08/09/2013 06:25 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2013

What's Missing From the Opt-Out Discussion

This week in The New York Times Magazine, Judith Warner revisits highly educated women who left the work force a decade ago for a variety of reasons, and who now want back in. The same magazine defined this group as the "opt-out revolution" in a 2003 article by Lisa Belkin. Since that first article, many have wondered, including Belkin herself, if the women in her article truly chose to leave work, or did they feel pushed out?

In a more recent Huffington Post piece Belkin wrote, "Looking back over 10 years and a lot of reporting, I have come to see my mistake when writing 'The Opt-Out Revolution.' I confused being pulled toward home with being pushed away from work. ... I did not fully understand, though, that what looked like a choice was not really what these women wanted most. Had their workplaces been ones that adapted to a world in which workers no longer have other halves (read: wives) focusing on home so that they can focus on the job, and where technology could be used to free employees from their desks physically rather than tethering them metaphorically, and where the "ideal worker" was understood to have priorities outside of the office -- in other words, if they'd had a third path -- they might well have taken it."

Getting the workplace to adapt to a world where the majority of U.S. households have a female breadwinner is half of the equation. Getting the homefront to adapt is the other half. Yes, men are doing more housework than they've ever done, but they were starting from a very low percentage. According to the American Time Use Survey, women still do approximately 30 percent more housework and childcare than their spouses. Housework, I'd argue, is also pushing women out of the workforce.

While writing my forthcoming book, Mogul, Mom & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman, I talked to scores of women and found that while women today are less likely to opt out due to financial reasons, many of them are scaling back -- perhaps eschewing a promotion or working part time. And the reason they often cite for why they're not charging toward the corner office, is the challenges of managing home and family are just too much. Their husbands, however, don't seem to have these same challenges. It may seem like these women are "choosing" to cut back at work, but exhausted and struggling, they don't see that third path Belkin references.

This housework gap was evident in Warner's article. Warner writes about Sheilah O'Donnel, who "opted-out" of a job at Oracle, "'All this would be easier if you didn't work,' " O'Donnel recalled her husband saying. "I was so stressed," she told me. "I said, 'This is ridiculous.' We'd made plenty of money. We'd saved plenty of money." She quit her job, trading in a life of business meetings, client dinners and commissions for homework help, a "dream house" renovation and a third pregnancy. "I really thought it was what I had to do to save my marriage," she said."

Right there. That's the other half of the equation. All of the workplace flexibility in the world isn't going to be enough to keep talented women thriving at work, if these women don't get some more flexibility at home too.