Do mothers choose to leave the workplace? Or are they pushed out?

Posted August 26, 2008

Sociologist and professor Pamela Stone interviewed 54 high-achieving professional women across the country who had left full-time employment to be at home with their children. She explores the factors that influenced their decisions in "Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home." Stone weaves together the women’s stories and her own analysis to provide an in-depth picture of why these women left the workplace and what changes they experienced once at home. She also provides examples and ideas for companies – and for women themselves – to more easily balance careers and families.

In advance of her presentation at Carolina Parent’s Women@Work Breakfast on Sept. 17, editor Crickett Gibbons talked with Stone. Below are excerpts from their conversation:

Why did you look at this specific issue when you did?

I actually got into it before there was that much controversy around it. I started studying it because, on the one hand, I am someone who studies gender and gender equality, women in the workplace, but I was seeing a lot of women who were struggling with these issues around work and family. And as I got to know a lot of the moms in my suburban community who I knew as at-home moms, I discovered that many of them had very big careers, had great credentials, and just putting the two together – my own professional interests and my life – I felt there was a connection. What was going on? Anybody who, for example, has an MBA or has a law degree, much less one from a highly selective school, we kind of take that as evidence that they are career-committed or interested in work. So why are they at home? And I found when I started to look into it that there was really no research.

So efforts to make workplaces more "family-friendly" hadn't been based on research about why women were leaving?

The bias in the literature is to do research on women in the workplace. And when women leave the workplace, research tends to look at very different things – the household division of labor, their care-giving work – but there’s nothing that really looks at the movement of women from the workplace to the home. Only by a big leap does it tell us anything about women who are not working.

I also looked at the popular press. And the prevailing understanding there was not about work-family issues. It was instead about pace and preferences and the idea of there being a real preference shift – that women were throwing over the idea of trying to combine work and family and were embracing a much more traditional model of stay-at-home motherhood. So, in fact, if there was any sort of working hypothesis out there about this group of women, it was very much about women proactively embracing motherhood and the pulls of motherhood, nothing in the popular understanding about the workplace pushes. So that was one of my questions: What’s the role of both? Sure, there are family pulls, but are there other things going on?

In the book you explain the "double-bind" of career and family and how it leads to the "choice gap." Is there a way to explain that in a nutshell?

What we have is a prevailing narrative, especially of the kind of high-achieving women I studied, that it’s all about their choice, their discretion. But what reality shows is that in these high-powered jobs particularly, women don’t have the degrees of choice that we, and even they, think they have. They are in many ways much more accurately described as being shut out of their careers, not opting out. In effect, these workplace cultures and the expectations of them are a de-facto motherhood bar. You can never have anybody with any serious care-giving responsibilities do these jobs. They’ve escalated out of control with 50-, 60-, 70-hour work weeks. Even people like these women who have caregivers, they want to see their kids. It’s incompatible with motherhood.

For most of the women you spoke with, the pull of motherhood wasn’t what made them finally decide to leave.

As opposed to when speaking to journalists in the popular media where they are identified by name, I found that when I spoke to these women confidentially – the names I use are fictitious – I just heard a very different story, much to my surprise, with so much of the emphasis being on the negative experiences at work.

You also look at the incompatibility in our society regarding the "ideal worker" and expectations for intensive mothering.

They are absolutely in a head-on collision. Although I believe a lot of what I’m finding has implications for women with other types of backgrounds, I’m focusing specifically on women who have worked as professionals and managers and are well-educated. Those kinds of jobs are the jobs in which the demands are the most intense and the most ramped up.

You end the book with a call to "start your engines" and "reignite the stalled revolution." What can companies and individual workers do?

I outline some broad directions and give examples in the book of specific company policies that would meet the needs of the kind of women I interviewed. For example, what was clear from the women I studied is so much of the formal policy is around leave. There’s really little to help these women transition back, and there’s very little with regard to how to construct meaningful, flexible arrangements without penalizing the job, etc.

Ultimately, it’s important and incumbent on women – and I think more women are doing this – to make their needs felt and to work proactively to both make reasonable requests for accommodations and to help see that those become an ever-more-common feature of the workplace. The women at home have a role in that, too, by saying, “Look, it’s not really all about kids. It’s about an unyielding workplace.”

Women cycle in and out of the workplace. Most women, the women that I talked to, anticipate going back. I think sometimes what is so destructive are the “mommy wars” constructions that say an at-home mom has some kind of different interest than a “working mom,” when in fact, oftentimes they are one and the same, just at different times in their life.


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  • Gottalovemy4dogs Sep 1, 2008

    Here we go with the "mommy wars". All the stay-at-home-mothers will get on their high horses and say that the work mothers don't love their children enough...and all the working mothers will say they simply can't live without the second income when in reality they could with a lot of financial sacrafice. Both groups will point fingers at one another to make themselves look better when in reality, mothers nowadays, we feel like no matter what the choice, we are missing out on something.

    With that said, it's 2008 people. Companies and people in general should understand that everyone has a family. It may not be a spouse or kids but family includes parents, siblings and that there has to be a balance between those two worlds for everyone. Balance is the key but money hungry companies only want to fatten their pockets instead of making a better workplace for their employees.

  • wine_girl Aug 28, 2008

    I am a working mother. And I miss my son every minute of every day while i am at the office. Finacially... I must work and I do enjoy my job. My son is in a private school here in town where they keep the children busy with wonderful activities and he LOVES it. It is, for sure, hard to balance family/work...
    BUT, you do what you gotta do.

  • jedichick Aug 27, 2008

    Work isn't family time. It's a JOB. You are expected to do your job while there. If you can't then don't do it. If a company wants to make itself "family friendly", then fine, but employees shouldn't expect special treatment just because they have a family and others don't. Sometimes it's as if childless people are being punished for not having a family.

  • Arcturus Aug 27, 2008

    Sometimes this goes the other way. And no, what wcnc says "they finally realize their children are more important than any job could ever be" doesn't look at the whole picture, either.

    I am well-educated and have a job that earns a decent living for my family. My husband, for all his intelligence, had a combination of circumstances which prevented his completing a bachelor's degree. He can't support our family; I can. I wish I could stay home and be a mom, but with the choice between my family living below the poverty level or middle class, that's not much of a choice.

    My workplace expects that working moms are earning a second income (and isn't always the most understanding about my need for steady income) but I am grateful that it is flexible and accommodating with my schedule and I do get to see my son. I am also happy that it is my husband, not a hired caregiver, who stays at home with him. But I wish I could be there instead.

  • wcnc Aug 27, 2008

    This is an easy question to answer.

    Women leave the workforce because they realize they can't do career and motherhood at the same time and do either job to their best ability. They finally realize their children are more important than any job could ever be.

    It is very hard for feminists to see that this is the reason. They think there must be some other reasons involved. Simply, moms love their children and realize they are better for them than any childcare worker could ever be.

    Good job to those moms who leave their jobs to raise their children!! It is the best decision you could EVER make!!