Economic snapshot | Retirement

Do career women trade away motherhood?

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A weekly presentation of downloadable charts and short analyses designed to graphically illustrate important economic issues. Updated every Wednesday.

Snapshot for June 12, 2002.

Do career women trade away motherhood?

Sylvia Hewlett’s latest book, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, claims to document how “high-achieving” women are missing out on having children. Hewlett defines high-achieving women as those who work full time and either earn more than $55,000 per year or have a professional degree, such as JD, MD, PhD, or MBA. Hewlett asserts that high-achieving professional women neglect to create time for children, focusing instead on their careers. Her survey, the National Parenting Study, finds that, among high-achieving career women and men between the ages of 28-40, the women are far less likely to marry and have children. Among the women, 40% have children and 66% are married, whereas 53% of men have children and 80% are married.

There are two problems with this analysis. First, Hewlett compares high-achieving women to high-achieving men, not high-achieving women to other working women. If the issue is whether high-achieving women are giving up children for their careers, we need to understand how they compare to other working women. Second, since many high-achieving women have graduate degrees, they may delay marriage and motherhood until after their education is complete and they are settled into adulthood, which may not be until age 30 or after. Thus, a better indicator would be to compare high-achieving women who are in their mid- to late thirties to other working women.

Figure A: Marital and parental tatus among high-achieving and all other working women, ages 28-35

Figure B: Marital and parental status among high-achieving and all other working women, ages 36-40

Analysis using data from the March Supplement of the Current Population Survey for 2000 and 2001 confirms that high-achieving women are not dramatically different from other lower-income working women in their late 30s. Figures A and B compare the likelihood that high-achieving and other working women between ages 28-35 and ages 36-40 will have children. Among women age 28-35, Hewlett is correct: high-achieving women are less likely to have children than other working women. Among married women within that age group, 39.5% of working women and only 29.7% of high-achieving women have children. However, by the ages of 36 to 40, these differences disappear: high-achieving women are slightly more likely to be married and have children than other working women (48.7% versus 46.7%). High-achieving women are less likely, however, to be unmarried and have children (11.8% versus 18.9%).

The real story for working women is not that women who are successful in the labor market are not having children, but rather that they’re doing it later in life and typically after they are married. It is a fact that most women now work: as of 2001, 60.1% of women were working and 78.7% of them worked full time. The issue is that balancing work and having a family is a problem for all working women — high achieving or not.

This week’s Snapshot by EPI economist Heather Boushey.


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