More Women Are Doctors and Lawyers Than Ever—but Progress Is Stalling

Originally posted on The Atlantic.

In the Wall Street Journal last week, Josh Mitchell reported that “Women account for a third of the nation’s lawyers and doctors, a major shift from a generation ago.” The report was triggered by anew analysis of occupations from the Census Bureau, which showed women increased their share of doctor and lawyer by four percent and six percent, respectively, from a decade earlier.

These professional advances mark “very significant progress,” according to feminist economist Heidi Hartmann, and I don’t disagree. Still, when I spoke to Mitchell I suggested he consider a glass-half-empty perspective, which somehow ended up on the cutting-room floor.

My question is, will progress continue? It doesn’t look good. I happen to be a demographer, but you don’t need to be one to see that progress for women in these fields is stalling.

First, look at the degrees earned. This figure uses statistics from the Department of Education and breaks the gender trend in law and medical degrees up by decades. Both trends show slowing progress—a smaller increase in women’s representation each decade—and both peaked (for now) at just under 50 percent female.

cohen_doctorlawyer.png

If half of new doctors and lawyers are women, eventually it should be possible to have professions that are gender-balanced. But don’t hold your breath.

I looked at today’s doctors and lawyers using the 2008-2010 American Community Survey (you can get the data here). Here is the representation of women among full-time and year-round working doctors and lawyers by age. Half of the youngest doctors and lawyers are women, while only one in eight of the oldest are. So as they all age, equal representation should be on the way.

cohen_doctorlawyer2.png

But women are much more likely to drop out of these professions (and others). Among early-career professionals—people ages 25 to 44—who list their most recent jobs as doctor or lawyer, you can see that women are much more likely to be out of the labor force:

cohen_doctorlawyer3.png

With the kind of dropout rates that produce these disparities, we would need much more than 50 percent female in the graduating classes to reach equal representation in these professions.

In Mitchell’s report, the economist Claudia Goldin, who has recently investigated women’s success as pharmacists, argues that the corporatization of medicine has helped women by introducing the concept of work-family balance, and reducing the gender earnings gap—all changes that helped women in pharmacies as well. But I don’t see the evidence that such practices have yet changed the medical industry enough to reduce the gender differences in drop-out rates. And the research evidence shows that explicit diversity policies—with teeth—often are necessary to break the logjam.

And Mitchell’s story did not mention any efforts to reduce the segregation of men and women—especially in medicine—into different specialties. That segregation is a big part of what drives the earnings gap among doctors and lawyers. Here are the median earnings by age for doctors and lawyers, from the same source:

cohen_doctorlawyer4.png

At the peak of that curve—ages 45 to 50—female doctors are earning just 62 percent of men’s median earnings. As they make their decisions about whether to enter the field, and how to specialize, and how to handle their family demands and opportunities, these disparities in representation and rewards come into play. The decisions men and women in these professions make should never be seen as free choices unconstrained or unaffected by the institutional environment.

9 Comments

Filed under In the news, Me @ work

9 responses to “More Women Are Doctors and Lawyers Than Ever—but Progress Is Stalling

  1. Anecdote: a youngish female lawyer that my wife worked with dropped out to open a “cakery”. (I’m sure there are men who also drop out to pursue other goals, but I just don’t know any… :) )

    Statistical musing: for women to get to and maintain 50% level of doctors and lawyers, a whole lot of women who currently become teachers, secretaries and nurses would have to not become teachers, secretaries and nurses. And then we have a teacher, secretary and nurse shortage…

    • Alara Rogers

      Men could become teachers, secretaries and nurses to pick up the slack.

      True story: my husband’s legally blind. With magnification programs, he has no problems at all on a computer. However, he’s not allowed to drive. He was programming on the C64 from the age of 10, and as a result, by age 18 or so, he had a good typing speed; he’s literate, analytical, high reading comprehension, highly organized, and good at math. But when he was 18, he was 115 lbs at nearly 6 foot.

      He joined Kelly to get temp work. They got him warehouse assignments and factory assembly line work. Stuff that needed good eyesight and physical strength, skills he did not have, and did not require his high typing speed, skill with computers and word processors, or organizational skills.

      If a temp agency pushes a man who’s blind and physically weak into stereotypically masculine blue-collar jobs rather than the secretarial work they’re actually famous for, I strongly suspect there are a *lot* of men out there who are more than capable of being excellent administrative assistants, but who are ending up in low-skilled career paths despite their qualifications… because a woman with a generic, unspecialized education can become a secretary, but we discriminate against men entering that role. Men need specialized educations, and if they don’t have them, then it doesn’t matter that you’ve got an English degree, buddy, we’ve got a stockroom job for you.

      As it happens, over the long run the stockroom job pays better than the secretarial job, because men do it. But it kills them faster. A lot fewer people have to quit their job as a secretary and go out on disability because their back injury keeps them from working than people who were working in a warehouse.

      Similarly, in a job I worked, we sent an industry magazine to a mailing list of nurse practitioners and physician assistants. These jobs are almost identical. They’re both “doctor lite”, medical professional with limited prescribing authority. NPs come from the ranks of nurses who get extra training; 95% are women. PAs were originally a military profession, which expanded into the civilian population; the gender ratio’s 50/50 or close to it. Exact same job, different name, different pathway to get there. This demonstrates that there are a lot of men who would probably love to be nurses if only it were called something manly like “assistant clinician” instead of “nurse”.

