance at the finish is still the norm in the university world. In fact, it’s also the norm in law, medicine, and the corporate world. The number of women sitting at a senior partners’ meeting in a major law firm, a chiefs’ meeting in a university hospital, or the top executive conference in a Fortune 500 firm would look very much like our deans’ meeting.

These two trends – women entering graduate and professional schools in record numbers but fewer reaching the top of their professions raise important questions. What happens between school and the boardroom that causes large numbers of women to drop off of this fast track? When does the leak from the pipeline occur? And what solutions will stem the tide? Can mothers remain on the fast track? And if so, what is the secret to their success?

This book will address these questions through our research on careers and family over the lifecourse. Importantly, it will both frame the issues and offer solutions. The qualitative component of our research – interviews with dozens of women pursuing, or sidetracked from, fast track careers – tells the story of how these issues play out in women’s lives. Through both their advice and our research we will offer personal and institutional strategies for helping women succeed as professionals, wives and parents.

The idea for this book came, in part, from my women graduate students who frequently ask me, When is a good time to have a baby? While this question seems straightforward, there are no easy answers and, unfortunately, few studies have tackled this question. We know more about why women don’t succeed than about how they can excel. Arlie Hochschild in The Second Shiftii showed that, in spite of the massive entry of women into full-time employment, working women still bear the burden of family care at home. Ann Crittenden, in The Wages of Motherhoodiii, argued that working mothers lose out on all economic fronts, in large part, because as a society, we don’t value motherhood. And Joan Williams in Unbending Genderiv observed that the inflexible “ideal worker” model of the American workplace discriminates against mothers, undermining the purpose of Title VII. When I examined these issues myself in my earlier book, The Equality Trapv, I suggested that opening the doors to women without changing the structure of the workplace was setting up mothers for failure.

Some women, however, do manage to have it all, juggling both family and fastpaced careers: when do women who stay on the fast track have their children? When do their careers take off? Studies to date have counted the heads of women who have succeeded in a particular profession, but they have not systematically tracked women over their career span. There is little understanding of why some women succeed or what happens to women who drop out. Perhaps only now, a full generation after the major entrance of women into male-dominated professions, can we begin to see clearly how the story of women on the fast track unfolds from university education to retirement.

This question of mothers on the fast track is of great interest to me as someone who is part of a generation that saw major shifts in workplace opportunities for women, was myself able to walk through newly opened doors, and balanced my own juggling act. As I look out over my graduate students, 4000 of them over the years, I know that women’s experiences of the last decades have not dramatically simplified the choices for the future: I’ve watched many a class of excellent women struggle to find their own way. The question is even more pressing for my daughter and co-author, Eve’s, generation. As a 26-year-old recent graduate from a masters program, Eve is part of a group of young women now passing into adulthood without clear models for “how to” have a career and family and a path strewn with obstacles. “When is a good time to have a baby” may not be a question that every 26-year-old thinks to ask herself. But that few young women even consider that the fertility window is often at odds with career ambitions makes finding new pathways and solutions—and soon—for this new generation of mothers of utmost importance.

In my first year as graduate dean, I formed a research team to study how family formation affects the careers of both men and women in academia over the course of their lives. Soon we began to call our pursuit the “Do Babies Matter?” project. The name stuck because it points to the heart of the matter often skirted by those who believe there is equal opportunity in America today. It also touches a nerve for young women entering the fast track who wonder what family compromises they will have to make in order to succeed.

After making some surprising discoveries in the fields of academiavi, we decided to expand our investigation to include other fast-track careers in law, science, medicine, and the corporate world. We believed that if we found similar patterns in these career tracks, we could be fairly certain that we were discovering the shape and challenge of motherhood in all fast-track professions.

Later, at my daughter’s request, we added the media world, her chosen career field. Journalism in all forms — newspaper and magazines, TV, and radio broadcasting — attracts talented, ambitious women. At first, I thought the career track for women in these professions was different from those with which I was more familiar as dean, because a graduate degree is not an entry-level requirement. But I came to understand that the similarities were far more compelling than the differences. The long-term career track in media looks much like the other fast-track professions, with a disproportionate density of women in the lower ranks and only a scattered few at the top.Those women who do reach are far less likely to be married with children.

All of these male-dominated professions now have a significant representation of women, and all have begun to investigate the career paths of female employees over time. Each offers adequate or better data sources for study. The best of these data sets is the Survey of Doctorate Recipients (sponsored largely by the National Science Foundation), which tracks 160,000 PhDs in all disciplines throughout their career until age 76. The American Bar Association and the American Medical Association have also undertaken long-term surveys of the career lives of men and women. Catalyst, a business journal, and a variety of other professional organizations have surveyed men and women in the corporate world. The 2000 Census also offers a rich snapshot of Americans’ experience with family and career.

