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March 15, 2005

Excerpts: Mother Leads Best - Part IV

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 2:13 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Myth #2: Mothers are opting out at alarming rates. The optout myth places pressure on working moms to quit their jobs and join the trend to stay at home with their kids. It also discourages women from having children, because it creates the fear that becoming pregnant signals the beginning of the end of their careers. Though it is impossible to find reliable statistics about how many professional women opt out after having children, everything Ive learned from my interviewing and research suggests that the number has been inflated.
The media has had a field day with this trend, and articles in USA Today, The New York Times Magazine, Business Week, and Time have all declared that more women than ever are leaving the workforce to stay at home with their children. I would caution everyone to take what they read in the media with a grain of salt, as the following example illustrates.
A New York Times Magazine and Business Week article declared that only 38 percent of the female graduates from Harvard Business Schools 1981, 1985, and 1991 graduating classes were working full-time. (Conlin, 1) In a follow-up article, Bonnie Erbe noted that she called the Harvard B-School media office and received the results of the Harvard survey cited in the New York Times article. Erbe wrote: It was made clear this was not a statistical reliable sampling. I was told each of those classes of 900 graduates (in 1981, 1985, and 1991) she cited were roughly 30 percent female. That means, to get a statistically accurate sampling, the professor would have had to receive approximately 810 responses (or 30 percent of 2,700 responses). She received a grand total, I was told, of 150 responses. And who would have more time to respond to such a survey than women home full-time versus women crunching hours and putting in face time at high-velocity jobs? (Erbe, 12)
Opting out is also a nebulous term. Some mothers quit executive positions for the same reason nonmothers do: They are dissatisfied with some aspect of their organizations, their jobs, or their lifestyle. The time-out that women take for maternity leave gives them an opportunity to assess their career and life. One of my bosses used to tell me, As soon as your team completes a huge project or solves a crisis, put them on another one right away. You dont want to give them too much time to think about how hard theyve been working. Maternity leave provides women with time to think.
Perhaps most significantly, my interviews suggest that fast-track women executives with kids are less likely to opt out than women who have lower-level jobs. It stands to reason that most women with highly successful careers have more to lose by opting out than other women, that the financial rewards and satisfaction they derive from their jobs are greater than if they had been less successful. Therefore, while a woman in a dead-end job who has a child might find it easy to stop working, a woman in an exciting, fulfilling executive role will find such a prospect less enticing.
Opting out is also less of a possibility if you work in a motherfriendly environment. Many of the women I interviewed noted that they were eager and able to return to work after having children, because their organizations valued maternal leaders. Mindy Meads of Lands End said, I am fortunate to work for a company that is so family oriented. I have been able to go to many of my sons soccer games. There are lots of moms working with me, and kids are respected as an essential element of our lives. In fact, some of our senior executives occasionally bring their children along on European business trips.