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Are successful women avoiding motherhood?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A new study quantifies what working women are giving up for a full professional life.

Julie Lee is an attorney at an international law firm with offices in San Francisco. She graduated from law school eight years ago and has been totally committed to work ever since.

"I would say that it's been more than a full-time job. It's taken priority, pretty much over everything else in my life, including my poor husband."

It's also taken priority over having children. And now, at age 37, she thinks it might be time to try. However, she got the message early on -- it was an "either-or" proposition.

"When I first graduated from law school and was practicing, I pretty much assumed that I would be working full time. There really wouldn't be any flexibility."

In one way at least, Lee represents a striking difference between men and women lawyers. That difference is children.

A new study from Washington & Lee University shows professional women are walking away from motherhood and marriage -- more than the general population.

Law professor Robin Wilson's research makes up a chapter in a new book called "Rethinking Business Management."

She says, while four-fifths of senior male lawyers have children, only two-thirds of senior women do, and there is a similar break from marriage.

She looked at more than 100,000 people with at least a college degree, and found that women lawyers, doctors and MBA's are opting out of marriage at a higher rate than their male counterparts. When they do marry, women professionals have a harder time making it last.

Joan Williams founded the UC Hastings Center for WorkLife law eight years ago. She's made a career of studying the problem of balancing work and life for women and men.

"Professional men are much more likely to be married to homemakers or women who don't have the financial withdrawal to leave, even if they want or need to," says Williams.

Wilson's research show that among women with a law degree, just shy of 6 percent have a stay-at-home spouse, versus nearly 40 percent of male lawyers. For MBA's, nearly 10 percent of women have a spouse at home, compared with 44 percent of men. For MD's it's just over 12 percent for women versus 48 percent for male MD's.

As for having families, we asked Williams, what was wrong with careers where you can't have children.

"There aren't careers where you can't have children. There are careers where women can't have children. So the question is, are we going to design careers so that only men can have them if they want a conventional family life? Or are we going to design careers so that either men or women can have them if they want a conventional family life?"

Williams has written extensively on this. She says, after great gains in the workplace for women in the 1970s, things began to stall in the 1980s.

"So, the first thing is that if we want to continue to design careers that way, we have to openly acknowledge that we're no longer interested in gender equality. The second thing that's wrong with these "all-or-nothing" careers is that men don't want them either," says Williams.

Williams says Gen-X and Gen-X men show signs of being different than their baby-boomer dads. The WorkLife Center hotline is frequently hearing from young men about issues like paternity leave.

Read the Back Story to this report

www.WorkLifeLaw.org

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