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Study Disputes Opt-Out Trend for Women

July 10, 2008
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Every few months an article comes out purporting to show that hordes of mothers are opting out of the workforce. The articles stir up controversy among working moms and probably make some managers nervous about whether their female employees are really committed to their careers for the long term.

And now a new study may prove that the hype about the “opt-out revolution” is just that—a lot of hype.

According to a study published in the June issue of the American Sociological Review, less than 8 percent of professional women born since 1956 have left the workforce for a year or more during their prime childbearing years.

The percentage of professional women working more than 50 hours a week has increased from less than 10 percent for those women born before 1935 to 15 percent for women born after 1956, according to the study.

Furthermore, the study, which is based on data from the U.S. Census and the American Community Survey, found that the percentage of mothers with young children working full time has risen to 38 percent for women born from 1966 to 1975, up from 6 percent of women born from 1926 to 1935.

“Generation X and late baby boomer women are still working less than their male counterparts, but they are working more than their previous cohorts,” says Princeton University researcher Christine Percheski, who conducted the study.

The reason that there is so much hype about women opting out of the workforce is because the issue resonates with working mothers, Percheski says. “It’s very hard for women to combine parenting and their professional work,” she says.

This study sheds light on a new question that employers need to be asking themselves, says Sherry Saunders, a spokeswoman at Business and Professional Women/USA, a Washington-based organization. “Other studies have said that since women are opting out of the workforce, that’s why they don’t make the same amount of money as men,” Saunders says. “But this study shows that this isn’t true.”

The study findings also show that employers need to think more about what they can do to recruit and retain women, Percheski says. “Most of these women will want to work full time, so it’s important to not shortchange them because you think they are just going to leave and go have babies,” she says.

This means that companies that have shunned things like flexible work schedules and part-time work, thinking that they’re a waste of time for women who won’t stick around anyway, may want to reconsider. Such programs could offer the companies a competitive advantage in retaining women trying to balance the two halves of their lives, Percheski says.

But offering alternative work schedules is important in retaining all workers, not just women, says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, a New York-based nonprofit organization.

From 1992 to 2002, the percentage of college-educated women and men among all ages who wanted more responsibility in their jobs dropped 21 percent and 16 percent, respectively, according to a recent Families and Work Institute study.

“People today are more aware that they don’t have enough time with their families,” Galinsky says. “There is an opt-out revolution, but it’s not just about women.”

—Jessica Marquez

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