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Staying At Home

Look around these days, and you'll find women in positions of real power: a woman at the helm of the National Security Council, two Supreme Court justices, and female board members of every Fortune 100 company.

It's just as it was supposed to be 40 years after women got in the front door.

But look for the women of the next generation -- the ones everyone assumed would follow in droves behind them, and you're likely to find many of them walking right back out and staying at home.

Lisa Beattie Frelinghuysen was on her way to the very top of the legal profession. At Stanford Law School, she was president of the law review. She went to work for a top law firm, and she clerked at the Supreme Court for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But after she had her first baby seven years ago, she left, and never went back. Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports.

"I know myself, and I know that when I'm working at something, I work hard. When I was at the law review, I was working until midnight every night. And my husband started a surgical residency where he was completely unavailable," recalls Frelinghuysen.

"I was afraid that if I was working, there would be no parent there with the children. And I wanted to experience getting to know my children, being there in a consistent way."

She's hardly alone. Every Wednesday morning, a church in suburban Maryland is filled with professional women who have chosen to step out of the full-time work force to spend time raising children. They have organized a lecture series for intellectual stimulation.

Tori Hall, a former analyst with the Congressional Budget Office, and Sheilah Eisel, once a top sales representative for Oracle, come each week. They, along with Ann Geldzahler, a Yale graduate and lawyer, are all stay-at-home moms.

"The bottom line was, it was an emotional decision not an intellectual one," says Hall. "It doesn't make sense to give up a great job that pays a lot of money and has a lot of satisfaction for myself, just to walk away from that."

"I think about it for a little, and then I think I just, I love what I'm doing for right now. I do," says Geldzahler.

"I would say the first six months there were days that I had serious doubts, did I make the right decision," says Eisel. "Now, there's like bumps in the road but I'm very glad that I'm staying at home."

Could it really be that this generation of women, the first to achieve success without having to fight for it, is now walking away, willingly, and without regrets? Census bureau statistics show a 15 percent increase in the number of stay-at-home moms in less than 10 years.

Linda Hirshman is a lawyer, philosophy professor, and author. She didn't believe it, until she started researching the high-powered couples who announced their weddings in The New York Times in 1996.

"The first man I called answered the phone, and I told him what I was doing, and I said, 'Where's your wife?' And he said 'She's at home in Brooklyn taking care of our daughter.' And it turns out, so are all but 15 percent of the women I interviewed," says Hirshman. "Eighty-five percent of the women in my sample are staying home either full-time or part-time."

She's still in the early stages of her research, but the trend has been documented by other studies. And she's convinced it's going to be the 1950s all over again.

Why does it matter?

"These are the women that would have gone into the jobs that run our world. These were the women who would eventually have become senators, governors. These women would have been in the pipeline to be CEOs of Fortune 500 companies," says Hirshman.

Frelinghuysen, Amy Cunningham Atkinson and Andrea Hagan are just the potential leaders she's talking about. Atkinson went to Yale and had a great job as a television producer. Hagan became managing director at a top Wall Street investment bank after Harvard Business School, where the subject of working moms came up.

"There were panel discussions about work and lifestyle issues, which as a 26-year-old, didn't mean a lot to me," recalls Hagan. "Until I had my own child did I realize what a juggling act it was going to be."

Do any of them wake up and say, "I'm June Cleaver. I'm living in the '50s?"

"I don't think we are. I think that's wrong," says Atkinson. "I worked for 20 years after college. And so my experience in leaving to have children is different than hers. I think I would feel differently about my choice to stay at home for a few years if I didn't have that experience behind me."

She says she's also different from many in Stahl's generation, who were determined to stick it out no matter what. These women say they don't feel they have anything to prove. They have been successful, and if they want to take some time out to be with their kids, why shouldn't they?

"I think there's a lot of focus on what I'm sacrificing by staying home. And what's hard to articulate is how much I get back," says Hall. "I do it really-- a lot of it is for me. I enjoy seeing and being with my children."

Hirshman fought her way into the workforce, stayed there despite years of male colleagues refusing to eat lunch with her – and raised a daughter, too. She's not an impartial observer. There aren't two sides in the way she sees things.

"The women that I have interviewed are completely dependent upon the goodwill of their wealthy income-producing husbands," says Hirshman. "They chose dependence."

