Economist looks at fast-track parents

In the last 100 years, most women chose between raising a family and pursuing a career. These days, a greater percentage of women want both.

That’s according to Claudia Goldin, the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard and keynote speaker in the “Mommies and Daddies on the Fast Track: Success of Parents in Demanding Professions” conference, presented by the Women’s Studies Program and the Alice Paul Center for the Study of Women.

Goldin spoke on Oct. 30 about what she termed “the long and winding road” for several generations of women, from those who reached college age between the turn of the century and 1919, to those who graduated from four-year colleges from 1980 to 1990. “I realized that college women across the past century had widely different attainments,” said Goldin, who taught economics at Penn from 1985 to 1990.

Goldin discovered that there are five distinct patterns that occurred in white college-educated women born from 1878 to 1968. Women who graduated from college early in the 1900s either started a family or advanced in a career or job. As the century has progressed, women’s goals shifted between this career pursuit, to family, and back to career again. Women who graduated between 1980 and 1990 generally want both family and career.

About 15 years ago, Goldin recalled having a very frank conversation with students about career and family. “They spoke as if most of their male friends would achieve this…with only the occasional regret,” she said. They asked, “Why is it only atypical women students who have both?” While Goldin said 45 to 55 percent of male college graduates between 1980 and 1990 have both family and career, compared with just 21 to 27 percent of women, “this is probably the lowest that [male] number has ever been.”

Interspersing her talk with humor and overhead projections of women-centric cartoons, Goldin said that enormous changes have occurred this century, though the road is still long. “It does show each generation built on the successes and frustrations of the previous ones.”

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Originally published on November 13, 2003