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November 07, 2007

Opting Out: Why Professional Married Mothers
Choose to Leave Successful Careers

Is the workplace really family friendly?

WASHINGTON, DC— While the commonly assumed reason professional women leave or “opt out” of their successful careers is the burden of children and family, new sociological analysis appearing in the fall issue of Contexts magazine shows otherwise. Sociologist Pamela Stone describes the reasons women leave their careers as much more complex. Stone explains, “There is a choice gap between the rhetoric of choice and the reality of constraints within the workplace.” Women are often caught between demands on the home front and the increasing pace of professional jobs.

Stone says these women’s options were more limited than it seemed. “Between trying to be the ideal mother and the ideal worker, these high-flying women faced a double bind…there is a difference between the decisions the women could have made about their careers if they were not mothers or caregivers and the decisions they had to make in their circumstances as mothers married to high-octane husbands in ultimately unyielding professions.”

Stone studied 54 women in-depth from a variety of professions (e.g., law, medicine, business, publishing, management consulting, nonprofit administration) living in major metropolitan areas, roughly half in their 30s and half in their 40s. The women were highly educated, affluent, mostly white, married with children, who worked as professionals or managers and whose husbands could support their being at home. More than half had graduate degrees in business, law, medicine, or other professions; they also had thriving careers in which they had worked for about a decade and had strong incentives to continue with them.

Stone determined that workplace pushes were a significant reason women opted out, and ”all but seven women cited features of their jobs—the long hours, the travel—as motivation for quitting.” Those who tried to rearrange their work schedule “felt like they were being given special favors.” Professional women aren’t quitting their careers solely because of babies and family, but because too many workplaces are not fostering an environment that allows them to keep working once they become mothers.

In her analysis, Stone discovered husbands were a key factor in these women’s decisions as well. “That not all women talked about their husbands’ involvement, or lack thereof, reveals the degree to which they perceived the work-family balancing act to be their responsibility alone. But women seldom mentioned their husbands for another reason: they were, quite literally, absent,” working long hours at their own jobs.

Ultimately, Stone believes that the prevailing misunderstanding about why high-achieving women quit careers only serves to undermine the will to change the modern-day workplace. She says, “Current demographics make it clear that employers can hardly afford to lose the talents of high-achieving women. Forget opting out; the key to keeping professional women on the job is to create better, more flexible ways to work.”

For more information or to request an interview with Pamela Stone, contact Sujata Sinha (202-247-9871,

A PDF of the study can be found at

Further information on Contexts can be found at

About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.