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Quitting Law To Stay Home--Is That Your Choice?

Vivia Chen

September 28, 2011

Woman Confused Know any smart women at your firm who decided to chuck it all? Who doesn't? And what was their reason for quitting?

Some women are brutally honest and blurt out: "I'm burned out!" But more often than not, the explanation goes something like this: "I just want to spend more time with my family. It's really a personal decision."

Sounds plausible, right? After all, when push comes to shove, many women put family before work. But what are the implications when women insist that it was a matter of personal choice?

It'll make them feel better in the short run, but it won't help women in the long term. That's the conclusion in a study by Nicole Stephens, an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, and Cynthia Levine, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford. (The report will appear in the journal Psychological Science.)

In one part of the study, the researchers surveyed 117 stay-at-home moms with professional backgrounds. Women who emphasized it was their "choice" to leave the workforce reported greater psychological well-being. That also fits with the ethos of the capitalist marketplace because choice is "connected to related American values, such as independence, autonomy, personal control, and responsibility," says the report.

Choice is also appealing because the alternative explanation is a downer. "It's deeply threatening to say there's something out of your control," explained Stephens during our phone chat.

But here's the rub: Women who cite "choice" also showed "less recognition of the structural barriers and discrimination that still hinder American women's workplace advancement, compared with women who did not rely on the choice framework," says the research.

"Women will say there are obstacles to balancing work and family, but that it's their personal choice to quit their jobs," Stephens told me. "It implies that in the long term, you won't recognize the structural obstacles." And if you don't acknowledge those obstacles--such as lack of workplace flexibility and mommy-tracking, "there's no motivation to change anything."

Which might explain why women are stuck.

As the reports points out, women continue to make less than men, and are poorly represented in the upper ranks of many professions, including law. At the same time, though, "the majority of Americans believe that women’s job opportunities are equal to men’s," says the report about a 2005 Gallup poll where 53 percent of Americans feel that men and women have equal opportunities.

In other words, men and women are equal--except in money and power. What a deal!

So, are the women who use the term "choice" holding women back? Are they the smug mommies who think they're the ones doing the right thing?

Stephens thinks not: "I'm agnostic about what women should or should not do."

Her point is to illuminate how the "choice" rationale undermines the obstacles that women face. "There's a lot of subtle discrimination." 

What do you think? Do most women "choose" to drop out? Or are they in denial about what's really driving them to quit?

Related post: Harvard Law Women Opt Out.

Hat tip: Huffington Post.

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].


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It seems a lot of people are taking personal offense to this article. I didn't read the article as insinuating that it's the fault of women who "choose" to leave the workforce that the structural conditions are what they are, it's just recognizing that when we tell ourselves and others that it's a personal choice, it sublimates the larger problems and lets employers off the hook. I think TTT had a very good point, though - these women are being political - you don't want to burn bridges.

As family balance becomes more important to men, too, it seems that SLOWLY, things are starting to change, but it's frustrating that it takes men requesting more flexible schedules to give it any sort of recognition and value.

This article is confusing cause and effect. Women aren't dropping out because they are making less money; they're dropping out because the "juggle" between work and family obligations is often overwhelming, at any salary. Since more women make this choice than men, it contributes to workplace inequalities.

Was very good article with much information, I think what is being unacknowledged is that women, too often, are left holding the bag at home. They have to stay home when the kid is sick, come in late or leave early when the kid needs to be picked up or dropped off, t is a very difficult choice to decide to stay home, no matter what language you couch it in. It is harder work to stay at home rather than that of work.

I saw the title of this post and thought for sure it was written about me. I left my biglaw job six months ago to stay at home with my two boys. It was a very difficult decision to make, as I was doing well at my law firm and had prospects of making partner. But at the end of the day, law is not an easy industry to raise children in. (I write in detail about making this decision on my blog: http://www.butidohavealawdegree.com/2011/04/my-new-endeavor.html) My kids are young once. Law firms and clients will always be there. Sure, reentering the workplace will be hard, and I'll likely never earn the salary I once earned again. But that is a risk I am willing to take. And everyday I am reminded that it is worth it.

DirkJohanson - your comment is wrong on so many levels, but will say just this: what needs to change is the women you associate yourself with (i'm sorry your significant other loves your money and not you.) Myself and many of my female friends make more than our husbands and have no issues with that or with our husbands. I am the breadwinner in our family AND I am going to leave the workforce. What's that I hear? Family values winning out over money? Surely not...

@ ELW. It'll be "fixed" by husbands and society when women don't purposely seek guys who make more money than them to be husbands.

Since this will never happen on a large scale, it will never be "fixed." It will never happen on a large scale because women don't want it to happen.

So, for your "fix," Its really not husbands and society that need to change; its women that need to change.