Our investigation uncovered stunning similarities across these professions and revealed the common problems fast-track professionals face. Initially, we didn’t know from our careful study of numbers and trends exactly why some women dropped out, and why others stayed the course and reached the top. We had framed the problems, but not the solutions. We realized one of the more effective ways to compliment the research was to learn from the experiences of individual women struggling and succeeding with these very issues. One of the core components of this book was based on identifying and interviewing women in fast track professions. Almost all of these interviews were conducted by my daughter, Eve Ekman.

The issues raised in this book aren’t just an academic matter for me Coming of professional age during the women’s movement in the late 1960s, I rode the ups and downs of history through the last third of the 20th century. I was part of the first large wave of women to enter a doctoral program; in my case American history, which is still my passion. When I entered graduate school, an unusual choice for a woman, I considered this accomplishment to be entirely my own. I was unaware that my generous fellowship and very welcoming graduate program were products of the galloping economy of the times, which created a huge growth in higher education and opportunities for PhDs to fill the faculty ranks of burgeoning new state universities.

I was also an unknowing beneficiary of the revolution of the Civil Rights movement that had begun in the 1950s and later, the new feminist movement. In 1966 Betty Friedan, author and activist put down her pen to take to the streets after the success of her surprise bestseller The Feminine Mystique that articulated a sharp critique of 1950s domesticity. Freidan and 15 other professional women founded what became the National Organization for Women (NOW) in a hotel room in 1966. Friedan and Dr. Pauli Murray co-authored NOW’s original Statement of Purpose, which began, “The purpose of NOW is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.”

What brought these women together was gender inequality in the workplace and anger at the lack of enforcement of employment discrimination laws which had been extended to include gender. Most of the male dominated professions like law, medicine, and the corporate world were closed to them. Breaching these enclaves of power was breaking through the “glass ceiling”. In addition, true gender equality, they decided, had to occur both in the workplace and in the home; men and women must share equally in all aspects of domestic life, including childrearing.

But the strong individualistic rhetoric of the feminist movement didn’t always match women’s personal experience or desires. From the beginning of my graduate studies, I was torn between family and career. I had married one month after graduation from college in 1965, as did many of my classmates, and like most women of that era (and many today), I deferred to my husband’s career. His job brought us to California, where the job market for women with newly minted PhDs was still firmly closed. My only options were poorly paid, short-term part-time lecturer positions, which I pursued while completing my degree. Our son Tom was born in 1972, and after a great deal of agonized decision-making, I chose to pursue law — a profession I believed would offer more opportunities and fewer geographical constraints.

I did not do well in the probationary period of law practice, also known as the associate years. My husband and I divorced and I gave up the practice of law after only a year, unable to deal with the demands of work and home. With few friends and no family in the area who could help with childcare I could not manage the high-pressured long hours required to succeed as an associate. At the time I considered leaving the practice of law my personal failure. Since then I have come to understand that women often consider such choices “personal” failures, even when there are no real options. Even mothers with a stable marriage and a strong support system struggle to hold onto their career during these difficult “make or break” years.

For nearly a decade I worked in the “second tier” as a mid-level, non-tenure track academic administrator at a small college. These years gave me breathing space to focus on my family obligations, to marry again, and to welcome a second child, Eve in 1980.

What makes my story different than thousands of other women who have stepped or fallen into the second tier to accommodate their family obligations is that I was given a second chance when my children were older. I was offered an entry–level, tenure-track faculty position at UC Berkeley at age 44. Hiring someone over 40 for an entry level position in any of the fast track professions is unusual. The “resume gap” — the years between the completion of training and the first fast-track job — usually damns the applicant’s resume to the “no interview” pile. In fact, my appointment was first turned down by the central administration because of my age, but a strong dean championed my cause.

I was offered this opportunity because I wrote a book in the late 1980s while working in the second tier. This accomplishment was made possible by a six-month break to accompany my husband on his sabbatical to England. That precious time, with our children in English schools, allowed me to re-think, re-tool and begin a book. Having struggled — and failed — to make it on the fast-track, I had personal insight for my book, The Equality Trap (1988), which expressed concern about encouraging women to run on the fast track without changing the nature of the track to accommodate families. I marshaled my historical and legal knowledge to make the best case I could for how the workplace could be transformed. In retrospect, I suspect I was also trying to make sense of my own failures.

