Why do so many highly educated mothers drop out of the work force? Probably because they can afford it and because the long hours they are required to work are tough on family life.
… Today, whether you’re male or female, if you’re taking home an upper-middle-class salary you’re expected to work an average of 50 hours, and probably more, a lot of it after you’ve gone home. As of 1997, the average workweek for a man with graduate education was 50 hours, and for a women 47—that three-hour difference can be accounted for, of course, by all the women who went on mommy tracks. Among American dual-career couples, in the 1990s, 15.2 percent of those with at least college degrees worked a joint 100 hours a week or more, whereas only 9.6 of couples without diplomas did that. Try to imagine what that 100-hour workweek looked like to a child: that’s five 10-hour days, plus commutes, for both parents. And those are just averages—for people at the top of their fields, the numbers were a great deal bigger.
That the workweek is ballooning for America’s educated, salaried classes, even as it’s shrinking for less educated, hourly workers, or turning into part-time work, has been called the “time divide”—the increasing inequality of time spent working, which tracks with the rise of economic inequality. As of 2002, for example, Americans in the top fourth of earners toiled an average of 15 hours more than earners in the bottom fourth….
Women currently enrolled in college do not fully realize the price of “leaning in” to their career, according to Judith Shulevitz writing in The New Republic.
When I meet young female undergraduates and graduate students today, which I do when I speak at universities, I don’t find them neo-traditionalist or lacking in aspiration. They don’t seem to want to stay home with their kids. They have every intention of using their formidable educations to achieve professional success, just as I did when I was in college. And like me back then, they don’t really grasp what that will require.
In our interview, Jacobs told me about a recent class in which he and his students discussed a study done of graduates of the University of Chicago’s business school. After 10 years, the study’s researchers found, the female graduates were making half of what their male classmates were making; the 90th percentile for women was where the median was for men. “Of course,” added Jacobs, “they’re all making a ton of money. It’s not like you could feel terrible for these women. But in terms of the disparity, it was pretty dramatic.” As the discussion continued, the young women in the class started putting their heads in their hands or on their desks. They hadn’t heard any of this before. But they’ll be hearing a lot more of it in the years to come.
I was clueless about all this when I was in college, mainly because my plans did not include children. It was only after my first child was of school age and my job required me to be away from home 50-60 hours a week did I fully realize the challenges of balancing work and family. My long commute, which contributed to the lack of flexibility, was a particular problem. Even with good childcare, my husband and I could not escape the stress of trying to manage a family while dealing with a combined workweek of more than 100 hours. So I simply quit working, grateful that I could afford it. Other circumstances, including a major home remodeling project, also factored into my decision.
Another consideration in having one parent stay home with the children is the expanded flexibility it often gives the working parent to grow his career. In our case, my husband no longer needed to factor in my availability when he had to work late or go out of town on business. So in addition to lowering stress levels at home, it probably helped him in advancing his career.
Of course there are downsides to having one spouse drop out of the workforce.
Shulevitz thinks we need more government regulation so that professional mothers can stay in the workforce.
Professional accomplishment shouldn’t and doesn’t have to look like this. The main reason white-collar workers can be driven to work 80-hour-or-so weeks is that very few of them have government protections. Most of them are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates the 40-hour-week and overtime pay. American managers aren’t allowed to join unions. Other countries have laws that protect against overwork even for professionals, such as standard or maximum number of hours anyone can work in a week….