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Opting out revolution a myth: Study shows steep employment gains for women, mothers

WASHINGTON, DC Contrary to the popular perception of a so-called "opting out revolution," new sociological research from the June issue of the American Sociological Review reveals that professional women's employment rates have continually pushed higher over time, and that the employment gap between mothers and childless women is shrinking.

To determine the truth behind the opting out phenomenon described in mass media reports, sociologist Christine Percheski examined trends among college-educated women born between 1906 and 1975 and found that professional women's employment levels have made steep gains over time, especially for mothers of young children and women in historically male professions.

Despite anecdotal reports of successful working women returning to the home to assume child care responsibilities, less than 8 percent of professional women born since 1956 leave the workforce for a year or more during their prime childbearing years, according to the study.

Percheski's research shows that the number of women with young children who work full-time year-round has increased steadily, growing from a rate of 5.6 percent of women born 1926 to 1935 (referred to as the "Baby Boom Parents" by Percheski), to 38.1 percent of women from Generation X (born 1966 to 1975). More professional Generation X mothers of young children were working full-time year-round than their counterparts in any previous generation.

Percheski finds that among mothers of older children (those age 6 to 18), full-time employment is the norm for professional women of Generation X.

When examining general labor force participation rates, Percheski finds even more drastic growth. About a third of women with young children from the Baby Boom Parents group participated in the labor force while their children were under age 6, but the rate increased to a little more than three-quarters for Generation X mothers of young children.

According to Percheski, the employment gains of recent cohorts do not seem to have been achieved through reductions in fertility, as fertility levels have remained similar across women born from 1946 to 1975.

Not only are more women with children working, but Percheski's research shows a trend of women working longer hours. The percentage of professional women working more than 50 hours a week increased from less than 10 percent of women born before 1935 to more than 15 percent for most women born after 1956. Long hours were more common even for mothers of young children. Ten percent of Generation X mothers with young children worked more than 50 hours a week; but just over 1 percent of their Baby Boom Parent counterparts worked more than 50 hours a week. For those with older children, the rate was 15 percent of Generation Xers working long hours versus about 2 percent of Baby Boom Parents doing so.

Percheski also examined the characteristics of professional, college-educated women in their main reproductive years, ages 25 to 39, who were not employed or enrolled in school the previous year. Although the vast majority of non-working women have children at home, Percheski found that an increasing percentage of women in the younger groups she studied did not. Fewer of these non-working women were married as well. Percheski asserts that this is evidence of the weakening influence of children and marriage on women's employment rates.

"Contrary to an opt-out revolution, professional womenincluding mothers of young childrenare working more than ever," said Percheski. "Despite this increase in women's employment, we can not assume that combining professional work and family life is easy for most women. Indeed, many working women successfully combine these roles by making great personal sacrifices, including curtailing their sleep, civic involvement or leisure time."

Percheski used cross-sectional data from the U.S. Census and the American Community Survey to examine trends by 10-year birth cohorts of college-educated professional and managerial women in the United States from 1960 to 2005. She analyzed labor force participation; full-time, year-round employment; and work hours exceeding 50 hours per week. She is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology and the Office of Population Research at Princeton University.

Sociologists have also studied the factors that affect the decisions of the small percentage of women who do "opt out" of the workforce. The fall 2007 issue of the American Sociological Association's Contexts magazine included sociologist Pamela Stone's examination of "The Rhetoric and Reality of Opting Out," in which Stone describes the home and workplace dynamics that contribute to these decisions. This article is available online at


Contact: Jackie Cooper
American Sociological Association

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