Skip to main content

As a new professor and someone who grew up with Marlo Thomas's Free To Be ... You and Me , I find it heartening to hear about the latest gender gap between men and women. Research shows that women now outnumber and outperform men in nearly every field at Canadian universities.

Sure enough, I have more women in my classes, and they are more likely to engage in debate, come to office hours for help and receive the highest grades. But will the number of women entering and completing university translate, as some commentators are arguing, into a radical social restructuring? I'm not so sure. What happens to women after they finish university, especially if they have children, may be far more important.

The conventional wisdom is that education converts automatically into professional opportunities. The women "in the pipeline" will - eventually - replace the retirees and move into more senior positions.

But we should not mistake early career participation of young women for a long-term supply of female skills and human capital. Although women's overall representation in professional fields has risen, many studies indicate they continue to face subtle obstacles to their advancement.

There are multiple, and sometimes contradictory, explanations of gender's effect on career trajectories. Race, class, ethnicity and specific skills and disabilities are important factors, but family responsibilities are also immensely powerful. One set of arguments focuses on the incompatibility between female biological realities and the structure, incentives and expectations of professions designed largely by and for men. These factors shape women's opportunities, income rates and progress within the ranks.

The life changes a woman encounters during her post-university career affect her range of opportunities and, ultimately, the choices she makes. If she decides to have children, these changes include the immediate demands of pregnancy, childbirth, recovery and nursing - ideally for at least a year - and the vastly increased longer-term responsibilities that come with a young family.

Of course, more men are taking active roles in child care and household management. But research shows that women continue to carry the primary load. Who takes time away from career to stay home to care for a sick baby? Who has to forgo work-related travel? Who gets up at night to comfort a frightened child and spends the next workday in a sleep-deprived haze? Usually, it's mom.

So, while the primary catalyst for women to leave the work force in the early 20th century was marriage, it's now the birth of the first or second child. Although studies show that the number of female engineers is increasing, for instance, these women leave the profession at a faster rate than men, especially in the early part of their careers coinciding with child-bearing years.

For female academics, the overlap between their pre-tenure years and early motherhood, with its intense family obligations, may impede their productivity, slow their progress on the salary scale and harm their long-term career prospects. And departure from the professional track, which women usually intend to be temporary, often isn't. It turns out it's far easier to find the off-ramp than the on-ramp.

From the point of view of public policy, the hard - and invariably neglected - issues are how to retain women over their life stages, the consequences if we fail to do so, and what should be done if those consequences are undesirable. Canada needs to address these issues now, because an impending "silver tsunami" of retirements will otherwise undermine our sustained access to skilled labour and specialized knowledge.

How do we marshal and retain as much female human capital as possible? One strategy is to invest in long-term mentorship. When it works well, mentorship boosts the female protégé's career satisfaction and commitment to a firm or organization, which, in turn, bring promotions and better pay. Mentoring can provide access to social and professional networks from which young women are otherwise excluded. Professional associations should start creating mentorship opportunities while women are still at university.

So, tonight, I must be sure to explain to my children - after bath time but before story time - that I'm an educated professional and part of a social restructuring phenomenon. Afterward, I should have enough time for a few hours of writing while I wait for the last laundry load to finish. I hope the children sleep through the night - one child is teething and the other suddenly sees closet monsters at 3 a.m. - because I have meetings tomorrow with female students who want to discuss the work-life balance.

Sarah Wolfe is assistant professor of environment and resource studies at the University of Waterloo. Her current research focuses on mentorship in the Canadian water-policy community. Her spouse does the cooking every night.

Interact with The Globe