Moms with elite education opting out of careers

VANDERBILT (US) — Female graduates from top-ranked universities who become mothers are working less despite the promise of higher wages, new research finds.

The battle for work-life balance among female white-collar employees, especially those with children, is something women have struggled with for decades. Though past studies have found little evidence that women are opting out of the workforce in general, first-of-its-kind research shows that female graduates of elite universities are working much fewer hours than those from less selective institutions.

“Even though elite graduates are more likely to earn advanced degrees, marry at later ages and have higher expected earnings, they are still opting out of full-time work at much higher rates than other graduates, especially if they have children,” says Joni Hersch, professor of law and economics and of management at Vanderbilt University.

Hersch’s research, published in the Vanderbilt Law School, Law and Economics Research Paper Series, finds that 60 percent of female graduates from elite colleges are working full time compared to 68 percent of women from other schools.

It’s all about the kids

The presence of children strongly influences how much a woman works. Labor market activity is lower for women with children, but the gap between those women with and without children is largest for elite graduates. Among elite graduates, married women without children are 20 percentage points more likely to be employed than their elite counterparts with children, while among non-elite graduates, the difference in the likelihood of employment is 13.5 percentage points.

MBA moms work least of all

Hersch found that when comparing graduates from elite and less selective schools, the largest gap in full-time labor market activity is among women who also earned a master’s in business degree.

“Married MBA mothers with a bachelor’s degree from the most selective schools are 30 percentage points less likely to be employed full time than are graduates of less selective schools,” says Hersch.

The full-time employment rate for MBA moms who earned bachelor’s degrees from a tier-one institution is 35 percent. In contrast, the full-time employment rate for those from a less-selective institution is 66 percent. The gap remains even after taking into account the selectivity of MBA institution, personal characteristics, current or prior occupation, undergraduate major, spouse’s characteristics, number and age of children, and family background.

Fewer female CEOs?

Hersch contends these statistics show that the greater rate of opting out by MBA moms with undergraduate degrees from elite institutions has implications for women’s professional advancement.

“Elite workplaces, like Fortune 500 companies, prefer to hire graduates of elite colleges,” says Hersch. “Thus, lower labor market activity of MBAs from selective schools may have both a direct effect on the number of women reaching higher-level corporate positions as well as an indirect effect because a smaller share of women in top positions is associated with a smaller pipeline of women available to advance through the corporate hierarchy,” says Hersch.

Comparing degrees

Hersch found a similarly large gap among women who later earned a master’s in education. Sixty-six percent of tier-one graduates are employed full time compared to 82 percent of graduates from non-elite institutions.

Other factors also contribute to which women are working more hours.

“Estimates show greater labor activity among women with a bachelor’s degree in a field other than arts and humanities; those with graduate degrees; those in higher-level occupations such as management, science, education and legal; and women who are not white,” says Hersch.

Why opt out?

A common question associated with opting out is whether highly educated women are willingly choosing to exit the labor force to care for their children or whether they are “pushed out” by inflexible workplaces. But Hersch says this hypothesis of inflexible workplaces does not explain why labor market activity differs between graduates of elite and non-elite schools.

“Graduates of elite institutions are likely to have a greater range of workplace options as well as higher expected wages than graduates of less selective institutions, which would suggest that labor market activity would be higher among such women,” Hersch writes.

“Without discounting the well-known challenges of combining family and professional responsibilities, increasing workplace flexibility alone may have only a limited impact of reducing the gap between graduates of elite and non-elite schools.”

Gathering the data

Hersch gathered her data from the 2003 National Survey of College Graduates, which provided detailed information for more than 100,000 college graduates. The survey was conducted by the US Census Bureau for the National Science Foundation.

To identify schools considered elite and to put these schools into tier levels, Hersch used both the Carnegie Classifications of institutions of higher education and Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges. Barron’s Profiles looks at quality indicators of each year’s entering class (SAT or ACT, high school GPA and high school class rank, and percent of applicants accepted). Barron’s then places colleges into seven categories: most competitive, highly competitive, very competitive, competitive, less competitive, noncompetitive, and special.

The Carnegie Classifications are based on factors such as the highest degree awarded; the number, type, and field diversity of post-baccalaureate degrees awarded annually; and federal research support. For example, Research universities offer a full range of baccalaureate programs through the doctorate, give high priority to research, award 50 or more doctoral degrees each year, and receive annually $40 million or more in federal support.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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  1. Pam Waffle

    My guess (from those I know) is that MBA women from elite colleges often marry very successful men from those same colleges, often with a PhD, thus giving them then option of working fewer hours. They are spending more time with their children, are involved in community activities and are enjoying that luxury of choice. My daughter was a U of Chicago grad who then earned an MBA at Stanford. She had some fascinating jobs at archaeological digs in Greece and working for the DEA back home. She married a PhD; my son-in-law sold his first Silicon Valley start-up for millions and my daughter is having a lot of fun with her child with a part time job hiking with little ones to develop an appreciation of nature.

