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Study Examines the Ties Between Childbearing Plans, Career Success

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High-achieving female students who postpone plans for marriage and childbearing are more likely to achieve career success, according to a longitudinal study of high-school valedictorians and salutatorians released last week.

"There are constraints on the continuing achievement of even our most able women,'' said Karen Allen, a professor of higher education at Boston College who co-authored the study with Terry Denny, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana.

The ongoing study tracks the lives of 46 male and 35 female valedictorians and salutatorians since they graduated from Illinois high schools in 1981. The authors have issued updates on their subjects approximately every two years since 1984.

Postponing childbearing played a greater part in career achievement of the female students in the first five years after college graduation than did academic ability, Ms. Allen said. The study found that beginning in the sophomore year of college some of the women began to display ambivalence about juggling the demands of career and family. By senior year, two-thirds said they expected to work fewer hours or take time off from their jobs to raise children.

Concurrently, the women in the study began reporting lower levels of confidence about their academic ability, although their academic performance remained at high levels. Women attained an average grade-point average of 3.7 on a 4.0 scale, not significantly different from the 3.6 average for the men.

The male subjects did not report any comparable reduction in intellectual self-esteem at this time.

Women also dropped out of premedical programs at higher rates. Most cited conflicts between career and personal goals.

In the years since the students' high-school graduation, the researchers have divided the female participants into two career groups--those working in high-status professional positions or studying for graduate degrees, and those working at less prestigious or nonprofessional jobs or working full time in the home.

Although the "higher achieving'' women had expressed intentions of marrying later in life, members of both groups married at about the same rates and ages. However, women in the former group delayed having children longer than their less career-oriented counterparts.

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