Women not opting out of the workforce, economist argues

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In the past two years, two major media outlets have run cover stories claiming an increasing number of American women choose to quit working when they have children.

According to the stories in Time and the New York Times Magazine, employers and market observers have identified an “opt-out” phenomenon, in which more and more mothers are choosing to stay home rather than face the dual stresses of the workplace and the two-earner family.

Are the stories true? Are more women opting out of employment to raise their families?

Not at all, according to economist Heather Boushey, who presented her paper “Are Women Opting Out? Debunking the Myth” at an event sponsored by the Minnesota Policy Research and Analysis Network in St. Paul.

“I’m here to tell you that women are, indeed, not opting out,” said Boushey, an economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. “Women are more likely today to work when they have children than they were a generation ago.”

Empirical vs. anecdotal
In researching the opt-out phenomenon, Boushey paid close attention to labor force participation rates for women ages 25 to 45. She tracked the so-called “child penalty,” or the impact of having children in the home on women’s participation in the labor market.

Boushey found that in 1984, the participation rate of women 25 to 45 with children at home was 20.7 percentage points less than the participation rate of women without children at home. By 2004, however, that deficit had dropped to 9.2 percentage points.

“When you consider the effect of children on women’s (likelihood) of being employed, there is no evidence of an opt-out,” Boushey told the audience of about 40 people.

Boushey’s data contradicts the articles run in Time and the New York Times Magazine, which, Boushey said, used the compelling personal stories of a handful of women – particularly higher-educated women – to create a “media frenzy” on the opt-out phenomenon.

“For women with graduate degrees, the effect of having a child has remained constant,” Boushey said. “The difference now is there are more moms with higher degrees.

“Women with college degrees used to be more likely to stay at home with children; now they are just as likely to work, slightly more. And (mothers) with a high school diploma are more likely to work than any group.

“The reality is it’s very difficult for most families to afford to have one parent go back into the home.”

Minnesota no exception
Steve Hine, research director of the Labor Market Information Office, a division of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said statewide data reflects the trends Boushey found in women’s labor participation rates nationwide.

“We’ve got the same thing going on here, perhaps to a greater extent than the nation as a whole,” said Hine, one of two local economists who responded to Boushey’s presentation.

The other local economist, Diane Cushman, director of the state legislature’s Office on the Economic Status of Women, said she fears the prevalence of the opt-out myth will have a negative impact on employers’ efforts to recruit and retain female employees.

“The concern is when employers hear the myth, that employers pull back on hiring women for fear they’ll leave soon after,” Cushman said. “To assume women are less serious about their work is an unhealthy situation for our country.”

Boushey agreed. Rather than pursuing anecdotal evidence of women’s withdrawal from the workplace, Time and the New York Times Magazine, she said, would better serve their readers by considering potential solutions to the problems facing two-earner families, like child care, health care and paid leave.

To access Boushey’s paper “Are Women Opting Out? Debunking the Myth,” “click here”:http://www.cepr.net/publications/opt_out_2005_ 11.pdf.