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?
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.
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.
"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."
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