August 8th, 2013 | 6:00 am

Is There Corporate Life After Childbirth? Exploring the Opting Out Trend Among Working Moms

filed under Managing Change, Work-Life

iStock_000010170880XSmallBy Michelle Hendelman, Editor-in-Chief

In a recent study published by Vanderbilt University researcher, Joni Hersch, she takes a closer look at why women with elite educations are opting out of the workplace at a higher rate than women who hold degrees from less selective institutions after a break in their career. Opting out, onramping, re-entering the labor force, the mommy penalty – these are all buzzwords and phrases being used right now to discuss the trend of a growing percentage of women who choose to leave the workforce, usually to start a family, and the challenges they face if they decide to return to their career.

There is already a gross underrepresentation of women in leadership roles, but now that the talent pipeline of highly educated, experienced women with great career potential is taking a hit as a result of women opting out, the lack of women at the top could reach epic proportions. The bottom line is that when it comes to the gender diversity agenda, women cannot afford to continue to lose key players, role models, and influencers.

In order to uncover real answers about the opting out phenomenon, we must ask a very important question – are women not seeking opportunities for onramping because they do not desire to re-enter the workforce, or is it because companies are not facilitating their return in a positive and constructive manner? Like many of the issues surrounding corporate gender diversity, there is no cut and dry answer to why a high percentage of women choose to leave the workforce permanently after having children. Instead, we must look at the opting out trend from many different angles and perspectives to arrive at a compounded truth.

Using Hersch’s research as a springboard, we will explore some of the contributing factors to the opting out trend and how to get talented women back on their established career path after childbirth.

Socioeconomics

According to Hersch, “Because elite women on average have children later than non-elite graduates, those who are willing to have children (or have them at a younger age) may receive higher quasi-wages within marriage. This would imply that women with children who are graduates of elite institutions may be less likely to participate in the labor market as a result of the income effect generated from their higher quasi-wages.”

Perhaps there is an “income effect” that prevents qualified women from seeking re-entry into the workforce. If economic need is not a factor, women might not feel motivated to continue where they left off in their career trajectory.

In the research study, The Working Mother Report: What Moms Choose, there is a very important distinction made between a woman who is career-oriented versus a woman who is financially motivated when it comes to their working life. The report states, “Career-oriented mothers score 11 percentage points higher on our engagement index (which factors in elements like pride in their company, loyalty and job satisfaction) than moms working primarily for financial reasons.”

This research certainly indicates that financial need could be a key factor when assessing the reasons that women choose to opt out of their careers. On the other hand, a woman who is mostly career-oriented will maintain an unwavering loyalty to her job despite her decision to impact her work/life balance by having a child.

Is the “Mommy Penalty” real?

The “mommy penalty” is a term that has been widely used to describe the collective set of obstacles women face when they attempt to re-enter the workforce after taking a break in their career to start a family. This mainly refers to the fact that while women put their careers on hold to raise children, their male counterparts at work continue to enjoy a linear path of career advancement without interruption.

During the onramping period during which women try to reposition themselves on their former career path, they may face opposition from colleagues who view their hiatus as an inherent disadvantage. Strategic Consultant, Whitney Johnson, writes in her article, Get Innovation Right: Tap Into Women Over Forty, “Many women (43%, according to The Atlantic) take time off from career paths to parent. To some in the C-suite, this makes them less committed and less capable. What I see and have personally experienced is that those years ‘off track’ actually increase and diversify a woman’s portfolio of skills and knowledge, increasing her potential to become a powerful player in her 40s and beyond.”

This suggests that traces of a “mommy penalty”—whether intentional or not—still exist in the corporate culture that champions an imbalance between work and life. If studies indicate that career-driven women will have the desire to return to work after taking time off to raise a family, companies must work harder to keep this group of top talent engaged.

6 comments

  1. [email protected]

    I take some level of offense to this article. The implication that there is some sort of problem with educated women leaving the workforce to care for their children is ridiculous. Has anyone ever stopped to consider that maybe they LIKE being home? That they WANT and choose to be home voluntarily? That once you hold that baby in your arms you just know that all the board rooms, ladder climbing, and career ambitions in the world will never compare to the joy of being able to watch your children grow? The decision to quit your job and stay home is an extrememly difficult one, as well as the one to go back. Furthermore, this notion that companies need to bend over backwards to get women to come back to work or make things easier in their 40′s when they deem themselves ready to enter the workforce again seems a little crazy to me. No one does this for men. Your job is your job. You choose to be there. If you don’t like the rules or policies of the company you work for when you have a baby, you have every right to quit and go somewhere else. And if you’re going to stay home and raise kids for 10 years, I’m sorry, but you are out of the loop. We don’t work in the 1950′s anymore. Managers today are much more aware and sensitive of women’s issues. If there’s something you want – ASK. Many times you can get 50% of the way there if you are smart and a good performer.

