To Fast-Track or not to Fast-Track?


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I’d like to talk about a book I read recently, called Mothers on the Fast Track by Mary Anne Mason and her daughter, Eve Mason Ekman. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. When I read for fun, I want my book to be, well, fun. But I felt this was a book I should read, being a mother and a PhD student. The book is about the structural challenges that mothers who are career-driven encounter. It has some interesting statistical information about what happens to women who chose a career as one of four “fast-track” occupations: lawyer, doctor, business executive, and university professors. In all those professions, women receive a roughly equal education (i.e., the gender proportion of PhD graduates, law degree graduates, etc. is about 50-50), but there are only very few women at the top positions in each of these professions. Women, particularly mothers, either drop down from the “fast-track” to a “second tier” job (e.g., sessional instructor or adjunct professor in universities), or they completely drop out and either don’t work at all or work from home as a small business owner (or mommy bloggers).

Why is this happening? The authors give several reasons. One reason is that the fast track requires a lot of hours. They are talking about a 60-hour workweek as being the easiest and most laid-back option. Since a full time, 9 to 5 job is 40 hours a week, you can see how this extra amount of hours you have to put in would make people who also have to care for young children practically unable to compete. This doesn’t apply just for moms, of course, but it seems that moms still tend to do more of the housework and child-care-work when both parents in the family are working full time. Now, parenting is not a job, as beta dad aptly put it, but it does take time. Even if the kids, like ours, are in daycare full day (8 to 5, which is a pretty long day for adults, let alone toddlers), there is still a lot of work in the after hours and on weekends, and if you are doing that work then you are not doing work-work. So basically, if you are willing to not have any life at all outside of your work, you can be a “fast-tracker”.

An interesting piece of information from the book is that, while for women working more hours correlates with less children (on average), the relationship is reverse for men: the more hours a man works, the more children (on average) he has (this is not true for university professors, for some reason). The explanation, per Mason, is that men who work more hours have a higher income, and can financially support a larger family. This ties into my rant about equal pay: apparently the next feminist revolution ought to be happening at home.

The book is somewhat repetitive, but I hear non-fiction books tend to do that. It has to do with constructing an argument, apparently. However, my main problem with it (and this may be just me) is that it makes the “second tier” jobs sound like a failure. I had a strategy talk with my supervisor today (about time, no?), and she argues that if I can find a place that provides me with what I want, then it doesn’t really matter what that place is. So, a part-time teaching job that allows me to build in some research while being affiliated with a higher-education institution would not count, for me, as a “second tier” job or a compromise. It would be doing the smart move and making the system work for me.

What about you? How are you making the system work?


Lay it on me!

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