This is a good article. I think what is being unacknowledged is that women, too often, are left holding the bag at home. They have to stay home when the kid is sick, come in late or leave early when the kid needs to be picked up or dropped off, and are often expected to carry more than a full share of housework too. (This goes well beyond the breastfeeding months, so biology is no excuse.)

This is what needs to get fixed - by husbands and by society - before women will truly have "choices" that aren't being pushed on them.

Wait a minute...we ARE acknowledging the "structural obstacles." They should be called "stuck"-tural obstacles. I personally was told I could not continue to work part-time even though I did more work than the full-timers. Believe me, the motivation was there. The opportunity was not. So I made a "choice" to leave. Don't blame me for the problem that already existed and would have continued to exist. My only other "choice" was to go back to full-time work or be fired. Signed, Un-Smug Mommy

Female college graduates earned more than male college graduates before the economy tanked. That gap has since widened to give females an even larger advantage. Unless you think Time Magazine is a tool of the patriarchal oppressor:


So, please stop with the "poor oppressed women" routine. If you make a choice to not devote your life completely to a career, don't be surprised when you don't achieve as much as someone who made that choice.

It is a very difficult choice to decide to stay home, no matter what language you couch it in. It is harder work because it is 24-7 demanding as well as boring quite a bit of the time. Yet, who better to raise smart, intuitive kids than smart, intuitive and motivated moms? The kids are not little forever. Having raised four kids and then having later returned successfully to the work force, I believe there is no perfect work-balance. If you want to make partner, best stick with that as a goal, but you simply can't split yourself in two. Nobody wins.

It's raining. Since I don't need to go out right now, I'm going to stay inside. If I had no other choice, I'd grab an umbrella and go out, but it would be unpleasant and since, as I mentioned, I don't need to go out right now, I'm staying inside. I guess I feel kind of guilty about making that choice, since my staying inside is not helping the people who aren't inside right now. In fact, I guess it's not really even a "choice" is it? It would only really be a choice if the conditions outside were exactly like the conditions inside. It is hideously unfair that some people aren't as bothered by the rain as I am! I suppose until enough of us who don't want to be outside when its raining and don't need to be outside when it's raining start going outside when it's raining, it will never stop raining.

Women who choose to stay home instead of work should be able to do that without being made to feel guilty about it. But firms should not be able to use the choice of some women as an excuse to leave in place the institutional obstacles that prevent the women who must work or who choose to work - a much greater number - from achieving success as partners and leaders.

Also, any conversation about women leaving the workplace as a matter of choice should question how free those choices really are and what they reflect about work conditions. Prof. Joan Williams and her colleagues wrote an excellent analysis of this question, “Opt Out” or Pushed Out?: How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflict
The Untold Story of Why Women Leave the Workforce," http://www.attorneyretention.org/Publications/OptOutorPushedOut.pdf.

For me, the stress and demandsof practicing law mixes poorly with the necessary patience and nurturing attitude required to mommy well. No matter how much I want to, I am not able to quick change from zealous advocate by day into soft cuddly momma at night. It's a matter of choice that I don't want my toddler exposed to the Superbitch Lawyerzilla that I sometimes become in my professional life. I've put her in storage for a few years. (Sometimes I hear the kicking of high heels and muffled profanity coming from my old briefcase. Kind of nice to know she's still in there.)

So women who wish to leave the workforce for a few years to spend time with their little ones should not do so for the greater good? Sorry ladies, I'm going to do what's best for my family here, and you should do what's best for yours. Giving up what we want is not the way to greater equality in the work force.

So what's the alternative: "I know it will be a tough road ahead to balance work and family so I'm quitting now" Just doesn't have the same ring to it Vivia!

Stephens makes a terrific observation which sheds light on why workplace practices are slow to change. As long as the expressed "choice" is to stay at home, the onus is on the mommies. If the actual decision is forced by an overwhelmingly difficult work-life balance, which includes not only professional and domestic obligations but probably some significant commuting time, then real change in the workplace will only come when the best and the brightest start requesting (demanding?) alternative professional tracks and telecommuting options. Unfortunately, while this keeps us in the workplace, the money/power balance will remain skewed. An alternative professional track in a law firm most likely means reduced hours and/or reduced face time and for all but the most brilliant this means reduced opportunity for the ultimate reward of partnership. I maintain that the most substantial and rewarding opportunities for women are in government and the nfp sectors. Sure, the money is not as good, but you do get a measure of the power and you still get to put your kids to bed at night.

No. They are not burning bridges. Many of us work in smaller communities. Today's employers speak with tomorrows. If you say, "I'm leaving because this is a horrible work environment for sane life," when you need a reference, it will be: "I wouldn't re-hire her." We speak the truth to our women friends and partners. We do our best to promote other women and their accomplishements - well most of us do.

Yeah, I'm quitting. That and there are no fucking jobs.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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