Keeping Women in Business (and Family)

23 Pages Posted: 2 Apr 2008


Work and family have become either/or propositions for a growing segment of young professionals in business, law, and medicine. A well documented opt-out revolution is underway, in which women professionals are leaving the workplace in droves. Less appreciated is the converse phenomenon: huge numbers of female, and male, professionals who remain in the workplace but opt out of family. These men and women forego parenting and stable, long-term relationships in surprisingly high numbers, believing they cannot have both.

This Chapter documents the extent of this break from family for professional men and women. Using the 2003 National Survey of College Graduates, this Chapter shows that among professionals, long-term adult relationships often take a beating, but that women outstrip men in the number of failing personal relationships. Women with MBAs are divorced or separated more often than college graduates and they split up over twice as often as men with the same degree. Women with JDs and MDs are also more likely to divorce or separate than their male counterparts in the same profession. The complete break from marriage tells an even starker story. 21% of women with JDs and 17% of women with MBAs have never married, compared to 14% of women college graduates. Importantly, never married women with MBAs outnumber their male counterparts almost three to one, a gap that closes only somewhat for doctors and lawyers.

Most examinations of the opt-out revolution emphasize almost exclusively what employers can and should do to support family. This Chapter starts closer to home with graduate educators. In many ways, young professionals learn to treat work and family as either/or choices at the very beginning of their graduate professional educations. The intense time demands and pressures of graduate professional education teach students early on to place professional obligations over the personal at every turn. Far from being solely a problem for employers to remedy, graduate professional schools themselves must take an active role.

This Chapter will explore what graduate professional programs can do to change the calculus that young professionals engage in when deciding whether to combine family and work. It argues that professional schools can change the culture of graduate education and thus the expectations of young professionals with a number of straight-forward, concrete measures. Graduate educators can support family by modeling good behavior in our own institutions, decreasing the admission age for women, giving preference in admissions to applicants with children, providing financial support for student-parents in the form of scholarships and better loan terms, establishing alumni mentoring networks, and outlining for students the real costs of various practice settings for forming and maintaining families. Once armed with stronger expectations that they can have both, these young professionals will be important agents for transforming the workplace from the inside out.

Keywords: work/life balance, lawyers, MBAs, doctors, marriage, divorce, child-bearing

JEL Classification: I31, J12, J13, J16, J18, M00, M50

Suggested Citation

Wilson, Robin Fretwell, Keeping Women in Business (and Family). Washington & Lee Legal Studies Paper No. 2008-34, Available at SSRN: or

Robin Fretwell Wilson (Contact Author)

University of Illinois College of Law ( email )

504 E. Pennsylvania Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
United States
217.244.7582 (Phone)


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