Educated women’s relationship with work today is located at the crosscurrents of some significant demographic and societal shifts. Perhaps the most important of these changes, the stunning educational achievements of women during the past 50 years, opened doors to a wide variety of interesting and well-paid careers, including academe. Women, and married women in particular, increasingly entered fields that had long been considered male bastions. Given the opportunity to prove themselves academically and professionally, educated women marched headlong into the workforce. After a century of increasing female labor force participation, then, many were surprised when at the turn of the 21st century increases in the labor force participation of women stalled -- and in some cases, such as college-educated mothers of infants, declined dramatically.
While women have always moved in and out of the labor force, these most recent movements seemed different. The press began to identify women who, after investing considerable time and money in their educations, decided to leave prestigious and highly-paid careers. While the actual number of college-educated women who quit their jobs to tend to their children constituted a small fraction of working women, the phenomenon nevertheless fueled a heated public debate.
Arguments about the size of the phenomenon aside, the important part of this story is the valuable lessons about work and family to be learned from those who walked away from careers, high powered and otherwise. Our research on these women revealed issues faced by all mothers who seek to combine paid work and childrearing. While our sample was broad and included women from many different fields, academics were well-represented in our study, and so our findings have direct relevance for academic employers.
As women’s commitment to the workforce rose dramatically in the late 1900s, at the same time, marital patterns began to shift. Paraphrasing Gloria Steinem, these highly educated women were becoming the men they wanted to marry. Instead of the professor marrying the department secretary, who then quit work to raise the family, now the professor is likely to marry another professor, or lawyer, or financial analyst. This dynamic gave rise to something we call “the 100-hour couple,” or a couple who works extremely long hours for a combined total of more than 100 hours per week. At the same time as these highly educated women began to compete for academic, professional and managerial positions (along with their husbands), we began to see a surge in the work hours expected by employers. The expectations of employers for complete commitment to work -- with many expecting employees to be available on a 24/7 basis -- has risen substantially over the past few decades, as technology has made it increasingly possible for workers to be reached at all hours.
These changes coincided with cultural shifts in expectations for parenthood. While fathers certainly spend more time with their children than ever before, they still do not spend nearly as much time as do mothers. Today's mothers describe an intensification of motherhood that can be felt in the pressure to provide “mama time” for their kids by arranging play dates, driving them to activities, monitoring piano practice and homework, etc.
Compounded by ongoing expectations for women to manage household responsibilities, these cultural and demographic shifts came together to create a perfect storm of social forces that has led women to reevaluate their relationship with work. Aside from the trends described above, certain structural characteristics of the workplace inhibit women’s ability to excel in their careers while creating the home life they desire. By addressing some of these structural barriers, employers can help to create a workplace that will attract and retain highly qualified women. The implications of our research for academic employers are myriad.
Most jobs and workplace norms, including those in academe, were structured originally for men who had wives devoted full-time to managing the home life. Typically designed by and for men, few careers offer alternatives to combine work and motherhood, without invoking a significant penalty in terms of advancement and pay. In the case of academe, for example, those stressful years leading up to tenure coincide exactly with a woman’s prime childbearing years. Instances of a part-time tenure track are extremely rare, and if a woman gives up a tenure track job to take time to attend to family matters, it is highly unlikely that she will be able to secure another tenure track job. These constraints lead many qualified women to give up a chance at tenure in return for a lifetime of adjunct positions. Creating an alternative model in which parents can reduce their time commitment at work while still remaining on the tenure track (albeit delayed) would be a major step that colleges and universities could take to retain highly qualified women.
Pregnancy, childbirth, and adoption can present major stumbling blocks, even to women who want to continue to work full-time. Institutions can take great strides to improve the lives of their female faculty and staff by creating and legitimizing pregnancy, childbearing, and adoption leave policies. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) ensured that colleges offer employees at least 12 weeks within a 12 month period for unpaid leave for birth, adoption, or to care for themselves or their family members. Many institutions have expanded their parenting leave policies beyond those required by the FMLA, by providing some weeks of paid leave or a course reduction. Others provide a semester off with reduced pay. Unfortunately, the nature of academic work does not lend itself easily to taking a six-week leave, if that leave cuts into the academic calendar year. However, it can be done, especially when administrators provide support in terms of hiring replacement faculty or creatively configuring course loads.
Perhaps more important, however, is that even when these types of policies, generous as they may seem, are “on the books,” women faculty may feel that they can’t avail themselves without making it seem that they are uncommitted to their careers. Indeed many female faculty engage directly in actions to minimize even the appearance of allowing family obligations to interfere with work commitments. Typical strategies to avoid bias include returning to work too soon after childbirth, not requesting reduced teaching loads when necessary, or even missing important events in their children’s lives. Ensuring that women are not punished for taking advantage of flexible work options, then, becomes a significant step that administrators can take to retain these women.
A dearth of high quality childcare presents another significant structural barrier to mothers’ employment. High quality, affordable childcare is often unattainable for many families. In some cases the care is available, but expensive. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, for example, a family can expect to pay $24,000 per year to enroll an infant and a toddler in a full-time, center-based child care facility. And even when quality care is available and affordable, the inflexibility of opening and closing times, with most child care centers charging by the minute for late pick-ups, do not mesh with employer demands outside of the traditional 9 to 5 workday.
Of course, care responsibilities are not limited to children. Elder care is becoming an increasingly important drain on workers, and will only worsen as the nation’s baby boomers age. And since women are having children at increasingly older ages, we can expect to see a rise in the numbers of workers who have child and elder care responsibilities at the same time.
Studies have shown that employers who assist their workers with child care see improvements in productivity and morale. By providing and/or subsidizing child care for their employees, universities and colleges can expect to see improved worker performance and reduced turnover and absenteeism. As an added bonus, employers do not pay employment taxes on benefits, and so institutions can reduce their tax burden by casting some of an employee’s compensation as a child care subsidy.
Some believe that the women who left their jobs did so because they were not successful, didn’t like the work, or lacked ambition, all ideas contradicted by our research. Many of the women we interviewed had been phenomenally successful and loved their careers, but they also felt that workplace structures limited their capacity both to raise their families and to continue in those careers. And this was particularly true for academics. One national study of highly educated women who had left their careers, found that only doctors seemed happier in their work than professors, with lawyers and M.B.A.'s being far more likely to report job dissatisfaction as a major reason for leaving their careers. It was not job satisfaction that drove the professors to leave their careers, but rather the structure of the job. Therefore, academic employers who are interested in recruiting and retaining talented women should direct their attention to making structural changes in their institutions, such as increasing flexibility in terms of the tenure clock, allowing women (and men) to reduce teaching loads and take parenting leaves as needed, as well as improving other benefits such as child care assistance.
Karine Moe, professor of economics, and Dianna Shandy, associate professor of anthropology, teach at Macalester College. They are the authors of Glass Ceilings and 100-Hour Couples: What the Opt-Out Phenomenon Can Teach Us About Work and Family,  scheduled for release next month by the University of Georgia Press.