Bundle of Contradictions

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MARCH 15, 2012 1:41PM

Why Women are Leaving the Workforce

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The Nation recently ran a story about how women, faced with unequal pay, are opting out of the workforce in increasing numbers. They report that between 1993 and 2006, the amount of college-educated women in the workforce declined .1 percent a year. By 2008, the workforce had 1.64 million less college-educated women than it should have, if women hadn’t been leaving at a steady pace.

Apart from the obvious concerns, such as the inherent disparity in women’s pay in this country and the general brain drain of educated women dropping out of the workforce, a question arises: Are we accounting for a general shift in women’s work? Is anyone tracking how many women are not so much leaving the workforce as reinventing it?

It has become harder and harder to maintain work/life balance in the standard model of employment. The hours are steadily creeping up, commutes are often to far-flung locations an hour’s drive from home, and technology has kept us mentally tethered to our work far outside the confines of the typical work week.

While inhospitable to men, this has become nearly intolerable for women, who are most often tasked with child-rearing and household management in addition to their money-generating jobs. Couple that with the rising costs of childcare and many women find their entire paychecks are going to pay for daycare. Who wouldn’t leave the workforce under those conditions? If you’re working long hours for less pay than your husband, and your entire monetary contribution is sucked up into preschool, employment outside-the-home seems like an exercise in self-flagellation rather than actual need.

The question remains--Once these college-educated women have left the workforce, what are they doing? Are they ‘just’ stay-at-home-moms? Or are they pursuing work that’s largely being overlooked?

Anecdotally, I’d say there is an underground sea change afoot. Everywhere I look, women are starting microbusinesses--selling jewelry or T-shirts on Etsy.com, becoming personal trainers, freelance writing and editing, offering birth support as doulas, massaging clients in their homes. Legally, or not-so-legally, women are increasingly working 10-40 hours a week outside the traditional workforce model--in addition to raising their children. Are the statistics tracking this? At least for the cash-economy jobs, almost certainly not.

This new model is only going to gain in popularity as Gen Y starts spitting out babies. Unable to find meaningful, well-paying part-time work, educated women raised to defy tradition are almost certainly going to gravitate toward alternative employment. Even without children, If the choice is to work 40-60 hour weeks in a competitive work environment (that is, if they can even find a job) or try and craft your own business, many women of all ages are going to say goodbye to the confines of the traditional workforce.

If we want to retain educated women in the workforce, we’re going to have to offer more flexibility, more job shares, and more part-time work that doesn’t involve aprons. We didn’t study organic chemistry to make cappuccinos.

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Interesting. Too bad many of these reinvented jobs also pay ridiculously low wages. Hello fellow freelance journalist!
I think you've hit on an important trend. You forgot to mention one other thing women are sick to death of too: Office politics, especially in places dominated by an entrenched, corrupt old-boys club. It's so liberating to focus on art, and not on a soul-destroying "job" that kills creativity, the human spirit, human health and human potential. That is why educated women are leaving the workforce in droves. I grew up with the women's movement, and, sad to say, the promise didn't pan out. Now, I watch Baby Boom, and can relate on so many levels. That film seems ahead of its time. Someone ought to remake it for a new generation of women. Screenwriters? You listening?
Have to add before I get clobbered: Of course I understand that many women don't have a choice, and HAVE to work to support their families. But that does not deny the trend of many women leaving to pursue work opportunities, if possible, that are more fulfilling and personally satisfying.
Felisa, good point! We aren't getting rich anytime soon.

Deborah, you are painfully right about that. And someone should really write a modern Baby Boom. I'm going to go re-watch that.
I appreciated your piece because I have once again found myself forced to create my own employment in order to cover my living expenses and support my young daughter. I "left" the workforce when my daughter was a baby and took on freelance writing jobs to supplement our income until I could return to part time work when my daughter was older. I recently finished my graduate degree and attempted to return to a "career" while my daughter was in school during the day. I was looking forward to predictable paychecks and company-paid health insurance, something I'd long ago given up on.

