Friday, August 11, 2006

Ask Someone Who Knows: News from the ASA Convention

From Ash:

Montreal, Canada.

Po and I often agree that we don't want third-hand information. Instead, we go straight to the source, and, as I like to put it, "Ask someone who knows." So that's just what I'm doing for the next few days, since I've just finished attending the first day of the annual convention of the American Sociological Association -- hundreds of sociologists attending over 500 presentations by speakers from everyone from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Gloria Steinem to Ruth Westheimer.

Today was Ginsburg's keynote, and I'll hit the highlights of her speech right away, since the Washington Post reporter's probably already filed his piece on it. (There are a handful of reporters here, but very few.)

The Justice spoke on how women have entered the legal field - with what can only be described at as a mixed success. In reflecting on the historical reticience to women in law, she observed, "A sense of humor is essential for those who would advance social change." (A line that I love and will likely post over my desk.)

Justice Ginsberg touched briefly on her own experiences: she graduated from law school at the top of her class, but she couldn't get a single NY job offer. Because the firms didn't see her as a stellar student, but a mother of a young child. Since then, there have been women who have made partner in law firms, become professors, judges and even justices.

But she cautioned that there was still much more work to go, explaining how few women are Article III / federal judges.

In fact, rather than believing that the progress made since she was a law student will continue, she feels the opposite.

The Justice opined: "The picture today is not promising." Rather poignantly remarking that "I have been alone in my corner" of the Justices' bench since her "dear colleague" Sandra Day O'Connor had retired, she also explained that twice as men and women entered the Supreme Court bar this year, and twice as many men as women are clerks for the Justices. Next term will be even worse for the clerks' demography: 30 men and seven women -- a new low for the decade.

Believing that the practice of law has benefitted from the diversity of its members, and that it suffered from a previously too white, too male population, the Justice agreed with Justice O'Connor's earlier observation that the first step to change was visibility, and then an impressive show of accomplishment. She hoped that both would lead to solutions for the problems of the system.

If that hadn't been challenging enough, her speech was followed by that of Deborah Rhode's speech on the development of laws on sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence, which were almost too awful to bear hearing about for any sustained period of time. And which I'll save for a later blog.

There doesn't really seem to be any press besides me attending the seminars, at least I haven't yet run into anyone, so here's the report that probably won't be in the newspapers tomorrow - but probably should be. A study out of the University of California, Irvine, on educational attainment that will likely grab eventual headlines - and strike terror in the hearts of both parents and policywonks.

The research's still in progress, and there's no official paper on it yet, but the presenter announced that she has determined that- contrary to popular belief - increased educational attainment of a parent does not automatically translate to the child's own educational attainment. If the parent's a college grad, that doesn't mean that the child will equal or surpass that degree. Instead, it depends on ethnicity. For whites, mothers' increased education does mean increased education for their daughters. But that isn't the case for African Americans. Similarly, white girls seem to benefit from a society-wide increase of educational attainment - but blacks (female and male) and white men are not having the same gains.

Race also plays a factor in the other end of educational attainment: women drop out of high school less than men, but the rate varies depending on the ethnicity of the students.

And here's a twist on the gender gap issue of college campuses: women's increased entry into the labor force is seeming to have a negative effect on men's educational attainment.

Why are these true, she doesn't yet know. But I think everyone in the room was visibily startled by her findings.

I can't wait for tomorrow, and I have a couple hundred pages of reading I should do tonight.

But . . . I think it's time to leave the computer and the papers and do a little sightseeing.

Bon soir, tout le monde! A bientot!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

With respect to the finding "...women's increased entry into the labor force is seeming to have a negative effect on men's educational attainment.", I must stress that as a social 'scientist' myself (and I say that with scepticism as I am a scientist who now works on social matters), I would be wary to equating 'co-occurrence' with 'causation'.

Male under-achievement should not be compared with female 'over-achievement' but within their gender over time.

To compare with girls assumes that life and achievement are a zero-sum game. And anyway what is so bloody wrong with women getting ahead now?

A London academic's recent work showed that boys arent much worse off at all when compared within their own gender over generations. She got brick-bats not praise for daring to create an obvious flaw in the research question.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

As I said, the study's still in process, and I too want to know more. However, I do think that, on a macro-level, it's interesting to address see how cohorts' years of educational attainment track cohorts' participation in the labor force.

Also, I would like to make clear that I'm not using attainment and achievement as synonyms, and I hope they aren't read as such. To me, "achievement" is a highly subjective, cultural, personal assessment, whereas "attainment" I'm using to describe more measurable notes of completion (ie years of schooling).

I think that distinction is important, especially in context such as this. First, because I don't think mere presence in the workforce (for either gender) would connote any sort of level of success / achievement, and thus doesn't make the men vs women comparison that you're concerned with.

If that's not clear, perhaps it will be with this example: one of the preliminary explanations for the men's lowering of years of education may be due to the fact that, because of increased competition in the academic arena, men have opted for careers requiring technical / apprentice-based backgrounds, which could mean they are a financial success careerwise without the increase in educational attainment.

At the same time, women's increasing educational attainment still doesn't translate to receiving the same amount of financial reward, promotions, etc in the workforce.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

If you are interested in reading Justice Ginsburg's remarks, they're available here:

7:28 AM  

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