Opting Out or Pushed Out? | Working Mother

Opting Out or Pushed Out?

How Americans view women’s workplace decisions impacts persistent workplace barriers



Is the American myth of rugged individualism costing women advancement in the workplace? Nicole Stephens, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, and Cynthia S. Levine, a doctoral student at Stanford University, argue that because Americans believe that most people’s behavior comes from “personal choice,” they fail to see how real and persistent workplace barriers—including lack of flexibility, unaffordable child care and gender stereotypes—weigh on women’s successes.

In a pair of studies, the research team looked at stay-at-home mothers’ explanations of why they left the workforce: Those who viewed their departures as personal choices were less likely to perceive workplace discrimination when presented with real statistics about gender inequality in the fields of business, politics, law and science. Stephens and Levine also measured the impact of message posters on participants’ responses to a survey about social issues: Students who saw a poster that said, “Choosing to Leave: Women’s Experiences Away from the Workforce” were more likely to believe that gender discrimination is not a problem than participants who saw a control poster that said, “Women at Home: Experiences Away from the Workforce.” At present, women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns and are dramatically under-represented in corporate higher management.

Nicole Stephens and Cynthia Steel Levine. 2011. “Opting Out or Denying Discrimination? How the Framework of Free Choice in American Society Influences Perceptions of Gender Inequality.” Psychological Science 22: 1231-1236.


This article was featured in the November 2011 issue of Working Mother Research Institute’s email newsletter, Working Mother Research Institute Essentials. To read additional stories from that issue, see the related content section above. To subscribe to Working Mother Research Institute Essentials, register on the newsletter page of this website.


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