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Archive for March, 2012

The other day, I ran across an interview with Susan Sarandon over there at ontheredcarpet.com that reminded me once again that good things are often born of chaos.  Or, as we so often write: We are our failures, those blips in the road that can propel us forward.

But only if we let them.

Back to Sarandon, I’ll confess that she has been one of my favorite actors ever since Bull Durham, so I am predisposed to find anything she says to be both witty and wise.  Currently, she is starring in “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” — playing a frustrated mom whose loser son lives in her basement while he searches for the meaning of life.  She told OTRC that she “could actually relate to Jeff’s plight of not knowing what his path should be in life”.  Which might come as a surprise, considering that she is, after all, an Oscar winning actress.  But what she says is this:

“Even if you don’t believe in a higher power, there’s clearly something that happens out of the chaos. My whole life has been totally serendipitous and everything that’s been important to me has come out of the blue and oftentimes against the odds,” Sarandon told OnTheRedCarpet.com. “And my daughter says, ‘You know mom, it doesn’t look good on paper’ and I go, ‘You know what, I’m just going to jump, I’m going to do it.’ I don’t mean being reckless, but I think you have to give life the benefit of the doubt sometimes because it’s got far more imagination than you do.”

In other words, you never know what might be waiting for you just around the corner until you take that leap of faith.  It’s a pretty hopeful message, yes?  But what we’ve found is that it’s a tough one, too.  Because it means you have to be willing to take a risk, to live life without much of a net, and, in so doing, accept the fact that there’s a chance that you’ll fall flat on your keister.

Of course, there’s also a chance that you won’t: Put yourself out there to ask for that promotion, negotiate a higher salary, work out some flextime, pitch a book proposal — and you just might get what you ask for. Still, it’s a message that’s hard to hear, especially for those of us running without a roadmap, tackling new territory, new opportunities, making new choices about what to do with our lives without the kinds of historic role models men have had for generations.  It’s no wonder so many of us want to search for the magical how-to, the “ten easy steps” from here to have-it-all.

Or would rather hear that the staus quo is just rosy, and stick with it, thank you very much.

And that’s fine.  But you have to wonder what you miss when you steer clear of the cliff.  Because when you do screw up your courage and take that leap, good things often follow.  Take us, for example: mother and daughter writing a book together.  Think about that leap of faith.  It’s something neither of us could have foreseen back, say, when Shannon was a teenager.  Who knew it would work out? But work out, it did — in ways we never could have imagined.  (Plus or minus a few spats here and there. Catch us offline if you want the real dope.)

But meanwhile, back to the question at hand:  While we’re making our way through this relatively uncharted territory, figuring out our way in the world, do we sit tight?  Search for some one-size-fits all answers?  Or do we take that leap of faith and, as Sarandon says, give life the benefit of the doubt?

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When, over the span of little over a week, two huge studies find that, based on rankings by peers, supervisors, and direct reports, women are viewed as better leaders than men — and that, the higher the professional level, the wider the gap between the woman and her male counterpart (i.e., if you’ll pardon the grammar, the higher we are on the ladder, the, ahem, more better we are than the guy occupying the same rung)– but women are more underrepresented the higher up the ranks you climb, doncha start to wonder where the tipping point is? When those numbers will pick up some speed on the way to 50/50? Given these studies’ results, you’d think it should happen any day now.

In “Are Women Better Leaders Than Men?” Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, CEO and president, respectively, of leadership development consultancy firm Zenger/Folkman, write in the Harvard Business Review what they found in a survey they conducted of 7,280 leaders. These leaders were judged based on 360 evaluations (which take into account the opinions of those who work for these leaders, those who work with these leaders, and those who are the bosses of these leaders) rating each leader’s overall effectiveness and on “the 16 competencies that our 30 years of research shows are most important to overall leadership effectiveness.”

They note that some stereotypes were confirmed: one, that there are more men in leadership positions than women. And

Similarly, most stereotypes would have us believe that female leaders excel at “nurturing” competencies such as developing others and building relationships, and many might put exhibiting integrity and engaging in self-development in that category as well. And in all four cases our data concurred — women did score higher than men.

