Like the VonTrapp children, many women are saying “so long, farewell, Auf wiedersehen” to the workforce and it’s confounding experts. Never have women been more educated, closer to closing the wage gap and less likely to choose to end their career when starting a family. So what is the issue? As blogger Polly Pearson queries, are these ladies the canaries in our modern informational age coal mine? (that is a symbolic signifier that times…they are a changin’?)

Could these departing women as executive employees merely be the canary in the coal mine? Could these departures also signal future purchasing departures from women who only want to spend dollars with companies and organizations who don’t act like jerks?

Something to think about. Add Millennials and even a portion of the 99%ers to the “women with values population” and this could signal a sea change to come.

This is a bit of a problem. Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, a leading reesearcher in the field, has argued that “women’s increased involvement in the economy was the most significant change in labor markets during the past century.”

Your first thought might be to place part of the blame on the wage gap, and you’d be dead right. Many economists and financial analysts are speculating that the reason professional women, particularly those at an executive level are leaving because their salaries have become “pocket money”:

Recent data indicates that since the last recession, which saw a re-entry of women into the workforce as husbands were laid off, well-educated women are starting to exit the workforce again in a larger trend seen over the past 20 years. The reason may have to do with the faster-growing salaries of men versus women.

The picture this economy paints today is reminiscient of the WW2 workers who “filled in the gaps” when the male workforce was away, only in our more recent case, women picked up the slack when men were laid off. But the similarities continued:

  • During our “mini recession” women could be and were paid less, making them an attractive alternative.
  • Now that the economy is showing signs of recovery, the pay gap is once again widening and women are leaving the workforce (the men are back).
  • Often times, entire paychecks are going to care for children.

But there are other voices, who while acknowledging the cyclical pattern of women leaving the workforce and the rightfully outrageous pay discrepancies that exist at even the highest echelons of corporations, who say that while women may be leaving the workforce at the highest numbers in decades, they may be carving out different kinds of employment for themselves and their families, and leading one of the biggest workforce shifts in our industrialized history.

Anecdotally, I’d say there is an underground sea change afoot. Everywhere I look, women are starting microbusinesses–selling jewelry or T-shirts on, becoming personal trainers, freelance writing and editing, offering birth support as doulas, massaging clients in their homes. Legally, or not-so-legally, women are increasingly working 10-40 hours a week outside the traditional workforce model–in addition to raising their children. Are the statistics tracking this? At least for the cash-economy jobs, almost certainly not.

One fascinating study has found this may be a personal choice by women to deny any discrimination they MAY face. Essentially, walking away when their market value is the highest to avoid seeing the unfair paychecks and bungled promotions.

But for smart recruiters, HR Practitioners and organizations looking to keep this educated and experienced workforce in play, ideas abound, including the ever popular job sharing options, work flex time, smaller commutes, subsidized childcare and more options for working mothers.

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in Best Careers for Women]