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Why Women Opt Out

Everyone recognizes that men and women have different career behaviors, including their choices of career goals. I address this difference in my Best Jobs books, which invariably include lists of occupations with high percentages of men and women. (I’m always careful to include caveats stating that I’m neither endorsing these high percentages nor suggesting that career decision makers should perpetuate them.)

Everyone recognizes that men and women have different career behaviors, including their choices of career goals. I address this difference in my Best Jobs books, which invariably include lists of occupations with high percentages of men and women. (I’m always careful to include caveats stating that I’m neither endorsing these high percentages nor suggesting that career decision makers should perpetuate them.)

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Another important difference in career behaviors is opting out, in which workers leave a career–perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently. People leave careers for many reasons, but in the context of gender differences, opting out is always meant to refer to leaving to rear young children. Often the tenor of the discussion is to argue that highly educated women who opt out are, to some extent, wasting the investment of their education and that therefore women’s access to graduate and professional schools should be less than men’s. Or the argument is that workplace conditions should be made more family-friendly so that women will feel less need to opt out. (For an example, see “The Opt-Out Revolution,” a 2003 article in the New York Times magazine.)

The question of opting out should be getting a lot of attention just now because female participation in higher education is already greater than men’s–and growing–and the current recession is causing more unemployment among men than among women. Female breadwinners are becoming more and more common, and even if we never become a society where that is the norm, the increase in its prevalence raises the stakes of female opting out.

Therefore, I was intrigued to find a study, by Jane Leber Herry and Catherine Wolfram, of the opting-out and staying-in behavior of 1,522 Harvard College alumnae during the 10 to 15 years after their graduation. Looking at the postgraduate degrees that the alumnae held, they found that MDs opt out less than all other groups, with 94 percent of them in the workforce at their 15th year out of college, By comparison, only 72 percent of the MBAs were in the workforce and only 69 percent of those with no postgraduate degree. You may suggest that MDs have the highest income and therefore the most to lose by opting out, but even when the researchers controlled for lost income, the MDs were still the least likely group to opt out. Controlling for the husband’s income also produced little difference in the results, partly because of the high incidence (42% of the sample) of women marrying men with the same postgraduate degree.

Apart from the degrees, the researchers found various factors that seem to affect opting-out behavior. Husbands with MDs or MBAs married to women with different degrees were associated with more opting out, presumably because the long hours of the former and the travel time of the latter made the mother’s availability at home more valuable. Working in a family-friendly environment in the 10th year seemed to reduce opting out in the 15th year; the researchers defined a family-friendly environment as work in the public sector, for a nonprofit employer, or for an employer recognized for its family-friendliness. Of course, workers have some choice about their work environment; to some extent, those women who intend to avoid opting out may start their career  in a family-friendly environment. Some shift to a more family-friendly environment between their 10th and 15th years instead of opting out. Among JDs, this behavior was as frequent as opting out; among MAs, it was three times as frequent. By contrast, MBAs were twice as likely to opt out and those without advanced degrees four times as likely, which suggests that the family-friendly alternatives for these workers are especially unattractive. (Both of these groups tend to work in similar industries.)

The researchers compared their findings to what can be gleaned from Census data on women working (or no longer working) in medicine, law, and management and finance. It appears that part-time work is more available to doctors and lawyers than to managers and financial professionals, which is consistent with the opt-out rates the researchers found for the Harvard alumnae with MDs, JDs, and MBAs.

Another issue that the researchers raised was the question of career satisfaction apart from income and family-friendliness. Could the opt-out rate be influenced by the fact that some careers are inherently more satisfying (at least for women) than others? The researchers cited the findings of another research team who found that women opting out of a medical career were considerably less likely to name career dissatisfaction as a primary reason than those opting out of a business career. Those in a legal career cited career dissatisfaction even more often.
So it appears that several factors influence opting out. Before ending, I feel obligated to add that opting out should not be viewed only in a negative light. In some cases, it can even help the mother’s career by giving her a chance to re-evaluate and perhaps redirect her career path.