But the women’s advantages were not at all confined to traditionally women’s strengths. In fact, at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts.

And yet. We seem stalled. As Barnard College President Debora Spar said at a White House Conference on urban economic development recently, “We have fallen into the 16 percent ghetto, which is that if you look at any sector–be it aerospace engineering, Hollywood films, higher education, or Fortune 500 leading positions, women max out at roughly 16 percent… That is a crime, and is a waste of incredible talent.” While women have made incredible progress over a pretty short amount of time, our speed ain’t what it used to be. It’s as though, while we’ve kept one foot on the gas, another has taken up residence on the brake.

The foot that’s on the brake looks suspiciously like this: the fact that, as we are wont to say, the workplace is still built for the 50s stereotype–the guy who has a full-time wife at home to take care of, you know, life. Despite the fact that near no one lives like that anymore, by and large, the workplace hasn’t changed. In fact, one could argue that it’s gotten worse: thanks to the advent of things like cell phones and email, we’re supposed to be on call, even when we’re done for the day, scrambling to make it to the pharmacy before it closes, or running to meet the plumber, or even to go to the bloody grocery store — you know, the things that phantom 50s housewife would have taken care of for us. The workplace is not set up for anyone lacking that friendly, wifely ghost; man or woman, married or not. The logistical wizardry that’s required to manage both work and a life is daunting: and, the more intense our job, the more insane the juggling act. The more insane the juggling act, the more likely we become, at one point or another, to lean out, as Sheryl Sandberg might say. Throw kids — and a comparably employed partner — into the mix, and something’s (someone’s) often gotta give. Often the decision as to whose career will downshift is financial — and, as women often make less money than men, you know what that means, whose career will move to the slow lane. Two words: Mommy track.

So, back to my original question: when will things change? We’ve shown we can play their game–and we’re beginning to show just how well we can play it. But it’s time to redefine the game itself, to make it ours. Imagine, for a second: what your company, your country, your world would look like if there were as many women in charge as there are men? Really think about it.

Last week, I came across Do Women Make Better Bosses Than Men?, a piece referencing yet another study. Here’s the lede:

The survey found that women bosses were more democratic and easier to communicate with, allowing their employees to participate in decision-making and encouraging feedback on management policies.

And one would have to assume that management policies adjusted to reflect employee feedback would reflect our current realities: that employers need to take into account that all of their employees have a life — and if they support their employees’ ability to have a life outside of work, those employees are going to be that much more productive and engaged when they’re at work. Just exactly the sorts of changes that’ll likely make it more realistic for more women to stay in the game.

The whole situation can sound suspiciously like a Catch-22: it’ll take more women at the top to make the changes that are needed for more women to get to the top. But look at how far we’ve come: surely, if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s us.

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Sure, there’s been a lot of chat about everything that’s wrong with Mad Men and why women in general and feminists in particular should hate its unrepentant misogynystic guts.  And let’s face it:  this is a show that glorifies gin, Lucky Strikes and getting laid (by anyone but one’s spouse).

What’s not to hate, right?

Not so fast. As Stephanie Coontz wrote a year or so ago in the Washington Post: “Mad Men’s writers are not sexist. The time period was.”  And so as a woman and a feminist let me unapologetically admit that I can not wait for the season five premiere on Sunday.  Sure, it’s great TV, and the attention to period detail is freakishly fantastic.  (Pause here to drool over those dresses.)  And, as nighttime soaps go, there’s one hell of a story going on.  But the real reason I love Mad Men – as opposed to, say, its short-lived period clones (read: The Playboy Club and Pan Am) — is because it resonates:

Lesson 1:  The Way We Were. Want to know what second-wave feminism was all about?  Or why we needed a focused movement?  Look no further than the women of Sterling Cooper who, with the exception of Peggy (more later), type their days away in the steno pool or, if they’re lucky, move up to the outer office, answering someone else’s phone.  What’s great is that Mad Men doesn’t pretend that these “career girls” are empowered – as Pan Am and The Playboy Club tried to do.  Instead, we get it right away:  these gals are as hemmed in by the intractability of the system as they are by their rigid underwear.  Their only defense against what we now call sexual harassment was a giggle and a shrug. And for those who wonder what The Feminine Mystique was all about, may I introduce you to the chain-smoking Betty Draper?  She left her husband (as well she should have), ignores her kids, and ran off to Vegas to marry another guy who treats her like a house pet.

