The Opt-Out Conversation Grows More Complex

iStock_000017262943XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Proponents of the opt-out phenomenon suggest that the dearth of women at the top of corporations is due to women leaving the workforce in favor of personal or family responsibilities. But economic studies have been unable to show any statistically significant evidence of opting out. To this point, opting out has been more of a rumor or an anecdote.

But new Vanderbilt research has identified a subset of women that is more likely to leave the workforce. According to the new study, women who graduated from elite universities are more likely to opt out than college educated women whose universities were not in the top tier. Author Joni Hersch, Professor of Law and Economics at Vanderbilt Law School, explained that she was initially surprised at the findings.

“More than anything, the reason I could detect statistical significance is because the effect was so strong. It was surprising that it was so strong, and it cut across degree levels.” In fact, it was strongest in women with MBAs.

Hersch analyzed an enormous sample – the 2003 National Survey of College Graduates – which contained detailed information for more than 100,000 college grads. She found that 78 percent of women who graduated from the most selective colleges were employed, compared to the 84 percent of women who graduated from other colleges and were employed.

Similarly, 68 percent of mothers who graduated from elite colleges were employed, compared with 76 percent of mothers who graduated from less selective institutions and were employed.

You wouldn’t expect women from elite colleges to leave the workforce. Graduates from these types of institutions are more likely to marry later, earn graduate degrees, and make more money over their lifetimes. All of these factors are likely to increase the rate at which people stay in their jobs. But in the case of women from top colleges, that wasn’t so.

Impact of Background

Hersch says she explored a number of possibilities for why women from elite colleges are more likely to leave the workforce. Her research suggested some potential explanations, which are related to the characteristics of people who are more likely to attend a top-tier university. She explained, “There is a high correlation between higher family income and going to an elite college.”

People from higher income families are less likely to accrue student debt, and therefore aren’t tied to the workforce in the same way as someone from a less wealthy background. At the same time, people from higher income families are likely to marry people who are also from higher income families. That too reduces the “need” for elite graduates to work, Hersch explained.

Even still, this reasoning would only account for a small proportion of the women who had opted out. Also likely, she said, “this is hard to test for, but the term an economist would use is ‘heterogeneity of preferences.’”

She explained, “If you are from the kind of background that sends its children to elite colleges, you go to college regardless of the expectation of future career commitment.”

For women from higher income backgrounds, there is more of an expectation that they will go to college whether they plan to enter and stay in the workforce or not. Conversely, if you are from a lower-income background, you are more likely to have made sacrifices like taking out student loans to go to college. Such women have made the decision to go to college in order to increase their chances of employment. Therefore, some time down the road, they are more likely to be still employed.

Opting Out or Having Options?

Hersch emphasized that the data do not indicate that women who attended elite colleges are leaving the workforce simply because they can afford to when they encounter inflexibility or discrimination.

“If you went to an elite institution, you probably have a greater menu of workplace options to choose from,” she explained. If being pushed out were a factor here, elite graduates could simply go work at a company with better policies and practices. But they’re leaving the workforce, at least for some time, which indicates that other factors are at play.

Companies may in fact be pushing women out of the workforce with unfriendly or undesirable working conditions, she explained, but this research shows that other factors are also important.

If this isn’t about inflexibility, then what can companies do to better attract and retain women from elite colleges? “The obvious answer is to pay them more,” she said. “That’s what an economist would say. But they’re already leaving high paying jobs. So it must have something to do with how companies select people to hire. As long as companies preferentially hire elite graduates, they will continue this dynamic.”

At the end of the day, she continued, the vast majority of women are staying in their careers. Opting out was only observable in a tiny segment of the population Hersch studied. The majority of women from elite colleges did remain in the workforce. “They like working, and would prefer that to not working. It’s not just about being able to afford not to work. It takes a lot of money to stay entertained if you don’t have a job,” she said with a laugh.

8 Responses

  1. LC

    I’m curious — could it be possible that women who go to elite colleges are more likely to have had mothers who stayed at home (for many of the reasons mentioned above)? Maybe this subset of women is more used to that being a viable option, made out of choice and not necessity?

  2. Natalie

    Great article! Thank you for writing. We need more women to have the opt-in mentality to reach the top ranks of corporate and public institutions. I am on a mission to help aspiring executive women leaders who want to change the world be the CEO of their careers with confidence and grace.

    The Glass Hammer is a great resource and partner.

    Complete this and enter to win a free copy of Lean In or a $25 Apple gift card.

  3. melissa

    Yes, you make a great point. Having had a role model of a mother who did not work may have had an impact on these women’s choices.

  4. Char

    Is family size a trigger? Perhaps women with three or more children are more likely to opt out given the logistics of handling complex social and recreations routines.

  5. Janette Raab

    Reading articles like this have me wondering if these types of studies will help women gain equal footing in the workplace. I would love to see a similar article from a study based on men who opt out of the workforce after graduating from elite and less elite universities. Perhaps acknowledging that men opt out of their careers due to a successful partner would help in the equal opportunity for women challenge that is present in today’s workforce.

  6. RS

    Perhaps it is because they go into more stressful, demanding careers and it is harder to find the balance they desire.

  7. Alison

    There are many good points here, but I find curious the suggestion that companies might do more — pay more — to attract and retain graduates of elite universities. It may be that graduates of less leafy institutions are as good as, if not better, in the workforce, with their only drawback being that they could not afford to attend Harvard et al, or lacked the right contacts to ensure they got in.
    Few people remain as they were at 18 or 21. And many flourish and prove themselves only after they’ve left school and been tested in the real and often rugged world of work.

  8. I’ve been advising women who have left the workforce for more than a decade and a very high percentage are graduates of elite colleges. An amazing number have spent the time and money to obtain JDs and MBAs. These women on hiatus become mega-volunteers–running non-profit organizations with the fervor they once applied to corporate jobs. Eventually the volunteering is not enough and they want to return to the workforce. My anecdotal data is that the more elite or advanced the education, the sooner life out of the workforce becomes less fulfilling overall. Female graduates of elite colleges often marry male graduates of elite colleges who can support the family more than adequately during a wife’s hiatus. But when these women itch to return to work, it’s often less about money and more about more broadly using the brains that got them into those elite colleges. My strong belief is that 99.9% of women enjoy working–regardless of alma mater–and need to find more creative ways to, as my 9 Lives for Women mission says, “Find the Work that Fits their Life” through every age and life stage.