iStock_000005245756XSmallBy Hua Wang

Dubbed the ‘opt out revolution’ by the New York Times, the phrase refers to the mass exodus of highly educated professional women from the workforce when they become mothers. These women presumably made a conscious choice to forgo earnings for the luxury of raising their children themselves. Is the opt-out revolution a proven phenomenon, or is it just media hype?

Women Are Not Abandoning the Workplace: The Facts

According to 2007 Census Bureau data, only about 26 percent of mothers with a college degree stay home, while more than 40 percent of mothers lacking high school diplomas are at home. College-educated women are more successful in combining work and family than other groups in part because they tend to have the resources to pay for child care and other help.

Research has shown that thehappiest couples are upper-middle-class, two-career couples. They report three times the marital contentment of the next happiest group — working- and middle-class families who favor a traditional division of labor and have only one breadwinner.

Better educated women are more likely to be in the labor force than less educated women. Raising children while building a serious career is hard for women, and when presented with the choice, many women opt for the latter. Half of Germany’s female scientists, for example, reportedly do not have children.

In 2001, economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett studied high-achieving women, defined as being both high-earners and “super-credentialed” — with graduate degrees, for example — and found that the more women earned, the more likely they were to be single and without children.

‘Opt Out’ or ‘Pushed Out’?

Many women who remain employed nonetheless step off the fast track, working part time, as independent contractors, or full time on the so-called “mommy track.”

In a 2004 study of highly qualified women, 86 percent said work-related reasons, including workplace inflexibility, were key considerations in their decisions to quit. In a 2006, the Economist claimed that “women remain the world’s most under-utilized resource.” “To make full use of their national pools of female talent,” the article stated, “governments need to remove obstacles that make it hard for women to combine work with having children,” such as “parental leave and child care, allowing more flexible working hours, and reforming tax and social-security systems that create disincentives for women to work.”

Most mothers do not opt out; they are pushed out by workplace inflexibility, the lack of family support, and workplace bias against mothers. Dr. June Robinson, a Professor at Northwestern University Medical School, observes that “it is really unfortunate that this country has not found a way to provide childcare. In Scandinavia, for example, it is taken care of. No one is made to feel guilty for leaving their child in professional childcare services. They don’t have to scramble around to find a… nanny to care for their children.”

Women’s Economic Jeopardy

A 2005 study published in the Industrial and Labor Relations Review found that women experienced a significant negative effect on wages even 20 years after a career interruption. The Center for Work-Life Policy found that women lose an average of 18 percent of their earning power when they temporarily leave the work force. Women in business sectors lose 28 percent.

The American economy has lots of good, long-hours jobs, but part time jobs tend to be hard to find, dead end, and low paid. “I felt like I threw away my career with the placenta,” said one anonymous lawyer, who returned to work part time after giving birth. The economic penalty associated with part-time work is much harsher in the United States than in Europe. Women who work part time in teh US earn 21 percent less per hour than full timers, a penalty seven times higher than in Sweden and more than twice as high as in the UK. On average, according to The American Prospect, “people who work 44 hours per week in the United States earn more than twice what those working 34 hours per week earn.”

The United States cannot maintain its competitiveness if it continues to pay large sums to educate the many women who then find themselves “deskilled” —driven out of good jobs and into less good ones — by inflexible workplaces and family responsibilities discrimination.

The untold story is that mothers are pushed out of the paid workforce by inflexible workplaces, discrimination, and the lack of public policy to support working families creates challenges for employers and policymakers alike. The key message for employers is that they need to match today’s workplace to today’s workforce. For policymakers, the key message is that working families need greater support and that, without them, U.S. competitiveness in a rapidly globalizing world is at risk.

Better Educated Women Work More

Women with more education are less likely to leave the labor force, and tend to work more hours, than women with less education.

Why do more highly educated women tend to work more? They have more to lose by passing up employment: As economists would say, their opportunity costs of eschewing employment are higher. Being a waitress is not as attractive a career track as being a middle-level manager or professional, and quality childcare is much more affordable for an executive or a lawyer than for a waitress.

College-educated women have flooded into high-paying, high-status and traditionally male dominated careers, whereas female high-school drop outs are much more likely to be stuck in low-paid, dead-end sex-segregated jobs.

Education fuels employment: Women with more education are more likely to be employed and to work more hours — a strong and consistent trend that the Opt Out story ignores.