Long Hours Push Working Mothers Out of High-Level Jobs

A new study offers insight as to why women with kids leave the workplace.
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Flickr / UMF2011

Amid all of the discussions about "leaning in," "opting out," the "end of men," and "having it all," a singular question is missing—what exactly is it that drives working mothers out of high-achieving professions? The answer, according to new research, might be elegantly simple: too many working hours. New findings suggest that when the expected average working hours is more than 50 hours a week, women with children leave the profession at a higher rate than men and childless women.

Youngjoo Cha, an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University, published research in the latest issue of Gender & Society finding that professions that have average working hours have plenty of men and childless women, but very few working mothers.

Cha doesn't think this is an accident. The pressure to work more than 50 hours a week pushes working mothers out of what we think of as male-dominated professions. While that might be an obvious conclusion for some, Cha crunched the numbers. Using the Census' longitudinal Survey of Income and Program Participation, she found a significant correlation between male-dominated professions and their tendency to have average working hours of more than 50 hours a week.

"Overworkers" make up nearly a quarter (22 percent) of professions that are less than 10 percent women. When she looked at professions that have somewhere between 20 and 30 percent women, about 20 percent of workers put in more than 50 hours a week. Then, when she looked at professions with 70 percent or more women, "overworkers" made up just six to eight percent of those workers.

Cha also created models tracking workers who leave professions. She found that "having children increases overworking women's odds of exiting male-dominated occupations by 52 percent, as compared to their nonmother counterparts." Full-time working mothers left their professions at a rate of 4.9 percent, but when you look at professions where they work 50 hours or more a week, that number jumps to 6.8 percent (though she noted that holding an advanced degree reduces the exit rate by 1.7 percent).

Meanwhile, "being a father has no effect on the mobility of overworking men."

Cha says: "When we compare the exit rate of full-time working mothers (4.9 percent) to that of their childless counterparts (4.5 percent), the differences are negligible. This suggests that motherhood status alone does not increase the exit rates; what drives women's exodus from male-dominated occupations are the joint effects of overwork and motherhood, which may reflect the 'greedy' as well as 'gendered' nature of family that demands disproportionately more hours from mothers.

It's not the particular findings that surprised me, but how consistently I can actually see this influence in every dimension of women's labor market outcomes."

She argues that although a lot of attention has been given to the idea that professional or managerial occupations require long hours, the real correlation between long working hours seems to more strongly associated with how many men are in the profession, not the nature of the work.

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Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story.

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