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 Sandberg. That 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.”