CHICAGO – Headlines suggest women are abandoning careers in droves, most often to stay home with children.

This so-called “opt out” revolution is being led by highly educated graduates of some of the nation’s elite colleges, according to studies and media reports.

A new survey challenges this popular wisdom by suggesting that women’s career decisions have been misunderstood. Rather than opting out, professional women are choosing to stay employed by negotiating flexible arrangements such as shortened hours and restricted travel. “Women are trying to “make work work,”‘ concludes the study from Simmons College School of Management in Boston.

An added shocker: Women who said they used flexible arrangements at some point in their careers were not hit with a so-called “mommy tax.” Holding constant for age, educational level and other differences, they earned as much as women who asked for no special flexibility, the study said.

“It sends a message that women can use flexible work arrangements as a means of staying employed and the impact on their income may not be as onerous as some studies suggest,” said co-author Mary Shapiro, an assistant professor at Simmons.

Conclusions were based on a survey of more than 400 professional women who attended a Simmons leadership conference in Boston in April 2006.

Respondents averaged 43 years of age and had 20 years of work experience and an average salary of $116,000. Eighty-five percent had college degrees and 61 percent had children.

An overwhelming 90 percent reported having negotiated flexible work arrangements at some point in their careers.

Shapiro said the study was prompted by press reports about women being unwilling to make the sacrifices careers require.

“Women’s choices – part-time work, telecommutes – were always seen as less valid,” she said. “We kept thinking, why is that?”

The authors hypothesized that women’s careers are viewed as deviant when measured against a model developed in the 1950s, when companies rewarded total commitment with lifelong jobs.

That paradigm no longer makes sense because firms no longer promise lifetime employment, and people’s personal lives are more complex.

Today’s professionals are encouraged to see themselves as self-employed agents – a notion that women embraced, Shapiro said.

“Women are rejecting the “work is primary’ career model and enacting a new “self-employed’ one,” the study states.

Consultant Cali Williams Yost, author of “Work + Life, Finding the Fit That’s Right for You,” said the findings confirm what she sees happening when advising companies and individuals.

“When I go inside companies I find an overwhelming amount of flexibility that nobody seems to know about,” she said. “I’ve seen for over a decade managers who want to keep good people and people want to stay on the job.

“People are seeing their work and life choices as a dynamic continuum of options that will change as they experience different transitions,” she added. “They’re seeing a much broader array of possibilities than has been presented by studies.”

Aon Corp. executive Corbette Doyle waited to have children until her early 30s, when she had established her career.

“I was very successful in negotiating a four-day compressed week, then a three-day week, without a penalty,” said Doyle, Aon’s global diversity chief and chair of the insurer’s national health-care practice.

“But it isn’t enough to negotiate with very successful talent that you know you can’t afford to lose,” she added. “You have to create a strategy that keeps women engaged in the workplace all along the stages of success.”

(c) 2007, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-01-15-07 2056EST