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When Opting Out Doesn’t Work, and Leaning In Makes You Nuts

Ten years ago, a group of high-powered women quit their jobs to stay home with their kids full-time. They got tons of media attention, including a segment on 60 Minutes.

Writer Judith Warner recently caught up with them in a cover story for The New York Times magazine. The story didn’t look at the happily-ever-afters — the women who are still pleased to be at home full-time. Perhaps there weren’t any, and at any rate, there’s not much drama there. Instead, the story focused on women who now wanted a full-time job and were unable to find one that suited them.

The story talked at length about the difficulties these women were having getting back into full-time work, including networks that had gone cold and the fact that not all volunteer work looks equally great on a resume.

But it glossed over a big point. Despite divorces, or, sometimes, husbands whose incomes had dropped, not one of these women misses their big corporate jobs. Even though they need to make money, and in most cases miss the psychic benefits of work, they don’t particularly want their old jobs back.

They want, frankly, more reasonable jobs. While the story’s subhed said, in part, “’They opted out.’ Now they want back in,” that’s not really true. These women want interesting, challenging work, and are willing to use their considerable brain power to be successful. But how they define a “good job” has changed, which is why they no longer see frequent travel or 60-hour work weeks as indicators of great career opportunities.

What does it say about our culture of work that when even the most promising and successful women get a break from it for a while, and there’s a clear financial need for them to return, they don’t want to return to the jobs that made them so successful in the first place?

Turns out that for a lot of women, Corporate America just isn’t worth it. All that stuff they’ve been educated to want — a corner office, a big expense account and first-class travel — in the end, aren’t fulfilling at all. These women want to do non-profit work, find a job with less travel, or do something with benefits beyond a paycheck and health insurance.

That wouldn’t surprise David W. Johnston and Wang-Sheng Lee, of Monash and Deakin Universities, respectively. Earlier this year, they published a paper called “Extra Status and Extra Stress: Are Promotions Good For Us?”  In the short-term, getting promoted seems to have all kinds of benefits: improved job security and job satisfaction, better perceptions of one’s pay and the amount of autonomy one has on the job. But people who get promoted acclimate to all of this pretty quickly, and promotions bring new stresses. After three years, sure, there’s more money, but there’s only one measurable effect of a promotion on health and happiness: decreased mental health, in the form of higher anxiety. In general, the bigger the promotion, the worse the anxiety.

Similarly, an earlier British study found that workers moving into a managerial job for the first time had better mental health than their peers at the time of their promotion. Three years later, their mental health had deteriorated significantly.

And women may not get as much satisfaction — even in the short term — from a big job as their male colleagues do, at least according to a study by three (male) sociologists from the University of Toronto. A paper published this spring by Scott Schieman, Markus Schafer and Mitchell McIvor confirmed what many of us already suspected: Women have less job authority than men, and even when they’re in “big” roles, women don’t get paid as much as men doing comparable jobs.

But the findings go beyond that to look at the psychic benefits of these big jobs. A man who wins the corner office is likely to feel fulfilled just by getting the title. A woman with that same title doesn’t find it fulfilling unless she also believes she’s influential in getting things done. As the researchers put it, “Women don’t get as much satisfaction as men do from the trappings of power.”

The authors also suggest that women “may” be less supported, socially, in their roles as breadwinners. You don’t need to be a radical feminist to agree. Just show up, impressive title in hand, to any social event at a primary school. Listen to some dad describe his big job at WorldBeaters, Inc., and observe as all the other parents nod appreciatively and ask a few questions. Metaphorically, Dad gets patted on the back for doing the manly thing and supporting his family. Nothing wrong with that.

Then go ahead and describe your huge responsibilities at CrushingIt Corp., and darned if there isn’t an awkward silence. No one says it outright, but the thought is still there: Oh, so that’s why the homework isn’t getting done.

Or, as Schieman, Schafer, and McIvor write, “….Women who sacrifice and lean in, yet do not feel the subjective rewards of their positional authority may ultimately be less inclined to stay in those positions.” Which is exactly what happened to the women in the New York Times story.

I don’t think this is a problem women can solve on our own. To me, the one bright spot, ironically, is that men are increasingly getting disenchanted with the traditional world of work, too. In the New York Times story, more than a few men were jealous of their wives’ abilities to spend more time with their kids without any obvious social penalties. These men wanted more from life than work and a paycheck, too. We’ll all be better off if they get it.

This post originally appeared on One Thing New, the digital media start-up that is rebooting women’s content.

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