Last week I found out that my new job would be ending a mere five months after it started, long before I would have the training and leverage to begin moving up within any organization. I am now unemployed against my will, grabbing any freelancing work I can get and hoping something new comes along before my short-term private health insurance runs out.

This may sound like a sob story, but I must admit that I relish my days working at home, in my comfy clothes, with a cup of coffee in hand. I love being able to walk my daughter to the bus stop every month and greet her at the front door when she comes home every afternoon. Our mother-daughter time is very precious and limited, and I am happy that I do not have to sacrifice that time for a paycheck.

I like to think that I am helping to transform how we define work, but I am probably just trying to put a positive spin on a negative employment situation. The reality is that I may never be able to save for retirement nor help my daughter pay for college. I doubt I will ever be able to repay the grad-school student loans that hang over my head like dark storm clouds. But I am happy, so that is something. It just seems there must be a better way to do this.
The current gender makeup in public employment bolsters your argument. While the status of public employees has suffered, unfairly in my opinion, since at least the Reagan years, the % of women working in government seems to have risen sharply. Perhaps a byproduct of gender neutrality policies, livable wages, family leave, adequate health insurance and other advantages more common in the public sector?

I have also noticed an increasing the number of women working for or starting professional consulting firms that provide both sufficient compensation and flexibility of schedule. As more public agencies establish policies that require departments to achieve gender and racial parity in the awarding of consulting contracts (as well as other types of contracts) I see this trend continuing.
I've been fortunate enough to work for and with friends for most of my spotty, eclectic career(s). I've job-shared every position in some way or another -- and we developed practical strategies that allowed us to relay information and track progress from one employee to another with as many as four employees doing one job. Which just goes to show what we can accomplish when we are given the SUPPORT that allows us to work together.

On the down side, none of those jobs were high-paying, and even though we all understood that the trade-off for flexibility (for time with our families and supporting our community in caregiving capacities) would garner less money, I don't think any of us felt we were adequately compensated for the work we provided -- which might be a common feeling among ANY employee -- but especially felt when you're trying to patch together a work history while taking care of familial responsibilities that are beyond value and too emotionally/socially expensive to abandon.
Till this day I do not understand unequal pay among college grads. I may understand it if it was manual work, but college graduates unequal pay is beyond me. Yet don't worry, nature is much more egalitarian than you think. I bet you anything that women will be much more successful in "alternative employment" than men; so there! Well said. R
Awesome article! I am a retired lawyer. 15 years was enough for me. Can't put my finger on what makes the work force so disgusting. But it is.
Please see:


for some reading on the myth of "unequal" pay.
Cedar, this was a really interesting article. I totally agree with you with what I see among my friends. Even though past the child-raising years have just about had it. The freedom of being your own boss is almost an opiate, if you can figure out how to cover yourself for health benefits. Very good piece. Would love to see more research on this topic.
People do not seem to take seriously the basic idea of the Industrial Revolution: i.e. "labor saving devices". The logical end to this development is clearly the disappearance of jobs for most people, or else jobs in the Elite Clan mode: i.e Nepotism, run wild: the invention of "jobs" which have little or no economic function at all. So the logic of it says, Nepotism for everyone!
Carl, I totally agree with you. I didn't mean to sound so sexist. I'm just coming out of a really bad old-boy situation, and feel that my career was burned by men who just didn't give a flying fuck about my potential, contributions or experience. (It wasn't in Corporate America, either, but in higher education). The American business model doesn't work for anyone. These are old themes that have been hashed out and hashed out since at least the '60s. As someone else said on another thread, it feels like we hare rapidly regressing as a nation because we're returning to a Madmen era of sexism, overt racism, jingoism, etc. And it's sad to see so many younger people glorifying that era as if it were fluffy and pretty. Why do you think the later '60s were so turbulent? People got tired of the status quo.
As @Felisa Rogers said, pity all those alternative jobs mostly pay a pittance. If what you say is the true, then it's sad and a worry because it means women will occupy very few positions of power and influence, and will continue to do most of the housework and child rearing. That's depressing to me. I think the "traditional" workforce needs women - for their ideas, their perspective, their expertise and because research shows that diverse workplaces are healthier for everyone. I think women should be more forceful and demanding in the work place by asserting their value and negotiating hard for better work conditions. Of course, it's not easy, but it's the only way anything is going to change. I don't plan on becoming an aromatherapy consultant any time soon.
I'm there. I have the t-shirt. I work at home, freelance, and I knock off at 3:00 when the school bus comes. I make a decent living, half of our income. I set my own hours. I take days off to volunteer for field trips. I spend my afternoons helping my kids with algebra, science experiments, and driving them all over creation to all the stuff they couldn't do while I worked in an office.

