The Opt-Out Myth

Most mothers have to work to make ends meet but the press writes mostly about the elite few who don't.

On October 26, 2003, The New York Times Magazine jump-started a century-long debate about women who work. On the cover it featured “The Opt Out Revolution,” Lisa Belkin’s semipersonal essay, with this banner: "Why don’t more women get to the top? They choose not to." Inside, by telling stories about herself and eight other Princeton grads who no longer work full-time, Belkin concluded that women were just too smart to believe that ladder-climbing counted as real success.

But Belkin’s “revolution”—the idea that well-educated women are fleeing their careers and choosing instead to stay home with their babies—has been touted many times before. As Joan C. Williams notes in her meticulously researched report, “ ‘Opt Out’ or Pushed Out? How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflict,” released in October 2006 by the University of California Hastings Center for WorkLife Law, where she is the director, The New York Times alone has highlighted this “trend” repeatedly over the last fifty years: in 1953 (“Case History of an Ex-Working Mother”), 1961 (“Career Women Discover Satisfactions in the Home&rdquo), 1980 (“Many Young Women Now Say They’d Pick Family Over Career”), 1998 (“The Stay-At-Home Mother”), and 2005 (“Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood”).

And yet during the same years, the U.S. has seen steady upticks in the numbers and percentages of women, including mothers, who work for wages. Economists agree that the increase in what they dryly call “women’s participation in the waged workforce” has been critical to American prosperity, demonstrably pushing up our gdp. The vast majority of contemporary families cannot get by without women’s income—especially now, when upwards of 70 percent of American families with children have all adults in the work force, when *51 percent of American women live without a husband, and when many women can expect to live into their eighties and beyond.

The moms-go-home story keeps coming back, in part, because it’s based on some kernels of truth. Women do feel forced to choose between work and family. Women do face a sharp conflict between cultural expectations and economic realities. The workplace is still demonstrably more hostile to mothers than to fathers. Faced with the “choice” of feeling that they’ve failed to be either good mothers or good workers, many women wish they could—or worry that they should—abandon the struggle and stay home with the kids.

The problem is that the moms-go-home storyline presents all those issues as personal rather than public—and does so in misleading ways. The stories’ statistics are selective, their anecdotes about upper-echelon white women are misleading, and their “counterintuitive” narrative line parrots conventional ideas about gender roles. Thus they erase most American families’ real experiences and the resulting social policy needs from view.

Here’s why that matters: if journalism repeatedly frames the wrong problem, then the folks who make public policy may very well deliver the wrong solution. If women are happily choosing to stay home with their babies, that’s a private decision. But it’s a public policy issue if most women (and men) need to work to support their families, and if the economy needs women’s skills to remain competitive. It’s a public policy issue if schools, jobs, and other American institutions are structured in ways that make it frustratingly difficult, and sometimes impossible, for parents to manage both their jobs and family responsibilities.

So how can this story be killed off, once and for all? Joan Williams attempts to chloroform the moms-go-home storyline with facts. “Opt Out or Pushed Out?” should be on every news, business, and feature editor’s desk. It analyzes 119 representative newspaper articles, published between 1980 and 2006, that use the opt-out storyline to discuss women leaving the workplace. While business sections regularly offer more informed coverage of workplace issues, the “opt out” trend stories get more prominent placement, becoming “the chain reaction story that flashes from the Times to the columnists to the evening news to the cable shows,” says Caryl Rivers, a Boston University journalism professor and the author of Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women (April 2007).

There are a number of problems with the moms-go-home storyline. First, such articles focus excessively on a tiny proportion of American women—white, highly educated, in well-paying professional/managerial jobs. Just 8 percent of American working women fit this demographic, writes Williams. The percentage is smaller still if you’re dealing only with white women who graduated from the Ivies and are married to high-earning men, as Belkin’s article does. Furthermore, only 4 percent of women in their mid- to late thirties with children have advanced degrees and are in a privileged income bracket like that of Belkin’s fellow Princeton grads, according to Heather Boushey, a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research. That group is far more likely than average women to be married when they give birth (91 percent, as opposed to 73 percent of all women), and thus to have a second income on which to survive. But because journalists and editors increasingly come from and socialize in this class, their anecdotes loom large in our personal rearview mirrors—and in our most influential publications. Such women are chastised for working by Caitlin Flanagan (a woman rich enough to stay home and have a nanny!) in The Atlantic, and for lacking ambition by Linda Hirshman in The American Prospect. But such “my-friends-and-me” coverage is an irresponsible approach to major issues being wrestled with by every American family and employer.

