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Summers is right

HARVARD University President Lawrence Summers has been roundly criticized for his recent remarks on diversity in the science and engineering workforce. Far from expressing unseemly sentiments, however, Summers was properly calling attention to a troubling social phenomenon: the stalling of the quiet revolution that has transformed women's education and employment during the last 35 years.

In 1970, 42 percent of college students were women; today it's 57 percent. Among individuals born in 1935, college graduate men outnumber college graduate woman by almost 2 to 1. But for those born in 1970 there are more female than male college graduates. In the mid-1960s when 50 percent of men majored in science or business, 60 percent of women majored in education, literature and languages, or home economics. Women's majors produced jobs, men's led to careers.

But college majors are now more similar by sex, and many women have opted for high-powered professions. In 1970 there was one woman for every 20 men in law school; today parity is near. Comparable changes occurred in medical, dental, veterinary, and business schools. The quiet revolution was accomplished with extraordinary speed by an army of unwitting foot soldiers responding to the promise of change in the labor market.

The quiet revolution led to vastly more women college graduates, more female science and business majors, and considerably more women attending professional schools. Thirty-five years ago the pipeline of women to the top was empty because the spigot had never been opened. The pipeline is now fuller at the start. It is the leakage along the way to the top that is the new matter for concern.

In the discipline of economics, one in 12 doctorates were granted to women 35 years ago. Now, one in four are (sadly almost the same as in the physical sciences). The pipeline has been more than one-fifth female for the past 20 years but, according to Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas and Shulamit Kahn of Boston University, women's careers have not kept pace with men's. Had women and men advanced in their careers at the same rate, women would today be 19 percent of all tenured faculty in economics but they are actually 12 percent.

Fifteen years ago we thought that these changes would be reflected in more women full professors, law partners, and CEOs. Substantial change has occurred. But there has been more stubbornness than we had anticipated. Why?

There are three main reasons: Women may face institutional barriers to advancement that are blatantly discriminatory or more subtle; women may make different career choices than do men regarding family matters; and women and men may have different "ability" distributions where "ability" is a complex combination of innate aptitude and socialization. The "ability" reason is of limited importance not because it is politically incorrect to talk of gender differences in ability, but because research shows that men and women of similar ability have different career outcomes, particularly in science and engineering.

Considerable evidence exists on women making different choices than men with regard to the family-career tradeoff. Female medical doctors, for example, reduce their practice hours when they have families, particularly after the birth of their second child. But male doctors do not. Women economists occupy positions that have less intense tenure pressure. Female lawyers shift to smaller firms and the government sector.

The fact that women make decisions that compromise their careers, before or after beginning their families, does not take institutions off the hook. Rigid promotion policies can impact women's careers more than men's. Academic tenure clocks, for example, tick at the same pace as women's biological clocks.

There are many reasons to be concerned that the quiet revolution has stalled. As economists we are concerned that women's educational investments may be inefficiently used. Universities should be concerned because they are both producers and consumers of educated individuals. All employers need to make career paths more amenable to combining work and family if our nation is not to lose a valuable and growing source of talent.

Thus it is not surprising that the president of Harvard University, an economist, would attend an academic conference and express his concerns about the advancement of women. Only through reasoned discourse and an exploration of the causes of persistence and change can the promise of the quiet revolution be fulfilled.

Claudia Goldin is Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University and research associate and program director of the National Bureau of Economic Research. Lawrence F. Katz is Elisabeth Allison Professor of Economics at Harvard University. 

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