But isn't it their right to choose? "It's different to talk about their right than what's the right decision," says Hirshman. "As Mark Twain said, 'A man who chooses not to read is just as ignorant as a man who cannot read.'"

"These women are choosing lives in which they do not use their capacity for very complicated work," adds Hirshman. "They are choosing lives in which they do not use their capacity to deal with very powerful other adults in the world, which takes a lot of skill. I think there are better lives and worse lives."

"I think the women's rights movement was very much about giving women choices and respecting the many choices that women make," says Frelinghuysen.

Adds Hall: "I think there's some people with preconceived notions that because I'm at home with my children all day, I must be preparing husband-delight casserole in a cocktail dress. … The mothers groups get together and talk about Iraq policy."

Hirshman believes that women who remain in the workplace are going to be hurt by the ones who are leaving, that there'll be a backlash. Graduate schools will stop accepting women, and companies will stop hiring them. Well, first off, that would be illegal. And second, it's not as if men stay in their jobs forever; they leave all the time.

Harvard Business School did a survey and found that just 38 percent of its female graduates in their child-raising years were in the workplace full-time. But Kim Clark, dean of the business school, told 60 Minutes the last thing he wants to do is to stop admitting women. He says companies are going to have to change.

"I've had some friends say, 'It's driving us crazy. Why are they leaving,'" says Stahl. "I've heard that from businessmen. They're frustrated. They are investing in these women for years."

"They're asking the wrong question," says Clark. "The right question is, how do we change to keep this talent active and involved with us?"

One of his goals as dean is to convince the business world it's in their interest to come up with creative solutions to keep women in – as Eisel's company tried to do.

"They said, 'Come on back. Work part time. three days a week,'" says Eisel. "This is perfect! And it actually worked out incredibly well for about three months."

She was supposed to work 30 hours a week, but Eisel says it ended up being more like 40 hours on a slow week, to 50 to 60 hours. She says it really wasn't the part-time situation she had envisioned.

"I couldn't say, 'OK, this is a $3 million deal. I have a mommy-and-me play date right now with the music class. So sorry, can't come,'" says Eisel, laughing.

She says that working part-time also prevented her from getting top accounts: "I had great accounts, and then I had a very frank conversation with my manager who said, 'How am I going to give you the top accounts? You're here three days a week.' And I think part of it was I am there three days a week, but I can handle it."

But could she really handle it? "I couldn't handle many top accounts. But if I had one top account," says Eisel, who adds that the option was never tried.

"A lot of companies are simply cutting people off. And when they go part time, the part-time stuff is peripheral," says Clark. "It's not fulfilling, satisfying. It's not worth it. But I know from my own experience, you can create meaningful, high content, part time jobs."

Clark points to Angela Crispi, an employee of his who worked part-time for five years. "We changed her job. We lopped a piece of it off, and restructured a couple of other people, and we created this job. … And we kept her."

And they promoted her. She now runs the business school full-time, overseeing 1,000 employees. But what's a company to do about the women who told us they wouldn't take even the greatest part-time offer? Clark has an answer for that, too. Let them go, and bring them back later.

But can companies guarantee these employees a job when they get back, even after an extended period of time?

"It all depends on the relationship we have with them during that period of time," says Clark. "Maybe we create a part-time thing where they're connected and so they continue to learn. It all depends on how we structure it."

Hall and Eisel say they will eventually return to the workplace. "I joke sometimes that this is my retirement now and then I'll be working till the end of my days," says Hall.

Several of the women Stahl spoke to said that a 40-year full-speed-ahead career with no breaks is something that only an all-male world would have dreamed up anyway -- and that it's in everyone's interest to make some room for detours along the way.

"I think that there's a possibility that I won't achieve what I might have achieved if I never left the workforce," says Frelinghuysen. "It's sad. But it's OK, because I have three wonderful babies that I love. I do think that you make choices, and with some of those choices, although they may be wonderful choices, something takes a hit."

"What changes if you're out of the workforce for a couple of years? You haven't lost your brain power," says Hagan. "You haven't lost your organizational abilities. Maybe you've gained some new ones managing at home. … I think people need to be just more open-minded."

"This is a new thing, that women are leaving the work place," adds Atkinson, who left her job as a producer at 60 Minutes. "I think that women like us, who have choices … hopefully, we'll be able to make changes. Hopefully, employers will see that this is happening and that we don't want to lose these great women. Let's make some changes so that women can work differently."

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