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.

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.

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.

"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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