What I hated about the cubicle life is the one-size-fits-all package. It's 40 to 60 hours a week, two weeks a year off, or nothing. The few people (mostly women) who have part time jobs within companies hold them like gold and keep their heads down. In my last job, the part timers were the first out the door when the layoffs came.

I love my life now, and wouldn't trade it for anything.
What Felisa Rogers says...
.........(¯`v´¯) (¯`v´¯)
............... *•.¸.•* ♥⋆★•❥ Thanx(ツ) & ♥ L☼√Ξ ☼ ♥
⋆───★•❥ ☼ .¸¸.•*`*•.♥
I think it's important to acknowledge single mothers and any other women who don't have the financial cushion to pull together freelance or at-home type of employment. It can take years to build something like that and someone has to be paying the bills in the meantime. And the question of insurance is life-defining, as others have mentioned.

I see the day coming when men and women both are possibly balancing more than one job, and doing it from home. The technological skills required for many jobs overlap, and so many people I know do at least part of their jobs outside offices, even in traditional fields. I think this would be a blessing for both sexes.

Meanwhile, to add to the comment about the public sector, I work as a high school teacher and therefore have the same days off as my son. While my job is exhausting and can be grueling, it at least allows me to manage. And my male colleagues, of which there is an equal balance, get paid the exact same as I do. Let's hope the attacks on public workers don't so any more damage than they have already. As mentioned by commenter Tom Gannon, this is an area where greater parity is already at play.
Sorry, Let's hope the attacks on public workers don't do any more damage
Nice article. I am 57. I had my children when I was 35 and 39. I worked throughout and I am still working. I took low pressure, low paying jobs despite that I had a BA from a Seven Sisters college and an MA. It was not easy but I am glad I "hung in". Without my salary, life would have been intolerable. Without my meager 401K, life could be a lot worse. Stay working. Life gets expensive as you go along.
Part of the underlying tension here that you touch on isn't just the cost of living day-to-day, but also the accumulated costs of living, especially in the form of student loans. With proportionally more women seeking degrees, it seems like young women are setting themselves up to feel the pinch downstream: get a degree to find a job, get the job, hate the job, and then feel trapped because on top of everyday costs of life, they're still carrying the sunk costs to get to the job they no longer enjoy.

Some people would say that's the argument for remaining employed, I wonder if it's not an argument for rethinking how one gets / pays for an education. This isn't a diatribe against the bachelors degree, but I do wonder if it's all it's cracked up to be these days.

There was an article a year or two ago in Inc., of all places, about how entrepreneurship flourishes in Norway - it seems counterintuitive to Americans because of the tax rates, but it turns out that having subsidized education and universal health care eliminates enough risk that people are willing to take more chances... including dropping the 40 hour week, I would imagine.
It's not just women, more men are unemployed over the last ten years than ever before. It's not just mid-range manufacturing union jobs, it's also college educated men over forty who've been left out. It's cheaper for an employer to hire two hungry kids out of college, than to pay a premium for a fifty year old man with twenty-five years of experience. The fresh single college grads will work for 50-65% of the wage, put in 15 or 20 hours a week of uncompensated overtime and the demographics for the cost of their health benefits is less than 30% of a middle aged man with family dependents. That's why I've been working as a consultant since 1997, but hey it's nothing personal, it's just business.
0.1% a year! ---- Ahhhhhhhhhhh!

