Thursday, January 10, 2008

Are Mothers Opting Out of Careers to Care for Children?

A lawyer with a good shot at making partner quits. A picture shows her cradling a baby close to her breast. Since the publication of a New York Times story titled the “Opt Out Revolution,” the press has frequently reported anecdotes of high-powered, educated women who have decided to “opt out” of work in favor of full-time motherhood. The angle is that women in their thirties had mothers who fought for the right to work and raised their daughter to believe they could do anything, but it turns out that these successful women cannot balance a stressful career with childcare.Feminist Economics, which is the academic journal I work for, has published a new study on this controversial question.

The new evidence from scholar Heather Boushey refutes the idea of an opt out revolution. Boushey shows that the number of women leaving jobs to take care of children has decreased dramatically over the past two decades. The article, “Opting Out? The Effect of Children on Women’s Employment in the United States” counters media portrayal of “any exit from employment by a mother as about motherhood, not other factors, such as inflexible workplaces, labor market weakness, a decrease in men’s contributions to housework, or other reasons why women may not work outside the home.” She points to changes in the labor market, not children, as a cause for somewhat lower rates of women in the workplace more recently.

“Highly educated women, those with a graduate degree – those who the media claims have been opting out of employment for motherhood – have not actually seen a statistically or economically meaningful decline or increase in the estimated marginal effect of children on their employment,” Boushey writes. Furthermore, the effect of children on women with a high school or college degree and for single mothers has sharply decreased.

Using data from a nationally representative survey of the US population, the Current Population Survey’s Annual Social and Economic Survey (ASEC) from 1979 to 2005, Boushey did not find any evidence of an increase in opting out. In contrast, she finds that especially for women with a high school or college degree and for single mothers, “the estimated marginal effect of having children at home has decreased sharply over the past two decades.” She finds that the ‘‘child effect’’ on women’s employment has fallen since the end of the 1970s from 21.8 percentage points in 1979 to 12.7 percentage points in 2005.

“The US’s 2001 recession was exceptionally hard on women workers,” writes Boushey. “They lost more jobs than they had in prior recessions, even though they lost fewer jobs than men overall.” Boushey suggests that “the opting-out story” may be simply due to the lower employment rates for workers overall since 2000.

At the time of writing the article, Boushey was a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, which is a progressive think tank. Now she works for Congress as a senior economist. Her work focuses on the U.S. labor market, social policy, and work and family issues.

I think that Boushey’s work is a crucial intervention in the debate about support for women entering the workforce. Discussions of mother’s choices should be backed up by real evidence and Dr. Boushey’s article offers a rigorous, peer-reviewed analysis. The point is not that parents can easily balance their work and home lives. But we should not assume, on the basis of anecdotes, that privileged women reject the opportunities feminists have struggled for. We do need to talk about ways to support parents and enable more people to be able to choose the lives they find most meaningful.

My goal is to include more summaries of and interviews about work published in the journal or presented at the panels I attend so readers of this blog can learn from and respond to the latest scholarship. Hopefully, this will be the first of several reports.


Henitsirk said...

I wonder if these women quit their paying jobs because of (or strongly influenced by) other factors such as the labor market changes Boushey points out, yet the women themselves frame their decision in terms of caring for the children because that is still the predominant emotional/mental image of a mother in Western culture?

I wonder if we're not still so entrenched in the idea that mothers should care for their children instead of working outside the home that we come back to it again and again like this no matter what level and range of employment women have.

I also wonder if we wouldn't be better off framing these women's decisions not as "rejecting the opportunities feminists have struggled for," but as embracing the ability to choose that feminists have brought us. Couldn't it be seen in a positive light?

I can say that my husband would love to feel as if he could choose to quit working. He can't, for many practical reasons, but also because he feels that he doesn't even have that choice culturally or within his own self-perception. It's just not even in the realm of possibility, of consideration. So in a way, you could say that I have more power than he does, in that I was able to quit my paying job and stay home with my kids for the last five years. And at the time I quit, I was making more money than he was, so it's not a financial issue.

Personally I think that men and women should both be able to stay home with their children without such a tremendous financial downturn. I think the key is that either parent should be able to think in those terms, to consider the possibility. Then hopefully changes in our economy and government would happen to support that.

rachel said...

It's a complex issue. Women choose to go back to work or stay home for any number of reasons. I'm in a particularly fortunate situation in that I've already been working from home for over a year (baby's due in May), so I have an extremely flexible schedule. I'm not sure what I would decide if I worked in an office in the US (I'm an American in Europe), but it would be a tough decision. Businesses and the gov't in the US are notoriously bad in regards to creating a good workplace for parents. And the thought of daycare scares me.

