Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Studying the "Opt-Out" Revolution

Kathy G. has blogged about a new study which suggests that women in general or educated women in particular are not opting out of the labor force at any higher rates than in the past, rather the reverse.

I really should read the studies on the "opt-out" revolution (about the labor market hours of women with children) and write a post on them. For various good reasons the topic isn't that easy to analyze.

For instance, whenever employment goes down as a whole, because of an economic slump, some people write about the corresponding drop in mothers' employment as evidence of opting out. Yet when the slump is over those same mothers (and all the other workers who were laid off) are quite likely to return to the labor market. But nobody writes about that return as proof that "opting out" has ended. So if you read popular articles on educated women quitting work you will get the impression that it's happening a lot, and part of the reason for that impression is that nobody writes the articles to tell us about educated women going to work or returning to work.

I'm not arguing here that there is no change in mothers' labor market participation rates in the recent years. Neither am I arguing that there is. Hence the reason to spend some time with the studies.

What I do know, however, is that the articles on "opting-out" which have appeared in such august places as the New York Times are not based on careful research of overall trends but on thinking that such an article would be interesting and on contacting suitable people for interviews. The problem with this is, of course, that I could make up a trend about something, too, and then find people who reflect that made-up trend in their behavior. Trends can't be studied by looking only at people among your acquaintances, unless your acquaintances just happen to be a perfect microcosm of the world in general.

More importantly, there is a hidden emotional undertone to these stories, and the undertone has to do with "opting-out" being voluntary, something that all mothers just really want to do, something that has nothing to do with the meager maternity leaves or the general lack of support for mothers in general, or the idea that all childcare is the responsibility of women or the way work is structured to match traditional male roles. These mothers just wanted to opt out, and that means there's no problem for anyone else, thoughofcoursewenowwonderifwomenshouldtakeplacesfrommenincollege.

Err. Don't know how that got in there. In any case, Kathy's post discusses an interesting reason for the general belief that "opting-out" is common among educated women, whatever statistics might tell us:

Yet, in spite of these strong and consistent findings, the myth of the "opt-out revolution" persists. Perhaps the most interesting part of Percheski's paper is the section that explores why this is so. First, she says, for women, having children does continue to be associated with lower levels of employment, and even though more professional women are working than ever before, many of them still don't work full-time, year-round.

Related to this, since there are more professional working women than ever before, "there are more women available to exit." Writes Percheski:

The average person is thus more likely to personally know a professional woman who has left the labor force. A woman who does not work full-time and long hours may now seem anomalous and be more noticeable than the thousands of professional women who are working full-time in demanding jobs while raising young children. Additionally, although the percentage of women with advanced degrees who are not working is declining across cohorts, the percentage of non-working women who have an advanced degree is growing because the whole population is becoming more educated.

Did you get it? Of course the quasi-trend manufacture also helps. For some reason women tend to be the focus of a lot of them. "Educated women can't get married" is another which crops up at great frequency even when statistics don't support it. I'm sure you can think of others, once you figure out that the main point of them is to highlight the return to traditional gender roles.