Increasingly, talented women who want to balance career and family are taking that route.

The public square is still filled with those who argue that women are at a disadvantage when it comes to employment; even more believe women face a glass ceiling when it comes to promotion. New facts, though, indicate that the playing field at work is quite level; indeed, in some instances women have a distinct advantage both in hiring and in promotion. Studies also show that highly-qualified women can jump off the fast track and then catch up when they are ready to jump back on. It’s called “off-ramping;” increasingly, talented women who want to balance career and family are taking that route.

Thirty years ago, women earned far less than 10 percent of the medical, law and M.B.A. degrees awarded in the U.S., now they earn at least 40 percent of those advanced degrees. The big accounting firm, Ernst & Young claims that at least half of their new hires are women. Among workers under age 30, according to the Census Bureau, slightly over 25 percent of men hold bachelor’s degrees as compared with slightly over 32 percent of women. These credentials prove an open door for women to have lucrative careers, many with a distinct advantage over their male competitors.

A partner at Ernst & Young, Carolyn Buck Luce, said that the current job situation boils down to a “war for talent.” Many corporations are willing to adjust to a talented, well-trained woman’s needs in order to keep her on the roster. At Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), 10 percent of the firm’s female partners are on a part-time schedule. Officials at the firm insist that stepping off the fast track does not mean career suicide. Toni Riccardi told Time magazine in 2004 that going part-time “might slow your progress, but it won’t prohibit you” from climbing the career ladder.

The attitudes of corporations like Ernst & Young and PWC have empowered Generation Xers, those men and women who were born mid-sixties to mid-seventies. Time magazine reported on a Catalyst survey from 2001 that found Gen Xers are unwilling “to make the kind of trade-off” that previous generations made. Further, Catalyst found that “both women and men [Gen Xers] rated personal and family goals higher than career goals.” These findings indicate a profound shift of attitude in the workforce.

Leslie Stahl reported on 60 Minutes (CBS, October 2004), that over the past decade the number of stay-at-home moms increased by 15 percent. Even so, nearly three-fourths of mothers with children under 18 are in the work force. Well-educated mothers with infants, though, are dropping out (59 percent in 1997 compared to 53 percent in 2000). The Beverly LaHaye Institute first reported this trend in its Data Digest. Nearly a quarter of these stay-at-home moms have graduate or professional degrees. This trend is “huge” says Howard Hayghe, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

According to a 2005 Harvard Business Review (HBR) study, family responsibilities are identified as the motivating force behind young careerists who choose to “off-ramp.” Gen X parents say they spend more time on child-rearing (51 percent of the women are stay-at-home moms) and household tasks than the Boomer parents (33 percent of the women were full-time mothers) did; further, they express the desire to spend more time –– especially those in the higher income brackets. The Los Angeles Times reported that fathers today are helping around the house much more than a decade ago (34 percent compared to 24 percent).

HBR estimates that women lose about 18 percent of their earning power when they off-ramp. Many young professionals view this as an acceptable loss for being able to parent their children.