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.
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.