Women who leave the workplace: Opting out or overlooking discrimination?

Jul 27, 2011

For the first time in history, the majority of Americans believe that women's job opportunities are equal to men's. For example, a 2005 Gallup poll indicated that 53 percent of Americans endorse the view that opportunities are equal, despite the fact that women still earn less than men, are underrepresented at the highest levels of many fields, and face other gender barriers such as bias against working mothers and inflexible workplaces.

New research from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University helps to explain why many Americans fail to see these persistent gender barriers. The research demonstrates that the common American assumption that behavior is a product of personal choice fosters the belief that opportunities are equal and that gender barriers no longer exist in today's workplace.

The study, "Opting Out or Denying Discrimination? How the Framework of Free Choice in American Society Influences Perceptions of Gender Inequality," suggests that the assumption that women "opt out" of the workforce, or have the choice between career or family, promotes the belief that individuals are in control of their fates and are unconstrained by the environment.

The study was co-authored by Nicole M. Stephens, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, and Cynthia S. Levine, a doctoral student in the psychology department at Stanford University. It will be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for .

"Although we've made great strides toward gender equality in American society, significant obstacles still do, in fact, hold many women back from reaching the upper levels of their organizations," said Stephens. "In our research, we sought to determine how the very idea of 'opting out,' or making a choice to leave the workplace, may be maintaining these social and structural barriers by making it more difficult to recognize gender discrimination."

In one study, a group of stay-at-home mothers answered survey questions about how much choice they had in taking time off from their career and about their feelings of empowerment in making life plans and controlling their environment.

The participants then reviewed a set of real statistics about in four fields – business, politics, law and science/engineering – and were asked to evaluate whether these barriers were due to bias against women or societal and workplace factors that make it difficult for women to hold these positions.

As predicted, most women explained their workplace departure as a matter of personal choice – which is reflective of the cultural understanding of choice in American society and underscores how the prevalence of choice influences behavior. These same women experienced a greater sense of personal well-being, but less often recognized the examples of discrimination and structural barriers presented in the statistics.

In a follow-up experiment, the researchers examined the consequences of the common cultural representation of women's workplace departure as a choice. Specifically, they examined how exposure to a choice message influenced Americans' beliefs about equality and the existence of discrimination. First, undergraduate students were subtly exposed to one of two posters on a wall about women leaving the workforce: either a poster with a choice message ("Choosing to Leave: Women's Experiences Away from the Workforce") or one in a control condition that simply said "Women at Home: Experiences Away from the Workforce."

Then, the participants were asked to take a survey about social issues. The participants exposed to the first poster with the choice message more strongly endorsed the belief that opportunities are equal and that is nonexistent, versus the control group who more clearly recognized discrimination. Interestingly, those participants who considered themselves to be feminists were more likely than other participants to identify discrimination.

"This second experiment demonstrates that even subtle exposure to the choice framework promotes the belief that discrimination no longer exists," said Levine. "One single brief encounter – such as a message in a poster – influenced the ability to recognize discrimination. Regular exposure to such messages could intensify over time, creating a vicious cycle that keeps women from reaching the top of high-status fields."

Overall, Stephens and Levine noted that while choice may be central to women's explanations of their own workplace departure, this framework is a double-edged sword.

"Choice has short-term personal benefits on well-being, but perhaps long-term detriments for women's advancement in the workplace collectively," said Stephens. "In general, as a society we need to raise awareness and increase attention for the gender barriers that still exist. By taking these barriers into account, the discussion about women's workplace departure could be reframed to recognize that many do not freely choose to leave the workplace, but instead are pushed out by persistent workplace barriers such as limited workplace flexibility, unaffordable childcare, and negative stereotypes about ."

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User comments : 3

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Corban
not rated yet Jul 27, 2011
It's really unfair that the working mothers are not being paid the same for putting in 50 hours--Oh wait.
EWH
1 / 5 (1) Jul 27, 2011
This is feminist ax-grinding.
Men generally don't have the same freedom as women to leave the workforce, at least not if they like sleeping indoors. (Most social programs in the US are available only to women.) On the population level, men are therefore likely to have longer uninterrupted work histories which translates into higher salaries. Men are also more likely than women to choose careers based on potential earnings (lower income men are less likely to find mates), while women are far more likely to choose mates with higher earnings and to have effective control over their husbands' earnings than men are over their wives' earnings. Women live longer than men and end up inheriting their husbands' savings, thus making them on average wealthier than men, despite the fact that men produce more of the income. Women spend (and make decisions on how to spend) far more than men do. The idea that men are treated better than women economically is not only a myth, it is completely backwards
denijane
not rated yet Jul 28, 2011
"The idea that men are treated better than women economically is not only a myth, it is completely backwards"
Then why women choose to give first birth later and later in life, which goes against their and their children's interest (late births are generally more dangerous for both mother and baby) if women are so well accommodated in our society? This is ridiculous. The whole western world has a problem with low birth rates, especially in Europe, precisely because the equal rights do not mean equality. Sure, if a woman works as a man, she probably will reach high positions and salary (though in some EU countries, women on similar positions earn less then men!).But a woman has to become a mother. And if you know you have to fit a pregnancy and children in your work schedule, things become VERY different. You simply don't work as man - not in terms of quality, but of planning and dedication. So don't tell me there's no discrimination. Pregnancy is not a choice, but a right and a duty!

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