Contemporary civil rights thinking sees discrimination as the cause of every disparity between groups. The remedy, progressives believe, is a cultural transformation that eliminates the effects of purported bias. They demand parity between men and women, yet they ignore the different priorities between the sexes—to the disadvantage of women.
Two recent studies about women in advanced professions illustrate the costs of this kind of thinking. The first focuses on women in medicine. Currently, women occupy half the seats in medical schools and graduate at roughly the same rate as men. Though many women practice medicine full-time, most, according to a JAMA survey, ultimately work part-time or want to shorten their hours. The survey—focused on recently graduated, thirtysomething doctors—found that 23 percent of female physicians worked part-time, compared with 4 percent of male doctors. Among doctors with children, 31 percent of females and 5 percent of males worked part-time. Even more tellingly, 64 percent of full-time female doctors have considered moving to part-time status, while only 21 percent of full-time male doctors have weighed the same option. Within six years of graduation, nearly three-quarters of female doctors work part-time or consider shorter hours, while only around 25 percent of male doctors contemplate part-time practice. Many female doctors, it turns out, prefer part-time hours, to balance work and family.
The study’s authors worry that female physicians’ part-time preferences will result in less pay and limited professional advancement. They suggest, then, that hospitals create “policies and a culture” that allow “both women and men to be both parents and physicians.” Full-time, on-site daycare and greater flexibility, they contend, will help female physicians achieve a work/life balance. Changing the culture of discrimination and sexual harassment, moreover, would yield higher full-time rates for women.
The preference for part-time work among female physicians undoubtedly raises social questions. Medical schools must produce enough doctors to meet patient demand. Does expanding the choice to work part-time compromise our health-care system? After all, women’s work in U.S. medicine is immensely valuable. I owe my daughter’s life to an excellent female doctor, through whom my daughter survived cancer and its baleful side effects. She combined technical skill with extraordinary caring and judgment. Patient results are equally good for male and female physicians. Without female doctors, our health-care system would suffer from an acute doctor deficit.
But women’s preference for part-time work could negatively impact American medicine. If female physicians are more likely to work part-time, their “seats” in medical schools will produce fewer patient hours than those of their male colleagues. As a result, full-time males and females will have to work more hours, under greater pressure. The mainly female preference for part-time work may be a factor in physician burnout. It probably contributes to the forecasted shortage of 90,000 doctors by 2025.
The second study involves women in law. In recent decades, research shows that full-time female attorneys—compared with men—earn less, work more, and express overall dissatisfaction with their jobs. But the new study, by a Vanderbilt law professor and student, also found that recent female graduates, unlike their older peers, are as happy as men with their jobs. Yet a paradox emerges: young female attorneys leave the profession at higher rates. The American Bar Association has proposed affirmative action, loan forgiveness, sexual harassment training, and unconscious-bias classes to change this trend.
Both studies reflect concern that females achieve work-life balance through part-time employment. The authors lament this choice, though it empowers women by permitting them more time to nurture young children. Contrary to the authors’ concerns, the problem isn’t what female doctors and lawyers want—part-time work—but how to deliver it. When freed from economic necessity, female doctors can enjoy a balanced life by choosing part-time work. In fact, women are increasingly attracted to the medical field precisely because of this option. Part-time work allows them to grow professionally while also devoting time to their families. Female part-time attorneys, freed from law firm intrigue, can pursue their area of legal interest more readily.
The question of what women want has long plagued men. Perhaps we should just ask them. When we do, the preference of American female doctors for part-time work is consistent with data in other wealthy western countries. Most women with dependent children don’t want full-time work; nor do they want to grind out a path toward the upper reaches of corporate or political power. In recent years, Pew and Gallup polls have shown that fewer women, under the best of circumstances, prefer full-time work. Married female MBAs from elite schools are 30 percent more likely to work part-time than married female MBAs from less prestigious schools. Women of a certain wealth, freed from economic necessity and absent social pressure to the contrary, can choose what they want. One of our goals should be to expand such opportunities and make the choice for part-time work fruitful, honorable, and available for more women.
The message from advocates of female empowerment is to “change the culture” so that women will work the same number of hours with the same intensity as men. Institutions must be built, discrimination eradicated. But all the empowering institutions and antidiscrimination policies in the world will not get the average woman to be as career-oriented and single-minded as the average man, though American medicine might be better off if they were. Politically correct academics may not want to concede the differences between men and women, but policymakers will have to face these realities as a doctor shortage looms.