The rare opportunity to return to academia after many years in the second tier was a defining point in my career. I was successful as a new professor; able to deal with the stressful years, the “make or break” years leading to tenure, in large part because I was older and more experienced, and my children were older. Eve, then 9, and Tom, 16, no longer required the exceptional time demands of very early childhood. They were healthy and very engaged in their school and social communities. And my husband Paul Ekman, also a professor, was a true helpmate both emotionally and financially.

My years as a professor, and more recently as graduate dean, have been deeply satisfying, just as I had hoped they would be years ago as a graduate student.

And while my story is exceptional in some ways, it does reflect the critical work-family junctures that often halt or side track women’s professional trajectories.

Our goal is to help finish the task that my generation began when we opened professional doors for women with the hope that they would assume an equal place alongside men in the workplace, and at home. This book offers a roadmap of how careers unfold, what to expect at each stage of life and how best to maneuver each obstacle in order to achieve life goals.

For women like my graduate students, who work very hard to have the chance to contribute in an important way to their chosen profession and still have a family, I hope the material and advice in theses pages will make the road ahead more manageable. This book is also for my male graduate students. Transformative structural changes in the workplace to accommodate family must work for them as well, or they will fail. They must also have the opportunity to become full participants in the raising of their children. Finally, this book is for Eve’s generation: to help young professional women in all professions understand their struggle and inform the choices that they make in order to create the new paradigms for family and career success.

While many women of my generation experience anxiety over the sheer number of career choices we now have, we often forget that just three decades ago the freedom and opportunity to pursue careers in any arena were not a given. In one respect the women of my mother’s generation had it easier: there were clear directions for how they should proceed after graduation. For my mother and her friends, donning a wedding band on the finger soon after accepting a college diploma was the norm and husbands’ careers came first. But for current generations of graduates there is no prescribed path for women once they receive their degree. Rather than plan for these conflicts, young professionals focus their time on developing and pursuing their individual identity and careers. Our generation treasures a prolonged “single” period that lasts well through the 20s and often deep into the 30s. Young women and men focus on their career lives before considering their future family plans. Over the course of the interviews for this book I have had the opportunity to review and consider the paths chosen by the women navigating this freedom and family bind.

None of the successful mothers I interviewed believed that they were superwomen. They believed that most mothers could do as they had done, and they freely shared their strategies. Several common strategies cross generations and professions and include: time management skills, knowing when to say “no,” and controlling “mother guilt.” Almost all of these women experienced remorse (mother guilt) at some point and worried that they were not spending enough time with their children, but they all found ways to manage their anxiety and to pursue their career goals.

These successful women also offered thoughtful suggestions about structural reforms that are in place, or should be in place, which would make their professions more family friendly and the second tier a better option. Many of these structural changes focus on the “make or break” years, roughly the decade between ages 30 and 40 — the period of maximum demand that occurs at the beginning of the fast-track career and that leads to tenure, partnership, or CEO. These are the years in which the time demands of work make parenthood nearly impossible. Yet for women, these are the years that offer their last chance at parenthood. The career clock and the biological clock are on a collision course. It is in “make or break” years that most women drop out of the fast track.

Yet decisions which determine career paths often begin earlier than that, at my age and during the student years when women make choices, often based on little information and few role models, which will determine their career trajectory. And again later in life, those who survive the make or break years must still deal with obstacles to leadership, which often prevent them from shattering the second glass ceiling and achieving the highest positions in their profession. These pioneer women were especially impressive figures to interview; I interviewed them in their sky scraping bay view offices, in former gentlemen’s clubs and in their homes — from a mini-mansion in Oakland to an elegant apartment overlooking Central Park. These women, now poised and powerful, had been on the front lines, battling up to positions that were not considered theirs to occupy. Some were met with overt bias and even ridicule, but more often they faced undercutting and invisibility.

i. National Center for Education Statistics, “IPEDS Salaries, Tenure, and Fringe Benefits of Full-Time Instructional Faculty Survey,” National Center for Education Statistics (2001)
ii. Arlie Hochschild, The Second Shift (New York: Penguin, 2003).
iii. Anne Crittenden,The Price of Motherhood (New York: Owl Books, 2002).
Joan WilliamS, Unbending Gender (New York: Oxford, 2000).
iv. Mary Ann Mason, The Equality Trap (New York: Simon and Schuster,1988).
vi. See Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden. 2002, Do babies matter? The effects of family formation on the lifelong careers of academic men and women. Academe 88(6): 21-27and Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden. 2004, Do babies matter? Part II: Closing the baby gap. Academe, 90(6): 3-7.

Ibid., 74-75