 Lesson 2. Where We Need to Go. So, yeah, we’ve come a long way in terms of career. Back when I graduated from college — not that long ago.  or maybe it was —  it was still legal for an employer to list an administrative job in the “female” classifieds and a managerial one in the “male.” Most women who graduated from college were told they had three career options:  secretary, teacher or nurse. And prospective employers were allowed to ask women what their husbands did for a living. Ugh. But for all the progress we’ve made, the workplace still hasn’t caught up. Take away the ashtrays and the booze and if you look closely,  you realize that the structure of today’s workplace isn’t all that different from Sterling Cooper’s, where every Don had a Betty at home to take care of business. It’s still designed by, and for, men. But the reality is that in today’s world, Betty puts in 52 hours a week, just like Don, and then comes home to do the laundry.   Even when men step up at home in ways their fathers never did, there’s still the math: take the current workplace expectations, add in the omnipresence of technology that keeps us uber-connected 24/7, and there aren’t enough hours in the day for any of us.  Unless, of course, one has a housewife.

Lesson 3: Ask, dammit.  In a word, Peggy.  She started as a secretary. Ended up a copywriter.  Which apparently was pretty unheard of in those days.  So how did she end up with a title, an office, and a snazzy new job?  She asked. Enough said. All too often, even decades after the days of Sterling Cooper, many of us are afraid to put ourselves out there, for fear we might be labeled as ambitious and thus, less likable.  Or that we might get turned down.  And so we cross our fingers and wait to get the nod from a higher up – and then are grateful if we do.  Sometimes it’s the fear of failure that keeps us from taking those risks — the possibility that the answer might be a big fat no or that even if it’s a yes, we might fall flat on our face. But as the wise woman told us when we were reporting our book:  You’ll always get over a failure. But regret?  It’s not recoverable.

Lesson 4. Beware the personal brand.  And then there’s Don.  Okay, he’s a guy and we write about women.  But, regardless of gender, he is the embodiment of what we call the iconic self, that image we create to project who we wish we were.  Don is an illusionist, a mystery man who invented himself out of whole cloth and, as David Weigand writes in the San Francisco Chronicle, is “on the run from himself.”  Weigand, who compares Draper to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby (Fun fact: Fitzgerald got his start as an advertising copywriter), writes:

Fitzgerald, the Midwesterner who went East to reinvent himself, saw both sides of the American “dream.” On the one hand, ours has always been a culture of hope and aspiration. On the other, our abiding belief in change and the ability to reinvent ourselves can bring us perilously close to the edge of self-delusion.

In short, Don is a cautionary tale, a desperate example (cue the falling man in the opening credits) of how we can lose ourselves when we work too hard to become our brand. When it comes to Don, we wonder: is there a there there?  Who knows. But it definitely makes you ponder what Don might do with Facebook.  Scary thought.

Lesson 5. Embrace our differences as our strengths.  It’s a revolutionary thought, the idea that men and women bring different strengths and talents to the table. After all, we came up thinking that to be successful, we had to fit in — to be “a man in a skirt,” as one of our sources dubbed it.  But what if we could tap into our authentic, feminine selves and do what we do best:  Studies show, for example, that women negotiate in a win-win manner, we’re interactive leaders, we’re sensitive to subliminal cues; we’re multithinkers, multitaskers, and are more comfortable with ambiguity.  Not to say one gender is better than the other.  Just different.  Which brings up one of my favorite bon mots from Man Men, seasons past.  The context may have been different, but you gotta love the line: “Don’t be a man, be a woman. It’s a powerful business when done correctly.”

