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Women Graduates of Elite Colleges Opt Out More

Vivia Chen

April 30, 2013

Vassar students_Vogue_1957Puzzled about why so many bright women are ditching their jobs in the corporate sector?

Well, maybe you should take a closer look at where they completed their undergraduate degree. If your shop is filled with women who graduated from Yale, Princeton, Amherst, Williams, Wellesley, and the like, you're pursuing the type who won't stick around. According to a newly released study, women who go to elite colleges are more likely to drop out of the workforce once they get married and have kids.

That's the finding of Joni Hersch, a professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt University, who analyzed the job histories of 100,000 female college graduates. Here are some key points from her research:

    - Female graduates of top colleges marry later, are more likely to have graduate degrees, and have higher earning potential.

    - But when these grads have children, they show "substantially lower" activity in the labor market than their sisters who attended less selective institutions.

    - Only 68 percent of married moms who went to the most selective colleges were employed, compared to 76 percent of those who went to less selective institutions.

     - The largest gap occurred among mothers with MBAs: Those with bachelor's degrees from the most selective schools were 30 percent less likely to be employed full-time than those who graduated from lower-ranked schools.

Obviously, it's not an optimum use of resources when the best-educated women are the ones most likely to throw in the towel. What's going on? Hersch offers some theories about the women who go to elite schools:

    - They come from wealthier families in the first place. So working to pay off debt is less of a factor.

    - They are marrying men with similar education who have high earning potential. (Remember: Don't leave school without a hubby!)

    - They come from a culture and class where going to a select college is a given, while those who attend more pedestrian colleges are motivated by employment prospects.

What all this points to, writes Hersch, is that it's not just the dearth of family-friendly policies that's driving highly educated women out the workforce:

Many observers conclude that women are pushed out by inflexible jobs. . . . But this hypothesis does not explain why labor market activity differs between graduates of elite and nonelite schools.

The study doesn't say so explicitly, but it suggests that superbly educated women are dropping out because they can. Maybe they'd rather spend their days going to the museum, lunching at cozy bistros, attending charity events, and running their kids' school auctions. And let's face it: Marrying well can be a far more pleasant job than slaving away in a high-powered salt mine.


So what's the lesson for employers? Avoid those gals with the fancy academic credentials and go straight for the ones who waitressed their way through Fresno State?

Hat tip: Glass Hammer

Photo: Vassar College students, 1957, Vogue.

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I wonder if anyone has examined the correlation between having children later in life, and desiring to opt out of full-time work? As an older mom, I remember how much physical energy and how many activities I juggled in my 20's and 30's. Maybe older moms are more likely to "opt out/burn out" in part because of the physical toll later childbearing takes. This part of the higher educated/wealthier/older mom profile may have more significance than it is usually given.

I think that the professor may have been to hasty to conclude that "[it is not the] dearth of family-friendly policies that's driving highly educated women out the workforce." The inflexible and intolerant policies cannot be eliminated as a factor so easily. Women who attend elite schools tend to be bright, highly motivated and used a system where things make sense and the world is more fair. That world has little in common with corporate America. We need a revolution to change the policies to be more family friendly, eliminate meetings that are merely time suckers and serve little productive purpose and commit to creating workplaces that are designed to preserve the contributions of all and not just those who have spouses that don't work. Like Martin Luther King Jr., I have a dream...

Pooh! It's not that much of a difference to make such a fuss about - over 1/2 go back to their careers! Having the means, knowing their minds, having children later - which means they've saved money and earned a senior position by then and proven their worth to themselves - as well as realizing what hooey high pressure corporate jobs can be (far removed from deep meaningfullness) probably prompts many "never to return". The corportate world is not all that. There's lots more to life.

Completely unsurprising, especially given the increasing demands of employers at high levels of business and in professions like law and medicine where people from elite schools often end up. Who really wants to be working basically 24 hours a day, which is effectively the expectation now (i.e., that you will be available by email and cell phone on short notice basically ALL the time, nights, weekends, vacations, etc., and will be given enough work that you need to work 12 hours a day and never really be able to pay attention to your kids or anything in life because all you have time to think about is work)?

The Fair Labor Standards Act by virtue of its exceptions that have swallowed the rule has become irrelevant to any of these people, and consequently employers have demanded more and more until there's really nothing left. If I could quit work and raise my son while my wife earned a living for us, I'd do it in a second, and I think a lot of guys would do the same. But society expects us to be the breadwinners, while women are given a pass on financially supporting their families, so we press on.

I have been a legal recruiter in California for the past 24 years and I have noticed this trend as well. I am a graduate of Stanford University, and I am constantly struck by how many of my female college classmates opted out of the work force, some at a very young age. While I understand that desire for working women who have children to become stay at home mom's, with a divorce rate of 50% in the US, unless someone has a private income, I think that it's a slippery to slope to give up your earning power. I have seen far too many women have to re-enter the workforce after a significant absence because of a divorce, or in rarer instances, the death of a spouse. Sadly, the impressive credentials that opened doors when these women were in their prime earning years, do almost nothing to reopen those doors. If you are going to give up your career, do so VERY carefully. If you are contemplating this decision, I am happy to speak with you. I can be reached at: barbara@lsattorneysearch.com

As an attorney, I have seen many women from Ivy League schools leave the workforce and never work again. This article was very informative. As a a UCLA grad, I a, still practicing after 30 years and loving it. Maybe these gals aren't as smart as we think!

You see similar patterns in who sticks it out to become law firm partners. It's disproportionately graduates of less prestigious schools.

Can we get more information about the specific types of jobs/careers these women are opting out of? I'm just wondering if there's any sort of correlation between "elite" educations and more demanding/stressful careers. Even among women in the same general career (law, for example), are the best educated ones going to the most demanding jobs, and thus getting burned out faster? Of course, having the means to opt out is likely a huge factor here, but I would be curious to see if there isn't something about the particular jobs these women have that is nudging them out the door.

Probably is wise to do so: Those of us "who waitressed their way through Fresno State" appreciate, need and deserve our opportunities for job / career / income.

. The conclusion that “the study … suggests that superbly educated women are dropping out because they can” confirms what I said to a friend in an email just two days ago:

“Yeah, there’s lots of stuff out these days about the lack of progress women have made in the upper ranks, isn’t there? I’m sort of sick of all of it. I think the decline in the percentage of women in top jobs is a result of the same phenomenon I started to observe back when I first had kids—lots of bright, capable women opt out of the workforce if they can (i.e. if they have a husband who will support them). None of this is surprising, especially in light of the all the fear-of-god propaganda about what will happen to your children if they don’t have the right early childhood experiences, etc. Add to that women who have special needs kids that are really hard to manage through nannies/day care and suddenly that 50% of business school/law school grads becomes 10% of the law firm managers/executives, etc. I honestly don’t see that changing anytime soon. Frankly, I’m just glad I had the opportunity to keep working—I cannot imagine being an unemployed or underemployed mother as my children go off to college and beyond. It’s bad enough as it is, but if I didn’t have work to do it would be worse.”

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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: VChen@alm.com

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