New Study: Women From Top Schools Are More Likely To ‘Lean Out’

0408 lean outIt’s not often that an academic researcher says she’s “absolutely infuriated” by the phenomenon documented by her own study. But that’s what the conversation about women at work can do to people.

According to this new study, women who attended elite colleges are the likeliest to “lean out” of their careers, in the term coined by Facebook’s Sheryl SandbergThat means women with the most educational capital — that is, the ones who ostensibly show the most academic and professional promise — are the ones who end up opting out of the workforce. The study was conducted by Vanderbilt law and economics professor Joni Hersch, who culled data from  the 2003 National Survey of College Graduates and the Carnegie Foundation’s classifications of schools and selectivity.

Hersch tells the Wall Street Journal that she was “absolutely infuriated” see so many women at her own elite school and elsewhere leave the workforce so soon after graduation. Curious about whether it was just an anecdotal, personal complaint, she looked into it and was surprised by how strong the connection was.

Just 45% of mothers who graduated from “tier 1″ schools were working full-time in 2003, compared to 57% of mothers from schools in the lowest tier. The divide was even sharper among married mothers with MBAs.

Why are the women most prepared to excel at work dropping out? Short answer: Because they can.

Hersch points out that students who attend top schools tend to have wealthier family backgrounds, and also likelier to marry wealthy men. They can therefore afford to step away from the workforce, unlike women without rich spouses or big savings accounts.

The trend has dire consequences for the numbers of women in the executive ranks. As the Journal sums it up, “Elite companies hire from elite schools, but women from elite schools don’t stick around for long, limiting the talent pipeline for leadership positions.”

Photo: Andresr /


Share This Post:
    • Lastango

      “The trend has dire consequences for the numbers of women in the executive ranks.”
      Unlike Joni Hersch, I’m not bothered by people being able to choose how they want to live their lives, and then doing so. I’ve never considered having X number of (protected political class/victim group) working in (whatever field they’re not at the moment) as being automatically a worthwhile goal.
      Besides, what will it all look like in 50 years? Is this some sort of setback? What will work be like for anyone, or any demographic? What will happen as the global depression gathers steam, and what if it lasts decades? Noone has a clue what women or men will be doing for a living — except that it will all look very different, and whole professions and sectors will be decimated while new ones arise.

      • Jess McCloskey

        It’s awesome that you don’t care how people live their lives and don’t think we need a certain number of any ‘protected political class/victim group’ in different work categories–I’m sure that helps you enjoy a pleasant life. But your viewpoint is overly simplistic.

        We don’t care about how many women are in top positions because we want to get our sticky fingers into an individual woman’s life, we care because whilst we continue to have 85% of top positions filled by men, we continue to see wage gaps between the genders in nearly every job type. We care because studies have shown time and again that employers like to hire people who are similar to them, which means that the fewer women bosses, the fewer women being hired and promoted.

      • Lastango

        I hope you’re aware “women bosses” are infamous for not hiring and promoting other women. It’s common to read high-achieving women in business citing the male mentors who recognized their talents and guided them along the way. Have you ever wondered why so few of these women identify with feminism?

        Also, thanks for the ad homonym slap about my “pleasant life”. It’s interesting you think you have to cheat like that to make your point. If I can be marginalized, and excluded from relevance, your job becomes so much easier.