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Bryce Covert’s recent post on The Nation’s website got me thinking today. It’s about an Accenture survey of Gen Y working women which found that

-they have the most positive outlook for women in the workplace of any other generation.

And yet:

-when it comes to their careers, they’re less likely to proactively manage their career or ask for a raise than their male counterparts.

Further:

-they feel underpaid,

-and have found that their careers take a bigger hit than their male counterparts’ once they become parents.

Whew. That’s one hell of a disconnect, wouldn’t you say? While I’m generally an unrepentant optimist, the type to blow sunshine up even the crankiest of derrieres until I get a smile, a study like this makes me question my approach. A positive attitude is well and good, but, when young women declare themselves optimistic about women in the workplace in the very same survey in which they point out gender-based inequities, you kinda gotta worry. Sunshine is good; complacency, not so much.

The trouble is the message we women have been fed: that feminism’s work is over; the battle won. That’s where that sense of optimism comes in, I’d argue. I myself went to an all-girls high school, not too (too too) terribly long ago, and spent my four plaid-skirted years surrounded by the enthusiastic and inspiring message that girls could do anything boys could do. Which is good, of course–because it’s true. Save for peeing one’s name in the snow.

But there’s a little bit of trouble with that approach. One: that you enter the real world largely unprepared for the injustices you will, (yes, I said WILL) come up against as a woman. And two: that when you do come up against them, you will assume they have only to do with you. That the situation–your lesser paycheck; your unwillingness to “proactively manage your career or ask for a raise” for fear of bias or judgment; your employer’s subtly shifting opportunities away once you’ve become a mom or the discrimination you’ll face if you don’t have kids–and the fact that your male counterpart in either of those scenarios will likely be rewarded, seen as either a dependable family man or a guy who has the time to devote to his job, where you’ll be perceived a flight risk or cold and odd, respectively; the realization that if you want a killer career and your husband wants a killer career and you want kids you’re in for a daily struggle that may well lead to one of you “opting” out; that if, against these formidable odds, you do make it to the very top, you will find yourself wildly outnumbered–is merely your problem. That it is personal, and not political. When, of course, it is exactly that. It is collective and it is political–and change happens when we’re willing to see it that way.

Don’t get me wrong: We have come a long way (baby). Think about this: when my mom graduated from college, it was still totally legal for employment want-ads to be segregated by gender. A company could list a managerial job in the men’s want-ads, a secretarial one in the women’s. This was not the dark ages; this was the 1970s.  So clearly we’ve come a tremendous way since disco inferno.

But the fact that we’ve come so far does not mean that our work here is finished. The fact that we have much to be grateful for in no way precludes the many things we should be angry about. Take that pay gap, for example:

U.S. Department of Education data show that a year out of school, despite having earned higher college GPAs in every subject, young women will take home, on average across all professions, just 80 percent of what their male colleagues do… Motherhood has long been the explanation for the persistent pay gap, yet a decade out of college, full-time working women who haven’t had children still make 77 cents on the male dollar.

April 17 of this year is Equal Pay Day. Don’t let the delightful sounding name fool ya, though: that’s the day that a woman’s salary catches up to a man’s… from last year. For doing the same job. Another way to look at that is like this: taken as a whole, from January through April 17, women are working for free.

So, clearly, we still have a hell of a way to go.

Or, I suppose, maybe I should rephrase: the world still has a hell of a way to go.

But who is going to be responsible for steering it in the right direction?

It occurs to me that perhaps these young women are right in their optimism–or here’s my Pollyanna side’s spin, anyway:  for centuries, men’s roles have not changed. Whether buffalo or bacon, they were to bring it home. They were the hunters. They were to provide.

Women, on the other hand, have always adapted–whether when acting the gatherers, surveying the environment to see what it had in store and shifting the game plan accordingly, or to a male-dominated workplace in which we nevertheless were able to ascend, bit by bit, to the point where we are today. We had to fight for the right to wear pants, for craps sake. Now, how many pairs of jeans are in your closet? Change is in our DNA. The office, corporate culture, political institutions — these things aren’t going to change themselves.

