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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.

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Yet Williams cautions that situations like this can lead to "deskilling," a downward career path that can occur when women are driven out of good jobs into lesser ones by inflexible workplaces.

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"The misportrayal of professional women as cheerfully dropping out with very little discussion of the difficulties of getting back in misleads younger women into thinking that they have options that very often do not pan out," Williams says.

Glossy opt-out stories also typically ignore the economic vulnerability of women who leave, Williams notes. In addition to losing paychecks now, they are no longer contributing to pensions and Social Security for the future.

Gillian Pommerehn understands the tradeoffs involved in leaving. "There's a loss monetarily, but there's also a loss in your career track," she says. "To take five or six years off at that age, typically in your 30s, does affect your career track."

As vice president of Stanton Communications, a public relations firm in Baltimore, Ms. Pommerehn says, "I'm committed to staying as long as my firm is committed to having me. We both understand that means flexibility." As the mother of a 2-1/2-year-old daughter, she works at home one day a week.

She also emphasizes her husband's role. "We share the load when it comes to child care and household duties," she says. "Without his willingness to be a partner and even sometimes take on 80 percent when I'm taking on 20 percent, I would not be able to work full time."

Yet marital status is routinely ignored in stories about opting out. In an age of high divorce rates, that is unrealistic, Williams says.

Misleading portrayals of work-family issues, gearing them largely to professional women, have other costs. "They make it much more difficult to generate public policy on this issue," Williams says. Boushey adds, "People on the Hill tend to think work is a choice for women."

Similarly, Williams says, "Unions often, although not invariably, still have the impression these are professional women's issues. Unions do not receive the message that work-family issues are core union issues."

The pressing need for all working families, she says, involves such social supports as paid leave, paid sick days, limits on mandatory overtime, quality affordable child care, and workplace flexibility.

Even when companies offer traditional family-friendly policies, some are not that friendly, says Sherry Sullivan, coauthor of the new book "The Opt-Out Revolt." "They might have a child-care center that's open 9 to 5, but they [still] ask their workers to work overtime or on weekends when the child-care center isn't open."

In other cases, employees are afraid to use existing programs. Ms. Sullivan interviewed some women who took the shortest possible maternity leave. "They feared that taking the full leave would make them seem less committed, less able. And men were afraid that if they used paternity leave they'd be taken off the fast track. Some men told us that if they talked about taking a paternity leave, their colleagues made fun of them and said, 'That's what you have a wife for.' "

Sullivan adds, "Some companies have found that when they introduce more flexible policies, it has a positive effect on the bottom line, and they're more likely to attract and retain high-quality talent."

Pommerehn poses this rhetorical question to employers: "Why would you lose a really good employee instead of figuring out a compromise or a flexible schedule where everybody could win?"

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