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More Revealing Data on Women Who 'Opt Out' Rather Than 'Lean in'

Joni Hersch, a professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt, has put numbers to these anecdotes with a research paper entitled “Opting Out among Women with Elite Education.” It is a fascinating new window onto the development of the new upper class that I described in Coming Apart. 
Hersch uses a large database, the 2003 National Survey of College Graduates, that lets her identify 1,830 women who graduated from “tier 1” educational institutions — in effect, the Ivies and other high-prestige universities like Duke and Stanford — and compare them with women who graduated from less elite schools. When women with and without children of all ages are lumped together, the graduates of tier 1 schools are employed only slightly less often than their less privileged sisters. But as soon as Hersh separates out women with children from those without, it becomes obvious that women from tier 1 schools are significantly more likely to be home with the kids than the others — 68% of mothers from the tier 1 schools were employed, compared to 76% of those from the other schools.
Subtracting from 100%, that's 32% of tier 1 moms versus 24% of moms who are graudates of less prestigious, or 1/3rd more.
A lot depends on the kind of degree that a married woman with children has obtained. If she is a physician, has a PhD, or has an MA in education (i.e., is probably a K-12 teacher), she is as likely to be employed as graduates from lower-tier schools. But those degrees involve only 24% of mothers who graduated from tier 1 schools. Those with law degrees are 9 percentage points less likely to be employed than graduates from lower-tier schools; those with MBAs are 16 percentage points less likely to be employed, and the largest single group, those with just a BA, are 13 percentage points less likely to be employed.

Joni Hersch, a professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt in a research paper entitled Opting Out among Women with Elite Education, concludes that women from the Ivies and other high-prestige univerisites like Duke and Stanford, do not opt out more often than women with less prestigious pedigrees if they are childless.

Once women of the upper classes have children, however, those from first tier universities are significantly more likely to be home with the kids than the others — 68% of mothers from the tier one schools were employed, compared to 76% of those from the other schools.

Unsurprisingly, professional women who have more control over their working schedules like physicians or Ph.Ds, as well as those in traditionally female professions such as teaching, are as likely to stay in the workforce regardless of their educational provenance. 

Those with law degrees, however, are nine percent less likely to be employed than graduates from lower-tier schools; those with MBAs are 16 percent less likely to juggle both home and worklife, and those with just a BA, are 13 percent less likely to stay in the workforce.

Let's Make Educated Guesses About the Reasons for These Statistics

Instead of focusing on class differences, let's focus on the jobs that do not erect substantially higher barriers to continued employment for women than they do for men.

Women from prestitious universities with J.D.s and MBA's tend to work in the nation's top corporations and most profitable law and consulting firms. In these industries, the leadership gaps have been stuck below 20% for the past ten years.

The hallmark of these industries is the necessity of clocking in hours most men - single or married - don't much relish, let alone women whose nuclear and extended family responsibilities continue to fall most heavily upon them. These are tough jobs for men and single women. They are often simply impossible for women with children, married or unmarried.

Value pricing expert Ron Baker at the VeraSage Institute in a recent interview for an article to appear in the next Florida Association of Women Lawyers Journal, told me that valuing legal and other knowledge worker services by the number of hours it takes them to do their jobs is like using a ruler to determine the temperature of an oven.

In other words, those "hours billed" or generated that the legal and consulting professions use to evaluate their employees or partner/shareholders for retention, promotion, profit sharing and bonuses, are not useful metrics.

That hours are the metrics in these professions neatly explains why physicians and educators don't "opt out" when they have children. They don't need lectures on "leaning in" because they don't need to work harder or longer than necessary to be on a career path that is as likely to reward their efforts as it is to reward those of their male colleagues.

There have been more than enough books, articles, treatises, blog posts, facebook rants and tweets about what we women can do to overcome the institutional barriers that make the best educated among us also the most likely to deprive the world of our wisdom, knowledge and experience. 

Let's move at least some of the focus to the historic institutional structures that discourage the best of our women from staying in the workforce and that also, by the by, fail to deliver the best services most efficiently.

Comments (4)

Read through and enter the discussion by using the form at the end
Gloria Feldt - April 25, 2013 6:44 AM

You are so right, Vickie! It's time to completely rethink the workplace design which was created a century or more ago by men for men who had wives at home taking care of the household chores and kids. Not only is that model passe for an economy based on knowledge workers 50% of whom are female, it doesn't work for today's younger men either, because they typically want to be more engaged with their children than previous generations of men.

Lisa Cadigan - April 25, 2013 12:44 PM

I was just invited to speak on a panel about Sheryl Sandburg's book. I feel fortunate that I have been able to maintain some balance in my life by running my own freelance graphic design business, a decision I made initially for the purpose of being able to stay home with my children when they were smaller. I just wrote about my participation on the panel on my own website:
http://www.cadigancreative.com/how-to-succeed-in-being-human-without-really-trying

In my opinion, it seems that as a society, we really need to think twice about how we define success - I like to think about it in terms of a "successful life" rather than a "successful career." I agree that we need to work together to "lean back" so that we allow ourselves to focus on the leadership roles we hold in all aspects of our lives, not just in terms of driving a profitable bottom line or attaining the next promotion.

Angela West - April 26, 2013 8:25 PM

I read this article a few days ago and was frustrated myself when I read it. I find I get some good tips from the pt Out' Rather Than 'Lean in' but this article was disappointing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, helps me know I am not out to lunch!

http://www.sigmaco.com/?attachment_id=5 - July 29, 2013 11:00 AM

Hi there to all, how is everything, I think every one is getting more from this web page, and your views are nice for new
visitors.

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