Women are faring better than ever in the workforce. Four out of ten married women earn more money than their husbands. 36 percent of women ages 25 to 29 hold bachelor’s degrees, compared with 28 percent of men of the same age group. Time Magazine even dubbed women as “the Richer Sex” in a recent cover story.
Yet women are fleeing the workforce.
Women’s workforce participation has fallen from 58.3 percent to 57.6 percent in the since April 2011.
Undoubtedly, the difficult job market is a factor in the labor force participation drop responsible for the falling unemployment rate. Yet women’s labor force participation rate has declined every year since 1999 – when it peaked at 60 percent – which makes the recession just one chapter of a larger story for female workforce participation.
Why are women slowly but steadily leaving the workforce? Simply put, some women who have the option to not work not heading back into the office.
The workforce participation of highly educated women – defined as women who hold at least a bachelor’s degree – dropped from 70.8 percent to 70.0 percent in the last year, the highest percentage drop among women of all education levels. Even in absolute numbers, more college-educated women have left the workforce than women of any other education group.
Women’s workforce participation is a function of their wages, job availability, family income from other sources, and family responsibilities.
The factor influencing highly educated women’s workforce flight: family income from other sources.
“There are many reasons but I would say that a prevalent one is the higher earnings of husbands from greater returns to education in today’s economy,” said Anne York, associate professor of Economics at Meredith College.
The wages of highly educated men began to skyrocket in the 1990s but highly educated women’s wages did not experience the same level of growth. By 2011, men who held a bachelor’s degree but no advanced degree had average earnings of 70,000; for women, it was 45,000, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics released in April.
Historically, women showed little responsiveness to the husband’s wages, particularly among highly educated women. Women who wanted to enter the workforce did, whether or not it was financially necessary for them to do so.
The underlying shift is a social as well as economic. A study of U.S. labor force trends by the Population Reference Bureau shows there may be a shift in younger women’s attitudes toward working, particularly for highly educated women.
Donna Simmons has given the last 9 years of her life in pursuit of higher education. The doctor from Virginia will complete her residency in 2017 and start her dream job – as a part-time pediatrician.
Simmons, who is engaged to a doctor and plans to have children in the next few years, said she gets a few comments from older female doctors when she says she does not plan to work full time. But Simmons believes that she is exercising the same right to choose that prior generations fought for.
“This is really women’s liberation,” Simmons said. “The ability to have a choice to work or not – not to feel forced to do one or the other.”
Jenille Simon, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Spellman University, takes the opposite view of Simmons. Simon does not understand how women could not work after investing so much in education.
“I feel like if I did all those late nights, I have to get a wage for it,” Simon said. “But even if a situation came about where you are fortunate not to work, why would you not?
Increased social pressure for more conventional motherhood has caused women to spend more time at home.
The debate between working moms and stay at home moms is contentious – noted by the ferocity of the Ann Romney vs. Hilary Rosen comments – but from an economic standpoint, the debate comes down to whether women more productive as full-time moms or as full-time employees.
“The question is whether women contribute more to the economy directly by using their skills in the workplace or indirectly by full-time child rearing,” Cordelia Reimers, professor emeritus of economics at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center. “Does the latter result in children who are enough more productive as future workers to make up for what their mother didn’t produce in the workplace?”
Simmons said she does not worry her time out of the workforce will affect future wages.
“I know that I will be taking time off and possibly taking a loss in my career,” Simmons said. “I’m ok not being a good doctor, but I am not ok not being a good mom.”
Economists suggest women think about the long-term effects of leaving the workforce before making that decision.
“On a personal level, if these individuals decide after an extended time out of the labor market to re-enter it, then they will have taken a huge hit to their lifetime earnings,” York said. “Their earning profiles will not pick up where they left off.”