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.

"Work hours tend to be shorter in many female-dominated professional occupations, such as school teachers, librarians, and therapists, as well as lower-level managers, and the penalty for deviating from the norm tends to be smaller," Cha writes.

She goes on to point out that even non-professional male-dominated occupations like construction often require mandatory overtime.

America's somewhat unique in this tendency toward what she calls "overwork culture." Sweden, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom all cap working hours at 48 hours a week. And Americans have gotten worse over time. In 1979, 21 percent of men and 5 percent of women worked more than 50 hours a week. In 2000, 27 percent of men and 11 percent of women worked that much.

Those numbers might be even worse today, since, as Cha says, "the definition of 'being at work' has intensified over the last few decades." Thanks to smartphones and at-home access to work emails, today's workforce might be even more tipped toward "overwork" than even those included in her data. Technology hasn't made the problem of overwork better. If anything, it's made it worse.

Cha blames gender biases about work that haven't evolved much in the last few decades. "When people are really expected to dive into the workplace and have a complete devotion to work, that was probably possible because there was someone else who can do other things for that person," Cha says. "This overwork norm is basically built upon those assumptions."

It's a conclusion that a recent report published by the Center for American Progress also comes to: "American society has consistently failed to adapt to the heightened demands placed upon its families and, in particular, on women. Our workplaces are structured today as though we were still living in the early 1960s."

"Even the most fortunate—the better-educated and better-off professionals who tend to have access to paid leave, flexibility, sick days, and decent child care—find balancing the necessary demands of work and home an increasingly fraught and anxious-making endeavor in our era of 'extreme jobs' and 24/7 availability," they add.

This constant demand on workers time shows in high-achieving professions—while women are increasing their numbers in high-achieving professions, they're still nowhere near gender parity. Women made up just 14.3 percent of executive officers in Fortune 500 companies in 2012, and in 2010 women made up 33.4 percent of legal jobs and 26.8 percent of physicians and surgeons. Unless these professions start reigning in working hours, it's unlikely they'll see much improvement.