Excerpt: 'Get to Work'

When she married, the ultimate bride was using her journalism skills and training at a worthy nonprofit history center. Eight years later, when I tried to interview her for my book on marriage after feminism, I could not find her--or most of the other women who announced their weddings in the New York Times that month. He, on the other hand, Googled right up, on the Web site of his current employer, a political consulting firm. I called him up.

"Where's your wife?"

"At home in Brooklyn taking care of our daughter."

So were the rest. Eighty-five percent of the thirty-plus January brides in the New York Times had left the workplace in whole or in part. All of them were highly educated--degrees in business, including MBAs, lawyers, journalists, an opera singer, doctors, master's of higher education. All of them had worked full time after graduation. Ninety percent of them had had babies since 1996. Half the mothers were not working at all. Roughly one third were in part-time work at varying distances from their education and training. And six of them were working full time.

Although calling the women of the 1996 "Styles" section is hardly a scientific survey, the 2002 U.S. Census reports that only 46 percent of the women with graduate degrees and children under one work full time, 17 percent part time. Educated women with children up to eighteen are working 59 percent full time and 18 percent part time, increasing in numbers as the children age. On average, then, highly educated women with small children are working full time at about a fifty percent rate.

Perhaps more important, after three decades of increasing their workforce participation, the percentage of highly educated working mothers has stopped going up. The New York Times' part-time home and work columnist, Lisa Belkin, caused a great furor in 2003 when she "sampled" a group of the highly educated stay-at-home mothers she knew and proclaimed there was an "Opt Out Revolution."

"Revolution" is probably overstating it, but something is clearly going on. In 2000, Harvard Business School professor Myra Hart surveyed the women of the classes of 1981, 1986, and 1991 and found that only 38 percent of female Harvard MBAs were working full time. A 2004 survey by the Center for Work-Life Policy of 2,443 women with a graduate degree or very prestigious bachelor's degree revealed that 43 percent of those women with children had taken at least a couple of years out, sometimes more than once, primarily for family reasons.

During the 1990s, I taught a philosophy course in sexual bargaining at a very good college. Each year, after the class reviewed the low financial rewards for child-care work, I asked how the students anticipated combining work with child rearing. At least half the female students described lives of part-time or home-based work. Guys expected their female partners to care for the children. (When I asked the young men how they reconciled that prospect with the manifest low regard the market has for child care, they were mystified. Turning to the women who had spoken before, they said, uniformly, "But she chose it.") (More on that in a moment.) Richard Posner, federal appeals court judge and occasional University of Chicago adjunct professor of law, reports that "everyone associated with [elite law schools] has long known: that a vastly higher percentage of female than of male students will drop out of the workforce to take care of their children."

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