Social rewards make it easier for women than men to lose ambition

I lately read this article about how women’s ambition declines more quickly than men’s, as well as this article about the advantages anyone with a spouse who takes the lead role at home has over the rest of us. Both offer a lot to discuss, but one point that I think is really important that isn’t explicitly mentioned in either place is that women are more likely then men to be socially rewarded, at least in the near-term, for offering to take on the supportive spouse role. The social rewards for sacrificing ambitious careers, apparently reserved exclusively for women, make leaving academia behind entirely a more plausible option for women than it is likely to be for men.

One thing that drives academics (really every ambitious career-person) is the sweet, sweet approval of others, coming to us in the form of papers being accepted and cited, grants being funded, and all manner of positive professional recognition of work well done. Suppose though, that you have been struggling to publish your first independent papers or to win an early-career grant. The serial rejections are disheartening. Compared with the grinding discouragement offered by granting agencies and journal editors, the new challenge of starting a family, or making the decision to focus primarily on supporting your family, might look more and more attractive.

At every critical juncture (shifting from student to post-doc, from post-doc to lecturer, etc.), men and women are subject to similar pressures at work but drastically different prospects if they choose to turn their focus away from work: in a dual-career marriage, a woman who opts to become the lead spouse and put her career aside will be making a completely “normal” decision, one that all her family and community might be expecting her to make and will perhaps even applaud her for, one that few people will find surprising or objectionable. Making the decision to be the supportive spouse may entail sacrificing some ambition, but the woman who makes this choice will at least have the immediate hit of affirming social approval. However, picture a man considering the same decision: in addition to decreasing his odds of the earning the most coveted professional successes, he can look forward to the many bewildering social encounters that Moravcsik describes. He is unlikely to expect his parents and extended family to rejoice over this decision. In a sense, his choice is more restricted, but it leads also to the greater likelihood that he will remain ambitious at work.

Women who are showing equivalent skills to their male peers are more likely to leave work at every stage. We treat the perseverance necessary for success as a heroic feat, and wring our hands over why women are less likely to have it, but there is little reason to think that men and women differ in this trait. The choices they are likely to make are not really so unexpected if we treat men and women who prioritize their families so differently.

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