    I guess I just don’t understand why this article perceives this as a problem. If men stay home, its noble and sweet. If women stay home its archaic or too domestic. And the idea that women with elite educations need to continue working and advance their careers so they can be role models to other women is just about the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I am a working woman and mother of 2. I wish every day I could stay home with my kids, but I can’t. I’m educated, I have a career – but I pick my role models based on the individual – their morals, their beliefs, how they navigate the corporate environment. Not their sex or race. Be happy in your decisions in life, go after what you truly want, and stop putting the burden on others to show you how its done.

  2. Keri Saunders O'Brien

    Take a look at irelaunch.com. It focuses it’s work on women “relaunchers” by developing seminars, cultivating networking opportunties and helping women get “back on the career track”….also the name if its founder’s signature book.

  3. Michelle Hendelman

    Thanks for commenting and expressing your views, e_gumbie79. This article certainly was not written to offend anyone, but rather to explore opting out from a different perspective and continue the conversation on a topic that is getting a lot of attention right now. The New York Times published a great piece yesterday on this very same issue. The issue is certainly a complex one, and will spark many different opinions.

    Anyone – regardless of their gender – who takes a career break for any reason will likely experience some difficulty navigating their way back into their career. This is why companies like Goldman Sachs created their Returnship program to help anyone who has “off-ramped” make a successful transition back into the workforce. Of course not everyone will desire to re-enter the workforce after a career break, but if they do, companies should create policies to ease the transition.

  4. Anne

    I see many women in the neighborhood of 40 quitting corporate jobs because frankly, we are sick of the BS. I walked out of a comfy 6-figure job that didn’t require much effort 7 months ago and haven’t looked back. The prime motivator was to be able to give more time and energy to my kids, who are in 3rd grade and K, but I also was tired of dealing with the politics, inertia, and perceived futility of the corporate environment (not to mention that I was in defense, which is crowded with 50-something men with a hierarchical mindset and also not a happy place now). I now work a lot harder as a real estate investor and small business owner, but I have much more flexibility, and really enjoy being able to change my schedule as needed to make it to school events. The corporate track and the almighty dollar chase just seemed like a waste of time. I suppose I was not “engaged,” as the article described – I didn’t feel like my work was doing any good for the world. The idea of returning to a corporate job repulses me, and I don’t plan to go back if I can keep my choices. Anyway, there’s one isolated data point.

  5. Michelle Hendelman

    Thanks Anne. Your experience and opinion draws attention to one extremely important fact, and that is that everyone has to find what makes them happy. Personal definitions of success will vary, and I think determining what makes you feel happy and fulfilled and achieving that is key in this conversation. Good luck to you!

  6. Anne Martin

    As a former attorney and working mother who “leaned in” to my legal career for 15 years before “opting out” to become a home-based entrepreneur so I could have flexibility while raising my son, I think there’s another aspect to this issue.
    In my years of coaching women, I’ve observed that women’s priorities evolve as they move into their mid-thirties. While many may value professional achievement early in their careers, a significant life event ( motherhood), a career disruption or other wake-up call may lead them to re-define success for themselves. As a result, they may either opt out of the workforce , switch to part time work or become less engaged in their careers, allowing them to devote more time and energy to their families or other personal priorities.

    The bottom line is that women have more freedom than ever before to choose a path that that aligns with their values and vision of how they want to live their lives. The key to making the right choice is clarity about what’s important and a vision for how you want to live your life . From my experience and observation, a lot of the guilt women experience could be avoided by getting clear about their values, creating a vision of their ideal life and redesigning their lives so they can live that vision.

    This is easier said than done, given that certain corporate and professional cultures continue to promote work/life imbalance. However, as industries and professions continue to reinvent themselves as a result of economic disruption and rapid technological innovation, women today have an incredible opportunity to create new business models that allow them to blend meaningful work with fulfilling personal lives. Several family friendly law firms and companies already exist and attract top talent and more will emerge if current employers are unable to offer employees more flexibility in managing life and work.