Women with Elite Education Opting Out of Full-Time Careers -- Study Finds Women with MBA’s Are Most Likely to Work Less

Vanderbilt University

The battle for work-life balance among female white collar employees, especially those with children, is something women have struggled with for decades. Though past studies have found little evidence that women are opting out of the workforce in general, first-of-its-kind research by Vanderbilt professor of law and economics Joni Hersch shows that female graduates of elite undergraduate universities are working much fewer hours than their counterparts from less selective institutions.

“Even though elite graduates are more likely to earn advanced degrees, marry at later ages and have higher expected earnings, they are still opting out of full-time work at much higher rates than other graduates, especially if they have children,” said Hersch.

Hersch’s research finds that 60 percent of female graduates from elite colleges are working full-time compared to 68 percent of women from other schools.


The presence of children strongly influences how much a woman works. Labor market activity is lower for women with children, but the gap between those women with and without children is largest for elite graduates. Among elite graduates, married women without children are 20 percentage points more likely to be employed than their elite counterparts with children, while among non-elite graduates, the difference in the likelihood of employment is 13.5 percentage points.

Hersch found that when comparing graduates from elite and less selective schools, the largest gap in full-time labor market activity is among women who also earned a master’s in business degree.

“Married MBA mothers with a bachelor’s degree from the most selective schools are 30 percentage points less likely to be employed full-time than are graduates of less selective schools,” said Hersch.

The full-time employment rate for MBA moms who earned bachelor’s degrees from a tier-one institution is 35 percent. In contrast, the full-time employment rate for those from a less-selective institution is 66 percent. The gap remains even after taking into account the selectivity of MBA institution, personal characteristics, current or prior occupation, undergraduate major, spouse’s characteristics, number and age of children, and family background.

Hersch contends these statistics show that the greater rate of opting out by MBA moms with undergraduate degrees from elite institutions has implications for women’s professional advancement.

“Elite workplaces, like fortune 500 companies, prefer to hire graduates of elite colleges,” said Hersch. “Thus, lower labor market activity of MBA’s from selective schools may have both a direct effect on the number of women reaching higher-level corporate positions as well as an indirect effect because a smaller share of women in top positions is associated with a smaller pipeline of women available to advance through the corporate hierarchy,” said Hersch.

Hersch found a similarly large gap among women who later earned a master’s in education. 66 percent of tier-one graduates are employed full-time compared to 82 percent of graduates from non-elite institutions.
Other factors also contribute to which women are working more hours.
“Estimates show greater labor activity among women with a bachelor’s degree in a field other than arts and humanities; those with graduate degrees; those in higher-level occupations such as management, science, education and legal; and women who are not white,” said Hersch.


A common question associated with opting out is whether highly educated women are willingly choosing to exit the labor force to care for their children or whether they are ‘pushed out’ by inflexible workplaces. But Hersch said this hypothesis of inflexible workplaces does not explain why labor market activity differs between graduates of elite and non-elite schools.

“Graduates of elite institutions are likely to have a greater range of workplace options as well as higher expected wages than graduates of less selective institutions, which would suggest that labor market activity would be higher among such women,” Hersch writes.

“Without discounting the well-known challenges of combining family and professional responsibilities, increasing workplace flexibility alone may have only a limited impact of reducing the gap between graduates of elite and non-elite schools.”

Hersch gathered her data from the 2003 National Survey of College Graduates, which provided detailed information for more than 100,000 college graduates. The survey was conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau for the National Science Foundation.

To identify schools considered elite and to put these schools into tier levels, Hersch used both the Carnegie classification and the Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges. The Barron’s Profiles look at quality indicators of each year’s entering class (SAT or ACT, high school GPA and high school class rank, and percent of applicants accepted). Barron’s then places colleges into seven categories: most competitive, highly competitive, very competitive, competitive, less competitive, noncompetitive, and special.

The Carnegie classifications are based on factors such as the highest degree awarded; the number, type, and field diversity of post-baccalaureate degrees awarded annually; and federal research support. For example, Research I universities offer a full range of baccalaureate programs through the doctorate, give high priority to research, award fifty or more doctoral degrees each year, and receive annually $40 million or more in federal support.

Hersch’s full working paper, titled “Opting Out among Women with Elite Education” can be read here: or accessed here
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April 16, 2013

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