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.