'Opt-out' professionals go back to work, but for some it's a struggle

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Sheilah O’Donnel was one of the women profiled in a 60 Minutes story about high-achieving women who stayed at home to raise their children.

O’Donnel was making $500,000 a year as a top member of Oracle’s sales force when the strains of work and caring for two young children began taking a toll, the New York Times Magazine reports. She cut back to part-time work and eventually quit her job.

But O’Donnel tells the Times her self-confidence plummeted without a work identity. She began volunteering for a nonprofit and eventually took a part-time job there. Her marriage ended in divorce and she took a new job with the help of old Oracle connections. “It wasn’t the perfect fairy-tale ending,” O’Donnel told the newspaper.

The article author spoke with O’Donnel and 21 other women to learn what happened to women who gave up promising careers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “In the years they were out of the work force,” the story says, “many of the professions they left contracted and changed; even once rock-solid fields like law were becoming insecure in ways that no one had previously thought possible.”

Most of the women interviewed said experiencing motherhood on their own terms counterbalanced the perils of leaving work. Those who were most well-off, with the best academic credentials, found jobs easily after long periods at home, though the work was usually lower-paying. But the new jobs were more socially conscious and family-friendly.

But those who divorced or those who weren’t in that elite group—they had lesser academic credentials or lesser social networks—“often struggled greatly,” the story says. Other researchers and writers had made similar findings.

Researcher Sylvia Ann Hewlett surveyed thousands of women in 2004 and 2009, and found that about a third of “highly qualified women” left their jobs to spend extended time at home. Eighty-nine percent who gave up jobs said they wanted to return to work, but only 73 percent had succeeded and only 40 percent obtained full-time jobs. The pay was 16 percent less than the old jobs.

Still, not a single woman interviewed for the Times article wished she could return to the job she had before opting out, the story says. Instead they expressed “some regrets for what, in an ideal world, might have been—more time with their children combined with some sort of intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work—but none for the high-powered professional lives that these women had led.”

Related coverage: “ ‘Talking about work-life balance is fraud’ says ABA President Laurel Bellows” “These Lawyer Families Are New Twist on Opt-Out Professionals”

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