According to the most recent Bureau of Labor statistics report, the percentage of women employed or actively seeking work dropped to 56.7 percent last month, the lowest rate since 1988. Critics blame misdirected millennials. Optimists point to the growing enrollment in women seeking advanced degrees (and therefore taking time out of their careers for upward mobility). However, the largely unaddressed reasons for women leaving the workforce in higher numbers likely revolves around archaic workplace policy for mothers.
The recent data can be interpreted to show women are finding strength in the decision to stay home. The number of stay-at-home moms rose to 29 percent in 2012, when the recession loosened its grip on the U.S. economy. This was a notable rise from 1999 -- a modern-era low of 23 percent -- but yet still a far cry from the “Mad Men” era of the 1950s and 1960s when Pew data showed 49 percent of women were stay-at-home moms. Today’s women realize they don’t need to hand over their feminist title for pursuing the role of caregiver and that modern feminism is about having choices (not mandates) including the freedom to opt out or lean in as they see fit.
Unfortunately, this makes up a very small percentage of the mothers who find themselves leaving the workforce. More likely, the lack of viable childcare options and gender bias accounts for everyone else. Daycares in the U.S. are notorious for being expensive and poorly maintained.
According to a 2012 report issued by Child Care Aware of America comparing daycare prices to housing costs, “child care fees for two children (an infant and a 4-year-old) exceeded annual median rent payments in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.” This could explain why 95 percent of stay-at-home mothers with working husbands are considered low- and middle-class. In fact, only 5 percent of stay-at-home mothers with working husbands had a family income above $75,000 according to Pew. Whether she wants to or not, if a mother’s salary doesn’t cover the cost of commuting plus the cost of daycare, that mother isn’t likely to stay in the workforce.
Neither is the mother who is feeling squeezed by gender-bias. Parenthood impacts employer perception differently for men than it does women. Fathers are more likely to be promoted because they are considered hard-working and stable providers for their family. Women with children, however, are stereotyped as being flaky, available to work less and more easily distracted.
Given the subtle yet hostile biases, women are forced to leave behind their careers for the sole realm of domesticity. Though 32 percent of mothers express a desire to work-full time (or part-time for 47 percent), they cannot single-handedly create egalitarian work environments that erase these antiquated and toxic notions.
While victories in choice should be celebrated, we need to paint the complete picture of women’s decisions to leave the workforce, which includes discrimination, prejudice and an outdated workplace culture that does not reflect how women’s roles have drastically changed.
According to the authors of “The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men — and our Economy,” the fact that some women don’t realize that the playing field still remains uneven breeds hostility, complacency and self-blame when their careers get side-tracked. Until the US does more to foster equality in the workplace, the data alone that women are simply leaving will not tell the whole story about our career choices as women and mothers.