Why Women MBAs "Stop Out"

Sharon Hoffman of Stanford's B-school says they feel safe in suspending their careers and tending to home because the degree cushions the risk

Sharon Hoffman, MBA program director at Stanford Business School, has noticed a trend among female graduates: The ranks of moms with MBAs choosing to drop out of the workforce -- temporarily -- and stay at home has been swelling. Hoffman has coined a phrase for the phenomenon, "stopping out."

She has observed that many of the women MBAs who have stopped-out were those that she least expected to take time away from their careers. Hoffman, herself a Stanford MBA and a mother, took some time out of her own career until assuming the program director position last year. She recently spoke with BusinessWeek reporter Jennifer Merritt about the trend. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: You've seen an increasing number of MBA women alums -- successful, ambitious, high-achieving women -- choosing to take extended time away from their careers to be at home with their children. What do you make of this increase in drop-outs?

A:

We call it stopping out. Stopping out is a temporary, revolving-door decision that has less of a [sense] of permanence. When women with graduate degrees leave the workforce, many do it with the thought that it's temporary.

Q: What sort of stop-out pattern have you seen among your classmates from Stanford Business School?

A:

A number of women in my class chose this. Many of the women who are now at home were the most ambitious, driven, and passionate about their professional lives when they were at school. They have temporarily transferred that passion to child-rearing, with the idea of getting back into their careers when the kids are older.

Q: How do these women who were so passionate about their careers stay involved and in the loop?

A:

Many of them stay intellectually connected through volunteer work [and have] transferred their passion and skills to schools and the community. Some also try to find part-time, flexible, or telecommuting opportunities. We hire application readers every year, and we've had a lot of success hiring our alums who are at home.

Q: How do stop-out women raise the level of volunteer work?

A:

When you have school-related activities -- a book fair, auction, bake sale, field trip -- being organized by a room mom, these women approach it with an eye to overall [management] strategy.

If you used to manage a brand in your career, the school is going to benefit from your managing the book fair. The level of talent is tremendous. Women also still sit on boards, corporate or nonprofit, or do some consulting. Many work during hours when their kids are in school.

Q: Do these women ever question whether they should have gotten an MBA?

A:

Anecdotally, looking at alums I know, and from attending some of the panels and discussions we've held for women, it's exactly the opposite. Women don't think they shouldn't or wouldn't have gotten the degree. In fact, the degree makes them more comfortable about making this short-term decision because they have the education and credentials to reinsert themselves [into the workforce] when they're ready. It's like intellectual money in the bank.

Q: What do you think has spurred this increase in women stopping out?

A:

Women are realizing that it's impossible for a human being to have it all. It is as unrealistic to think you can have it all with family and a career and with a high level of personal involvement as it is to say you want to take a year-long trip around the world and also tend to the garden all summer.

What women have discovered is that what you can have, maybe, are your top two or three choices, if you're lucky. You can have it sequentially but not concurrently. If you're really lucky and are privileged and work hard, you can have a few things you want most, but not all at the same time.

Q: When these women want to get back into their careers, how welcoming an environment do they find?

A:

I have seen women be successful coming back after four or five years. But a lot of times, they really like the other commitments they've made in their communities, so [instead of returning full-time] they'll do consulting or freelance work.

It's a sort of a cafeteria-style plan for life -- little bit of this, little bit of that. But I haven't seen a single person who has wanted to go back full-time and couldn't find anyone to hire them. We have career counseling for our alums, and we have career support groups along with panels on work-life balance and how to get back into the workforce.

Q: Any particular type of woman who's more likely to stop out?

A:

Many women might like to, but it's not an option for every women. Generally speaking, women who have received MBAs enjoy a greater sense of economic security. It's a big financial decision.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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