OMG what will we do? What will we do?

BTW: We have something in common: I ate at a Kenny Rogers once.

Nicely done post and for me very timely and much appreciated. I love your "positive approach" of the 'reinvention of the workplace'. Puts everything in a more optimistic light ... and Kate's equally timely input from Beijing helps a lot too. I'm "older than" anyone else around here [there are two OS-ers but to my knowledge only two, who are older than I am ;-)] so many of the individual details of my personal story differ from those of others' here. But I will say that my longstanding professional definition has been "prematurely inadvertently retired". So don't let that happen to you!! [And BTW, "organic chemistry" is lots of fun to remember and play around with if time hangs heavy on your hands. ;-)]

Add another note--the only reason I'm able to freelance is because my husband has a strong union job with great benefits. If he was hit by a falling piano, I'd be back in cubicle-land in a minute. For all the Republicans much-loved hot air about supporting small businesses, the best thing they could do for small businesses is enact true universal single-payer health care. A small business environment would grow and bloom if more people didn't have the threat of medical bankruptcy hovering over their dreams of working for themselves.
I never had the circumstance of unequal pay for equal work, but I have certainly seen it - I was the HR person for a company that had the mindset that men were the support of the family and women "chose" to work, so men needed to be paid higher salaries.
Being self employed is hard. The pay is usually less, and the hours are long, but there is a feeling of empowerment when you are at the helm that is priceless. Just my opinion (and yes, I am self employed).
Nicholas Rockefeller told Aaron Russo feminism was basically to get everyone working and paying taxes. So they had to covince women that A) we dont want you to work so you can get back at us by working (and paying taxes) and B) work is everything. Your ego, your life, your sense of self work. No, work iswhat people do for money, when theyd rather be doing something else. I like what I do and would still prefer the free time if I could afford it.
All that's happening is women are waking up from the lies


your work is not your life
Hi Cedar,
I am glad to see that other people are taking notes on the new trend of creating marketable jobs to people who are not fitting into the so called traditional jobs, that ask women and men to stay beyond the regular 40 hr. work week. Some people welcome the extra hours due to the over time, some people make exceedingly gross mega bucks because they will themselves to make that kind of dough. We have front and center stories in our local papers for what our police people get for o.t. It's mind blowing, while the other segement of society sits and twiddes it's thumbs wondering what they can do that might offer them a real job, with benefits and the other fringes that would make life seem like it might be liveable, such as but not limited to at least one week paid vaction. We are a huegely injust society, we have a big want to give people what they don't need.
So you have a child, I baby sit for my grandchild and attend college in the evenings to obtain a degree for writing, since that is my passion.
But the other releavant point you speak about is the way in which the work force is redoing it's sense of work, how people are definitely making choices that are outside of the box. They are seeking new ideas, such as making cup-cakes some people can do this to an art form. Other people are extremely crafty, there are people that make great scrap-book pages, and others that can craft beautiful sentiments of our most cherished moments, weddings, birthdays and such... Oh yes, it's still new territory as the old way dictates, to be careful and only trust what you know, easily the voice of 2 or less generations before us or easily my children. The "go your own way" movement is very sketchy when addressing the costs, and how to manage expenses, when all of the things a person will need to so call start a business of their own, will be costing them money. Some people have cash back up, others may be able to borrow money from a relative or a bank, if they have something that can fly. But otherwise the big gray area still looms over the heads of many people that don't know just yet if they can fly and if and when they do where they will land.
Well said...although I know my being a career woman may hinder the time spent with my kids, and I can only hope that I will find a balance between the two very important jobs.
Cedar,I like your mentality..the 'We didn’t study organic chemistry to make cappuccinos'.I am a historian myself and I must tell you I have made a lot of caρρuccinos in my life so far but I totally with you on this..Only that I believe that the same go out for men as well.I think that we are all human before our gender when it comes in ραying bills..Writing to the ροint of the issue..Thank you for sharing.
I much prefer a world run by women -- other than Sarah Palin of course! We men just screw everything up. E Pluribus Unum has female written all over it.