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.
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.
“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?