The truth behind women 'opting out'
Two reports show a weak labor market and inflexible work policies as the main reasons women are staying home.
When New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin coined the phrase "the opt-out revolution" in 2003 to describe a supposed exodus of mothers from the workforce, her article sparked a media flurry. Other journalists rushed to find their own examples of women heading home for family reasons.Skip to next paragraph
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But don't think of it as a trend. Much of the talk about women "opting out" to care for their families is a myth, two studies report. "Women are not increasingly dropping out of the labor force because of their kids," says Heather Boushey, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. In a study titled "Are Women Opting Out? Debunking the Myth," she finds that although there was a drop in women's work participation rates between 2001 and 2005, it was largely because of a weak labor market. Men's labor rates also dropped during this time period.
"Higher job losses in the recession of the early 2000s have had the effect of making it appear that women – and especially women with children – are opting out of employment," Ms. Boushey says. Yet mothers today are only half as likely to leave the workforce because of their children as they were in 1984, she finds.
"Most mothers do not opt out," says Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings. "They are pushed out by workplace inflexibility, the lack of supports, and a workplace bias against mothers." In one recent survey, 86 percent of women cited obstacles such as inflexible jobs as a key reason behind their decision to leave.
Ms. Williams is coauthor of a report released last week, " 'Opt Out' or Pushed Out?: How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflicts." The study finds that press coverage of these issues typically focuses on highly educated professional women who account for just 8 percent of American women. Ms. Belkin's now-famous "opt-out" article, for example, profiled eight women who were graduates of Princeton, her alma mater. Such articles also give the impression that women's departure from work is a matter of choice.
These rarefied portrayals do not feature workers like Michelle Lee of Norfolk, Va. She has never heard the term "opt out." And she never intended to leave her job as an administrative assistant at a pharmaceutical company. But when she needed time off to take her three sons to various appointments for chronic conditions, her boss was unbending.
"I was willing to come in early, leave late, and eat at my desk to make up the time," Ms. Lee says. "They gave me an ultimatum: I could not miss any more days. I told them it would be better for me to resign right now."
Ellen Bravo, former executive director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, describes the challenge many workers face. "Low-wage women don't have the option of opting out," she says. "We have to guarantee that being a good family member won't cost you your job."
Asked what would have enabled her to keep her job, Lee sighs and says, "Flexibility. Just mere flexibility. I'm not a slothful person."
"Opting out" also hardly describes Jennifer Marx's departure from a Seattle radio station. Three weeks ago Ms. Marx, the mother of a 9-month-old son, was laid off from her job as a producer during a company downsizing. Now, as she looks for another job, she wonders if she can find comparable flexibility. "I was in an incredible situation where my boss told me, 'I don't care when you're here as long as you get your job done,' " she says.