Mommies Opting Out of Work: A Myth That Won't Die

In recent years the media has obsessed over a storyline about highly educated mothers "opting out" of employment. These stories are not only wrong -- the reality is that there is no increase in recent years in women, even women with advanced degrees, choosing to be stay-at-home mothers over working mothers -- they also imply that most mothers have a choice to work or not. This couldn't be further from the truth. Wives typically bring home a third of their family's income and single mothers often have no option but to work. While the choices of professional upper-class women might be interesting to read about, they certainly are not representative of the economic reality facing the majority of families.

But there is another serious problem with the media's fixation with the opt-out myth: Most stories on opt-out mothers gloss over the difficulties that many women have getting back into the job market after taking time out. It does a grave disservice to women to tell them that it's easy to transition back into work when it isn't. When reality hits and they can't find someone to hire them for a suitable job -- one that might offer the flexibility or part-time hours or whatever they need to balance their job with their life -- they may feel that it's all their fault. But really, is it?

Recently, a couple of stories have appeared arguing that it's actually not that hard to get back into the work force, especially now that employers are supposedly making it easy for women to balance work and family. Lisa Belkin writes in the New York Times ($$) that there is a "growing acceptance" of nonlinear careers and that corporations are developing new, innovative strategies to lure opt-out Moms back into jobs. And Leslie Morgan Steiner, the author of Mommy Wars, told Newsweek that in her research, she "did not find a single college-educated, aged 35 to 55, home with kids for three to 10 years -- who had significant trouble returning to full-time work."

The nice thing about these pieces is that they begin where most opt-out stories end. But, like the opt-out myth itself, the "opt-in" storylines are far removed from what we know about women returning to work after taking time off to have children. They rely on anecdotes from interviews with a handful of high-income mothers who most often hold professional degrees and, as a result, they come to conclusions that contradict the available research evidence. The stories are engaging to read, but one mother in a hundred transitioning easily back to work does not mean there's a national trend.

Research using nationally representative surveys that looks at all mothers who want to return to work finds that upwards of a quarter can't find a suitable job (PDF) and only 40 percent returned to full-time, mainstream jobs (i.e., not self-employment or consulting).

These facts do not hinder Morgan Steiner from coming to a very different conclusion. She interviewed a few dozen women who were actively seeking full-time work, a method that even Steiner, in her recent article in MORE magazine, noted was "admittedly unscientific."

That kind of research can be useful because, unlike large surveys, the researcher can ask the respondent open-ended questions and delve into why something is happening or how people feel about the trend. What it cannot do, however, is tell us what the trends are because the researcher isn't looking at a large enough -- or representative enough -- population.

What is striking about Morgan Steiner's article is how quickly she abandons reality by pointing to a mother whose experience contradicts the research-based findings. Steiner writes about a woman who solved her flexibility problem by opening her own business. Then, she notes that 95 percent (95 percent!) of all small businesses fail within the first five years -- but women shouldn't worry about these odds, she asserts, because starting a business can provide "easy entry" back into employment.

She does the same thing when discussing salaries. The Center for Work-Life Policy found a 37 percent salary decrease for women who had been out of the labor force for more than three years. But, here again, all the examples Steiner used are women who "doubled" their salaries -- or who didn't really need the income in the first place.

Everyone knows someone whose experience beats the odds. It seems that Steiner interviewed only women who were lucky enough to have found a decent job with good pay after opting out for motherhood. She hasn't documented a trend -- she's told some great stories of women who made it work, but as the research shows, it's not the typical tale.

Ms. Belkin's article looks at changes within corporations that are helping women to opt back in. She focuses on policies designed to lure highly trained professional women back into their jobs after they take some time off to care for very young children. There are a few examples of good policies -- shorter workweeks, eliminating billable hours -- but, as Belkin notes in her conclusion, a few examples of policy changes does not mean that the world of work is now in favor of those who want to combine work and parenthood in a sane way.

While Belkin recognizes that these anecdotes may offer only a glimmer of hope, neither author points to research on what we know about the prevalence of workplace flexibility. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about a quarter of workers report having any on-the-job flexibility, and there are not indications that this has been growing. In fact, between 2001 and 2004, the BLS reported a slight decline in the share of workers reporting flexible schedules, from 28.6 to 27.5 percent. Women continue to be less likely than men to have this "perk," mostly because women are less likely to hold the higher status or managerial positions where flexibility is more common.

It's great that we're seeing stories on women returning to work after having children. But let's hope that these stories, unlike the stories about the nonexistent increase in opting out, will start to be based on facts and solid research, not only interviews with a few women who got lucky.

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