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Posts Tagged ‘opting out’

Between “Are You Mom Enough?” (aka the extremely controversial Time Magazine breastfeeding cover) and Elisabeth Badinter’s extremely controversial book The Conflict, which cast a critical eye on the current trend (among some sets) toward attachment parenting, and the Daily Mail’s latest offense, about the “ambitious career women” who don’t want kids and “enforce childlessness” upon their partners, sometimes you have to wonder whose finger is on the trigger when it comes to the war on women.

While the media and the talking heads sling headlines and talking points, we’re all just left to slug it out. Or, more likely, to reserve the slugs and instead talk behind each other’s backs, feel guilty, worry that we’re doing whatever it is we’re doing wrong. That what we’re doing is wrong.

Which is bad enough. But what kills me is this: When was the last time you saw a magazine cover asking “Are You Dad Enough?” or a piece worrying for the women married to “career-driven” men who deprive them of parenthood? (Then again, men rarely “enforce childlessness” because they generally don’t have to choose between career and parenthood… because mom–whether she’s career-oriented or not–will be there to do the lion’s share. Not to mention the gestating, the birthing, and the breastfeeding. As a friend once observed, for men, parenthood is an addition to everything else in their lives; for women, it’s a choice. The trade-offs are more stark.) Would a man’s choice to embrace his traditional breadwinning role with gusto be marked as an end to progress, or to opt out of parenthood as a harbinger of the downfall of society as we know it?

Men’s roles haven’t changed much. Yes, the dads of today are likely more involved in their children’s lives than their own dads were in theirs. Yes, they probably do more of the chores than their dads did, but these are incremental moves we’re talking about. And precious few worry that a dad picking up the dry cleaning or making dinner somehow constitutes an attack on “family values”—or that a man who doesn’t want to have kids is somehow defective or unnatural. A man’s minor deviations beyond the confines of his traditional gender role are rarely seen as cause for alarm.

Women are the ones who have changed – and who have fought, every step of the way, for those changes… changes that have, in turn (and slowly) affected the incremental changes in men and (slower still) in the structures of society. Perhaps it’s because our rights remain under attack, because our position still feels tenuous, because we still have such a ways to go, that our reflexive response to trend stories about opting out or real-life trends toward attachment parenting or aprons as fashion statement is that it will undermine feminism. We’re still on shaky ground.

And because it’s shaky, we cling to our positions ferociously. With our newfound freedom to do things any which way, it’s harder to feel that what we’re doing is right. Or even just good enough. And because women today have been raised on the message that we can do anything, we do whatever it is we do with a certain amount of ferocity. The same ambition some might turn on in the boardroom, some will focus onto their children.

And because it’s shaky, there will be those who will insist that the old way was the right way.

The thing is, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. The parameters of women’s lives have changed. We have our reproductive rights—and will fight for them no matter what right-winged extremist boogieman appears claiming God and the Founding Fathers wanted women beholden to our uteri. We have access and opportunity and can do all kinds of things with our lives. We can parent—or not parent—as we see fit. And that is a good thing.

The “enough” I worry about is this: when will there be enough change–enough change to the structures, attitudes, finger-pointing, and self-doubt–that “choices,” in all their forms, will be available, realistic, safe, and workable for all women?

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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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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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