The angry part of me and the Pollyanna part come together in the faith that these women will eventually get angry on their own behalf: and once that happens, they’ll see the rest of us, and they’ll join us. And then we’ll do what we’ve always done. We’ll change things. A little anger will help. And so will a little optimism.

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We’ve been hearing a lot about the ambition gap lately: the fact that, as Sheryl Sandberg notes, only a paltry 15 to 18 percent of women occupy the top spots.  But there’s a dirty little secret that impacts the number of women who ultimately become leaders, or who hope to ascend to leadership positions, and it’s this:  many women believe — or, sadly, find out the hard way — that ultimately, they will have to choose between family and career.

I see this all the time in my current and former students.  I have been told, a number of times, by talented young women, that they see me as something as a role model:  I stayed home with my kids when they were young while I pursued a career as a freelance journalist and, when said kids fled the nest, began teaching at a university.  What I want to tell them is that they’re nuts.  It wasn’t easy and it didn’t work nearly as well as it looks.  And in fact, full disclosure here, I am one of those ambition gap stats.

The sad truth is that whether your dreams are to be a swashbuckling journalist or a high-rent CEO, your dreams — at least in the way the workplace is currently structured — are flat out incompatible with parenthood.  And when that sharp reality slaps these talented women in the face, a lot of this incredible Double-X talent backs off.  Sometimes before they even have kids.  Or even a marriage.  They think that ultimately, they will have to choose.  And how many are brave enough to face that choice?

Don’t judge them, don’t blame them.  Because the question we haven’t addressed is this:  Why should women have to view their dreams as an either/or proposition?  Men don’t.  Seems to me, if we want to narrow the ambition gap, what we need to do is talk about changing a culture that assigns women the bulk of the second shift as well as the need to reconfigure the workplace structure to one that is compatible with, well, life outside of work — whether or not you have kids.  Or as Gloria Steinem once so brilliantly said:  “Don’t think about making women fit the world—think about making the world fit women.”

And speaking of Steinem, she participated in a panel at  the recent Women in the World conference in New York with Sandberg.  And according to the Business Insider, when Sandberg mentioned the lopsided numbers of women at the top of the game and asked:  “Is this a stalled revolution?”  Steinem replied:

“We’re at a critical mass stage so we’re getting more resistance. … [And the U.S.] is the worst in the world at making it possible for parents to have a life outside the home.” 

Bravo.  (There’s also the fact that when men and women are deciding whose career gets precedence, it’s often a matter of money.  Men make more.  But I digress.) And so, what I wonder is why the disconnect between work and life isn’t the main issue when we talk about the ambition gap.  All of which reminds me of a conversation we had with psychologist Barry Schwartz, the author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Is More” and pretty much the guru of the psychology of choice, when we were writing our book.  One of the things he told us was this:
“It’s worse in many ways for women than it is for men because of the great lie of the feminist revolution, which is not simply that women can do anything, but that women can do everything. There’s a sense that men can think that too, but society hasn’t changed enough for men to have the same kind of investment in their nurturing role as parents that women do. To have a high-powered career as a woman, every day is torture.”
Schwartz told us that back when he and his wife were raising their kids, he took pains to tell his students that his family life was an anomaly:
“I said, ‘Listen, I have a job two blocks from my house, and I only have to be in the office six hours a week—the rest of the week, no matter how hard I work, I get to choose where and I get to choose when. You can’t do this if one of you is a lawyer, the other is a doctor. So don’t kid yourself. We got lucky. The world is not set up for this. You will discover it.’”
And discover it, we do.  And that should be the conversation.  Speaking of which, we just got back from speaking at the Women’s Leadership Conference at the Cunningham Center in Columbus, Georgia.  We rode back to the airport with one of the other speakers, the transcendent Karen Walron , who had just written a post on this very issue.  Check it out, especially the comments.
And then, join our conversation.  Either/or?  Or constructive change.  You be the judge.

