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Opting out and opting in: understanding the complexities of women's career transitions

Elizabeth F. Cabrera (School of Global Management and Leadership, Arizona State University, Phoenix, Arizona, USA)

Career Development International

ISSN: 1362-0436

Article publication date: 15 May 2007




This study aims to explore the reasons why women are leaving the workplace. Are they opting out of the workforce to stay at home with their children as current media reports suggest, or are the reasons more complex as the Kaleidoscope Career Model (KCM) suggests? A second objective is to examine whether or not women's primary career motives change over time as predicted by the KCM. Lastly, the potential barriers or boundaries faced by women pursuing boundaryless careers will be identified.


A survey was sent to 2,000 randomly selected women graduates of an international business school located in the USA. The response rate was 25 percent, or 497 women.


The results revealed that 47 percent of the women surveyed had stopped working at some point in their career. Numerous reasons were cited for leaving. Only 35 percent of the women who stopped working cited rearing children as their sole reason for opting out. Sixty‐two percent of the women reported that their career focus had changed. In line with the KCM predictions, mid‐career women were most interested in finding balance in their lives and the desire for authenticity increased across the lifespan. Finally, 70 percent of the women who left eventually returned to work, debunking the myth that women opt out and do not return to the workforce. Our findings show that there are barriers that make it difficult to move across organizations, especially if time is taken off between jobs.

Research limitations/implications

All of the respondents in this study have a graduate degree in international business; thus, the results may have limited generalizability to other populations. Nonetheless, this study provides valuable data that helps us to better understand the complexities of women's career paths.


This study makes contributions to two different areas of career theory. First, it provides one of the first empirical tests of the KCM. In addition to showing that women are leaving companies for more complex reasons than for family reasons alone, it also shows that women's primary career motives shift over time in the manner predicted by the KCM. Second, the study contributes to the literature on boundaryless careers by showing that there are in fact barriers or boundaries faced by women attempting to pursue careers across organizations.



Cabrera, E.F. (2007), "Opting out and opting in: understanding the complexities of women's career transitions", Career Development International, Vol. 12 No. 3, pp. 218-237.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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