January 10, 2008

Opt Out Revolution? New Evidence to the Contrary

For Immediate Release: January 10, 2007
Contact: Alan Barber, 202-293-5380 x115

Washington DC -- Recent newspaper stories have depicted highly educated women in their thirties leaving high profile jobs in law, business, and medicine to take care of children and parents, but new evidence from scholar Heather Boushey published in the journal Feminist Economics suggests otherwise. Boushey shows that the number of women leaving jobs to take care of children have decreased dramatically over the past two decades. She points to changes in the labor market, not children, as a cause for somewhat lower rates of women in the workplace more recently.

"Boushey's work is a crucial intervention in the debate about support for women entering the workforce," said Diana Strassmann, Professor of the Practice at Rice University and the founding editor of Feminist Economics. "Discussions of mother's choices should be backed up by real evidence and Dr. Boushey's article offers a rigorous, peer-reviewed analysis."

The article, "Opting Out? The Effect of Children on Women's Employment in the United States" focuses on the specific question of the effect of children on mothers' employment patterns and responds to media portrayal of "any exit from employment by a mother as about motherhood, not other factors, such as inflexible workplaces, labor market weakness, a decrease in men's contributions to housework, or other reasons why women may not work outside the home."

In a 2003 story titled the "Opt Out Revolution," The New York Times reported a tale of high-powered, prestigiously educated women who have decided to "opt out" of work in favor of pursing motherhood full time. Boushey's research contradicts this story as a representative trend. "Highly educated women, those with a graduate degree - those who the media claims have been opting out of employment for motherhood - have not actually seen a statistically or economically meaningful decline or increase in the estimated marginal effect of children on their employment," she states. Furthermore, the effect of children on women with a high school or college degree and for single mothers has sharply decreased.

Using data from a nationally representative survey of the US population, the Current Population Survey's Annual Social and Economic Survey (ASEC) from 1979 to 2005, Boushey did not find any evidence of an increase in opting out. In contrast, she finds that especially for women with a high school or college degree and for single mothers, "the estimated marginal effect of having children at home has decreased sharply over the past two decades."

"The US's 2001 recession was exceptionally hard on women workers," writes Boushey. "They lost more jobs than they had in prior recessions, even though they lost fewer jobs than men overall." Boushey suggests that "the opting-out story" may be simply due to the lower employment rates for workers overall since 2000.

At the time of writing the article, Boushey was a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Her work focuses on the U.S. labor market, social policy, and work and family issues. The print article is due for release in January 2008 in the journal Feminist Economics, volume 14, issue 1.

Ranked consistently among top women's studies and economics journals, Feminist Economics is the official journal of the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE). Now in its second decade, the journal, edited by Rice University's Diana Strassmann, has attained international recognition for the quality and importance of its scholarship. Feminist Economics, a peer-reviewed journal, opens new areas for dialogue and debate about feminist economic perspectives; thereby, enlarging and enriching economic discourse. The goal of Feminist Economics is not just the development of theories, but to improve the living conditions for all children, women, and men.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research is an independent, nonpartisan think tank that was established to promote democratic debate on the most important economic and social issues that affect people's lives. CEPR's Advisory Board of Economists includes Nobel Laureate economists Robert Solow and Joseph Stiglitz; Richard Freeman, Professor of Economics at Harvard University; and Eileen Appelbaum, Professor and Director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University.