July 21, 2008
Questioning and then debunking the so-called opt-out revolution (for the hundredth time)
So many articles and studies about women supposedly opting out, in, under, and around the workforce have crossed my desk in recent years that I've pretty much stopped paying attention. But this month, a study announced by the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley caught my eye, mainly because its findings seemed so surprisingly, well, retro.
In polling 1,000 Harvard undergrad alumni (classes of 1988 through 1991) who were now married mothers in their late thirties, researchers found that "fifteen years after graduating from Harvard College, 28 percent of the women who went on to get MBAs were stay-at-home moms." However, just 6 percent of Harvard grads who went on to become MDs stopped working outside the home, and 21 percent of Harvard grads who earned their JDs stopped working outside the home.
Curious about the discrepancy, I called up Catherine Wolfram, associate professor at Haas School of Business and co-author of the study.
Were these MBAs turned stay-at-home moms working part-time, freelance, or as mompreneurs? I wondered.
Wolfram assured me they were not drawing any income whatsoever.
Then perhaps the lawyers and doctors had bigger student loans to pay off than their MBA counterparts?
But that wasn't it either, Wolfram said; most of the respondents had husbands with big incomes. In fact, 42 percent of the women polled had husbands with the same graduate degree as they'd earned. (Curiously, the study found that women who met their spouse at business school were much more likely to drop out of the workforce than women who met their spouse at medical or law school. I'll let you draw your own conclusions there.)
Instead, Wolfram suspected that lack of family-friendly workplaces in the business sector were to blame for the higher MBA opt-out rate. While doctors can go into private practice, she explained, the business sector often calls for "long hours and heavy travel."
But, "We're not looking at their whole life," she said of those MBAs turned stay-at-home moms. "They might go back to work 5 to 10 years later."
Of course, for the rest of us working stiffs all this conjecture about why some of the upper crust bows out of the workforce and some does not is moot:
A study published in the June issue of the American Sociological Review found that "less than 8 percent of professional women born since 1956 leave the workforce for a year or more during their prime childbearing years." In addition, "more professional Generation X mothers of young children were working full-time year-round than their counterparts in any previous generation." And for Gen X moms with kids ages 6 to 18, "full-time employment is the norm."
Probably because it's a rare woman who can afford to opt out of working for an employer these days.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
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