Sunday, January 26, 2014

Why Women Opt-Out of Their Careers?

This month, The Savvy Reader Book Club, is discussing Debora L. Spar’s book Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. In an earlier post, I revealed a perfume commercial from the 70's was responsible for shaping my life’s vision. Last week, we had an interesting discussion on whether greater sexual freedom meant a loss of power for women

Today I am sharing the reasons Spar feels career women continue to crash in to ceilings.

Spar begins by siting Management Women and the New Facts of Life, an article Felice Schwartz wrote for the Harvard Business Review in 1989:
The article argued that if corporations wanted to hire their best and brightest female employees, they needed to create a more flexible and family friendly workforce, one that offered young mothers a variety of ways to structure their working hours and their careers. High potential career women, Schwartz suggested fell naturally into two camps. In the first were “career primary women,” women who essentially behaved like men at work and were willing to undertake the same set of trade-offs. These women were almost certain to remain single or at least childless, Schwartz predicted, and to demand only that their employers “recognize them early, accept them, and clear artificial barriers from their path to the top.” In the second camp were career and family women,” women who wanted children and a career, and who, unlike both men and “career primary women,” were willing to trade some of the demands of promotion for the freedom to spend more time with their children. (Pg. 182)
Schwartz’s piece went viral and the term mommy-track was coined. Unfortunately, the mommy-track did not work out in practice:
Few organizations have found ways to carve their most important positions into anything other than full-time chunks. Today for example, more than twenty years after Schwartz published her article, there are still only eight scientists working part time at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Only 13 percent of women lawyers work part time, as do 2 percent of the female financial managers. It doesn’t seem that the human resource departments of any of these organizations are consciously choosing against part-time positions. But when it comes to putting actual bodies in actual jobs, full-timers simply tend to dominate. As a result, while the number of women who work part time is statistically quite high (roughly a quarter of all female workers), the vast majority of these part-timers are clustered at the lower end of the economic spectrum, working as cashiers, waitresses and sales assistants. (Pg. 183)
I found this to be interesting, since just last week I asked our CFO if I could hire a part-time person for our department. His answer – I would prefer everyone work a few hours of overtime each week rather than add an additional staff person.

I was also reminded of the seminar I had attended on hiring discrimination. The seminar was given by the HR Director of a major corporation in my area. I learned many managers continue to “profile” and discriminate when making hiring decisions. They prefer not to hire married women for IT consulting positions that involve travel – she recommended ladies take off their wedding rings before going on those types of interviews. Also, they tend not to hire or promote women who are in their child bearing years.

Then there are the women who opt-out. I have several friends and co-workers whose experiences mirrored the following:
Many women who have left the full-time workforce, of course, predict that their hiatuses will be brief. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett found in a 2005 study, most women who pull blithely into a career “off-ramp” find the road back far more treacherous than they anticipated. Positions disappear; salaries plummet; professional relationships grow stale. And at the end of the day, only 40 percent of women who try to return to full-time professional jobs actually manage to do so. The rest settle into early retirement or slower paced, lower-ranked jobs. (Pg. 183)
Women simply jump first:

When the choice is between compromising a job and compromising a family, women seem more inclined to focus on the family, men to stick with the job that pays the bills.

Opting-out is particularly high for women who didn’t like their careers that much to begin with or entered them haphazardly:
This mismatch between jobs and desires seems to vary not only with time and gender, but across industries as well. Specifically, there are some fields from which women seem to flee in droves: law, consulting, banking. And some fields in which they stay: medicine, academia, entrepreneurial ventures. Typically, the reasons cited to explain these patterns are the obvious ones – fields like consulting and corporate law, for example, are frequently described as being too demanding on young mothers time and too “male” in their knee-jerk behavior patterns. Commodity trading floors are still rough-edged, often raunchy, places. Would-be partners at major corporate law firms work insanely long hours. (Pg. 187)
Her advice:
Don’t go into a field without first understanding the rules of the game and considering deeply whether you want to play them.

I have mentioned many times before about the number of hours accountants are required to work. When I returned to college to major in accounting I was fully aware of this requirement. It never occurred to me while in my twenties this hour requirement would eventually become cumbersome and if I were to have had children impossible. At the time, my only focus was to enter a career where I’d earn a decent salary.

What rules do you wish you would have known about your chosen career prior to entering it?

