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The Real Cost of Women Opting Out

Kimberly Palmer

NEW YORK -- When Christine Ryan Jyoti had her first child seven years ago, she decided to stay home with her daughter instead of returning to her full-time job handling communications for a nonprofit in the District of Columbia. "I didn't feel I could give 100 percent to my job with a new baby, and I wanted to spend as much time at home with her as possible. Plus, my job required travel, and I wasn't comfortable leaving her at such a young age," she says. A couple years later, she gave birth to her son and continued to embrace the stay-at-home mom life. Then, once her son began preschool two years ago, she wanted to start working again, but on her own terms.

"I didn't want to face the challenges of dropping off my kids at 8 a.m. and picking them up at 6 p.m. At the same time, I wasn't willing to focus all my energy on my kids and domestic responsibilities anymore. I was looking for a balance, which meant I needed something I could do while my kids were at school," Jyoti says. She quickly found a position as a contributor to the LearnVest website, and began spending around 10 to 15 hours a week on the new gig.

Jyoti doesn't earn as much as she used to, but she says she's happy to find a way to take care of her children while still taking on work she finds interesting. "Freelance writing fits my life, giving me the professional challenge I need, and keeping my résumé active, while also allowing me to be there on a daily basis for my kids," she says.

Jyoti's experience is typical of moms who "opt out" of the workforce only to later decide to rejoin it, but in a different capacity. That's what Pamela Stone, professor of sociology at Hunter College in New York, and Meg Clare Lovejoy, a visiting assistant professor at Augustana College in Illinois, found in their research on 30 women, all of whom attended highly selective colleges or universities and previously held professional or managerial jobs. They presented their findings at last month's Work and Family Researchers Network Conference in New York City.

[Read: The Real Reason Women Opt Out.]

Professional women often end up opting out because it simply feels impossible to take care of both family and work responsibilities, Lovejoy says. "The decision was often unexpected and unplanned," she explains. When Stone and Lovejoy followed up on these opt-out women 10 years later, they found two-thirds of the women had returned to work, but to different types of work that offered greater flexibility -- and lower pay.

Part-time employment, defined as working 20 hours a week or less, was the primary pattern, Lovejoy notes. "They can control the hours," she says, adding that they often take on work by the project. A lawyer might switch from working full time at a law firm to working as a career counselor at a law school, for example. Most women (70 percent) who changed professions shifted into the traditionally feminine field of education, including teaching, career counseling and school fundraising positions.

"Their ambitions to be top-level managers are replaced by the desire for a flexible and meaningful career," Lovejoy says. The good news for moms who opt out is that the women in this study found jobs again quickly, often within weeks of deciding they wanted to return to the working world. Their professional credentials and volunteer work helped; jobs often just turned up through their networking connections, Lovejoy adds. From employers' perspectives, they were cheap and highly-skilled labor.

[Read: Where Are the Female Financial Planners?]

Their earnings did suffer, but not as much as one might think. While Stone and Lovejoy did not collect salary data directly, they used government data to calculate average salaries for women in the types of jobs held by study participants. They found that the occupations the women held before opting out generally earned $100,000 and up, while their post opt-out jobs earned average salaries of $60,000 to $80,000. (The figures are based on full-time salaries.) They also faced more job instability than before, since contract and freelance work can dry up without warning. In addition, they generally lacked the benefits that came from their previous full-time positions.

The women in the study also reported high job satisfaction levels and said they were more satisfied with their new jobs than the ones they held before opting out. "Flexibility comes at a high price," Lovejoy says, noting that in addition to the loss of income and job security, lower earning power can also have an impact on marital power and relationships. Lovejoy also observes that there is increasing polarization in the professional workplace, with well-paid, secure jobs with long hours on one side and poorly-paid, flexible jobs on the other.

Many women, of course, don't even have the choice of opting out when they have children, and for others, part-time work might not be the panacea they were looking for, since part-time work often comes with a loss of money and benefits. At last month's White House Summit on Working Families, President Barack Obama said employees need to have access to flexibility without being penalized. Hourly workers, he noted, often can't take any time off without losing wages, even to give birth. "That, we should be able to take care of," he said. People shouldn't have to choose between work and family, the two most important things in their lives, he added.

[See: 11 Money Tips for Women.]

Despite White House support for flexible workplace policies, some experts are skeptical that meaningful change is on the horizon. "We've been trying to make the business case for 30 years," and yet workers are still penalized for their caregiving responsibilities, said Joan C. Williams, law professor at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, at the work and family conference. "Raising wages and paid family leave are critical conditions to sustain families," she added.

As for the women in Stone and Lovejoy's research, their stories aren't yet over. Stone and Lovejoy will continue to collect data on these women as they age and progress in their careers.

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