Dropping in and out of the work force

Jane Galt has a couple of excellent posts about the problems women face in trying to balance careers and family. Her second post riffs off this Brad DeLong post about the systemic problems that make it difficult for women to get tenure:

The process of climbing to the top of the professoriate is structured as a tournament, in which the big prizes go to those willing to work the hardest and the smartest from their mid-twenties to their late thirties. Given our society (and our biology), a man can enter this tournament this without foreclosing many life possibilities: they can marry someone who will bear the burden of being for a decade a “happily married single parent,” or they can decompress in their late thirties, look around, marry someone five years younger, have their family, and then live the leisured life of the theory class–or not. But given our society (and our biology), a woman cannot enter this particular academic tournament without running substantial risks of foreclosing many life possibilities if she decides to postpone her family, and a woman cannot enter this particular academic tournament without feeling–and being–at a severe work intensity-related handicap if she does not postpone her family.

So women’s biological clocks may be a large part of what keeps them from getting the most prestigious jobs. Both DeLong and Galt argue that substantial institutional changes will be necessary to end this cycle, and that these changes will be difficult to achieve because those who have already attained positions of power the old-fashioned way have too much to lose.

Galt’s other post notes that it’s difficult for women (or men) to find part-time equivalents of these high-prestige jobs for a good reason: that an organization needs to have its best people there full time, because a big part of the benefit of a worker isn’t simply the hours logged, but the availability of a resource: someone to call or e-mail when there’s a problem. If several key people in an organization are only there half-time, things can grind to a halt quite quickly.

As a person for whom part-time work has always held an allure, I’ve seen this problem first-hand. When my son was born, I planned to stay at home and work part-time as a freelance editor. I took about half my normal load of authors, figuring I could easily balance this work with child care. Of course, it wasn’t that easy. “Part time” quickly became “anytime”: authors would call me in the middle of meals, or during my son’s “active” times, and expect me to have an hour to devote to their latest writing dilemma.

More recently, I’ve tried teaching writing part time. The problem here is that part-time teachers don’t get paid as well as full-time teachers. A professor with a full load of 4 classes per semester earns $50,000 to $100,000. A part-timer teaching 2 classes per semester gets $8,000. At those wages, it hardly makes sense to work at all. The institution seems to want to drag me, kicking and screaming, back into full-time work.

As a man facing this dilemma, I’m unusual. Typically it’s the women who’ve had to make the decision between work and family. For me, the question hasn’t been so much my family — we’ve always been able to work out a way for both of us to have satisfying careers. For me, the difficulty has been my obsessive pursuit of a writing career. A “reasonable” person knows it’s insane to try to write without keeping a “day job.” Yet the mental demands of writing are so great that trying to write while working full-time is impossible (for me at least).

My latest approach has been simply to drop out of the work force and focus entirely on my writing. This approach is unsatisfying as well, because I find it difficult to write for more than three or four hours a day. And, as Jane Galt points out, this approach also carries substantial risk: if I choose to re-enter the work force, I’ll be at a major handicap compared to others with a more “standard” track record. It’s a risk I’m willing to take — and one I’m only able to take because of the steadiness of my wife’s career.

It does seem as if the professional world punishes people for having any interests outside of advancing their career. Jane Galt wonders if the professional world is losing out by neglecting this pool of talented labor. I wonder if the world is losing out by failing to provide ways for creative people to move in and out of the work force.

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2 Responses to Dropping in and out of the work force

  1. Mark Paris says:

    It’s a problem. I have a friend who ended up out of work after he resigned at one company to go to work at another. That company shut down its operations in his city within about a month. He has been out of real work for a while and it will be nearly impossible for him to get back into it now. Unless … unless he has contacts.

  2. Dave says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your friend. I’m not so worried about my own situation, but I think there are real problems with the way we evaluate talent and the way we promote talented people. The “trial by fire” approach common to most professional careers is really a vestige of a male-dominated society. Time will tell if we have the fortitude to root it out.

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