Femme Frugality


  1. This is great insight and what I feared when I opted-out of my full time job 6 months ago to stay home with my kids. For the past 12 years, I'd convinced myself that if I took a break, that my path to reenter a technical and ever-changing accounting field would be treacherous indeed. I still fear it should I decide to go back but I am trying to stay abreast of rule changes in the industry without giving up my CPA entirely. I hope it helps but I just got too burned out. I felt like i hit a ceiling and I wouldn't advance any higher because I wanted a work-life balance. Great post!

  2. This is so interesting. I don't have (or plan on) kids, but I don't want my career to be my whole life, either; I have so many other things that I enjoy doing. I'm hoping that I can get to a stage where my salary is high enough to afford to be part-time... but I'm aware this only works for as long as I have an understanding boss who "gets it". Forced to choose, somewhere down the line, I would definitely choose the non-work aspects of my life.

  3. I've never had a career unless being a mom and wife is considered a career. After college I thought about going to law school, but I could not handle that while taking care of my family. I don't think I ever want to be a career woman unless I work for myself. Very interesting article! Have a great day.

  4. I wish I had done more research and realized that I really needed a PhD to be successful in my career. I gave it up with no regrets. Now my daughter is starting to look at colleges and careers, and she wants to be a mom as well. My son won't have to balance fatherhood with a career, but she will.

  5. There really are no easy answers here. It would have been nice to have complete choice in my career path, but I graduated college in the midst of a recession. The jobs I had hoped to find were no longer available (even for the most highly qualified) and I felt lucky just to have a stable offer that could turn into any kind of career. That said, the Husband and I talk almost daily about if and when I might be able to stop working. I hate spending most of my time away from my family. Though I have no illusions. If I ever want to go back to work, I’m going to have to maintain current relationships, build new ones and make sure I never stop ‘working’ in some capacity for too long.

  6. I guess I jumped out. I quit my FT job in November to pursue self-employment. I guess you could say I wasn't really attached to my last position and kind of fell into it. I don't have children but I do feel a sense of disappointment with working in corporate America. I am seeing many of my friends (having kids) start to struggle with having to quit their jobs to be SAHMS or cough up tons of money for daycare. It's unfortunate but I often feel like there are no real easy options for women in the workforce and it disheartens me.

  7. Great piece-so enjoyed this! I think women also opt-out because of lack of spousal support/the societal norm that women *should* be the ones opting out. Maybe beating a dead horse here, but Sheryl Sandberg touches on that a lot in Lean In and she brings up a good point that it's not just women who need to facilitate change in that arena, but men do too.

    I don't have kids and am still on the fence about it, but if I do I plan on going back to work. The conversation about sharing the responsibility of parenting will definitely be a focal point of with my future husband before we even get married because that foundation of expectations should be front and center-I don't think enough women are bringing it up and then are finding themselves in this unfortunate position of having to decide between family and work later.

  8. this book sounds similar to sandberg's lean in, in that there needs to be more flexibility for women in the workplace so that they can balance motherhood. also, there needs to be more of a partnership with fathers taking on household duties in order to allow a woman to go back to her career. i think most people (men and women) know what they are getting into when they choose their fields. let's take banking and consulting. we know that those are brutal, unending hours, but people go into them for the prestige, the skills, the money, and for how that will add to their resume. i'd say of all the people who went into those fields out of my MBA program (and there were a lot of them), very few stuck it out after a few years.

  9. I always knew that I wanted to have a career with flexible hours so that I could make time for a family later on as well as things other than my day job. But I didn't anticipate just how much I wanted to be home with my baby once he arrived. I'm not working full time right now, but even part time has been a mental struggle. And now that I'm starting a new business venture, it's definitely becoming harder. Having worked at numerous start-ups, I don't know why I thought that would be easier. ;) Anyway, good stuff to think about for women just starting their careers as well as those of us who are a little farther along!

    Stopping by from the SITS Girls party, btw!

  10. I was part of a group that conducted an informal study on this for a Fortune 500 company. We found two groups - those who "opted out" younger to have or raise children. Many of them expected to re-enter the workforce and were sorely disappointed with the opportunities available to them when they tried. The other group was older and fed up. They left for self-employment or entrepreneurial ventures. Even though I consider myself to be the the second group, it was an eye-opener.

