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On June 2, Professor Joan Williams spoke at the Kellogg School about the professional challenges women face. Her lecture was part of a series presented by the school’s Interdisciplinary Center on the Science of Diversity.

Pushing back on trends that push women out of the workforce

Diversity speaker Joan Williams tells how to create incentives for inclusivity

By Adrienne Murrill

6/9/2008 - To work or not to work? That is the question many professional women wrestle with when they become mothers. It’s common to exit the workforce for parenting, but how widespread is it and how do women make the decision?

Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, visited the Kellogg School on June 2 to discuss these questions. She was the final speaker in this term’s lecture series presented by the new Interdisciplinary Center on the Science of Diversity — a collaboration between Northwestern University and Kellogg — where she was introduced by Kellogg Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations Amy Cuddy. “She’s one of these rare scholars who operate in a joint-theory intellectual area that does not have walls,” Cuddy said. “She is not limited by the boundaries of academic fields that sometimes stifle the application of social science to practice.”

Williams presented her research on what has been labeled the opt-out revolution: the notion that today’s working women choose parenting over climbing the corporate ladder. She said the opt-out storyline — that women choose to leave the workforce — is misleading. It has been “christened and rechristened” in the press over the past five decades, she said. Williams and her associates at the Center for WorkLife have studied how the topic has been portrayed in the media from 1980 to 2006. The media’s typical story angle (that parenting is more fulfilling than a career) is deceptive and has a profound effect on American business, said Williams.

Williams argued that women are more likely “pushed out” by workplace conditions than “pulled out” by their families. She cited a study by Pamela Stone that found that only 16 percent of women always expected to leave the workforce once they had children. “On the other hand, over 86 percent cited workplace conditions as a key reason that they had left work.” What’s more troubling, she pointed out, is the absence in the media of what she calls the motherhood penalty. “Leaving the workforce for one year can reduce life earnings by 20 percent,” she said.

But Williams is working to reverse those numbers through her efforts at the Center for WorkLife. One example is the Project for Attorney Retention, which studies law firms’ retention and advancement of female attorneys. Sometimes this comes in a part-time package, even in the legal field, which is known for its long hours. In the book Solving the Part-Time Puzzle, Williams and her co-director Cynthia Thomas Calvert, presented solutions for firms that make part-time programs work for both the company and its clients.

The key for creating diverse and inclusive workforces, she said, is not to focus on the women, but to focus on dismantling masculine norms in the work place. “If you design workplaces around male bodies and masculine life patterns, then stereotyping arises in everyday work interactions,” Williams said.