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When 30 year-old Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke tried to testify in favor of health insurance-covered contraception at a Congressional hearing (and, after being blocked by Rep. Darrell Issa R-CA, then had to issue her extremely articulate testimony via YouTube), Rush Limbaugh had this to say in return:

[She] goes before a Congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps. The johns.

Maureen Dowd – herself a past target of Limbaugh’s name-calling — took him down in the New York Times Sunday Review, point by point, starting with the fact that he implies that birth control is a “welfare entitlement,” when, of course, it’s not: employers and insurance companies would cover contraception, not tax dollars. And

Mother Jones pointed out that Rush, a Viagra fan, might be confusing the little blue pill and birth control, since “when and how much sex you have is unrelated to the amount of birth control you need.”

But let’s assume he wasn’t confusing the two little pills. Let’s assume he was well aware that his “welfare entitlement” remark was factually inaccurate. Let’s assume he knew exactly how wrong he was. No, wait! Let’s assume he really believed he was right – and still, rather than laying out a rational argument — he instead took the desperate-for-attention, cowardly bully’s way out. Slut! Neener neener.

Pretty much every single time we write about feminism on the HuffingtonPost, at least one or two commenters will appear, calling us ugly. Fat. Man-hating. Feminazis. Yet rarely do these haters bother to address the issue at hand, whatever we happened to be writing about on that particular day. That’s because it’s not about the issues. Tossing Pee-Wee Herman-caliber barbs is easy. Ridiculous as they may be, taking them is a little harder. I mean, I don’t think I’m ugly (calling all haters, here’s your chance to disagree!), but that doesn’t really matter. It still stings. And Limbaugh and Internet commenters and schoolyard bullies and others like them count on that: if a woman knows that standing up for, say insurance-covered birth control will have her publicly labeled a slut, she’s probably that much more likely to keep mum (and to continue shelling out for it, out of her own pocket).

It all reminds me of something I wrote about a while back, about a conversation I’d come across between journalists Joan Walsh and Gail Collins, ahead of the release of Collins’ book “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present.”

I was struck by some of what Collins said in the final clip, when Walsh asked her about Billy Jean King, who Collins frames in the book as a real-life feminist hero. Talking about the much-hyped “Battle of the Sexes,” in which King wiped the court with a not-at-the-top-of-his-game Bobby Riggs (who, even when he was at the top of his game, wasn’t all that threatening), Collins said the following:

The importance of it to me was that women who fought for women’s rights in the 60s and 70s did not get hosed down, or attacked by snarling dogs, or thrown in jail; they got laughed at. And humiliation and embarrassment was the great huge club that people used to keep women in line.

How much has really changed?

Some of Rush’s advertisers have dropped off, and President Obama himself gave Fluke a call, telling her that her parents should be proud. The Senate (barely) voted down a bill that would allow insurers and employers to deny contraception coverage based on any “religious or moral” objection. Rush “apologized.” So, that’s progress.

There are those who say Limbaugh’s whole schtick is to be outrageous. It’s about ratings, they argue. So I guess real progress will happen when grown-ups no longer choose to listen to grown men behaving like children, or defend grown men behaving like children on the grounds that it’s “entertaining.”

It’s not entertaining. It’s pathetic. And to those who may disagree, I’d love to hear it. And to those who may disagree but will instead insult me, I say: I know you are, but what am I?

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I ran into a tired old phrase over there on Forbes.com the other day:  “Opting out.”

Surely you’ve heard it.  It refers to women who take a career-track detour.  It’s a concept that won’t go away, implying that our choices are to go big or go home. That may be an actual choice for a a small number of women, but for most of us, it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors.  Illusion rather than reality.  And at that, a dangerous distraction.

Back at Forbes, writer Meghan Casserly bemoans the fact that “opting out” has become a catch phrase among women leaders who lament that we will never make it into the corporate suites if women continue to step off the ladder.  And those words, they continue to confuse her:

… each time I hear the phrase, I have a very physical reaction. I stiffen up, I shut down. I often question her judgment entirely. Doesn’t the very phrase “opting out” imply making a choice? And more than making a choice, doesn’t opting imply making the preferred decision? How, then, can these bright so-called experts be criticizing women who make the decision to do what’s best for them, what’s best for their children? By focusing on the greater good of woman-kind, are we losing sight of the individual?

