Beyond "Opting Out:" Dissecting the Barriers Affecting Women's Entrance and Success in Business

By Jones, Thomas O., Jr.; Schneider, Beth Z. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Beyond "Opting Out:" Dissecting the Barriers Affecting Women's Entrance and Success in Business


Jones, Thomas O., Jr., Schneider, Beth Z., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

Women have increasingly made a significant impact on the paid workforce over the past 70 years. But even with increasing female participation rates, the workplace poses distinct challenges for women in remaining permanently employed and maneuvering through corporate ranks. The popular media has presented "opting out" as a rationale for women's unstructured career paths. The popular press has made the case that women, in great numbers and in high level careers, make the choice to leave the workforce because of a strong desire to raise their children. However, studies have shown that most newspaper stories only relate the experiences or opinions of a few select women. Most reports have failed to relate the truth about the female majority and have neglected the real experiences of most American families and working women. (1) While it is true that women make life choices based on the strong pull from their personal lives--children, eldercare, spousal career demands, and even family relocation--it is not clear if "opting out" is a matter of necessity or choice; are there possibly more push factors than pull factors involved when making these critical decisions. (2) Therefore, the issue is, if given better options or solutions, would women more readily choose to remain in the workforce and choose career goals over unemployment or underemployment? And what are employers willing to do or doing, if anything, to assist women faced with these challenges? A possible solution that would be available to employers is presented.

Background

Women's participation in the United States workforce has steadily increased from 43% in 1970 to 59.5% in 2008. (3) Statistics also show that 66% of all American households with children under 18 have all adults working as do 51% of households with women living without a husband. (4) In 2008, 51% of women with children under the age of 18 worked full-time, whereas 16.4 % worked part-time, 4% were unemployed and 28.6% were not in the workforce. (5) According to the US Census Bureau, "60% of women earn half or more of their families' income. (6) The current data implies that it is imperative for most women to work--either to provide two parent households with dual income or to provide the sole income to account for the increased number of single female households. Basic economic factors for family survival seem to refute the belief that most women can voluntarily choose to leave the workforce.

Although the evidence shows that women either want to or need to work, many women still leave the workforce at some point in their career. Nearly four in ten highly qualified women (37%) reported that they left work voluntarily at some point in their careers and among women who had children, that statistic rose to 43%. (7) These figures indicate that many women make a choice to leave the workforce and having children has an increased impact on this decision. However, these figures do not provide the specific reasons behind the premise of "opting out." While "opting out" is an easy explanation for women's non-linear career paths, it is not so simple. Studies have shown that of highly qualified women "only 16% always intended to quit when they had children" and of the 43 women surveyed, only 5 had a "stable preference to be a stay-at-home mom." (8) Cleary, while a minority of women will choose to be stay-at-home mothers out of pure preference, most women, especially educated women, prefer to maintain a working status. The theory of "opting out" continues to lack validity for providing a basis for why many women become unemployed or underemployed.

The demographics of stay-at-home mothers is yet another facet in further weakening the "opting out" premise. In the United States, the number of households with children under18 has consistently decreased and only 8% of professional women (born since 1956) have left the workforce for childbearing. (9) In 2007, the U. …

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