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The Real Reason Women Opt Out

Some high-paid women take lower-paid jobs in search of more meaning.

Prairie Canyon Ranch Barn Colorado

Some women opt out to pursue less traditional career paths like farming. 

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The term “opting out” typically refers to moms who decide to leave the workforce to take care of children. But it turns out that mothers aren’t the only ones who want more flexibility in their career paths. A ​recent paper by Elizabeth Wilhoit, a Ph.D. student in organizational communication at Purdue University, finds that women without children are also often eager to leave the traditional workplace in order to pursue other personal and professional goals.

To explore this less-discussed aspect of opting out, Wilhoit studied three popular biographies by women without children who chose to leave high-paying, successful careers in favor of “alternative work,” including farming and baking. On the surface, the choice doesn’t make much financial sense, since the women traded high salaries for the relatively low ones associated with manual labor. Their reasons, though, were not financial: They were searching for a more meaningful, authentic careers, and for them, that trumped finances.

Indeed, women often gravitate toward career choices that are motivated less by money than meaning, Wilhoit says. Women, whether they have children or not, often have a less traditional definition of success – one that revolves around having more control over their work as well as a sense they are doing something of value. The fact that mothers opt out might also have less to do with their children than with this alternative definition of career success.

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“Workplaces tend to be gendered to be masculine and structured for success in ways that men tend to succeed, and that makes it more appealing for women to seek that success elsewhere,” Wilhoit says. In the autobiographies she studied, women left their high-powered, high-paying jobs after coming to the conclusion that they really didn’t care about what they were doing. They sought work they found personally meaningful and valuable instead, even if it paid less.

Wilhoit focused on popular autobiographies because she says they shed light on how we, as a culture, talk and think about work. In the first one, “My Life from Scratch: A Sweet Journey of Starting Over, One Cake at a Time,” by Gesine Bullock-Prado, the former Hollywood executive (and sister of Sandra Bullock) ​describes her journey from Hollywood to a bakery in Vermont. In the book, she explains how her Hollywood work no longer felt meaningful to her, and that when she opened up her bakery, she found happiness in her new community and business.

In “The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love” by Kristin Kimball, the author leaves her life as a New York City writer and moves upstate to launch a farm with her partner, Kimball describes the greater sense of satisfaction that she discovers as they build a life together and have two children.

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In “And I Shall Have Some Peace There: Trading in the Fast Lane for My Own Dirt Road” by Margaret Roach, the former editorial director for Martha Stewart moves to the country to focus on a slower lifestyle. She blogs, gardens and takes photos.

While each author trades in high salaries for relatively low ones, they start out with different levels of financial security. Bullock-Prado has a significant financial safety net, as does Roach, to a lesser degree. Kimball, however, takes a bigger financial risk, but Wilhoit points out that the reward of happiness was still well worth it to her. “She realized money wasn’t making her happy, and she’d rather be doing something fulfilling,” she says.

Indeed, all three authors focus on the “lack of meaning” in their old jobs and the greater sense of satisfaction they find in their new lifestyles. “I love this farm and the life that comes with it. I love that it makes me feel rich even though we’re not. I love the work,” Kimball writes in her book. Even when Bullock-Prado has to work long days baking, she says she’s far more content than when she worked long days in Hollywood.

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And what about the men? Wilhoit acknowledges that her research, and indeed much of the research focused on opting out, does not look at specifically at men, but that some men likely also want greater autonomy and meaningful careers. She adds that if more ​men took advantage of flexible workplace policies, then it would be easier for women to do so as well without fear of negative consequences.

More flexibility in the workplace might make it easier for women (and men) to stay in their traditional jobs while also pursuing their other personal and professional goals – and without sacrificing their salaries by opting out.