UC Berkeley News


Leave no mom behind
Mothers are barred from influential jobs, says social-welfare prof

| 11 July 2007

Three decades after women began breaking into male-dominated professions, their numbers in top academic and corporate echelons remain flat, according to Mary Ann Mason, a professor of social welfare who recently stepped down as dean of the Graduate Division.

Largely to blame are family demands and "maternal discrimination," according to Mothers on the Fast Track: How a New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers (Oxford University Press), a new book Mason has co-authored with her daughter, Eve Mason Ekman.

Mothers on the Fast Track is based on longitudinal research that tracked not only Ph.D. students but women in such competitive, male-dominated professions as law, medicine, business, and journalism. It documents how generations of women have veered out of the career fast lane after having children - while their male counterparts with families flourished - and argues that ambitious women should not have to settle for second-tier jobs just because they took time off to raise kids.

"Society is losing some of its best and brightest," says Mason, Berkeley's first female graduate dean. "It's important to have women in major decision-making positions. It makes a difference in medical research, politics, business, and at all levels. Women have to be in more positions of influence."

According to Mason, women make up only 5 percent of managing partners in law firms, less than 20 percent of medical-school deans, 9 percent of National Academy of Sciences members, and 8 percent of top managers in Fortune 500 companies.

Mary Ann Mason (right) collaborated with daughter Eve Mason Ekman on Mothers on the Fast Track.
The book offers strategies for younger women who seek high-level jobs and families, and for older women hoping to resume, after taking a break to raise families, their climb to upper management and break through what Mason calls "the second glass ceiling."

"If they have the opportunity, mothers go back to work in their 40s, but a lot end up in second-tier jobs," Mason says. "They're not players anymore. They've lost their position in the game."

During her first year as graduate dean, in 2000, Mason assembled a research team to look into how having families affects both men and women in academia. The results led to family-friendly policies for faculty and graduate students at Berkeley that have made the campus a tenure-track model for the nation.

Though the number of women entering graduate and professional schools is steadily rising (approximately half of Berkeley's graduate students are female), Mason says her research shows that most women drop off the fast track some time between starting their Ph.D. and landing their first tenure-track job.

Having it all . . . with support
Mothers on the Fast Track is largely inspired by Mary Ann Mason's personal struggle to balance family and career, as well as by her interactions with female graduate students who would frequently ask her, "When is the best time to have a baby?"

Mason, a former attorney, is an expert on child-custody issues, and the author of From Father's Property to Children's Rights, The Custody Wars, and The Equality Trap. As Berkeley's first female graduate dean, Mason said she used her "bully pulpit" to push through family-friendly policies. Her efforts helped secure more than $500,000 in grant money from the Arthur P. Sloan Foundation to help Berkeley faculty members balance family and career.

The new campus policies include provisions for new mothers to take off two semesters to care for their babies, and part-time appointments to address family needs. Women's and men's use of these provisions cannot be used against them in their performance reviews. As of this fall, women doctoral students who hold fellowships or posts as graduate-student instructors or researchers at Berkeley will be eligible for six weeks' paid maternity leave.

Mason says that when she talks with female graduate students about the trends outlined in Mothers on the Fast Track, they get "glummer and glummer." But she encourages them to keep up the good fight.

"The culture does change, especially when you have women in top positions," she says. "Women can have it all, they just need more support." For more on Berkeley's family-friendly policies, visit ucfamilyedge.berkeley.edu.
After all, the "make-it-or-break-it" years, according to Mason, are between ages 30 and 40, when both men and women must make their professional mark. Yet, it is also during these years that women hear their biological clocks ticking most loudly and the pressure to start a family crests.

Another challenge for today's women, Mason says, is a backlash she calls the "new mom-ism" - the push for mothers to devote enormous amounts of time and energy to their children. "In the past, we were never expected to spend this much time with our children," Mason says.

Essentially, Mothers on the Fast Track is a sequel to Mason's 2002 research project, Do Babies Matter?, which documents the effects of family on academic careers. Along with her longtime research collaborator Marc Goulden, of the campus Office for Faculty Equity, Mason analyzed various databases that track women who enter Ph.D. programs, as well as women in law, business, medicine, and the media.

For the 2007 book, Ekman, a medical social worker at San Francisco County General Hospital and an aspiring journalist, conducted interviews with dozens of women ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s.

From 1966 to 2000, the book says, the percentage of women among Ph.D.s rose from 10 percent to more than 40 percent. Yet, in a 1999 survey of students at Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 59 percent of the female postdocs with children polled cited the concern over how to balance career and family as a main reason for leaving the sciences.

To remedy such trends in both the academic and corporate worlds, employers must provide more flexibility to working mothers through re-entry options and upper-management training, the authors write. In addition, legislation is needed to prevent maternal discrimination, just as it guards women from sexual harassment and other threats in the workplace, Mason says.

For more on Mason's new book, including the introduction and two sample chapters, visit www.grad.berkeley.edu/deans/mason/fasttrack.shtml.