Is the Opt Out Myth Officially Defeated?

iStock_000006262297XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Recently Pew Research released the results of a new study showing that career aspirations are increasing in women. According to the research, the importance women aged 18-34 placed on career aspiration increased by 10% between 1997 and 2011. Not only that, the importance of career aspirations to men aged 18-24 only increased by 1%. In fact, the study showed, more young women (66%) than men (59%) named “being successful in a high paying career or profession” as very important or one of the most important things to them.

And it’s not just young women. The importance of a high paying career to women aged 35 to 64 also rose significantly in the same time period – from 26% to 42%. That’s an even bigger leap than for younger women. Men of the same age group only saw a 2% increase in the importance of a high paying career.

The ambition gap is officially closed. But what’s really surprising is how much more quickly women’s ambition seems to be growing. Will companies be able to keep up with women’s soaring career goals? And now that we can clearly see that the importance women place on their career is equal to (surpassing, even) men at every age, can we finally lay the opt-out myth to rest?

“Opting Out” – So 15 Years Ago

For years, companies have seen junior women achieving high levels of success… until about mid-career, when women tend to drop out of the workforce in large numbers. This coincides with the time that women are generally having children, and many have surmised that motherhood changes career ambitions and women choose to leave the workforce, to focus more on family than on work.

Research in 2004 by the Center for Talent Innovation’s Hidden Brain Drain Task Force showed that this isn’t the case – that, instead of opting out, women were being pushed out by workplaces that were unwilling to meet the flexibility needs of moms.

Indeed, the new Pew research confirms this. Certainly not all of the women in the study’s 35-64 age group were mothers, but it’s likely that majority were. And in this age group, ambition levels were only 2% less than men.

At the same time, the study showed that women aged 35-64 aren’t placing any less importance on family than they did 15 years ago. In fact, parenting has increased in importance for both women and men.

“Both middle-aged and older women and men are significantly more likely to place parenting at the top of their priorities today than in 1997. More than half (56%) of women and nearly half (49%) of men ages 35 to 64 say being a good parent is one of the most important things, with increases of 13 and 11 percentage points, respectively.”

More people are placing higher levels on importance of both family and work – and this suggests that work/life challenges aren’t going anywhere soon. Can companies keep up?

Keeping the Pipeline Flowing

In the past, many assumed that women were simply making a choice if they left the workforce due to caretaking responsibilities – the numbers showed that women placed less importance on career ambitions than men, and as such, there weren’t as many women aspiring to top jobs.

The new research shows that women no longer want to make that choice – they want a powerful job, and they want a life outside that job, whether that means raising a family, tending to another passion, or staying connected to their community – or all three. And they are expecting their companies to support them at work, and allow for a life outside work as well.

As women continue to excel at university levels and exceed expectations set in their early careers, companies will have to work hard to retain them. The leaky pipeline is still a problem for many firms. Ensuring that their investment in talented young people pays off should be a priority, and building a work/life culture that caters to their needs will be critical for any company focused on retaining the best talent.