The XX Factor

The Number of Women Opting Out of the Workforce Hasn’t Changed Over the Past 30 Years

No more, no less.

Thinkstock/ danr13

In 2003, the New York Times Magazine published “The Opt-Out Revolution,” Lisa Belkin’s look at ambitious and educated women who leave the workforce after having children. The story launched the ubiquitous and somewhat misleading term “opt out,” often presented as the alternative to another ubiquitous and somewhat misleading term, “lean in.” It also spurred an ongoing debate about whether the women Belkin wrote about represented a tiny but mediagenic trend or a wide scale and documentable shift.

Over the years, evidence has emerged to support both views. In 2009, the Washington Post ran a cover story disputing the revolution, pointing to recent census numbers showing that there was no upward trend of educated women deciding to stay home to look after children. But there’s also been data showing that number of women in the workforce is declining, and that the number of stay-at-home moms is on the rise.

Now a new study shows that opting out hasn’t increased—but it also hasn’t decreased. According to the research, the rate of women leaving the workforce has stayed essentially the same among women of all education levels for the past three decades. “Essentially the same” isn’t promising.

For “The Opt-Out Continuation: Education, Work, and Motherhood from 1984 to 2012,” a new paper recently published by the Russell Sage Foundation, economist Tanya Byker used data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, which gave her access to a large, nationally representative sample, to study trends in women’s birth-related career interruptions in recent decades. She found that, when taking the long view, such interruptions have changed “surprisingly little over the past thirty years” and remain common for all mothers. 

Over the phone, Byker told me that her “paper is about examining the decades long shift, and not about contradicting or debunking the notion of an opt-out revolution, but getting a better sense of it.” She added, “All of my friends remember where we were when we first read the Belkin story. It was so eye-opening, and something I felt like I needed to look into.”

Belkin’s story might not have represented a real shift among highly educated women or women in general, but it did give context to a number of anxieties felt by, and about, working women at the time. Belkin’s story was an early, and in many ways muffled, protest against the way workplaces have failed to accommodate workers with children. In the decade following the publication of her story, such critiques became louder and more emphatic, reaching a fever pitch in Anne Marie Slaughter’s widely read 2012 Atlantic story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Belkin’s story also offered validation for those who believe that women don’t really want to work, and that it’s female desire, and not institutional barriers, that is responsible for the stalled gender revolution. “When working mothers can, they tend to spend less time at work,” wrote Kay Hymowitz in 2011, explaining why women prefer the mommy track.

Byker’s data shows that the reality is more complicated, and that the patterns and timing of opting out—which is really sometimes dropping out or being forced out—vary by education and race. Women with bachelor’s degrees are most likely to opt out, with 30 percent of them leaving the workforce around the time of a birth of a child. Comparatively, 19 percent of women with a master’s degree or higher opt out, and 26 percent of women with less than a bachelor’s degree opt out. Also, less educated women are more likely to leave the labor force around the birth of a child and then return shortly after—likely because these women don’t have access to paid leave or alternative income sources.

I asked Byker how she reconciles her data with recent reports of a rise of stay-at-home moms, and she explained while there have been spikes in mothers leaving work in the last couple of decades, they have coincided with major market turmoil like the dot-com bust and the 2008 financial crisis. But overall, the long-term data shows little in the way of change in the number of women opting out.

Is it possible that, as some insist, that the explanation for Byker’s findings is simply that mothers don’t really want to work? Perhaps. But until we become a society where employers and our government support workers with children, and childcare becomes the domain of both men and women (a shift that has yet to take place in place in Europe, where paid leave and affordable childcare are more common), we can’t know. I hope it’s not going to take another three decades of stagnation to inspire us to find out.