Interesting question, but not necessarily the one I would ask. I’ve opted in, out and all things in between and what I can tell you is this:  It’s way more complicated than those two little words tend to imply.  When my kids were small, I worked from home — only because I was lucky enough to have a career and family finances that allowed for it.  When they grew up, I switched out magazine writing for teaching and what I realized was this: I never ever could have juggled the time crunch of being a full-time professor with raising a family without flipping out. To wit: there’s a reason male professors are more likely to have children than female professors, and even when the latter do have a family, it’s usually one child only.

This opt-out business began back in 2003 when Lisa Belkin wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine on a group of fast-track women who’d “opted out” of their high-flying careers once they had children. Ever since, a debate has raged as to whether or not the story reflected an actual trend, backed up by numbers, or was based on anecdotal information from a select group of women, but the phrase itself has earned a permanent place in the lexicon.  The controversy flared back up, as we wrote in 2009, when the Washington Post reported on new census figures that seemed, at first glance, to debunk this so-called “mommy myth”:

A first census snapshot of married women who stay home to raise their children shows that the popular obsession with high-achieving professional mothers sidelining careers for family life is largely beside the point.

Instead, census statistics released Thursday show that stay-at-home mothers tend to be younger and less educated, with lower family incomes. They are more likely than other mothers to be Hispanic or foreign-born.

Census researchers said the new report is the first of its kind and was spurred by interest in the so-called “opt-out revolution” among well-educated women said to be leaving the workforce to care for children at home.

In other words, the census reports seemed to show that the vast majority of stay-at-home moms were not those who opted out – but more likely those who were never comfortably in. So case closed, right? But right after the report came out, several writers drilled down the numbers and found the snapshot to be a little more complex. WaPo blogger Brian Reid was one:

If you dig into the data, it does indeed show that, on average, stay-at-home moms are more likely to be young, foreign-born and less-educated than moms as a whole. But that’s hardly a stake in the heart of the idea that you’re seeing a lot of women with college degrees stepping out of the workforce. In fact, though college-educated moms are slightly less likely to be at-home moms, a whopping 1.8 million of the 5.6 million at-home moms have a college diploma. That’s hardly a “small population.”

Of course, the Census is interested in providing a snapshot of the current situation, not making a value judgment. I’ve taken the position that opting out of the workforce is not intrinsically bad: it’s only bad when parents are forced into it by a lack of other options. It’s clear that we’re still not living in a golden age of work flexibility: for too many moms and dads, there are only two choices:the 40+ hour week or the at-home option. I’d love to know where the numbers would go if there were ways to structure home and career with more precision.

Bingo.  For all but a very few of us, our so-called choices to opt in or opt out are largely a matter of circumstance.  One of them is a workplace that is often inhospitable to women and/or dual career families.  Another is a social culture that still gives women ownership of the second shift.  A third might be the reality check when we realize that when we bought into the  “have it all” mantra, we were sold a bill of goods.

Back to that Forbes piece, Casserly quotes Pamela Stone, the author of Opting Out? and professor of sociology at Hunter College:

“The majority of women I’ve spoken to who have decided to stay home to raise children certainly frame their decision in terms of choices,” [Stone] says, “But when they told me their stories, the truth was very, very different.” Most of them had tried unsuccessfully to find flexibility with their employers—and here Stone stresses that the highly-educated successful women she researches often have serious leverage at the office—but found that even so they were mommy-tracked or saw their careers derailed. “They describe the decision as a choice,” she says, “But in the end it was a highly conflicted choice and truly a last resort.”

Precisely. And in fact, that’s what a number of the women we interviewed for our book told us.  So here’s what I think: Instead of yammering about opting in or opting out and placing the weight of women’s progress on the backs of personal choices, wouldn’t our energy be better spent working for workplace and cultural changes that would benefit us all?

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