Where I now live (in Estonia), women are paid their full salaries by the gov't for 1-2 years if they stay home and they're guaranteed their jobs when they're ready to return to the workplace. Men are given two weeks off after the birth of the baby and can take paternity leave once the baby is six months old. (Not totally sure what that involves.)

In any case, my husband (a lawyer and also American) has said from the start that he'd love to stay home with the baby if I want to have an office-based career. Social customs be damned, he's already a supremely proud dad.

dancefan21 said...

Why should your employer pay you for not working? The company exists to make a profit for the shareholders, not to subsidize the life choices of its employees. Things like vacation time and paid m/paternity leave and tuition reimbursement are benefits/perks, not obligations.

GreenDaddy said...

Thanks henitsirk and rachel for your comments. Opting out of careers is a really complex issue. I think the way I wrote up the study doesn't really do justice to how complicated these decisions are. I'll reread everything and try to comment again.

In response to dancefan21, you have the issue of subsidizing backwards. It is the unpaid work of parents, mostly women, that subsidizes the entire economy. What would a company be without workers who were cared for as children and as adults by family members? A company may well be set up to make a profit, but a narrow profit motive should not dictate how our entire society is set up. A society that does not support its caregivers ultimately shortchanges itself morally, socially, and economically. I need to do a whole post on the obligation to provide adequate support to parents.

Henitsirk said...

GreenDaddy, I think dancefan21 is actually right, in that US corporate law forces corporations to serve only one master, their share price. If offering generous "perks" like paid parental leave (beyond what is required by law) increased their profits, they would do it. So dancefan21 is right, given how things are actually arranged right now legally.

That said, I agree with you that in the long run, the corporate world is doing both themselves and society at large a disservice by not supporting employees. Or another perspective would be to say that our government is doing the disservice in not providing these "benefits" on a national level.

Not putting a monetary value on the work of parents and caregivers in a sense does make a large part of what subsidizes our economy invisible. As someone who pays $1500 a month for daycare for my children, I can say that it is not invisible to me!

GreenDaddy said...

OK, there are many ways parents could be supported. Corporations could be required to do it with the state covering the gaps. That's the US style of setting up social protections. Or the state could provide all the support itself by setting up daycares and other programs. The state could pay caregivers. There are probably other solutions no one has imagined. Each has its drawbacks and advantages.

But the support is a societal obligation not a perk.

GreenDaddy said...

henitsirk, I reread the paper and copied some quotes that seem relevant to questions you raised. First of Boushey writes:

"This analysis does not make claims about why women are behaving in a particular way but asks a more basic question: are women behaving in a particular way?"

So Boushey is intentionally sidestepping the actual reasons while people choose to work or not to work. Then she writes:

"Given that the US has no national paid maternity-leave policy, childcare is very expensive and not generally subsidized (except for a small share of poor working mothers), and workplaces have been slow to adapt to the needs of working mothers for paid time off and flexibility, the rapid decline in the effect of children on women’s employment is quite stunning and implies a considerable private burden borne by mothers and potentially their spouses."

That's really interesting to me. I would add that children carry a huge part of the burden. And school teachers. Boushey ends with this statement:

"Focusing on the needs of the millions of US parents who are working, rather than questioning whether professional mothers are at work, would be a fruitful course forward for academic research and policy-makers alike."

After reading your questions henitsirk, I think Boushey's final suggestion is too narrow. We need to focus on those who choose to work and not to work (in the formal labor market), and we especially need to consider masculinity -- why men like your husband feel culturally bound to a male breadwinner model even when they know a mix of shared paid work and unpaid caregiving with a spouse would be more rewarding. And we need make visible the cost of the extra burdens that parents, children, and teachers have.

But Boushey's main point is that there was a revolution in the 70s. Far more women entered the labor force and staid even when they had children. And for the past decade, the overall effect of children has stabilized, especially for highly-educated women. So if there is some opting out trend, it's not backed up by broad national data.

Amit said...

A female friend of mine is the breadwinner while her hubby stays home and takes care of their two kids. I personally wouldn't mind doing that either if it were the practical option. If a woman decides to quit her job and be a stay-at-home mom, some (career) women do give her a hard time, or look down upon such a decision, which is not healthy either.

And yes, US companies need to do more for new parents. If other industrialized countries can do it, why not the US?

Beth said...

I'm doing research around the choices women make to have or not have children and am interested in this issue in how it impacts on women's choices to have children or remain childfree. I also found this interesting report for the European Social Forum