Stay-at-Home Moms, You May Believe You Left the Workforce by Choice, But Did You?

Studies have shown that most Americans believe career opportunities for men and women are equal in this country. Still, statistics clearly show that women 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. How can there be such a disconnect between reality and perception?

That's what researchers at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University wanted to know. They postulated that discrimination against working mothers, for example, is as prevalent as it ever was, but it's hiding behind our options to make a choice. Women believe they're choosing to leave the workplace to stay home and raise their children, but tend to ignore the fact that if their workplace was less hostile toward and more supportive of the working mom, they might decide to stick around.

Their study, "Opting Out or Denying Discrimination? How the Framework of Free Choice in American Society Influences Perceptions of Gender Inequality," supports this theory.

"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 study co-author Nicole M. Stephens, assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg. "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."

For the study, researchers surveyed a number of working mothers who chose to stay home and raise their children, and found the vast majority of them said it was by choice, but they failed to recognize that discrimination against them might have influenced their choices.

For example, did Karen, a working mother of two, decide to stay home and raise her children full time because that was her real preference, or because her employers' policies made it impossible for her to progress in her job as a working mother? In other words, was staying at home with the kids preferable to dealing with the problems her parenting created at work?

Most of those surveyed didn't even realize that their choices might have been influenced by prejudice in the workplace. It's interesting to note how we tend to gloss over that.

"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 women 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 working mothers."

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