Opting-Out? Off-Ramping? Why women are really leaving paid work

Words like “desire” and “choice” might be poor ways to describe circumscribed career moves that mothers make when trying to factor in childcare, writes Leslie Cannold.

With a steady diet of redundancies in the news, and economists beginning to talk of jobless recoveries, and even recession, it may be time to consider the prudence of decisions mothers make about paid work.

In particular, I want to cast a critical eye over claims that high-powered career women “opt out”, or take the “off-ramp” entirely, to manage their childcare responsibilities.

The thesis comes from the United States, which is arguably further down the track than Australia in restructuring its economy in response to the loss of the secure decently-paid jobs that supported a middle-class. Sylvia Anne Hewlett is an American researcher who has warned highly qualified women against opting out of the workforce to raise children. “Off-ramps are around every curve in the road, but once a woman has taken one, on-ramps are few and far between – and extremely costly,” she wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2005.

Five years later and Hewlett, writing again in the HBR, remained bamboozled by what she continued to see as the choice educated women make about paid work. While the number of women off-ramping had dropped from 37 per cent in 2005 to 31 per cent in 2010 in the face of tough economic times, the recession had increased the amount of time women were staying at home (2.5 years up from 2). There was also a whopping 28 per cent rise in the number of educated women living with an unemployed husband.

The persistence of off-ramping in the face of such trends, Hewlett said, suggested “the non-linear path is not a luxury for boom times but the way many women want to structure their careers regardless of the economy”.

Want, or – given gendered expectations of care and employment – must? A recent analysis of HILDA data by UNSW School of Management PhD student Tanya Carney suggests desire and choice are poor ways to describe the circumscribed career moves that mothers make.

Carney tracked the employment transitions of mothers over a four-year period and contrasted them with the career moves of men and women without kids. In yet unpublished findings, she found that mothers tended to cluster in jobs where there was security but also flexibility. That flexibility could come in the form of predictable work schedules and access to secure part-time work, or could consist of permanent full-time hours with the capacity to do some work from home.

Women also valued jobs that enabled them to downshift from permanent full- time work to part-time hours and ramp their hours back up when their caring responsibilities changed. Among the career winners were teachers, office managers, social welfare workers and personal assistants. Male-dominated professions from which mothers were fleeing included computing, accountancy finance professionals, business analysts and sales representatives.

This data marries well with the observations of American academic Deborah Kolb, who says there is little evidence to support claims that educated women are off-ramping or opting out by choice. Instead, the absence of the flexibility in their chosen professions is forcing such women from their perches.  Of course, secure flexible work is only part of the work-life balance equation. The other is accessible and affordable childcare. The National Foundation for Australian Women and economicSecurity4Women have been telling anyone who will listen that the political capital Prime Minister Tony Abbott is using to pass this generous paid parental leave scheme through Parliament would be far better spent on childcare reforms. Why? Because childcare has a “much greater impact on the capacity of women to work and care than PPL (paid parental leave)”. The data bears this out. Provisional unpublished results of the Government’s own evaluation of the existing Paid Parental Leave Scheme suggests many women don’t return to the workplace because they can’t find childcare. Indeed, the two factors most critical to women’s decision to return and remain in the paid workforce is whether they have good childcare and – when all is said and done under existing tax and transfer arrangements – whether they end up financially better off.

I’ve written elsewhere about the sexism and classism deeply embedded in this sort of calculation. Here I want to focus on how government levers differently impact a mother’s return to work depending on whether she has a university degree.

In a statistical analysis of 18 established democracies, including Australia, a group of Swedish researchers found that women with a tertiary education will stay in paid work regardless of the family-friendliness – or otherwise – of government policy. The reason? Their individual resources “enable … them to make real choices”, and the choice most women make when they have a range of good options and the freedom to choose among them is to stay in paid work.

This reality makes clear why advocacy group Chief Executive Women is struggling to find alliances in the women’s movement to support their push to make the costs of nannies tax-deductible. Because unless a mother earns more than $180,000, a tax-deduction will leave her worse off than the current rebate. For those on the upper end of the pay scale, government fiscal levers have little influence on the decisions mothers make.

But those decisions can be influenced. If researchers Carney and Kolb are correct, the carrot for educated mothers is workplace flexibility. This is something largely in the hands of employers, but governments can play a role. As Carney points out, Australian workers “currently have the right to request part-time work, not to get it”.

Indeed, what Carney’s work suggests is that what working mothers need is guaranteed entitlements to access a range of flexible practices that enable them to hang on, or at least retain a toe-hold in the workplace, while their kids are young.

Tony Abbott, over to you.

Publication history

Juggling careers, childcare and choice  ABC Online The Drum