  2. Michelle Jakons

    I agree with Pam… While i was reading the article was the thought that was in my mind.

  3. Candy

    I think that a lot of this really does have to do with socio-economic status. Perhaps it is the woman who becomes the “trailing wife” – supporting a spouses career, thus staying home with the kids is an easier choice.

    There is also decreased opportunity for women with children and that darn glass-ceiling is still a major detractor to highly qualified woman making progress in their career. Sometimes opting out while you have kids is a better choice so when the kids are grown – or at least a bit older – the ceiling becomes a tiny bit less difficult to shatter.

  4. fiona

    Agree with all comments above. And perhaps this also says something about corporate environment being unattractive rather than if and how much mothers with elite education actually work. So, the question: do they “opt out of work” or “opt out of employment work”? The luxury of choice – whether through advanced education, amassed experience or wealth (self earned or acquired) – surely plays into these decisions big time.

  5. AAA

    I would say in my case self-confidence has something to do with it as well. I graduated with an MBA from Berkeley (top 10 program), tried working for the first year with my son and was up against a very inflexible work environment in a high tech company in Silicon Valley. I decided to take some time off to focus on kids and family. I actually felt more confident doing this because I know I have great qualifications and contacts that will help me re-enter the workforce when my kids are in school and don’t need all day care. We are not wealthy, but I did marry well and my husband is able to support us on just one income. But I do intent to continue doing work that I’m passionate about, maybe even start my own company, once our children are a little more independent. If I had gone to a lesser known MBA program, I may not have had the confidence to take that break, knowing I could always restart things later.

  6. Cassandra

    AAA’s comment illustrates what I’d suggest – top MBAs do good analysis, whether they are women or men. And one thing an MBA mom might also analyze is the child. I had my kids shortly after grad from MBA, which I had quit my job in a different field to do, so I didn’t have a job to go back to but was sure I would be a working mom.

    But as time went on, I could see what my children needed, and it wasn’t being hauled off to daycare every day or a nanny. As you raise kids, you shape them, and that was not something I was going to compromise or subcontract out.

    Economics definitely matters. If we could not have survived on my husband’s salary, I would obviously have looked for work, but even once the kids were in school, we felt the economic compromises were worth it for the freedom to take them to and from school and know the school, be home if they were sick or the teachers on strike, to have stress-free summers and other breaks, and to have all the parenting time that school leaves available.

    It’s not easy. That confidence that AAA talks about does eventually start to slip away, and it’s even hard to maintain an atmosphere of spousal equality when you’re an economic dependant. But on the flip side, with the kids now 18 and 21, I can say that I was always there when it was important for me to be. I might have liked to start part-time work at least when they were in their teens, but you can’t make any generalizations about when your children need you most. Some parenting that you do at 15 is as crucial or more so than what you do at 2. The teen years went remarkably smoothly for us because I was there.

    You also evolve as a parent, just as you do as a lawyer, consultant, or accountant. You’re good at working with them when they’re 15 because you got them through the 2s.

    In an ideal world, I think my husband and I would have spelled off the parenting work, but it is very hard to manage careers that way (unless you and he can share a job!). And it gets harder to trade places as time goes on; his earning power increased while mine decreased. But if it could be done, that would be the only option I would say would have served our kids better than what we did. It would have kept us on a more even keel as a couple too and kept us both in peak shape as parents.

    But life with kids isn’t always about evenness and balance. It’s more of a roller coaster! And it’s because the climbs are arduous and the drop-offs unexpected that I still believe kids need parents, not institutions or strangers, to raise them.

  7. Anita

    Yes, I agree kids still need parents. I off ramped too soon and am paying for it. I think it takes a number of things to be in place whether you have a degree or not. I was lucky growing up that my grandparents were very involved in helping raise us. To do ones job well you need support. That support is someone who can run your kids to a dentist appointment if you can’t. To be pick up person when you are running late. Even now while I am working part time the juggling act is yes like a roller coaster. One might say well you just need to be more organized. As I agree there is no amount of organization that can take into account the schedules of 5 people plus the organizations that these 5 people belong in and seeing the unseen of the weather and closed schools, change in a meeting, addition of a meeting, homework, dinner, laundry, cleaning the house, etc. I believe what is missing is a dedicated force of women, men, corporations, and communities that say we aren’t going to make these times of childrearing stressful for parents. We are going to support each other. It takes a village to raise a child. I believe if we want a brighter future for our kids and communities it is to see this endeavor as the most important act a civilization engage in.

  8. Media Maven

    If it is a “luxury of choice” as some of these comments suggest why is it only the woman who “opts-out”?

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