Monday, April 22, 2013

Lessons from Women in Emerging Markets

I heard a fascinating story on the radio this morning, on gender equality in emerging markets.
Naively, one might expect that women might be doing poorly in the business world in countries like Brazil, Russia, India, and China [BRIC], but that doesn't seem to be true:
"In India, 11 percent of CEOs of the top companies are female," economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "The figure here is 3 percent. In Brazil, 12 percent of CEOs are female. It's also a country with a female head of state. So we have to understand that in some ways, women in these emerging markets are pointing the way."
They talked about few reasons for the difference in women's successes in other countries, including an ambition gap, but the one that struck me the most was this one:
"We found, for instance, in India, that the combination of ... extended family and low-cost domestic help meant that child care was really not a problem," she says. Women in the BRIC countries are able to return to work sooner after having children, while many women in the U.S. disengage from the workforce completely while their children are young. "That means that they lose about 18 percent of their earning power permanently, because it's so hard to get back in."
Now, let's consider the case of a woman in astronomy pursuing a career in astronomy in the US. She'll start out going to grad school for at least 5 years, probably in a place far from her extended family, simply because there are a limited number of universities with graduate programs in astronomy. The she'll probably do a few 2-3 year postdoc stints, and she will be strongly encouraged to do them at completely different institutions, so she'll be moving every few years, making it difficult to become part of a community. If she's married, she'll want to find a job in the same location as her spouse. This means she's like to be in an urban area because jobs are more plentiful. Which means that childcare will also likely be more expensive. And again, chances are, there's no extended family nearby.
So if children are part of the picture, it will often be the case that she will compare her salary to the cost of childcare and decide that staying home or finding a job outside astronomy is the best idea. It's rare that it's the husband making that calculation, for a myriad of reasons.
It's almost as if career paths in astronomy are structured so as to set up women to fail. It's not really fair to say that women "choose" to leave astronomy for family reasons when so many choices are made for them already.
So despite the advice that's abounding about whether to lean in or settle for good enough, I think many of the discussions are missing the point. We need to ask why men don't ask them selves the same questions, and figure out how to make it easier for parents of both genders able to succeed in their careers.