  11. Anonymous10:30 AM

    I think the challenge is that I didn't know how I would feel as a mom. I didn't know it would be so hard leaving my kids. My career and company is actually presenting me with some flex-time options, but I still work in a company where face-time is king. That means that even though I am still working, promotions and advancement will be stalled - especially if I elect to take advantage of opportunities to work from home. Culturally, many people just can't go there yet.

  12. I think about this a lot because there are VERY few paths in the arts that would allow a woman to continue being a stage manager or production manager and a mother. Pretty much the only place I've found is the circus and a lot of the kids there are nuts. I don't think I'd actually want to raise a family there.

  13. In my line of work many women (and men) delay everything for fear that they'll miss an opportunity. Having a child is such a financial and time strain, and for a career that's unpredictable in both pay and demands on your location and time, it's hard to make it work with a baby.

  14. This is very interesting! Definitely a lot to think about.

  15. As a lawyer with astronomical student loans, I don't have the opt-out option because I simply can't afford not to work. Although, after getting laid off, I'm much more likely to start my own firm than to land a full-time salaried position.

    Although, when I go to interviews, I always take off my wedding rings! Although, I'm almost past my "child-bearing" years, so hopefully that discrimination won't be a problem anymore.

  16. I always worked in fitness so even when I was a manager at a Federal fitness center, it was the typical job. But, I didn't want children and the hubby didn't either so I didn't have to worry about choosing career or family. However, with a lot of middle class AA women, we usually are not raised to feel we shouldn't work. Our moms and grandmothers had to work even when they had husbands. I'm not saying all but most tend to work than stay home with the kids.

  17. My field is pretty accommodating, but it is dominated by women. That's really crazy that they wouldn't hire you because you were MARRIED. As if all married people choose to have children. And even if you did, it's not like you couldn't be competent at your job. Or that after you physically recovered from childbirth, your husband couldn't stay home with your child. Or you couldn't send your child to day care or hire a nanny. The sexism in this country that leads to discrimination makes me so sick.

  18. I'm a work at home mom and I decided to become a freelancer before we even knew we wanted to have kids, so I feel like I made my choice of semi-opting out clearly. (As a writer/editor there's no money no matter which way you do it.) But I don't know what I would have wanted to do if I'd stayed with the idea of being a teacher instead of going the journalism route...

  19. Tanya,
    Working as an accountant/CPA myself I can fully understand why you opted-out. I don't have children and also feel I don't have a work/life balance. I think blogging and keeping up with your CPA will help.
    The biggest change happening in my office this year is the continued push to go paperless and adding an app to our salesman's phones/ipads so they have immediate access to our data. This will require us to be even more up-to-date and accurate. Also, I have been told if my staff becomes to overwhelmed they are to work overtime. We will not be hiring.

  20. Rachel,
    I don't think the management where I currently work will ever "get it." I would like to save up enough money, then come up with a side-hustle that would allow me to opt-out. I don't think blogging is going to do it. Looking forward to watching you evolve.

  21. Cascia,
    What did you major in? Just curious. Currently a law degree is considered a waste of money unless you really plan on using in. Glad to see you didn't go that route. Your pocket book is happy too.

  22. Dana,
    It continues to amaze me how uninformed most of us are about our future career. Perhaps it is because most of our advisors in college have only worked in academia and not in the real world.

  23. Leslie,
    That is so true. I just read a post from a woman who took ten years off from her graphic arts career to raise her family. Now newly divorced she can't get hired anywhere. Make sure in addition to staying in touch with your contacts you keep your skills updated.

  24. Holly,
    Not there is not. My sister pays $700 a week on daycare for her 3 kids during the summer. I would love to learn more about your disappointment with corporate America.

  25. Melia,
    Debora Spar covers women picking up the slack pretty heavily in this book. I think you are right there needs to be a lot of discussion before you even have kids to make sharing of the duties work.

  26. Catherine,
    Very interesting that few of your MBA classmates who went into banking and finance stuck it out. Part of that might have been the recession, but I think a big part has to do with people changing. I didn't mind working long hours in my accounting career when I was in my 20's, but now in my 50's and even when I was in my 40's I wanted more out of life.

  27. Dawn,
    I've heard this before -
    I didn't anticipate just how much I wanted to be home with my baby once he arrived. I'm not working full time right now, but even part time has been a mental struggle.

    I genuinely hope it gets easier for you. And good luck with your new business.

  28. Sarah Day,
    Very interesting. I'm in the 2nd group.

  29. Kerry,
    No we are not there yet culturally. So disappointing.