      And my son had a male day care teacher, for one year. He loved Mr. Jason, and Mr. Jason was great with the kids… but Mr. Jason couldn’t handle the low pay for day care teachers, and had to quit to work for his family business, which he did not enjoy nearly as much as he did teaching. There are lots of men who would love to teach if the pay weren’t so low… and if women were becoming doctors and lawyers instead of teachers, and therefore there was a teacher shortage, teachers might finally get paid what their education and the importance of their job is worth, and then men might well enter the profession in significantly greater numbers.

      The institutional prejudices that keep women out of the highly paid “male” jobs also keep men out of the low-wage but perhaps emotionally rewarding “female” jobs. 50/50 professional equality would raise wages for the low-paid jobs, because studies have shown that when men demand more money they get it, and when women demand more money they get fired. And 50% women in medical and law school clearly indicates women *want* to be doctors and lawyers in equal proportion to men; I would suspect that in the absence of “euw, I don’t want a girly job” prejudices, men would want to be 50% of the teachers and nurses.

      • He joined Kelly to get temp work. They got him warehouse assignments and factory assembly line work. Stuff that needed good eyesight and physical strength, skills he did not have, and did not require his high typing speed, skill with computers and word processors, or organizational skills.

        Seems like they also would have sent a man with a seizure disorder out to that same warehouse. That’s a failure to notice reality.

        A naval engineer told me recently that they are having to redesign US Navy ships because (smaller, weaker) female sailors can’t lift and hoist what male sailors have lifted and hoisted since the dawn of metal shipping. (It’s raising costs to taxpayers in a myriad of ways.)

        Men could become teachers, secretaries and nurses to pick up the slack.

        Men used to be secretaries and clerks. I think the big switch occurred in the 1930s. Probably because they earn less… :)

        because a woman with a generic, unspecialized education can become a secretary, but we discriminate against men entering that role. Men need specialized educations, and if they don’t have them, then it doesn’t matter that you’ve got an English degree, buddy, we’ve got a stockroom job for you.

        Your husband is many standard deviations from the norm.

        And the norm, fulminate or not, is that men as population are bigger and stronger than women.

        The institutional prejudices that keep women out of the highly paid “male” jobs also keep men out of the low-wage but perhaps emotionally rewarding “female” jobs.

        Your underlying assumption is that men and women have the same needs and desires.

        For every one Mr. Jones, how many wannabe male teachers don’t want to be around young children all day? (Men being around 4 year olds all day every day just isn’t *normal*. The willingness to wipe a constant stream of noses and ta-ta all those bo-bos isn’t there. And is he going to be comfortable marching a girl into the bathroom, ordering her to drop her panties and tinkle? Clean her up when she has an accident? Would her parents?)

        OTOH, there are *lots* of women who *love* being around young children.

        Why? Maternal instinct (of which I, and every other man I know, have precious little) is my guess.

        We’re learning more and more that heredity controls our personality more than we’d want to admit, and I bet that maternal instinct (or the trigger to flood the brain with chemicals that induce it) is one of those “things”. (Which would indicate that “power” and other “non-maternal” women who don’t have that “instinct” and therefore choose not — or delay too long — to have children will self-select out of the gene pool.)

        There are lots of men who would love to teach if the pay weren’t so low…

        Your use of the word “teach” is criminally non-specific, since it encompasses everything from day-school to graduate school.

        because studies have shown that when men demand more money they get it, and when women demand more money they get fired.

        My wife went to her “big boss”, enumerated her work and came out with a significant raise…

        Upon further reflection, though, I was the one who poked and prodded her into that enumeration when she complained about her low pay… ;)

  2. Bill

    I don’t understand why men and women have to be represented equally in every career and profession. Women are nearly 50% of medical and law students and yet you describe that as stalled progress, rather than successful achievement of equality. If 50% is inadequate, what would satisfy you?

    Women tend to work part-time in medicine more than men do, especially early in their careers. So, they graduate in near equal numbers as men, then take different career paths, favoring work-life balance. Why is this a problem? Is there evidence that they are unhappy doing so?

    I would prefer to let these highly intelligent, well-educated professionals make their own choices about their careers. When you mention diversity plans with teeth in them, it sounds like you are sure you know what is best for them, and would like to see it enforced.

    By the way, women are over 70% of Veterinary Medicine students and psychology students. Is that a problem, too?
    If not, why not?

  3. ND

    Thanks for this data. Interesting. I think another big problem is how our tax code still overtaxes 2-earner marrieds and has marriage penalties above $130,000 total income for married couples.

    If we moved to the OECD best practice of taxing married people in something like a partnership return (where each person’s individual income is taxed separately, and expenses paid personally (or worked personally such as child care) are allocated separately, particularly when they support credits or deductions. They also sometimes give tax credits to couples who share child care equally since that is seen as in the child’s interest.

    I have a blog where I focus on this a bit. www.http://peermarriage.blogspot.com/2012_12_01_archive.html

    • ND

      Sorry, made a typo: Should say, “If we moved to the OECD best practice of taxing married people in something like a partnership return (where each person’s individual income is taxed separately, and expenses paid personally (or worked personally such as child care) are allocated separately, particularly when they support credits or deductions) then this would probably make a difference as I suspect many of the women lawyers and doctors are still carrying too much responsibility for children in addition to their jobs and the current US taxing scheme tends to reinforce this.

      • Ron

        I don’t see the causal link in your post as to how the current US taxing scheme tends to reinforce women carrying too much responsibility for children.

        (Anyway, I think that women will always carry more responsibility for their children because they “by nature” are more invested in them. Humorously indicated by, “I brought you into this world, I can take you back out!”)

  4. Pingback: Book review: The Rise of Women, by DiPrete and Buchmann | Family Inequality

  5. Pingback: Gender equality: Family egalitarianism follows workplace opportunity | Family Inequality

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