The stories are misleading in a second important way. Williams’s report points out that “opt-out stories invariably focus on women in one particular situation: after they have ‘opted out’ but before any of them divorce.” The women in those articles often say their skills can be taken right back onto the job. It’s a sweetly optimistic notion, but studies show that, on average, professional women who come back after time away—or even after working part-time, since U.S. women working part-time earn 21 percent less per hour worked than those who work full-time—take a hefty and sustained pay cut, and a severe cut in responsibility level. Meanwhile, nearly 50 percent of American marriages end in divorce, according to the latest census figures. While numbers are lower for marriages in the professional class, divorce remains a real possibility. Williams points to Terry Martin Hekker, one of the ur opt-out mothers, who in 1977 published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled," The Satisfactions of Housewifery and Motherhood in ‘An Age of Do-Your-Own-Thing .’ In 2006, Hekker wrote—again in the Times, but demoted to the Sunday Style section—about having been divorced and financially abandoned: “He got to take his girlfriend to Cancun, while I got to sell my engagement ring to pay the roofer.”

In other words, interview these opt-out women fifteen years later—or forty years later, when they’re trying to live on skimpy retirement incomes—and you might hear a more jaundiced view of their “choices.”

The opt-out stories have a more subtle, but equally serious, flaw: their premise is entirely ahistorical. Their opening lines often suggest that a generation of women is flouting feminist expectations and heading back home. At the simplest factual level, that’s false. Census numbers show no increase in mothers exiting the work force, and according to Heather Boushey, the maternity leaves women do take have gotten shorter. Furthermore, college-educated women are having their children later, in their thirties—after they’ve established themselves on the job, rather than before. Those maternity leaves thus come in mid-career, rather than pre-career. Calling that “opting out” is misleading. As Alice Kessler-Harris, a labor historian at Columbia University, put it, “I define that as redistributing household labor to adequately take care of one’s family.” She adds that even while at home, most married women keep bringing in family income, as women traditionally have. Today, women with children are selling real estate, answering phone banks, or doing office work at night when the kids are in bed. Early in the twentieth century, they might have done piecework, taken in laundry, or fed the boarders. Centuries earlier, they would have been the business partners who took goods to market, kept the shop’s accounts, and oversaw the adolescent labor (once called housemaids and dairymaids, now called nannies and daycare workers).

Which brings us to an even deeper historical flaw: editors and reporters forget that Belkin’s generation isn’t post-feminism; it’s mid-feminism. Women’s entrance into the waged work force has been moving in fits and starts over the past century. Earlier generations of college-educated women picked either work or family, work after family, or family after work; those who graduated in the 1980s and 1990s—Belkin’s cohort—are the first to expect to do both at the same time. And so these women are shocked to discover that, although 1970s feminists knocked down the barrier to entering the professions in large numbers, the workplace still isn’t fixed. They are standing on today’s feminist frontier: the bias against mothers that remains embedded on the job, in the culture, and at home.

Given that reality, here’s the biggest problem with the moms-go-home storyline: it begins and ends with women saying they are choosing to go home, and ignores the contradictory data sandwiched in between.

Williams establishes that “choice” is emphasized in eighty-eight of the 119 articles she surveyed. But keep reading. Soon you find that staying home wasn’t these women’s first choice, or even their second. Rather, every other door slammed. For instance, Belkin’s prime example of someone who “chose” to stay home, Katherine Brokaw, was a high-flying lawyer until she had a child. Soon after her maternity leave, she exhausted herself working around the clock to prepare for a trial—a trial that, at the last minute, was canceled so the judge could go fishing. After her firm refused even to consider giving her “part-time” hours—forty hours now being considered part-time for high-end lawyers—she “chose” to quit.

More than a third of the articles in Williams’s report cite “workplace inflexibility” as a reason mothers leave their jobs. Nearly half mention how lonely and depressed those women get when they’ve been downgraded to full-time nannies. Never do such articles cite decades of social science research showing that women are happier when occupying several roles; that homemakers’ well-being suffers compared to that of working women; or that young adults who grew up in dual-earner families would choose the same family model for their own kids. Rarely do such articles ask how husband and wife negotiated which one of them would sacrifice a career. Only by ignoring both the women’s own stories and the larger context can the moms-go-home articles keep chirping on about choice and about how such women now have “the best job in the world.”

Underlying all this is a genuinely new trend that the moms-go-home stories never mention: the all-or-nothing workplace. At every income level, Americans work longer hours today than fifty years ago. Mandatory overtime for blue- and pink-collar workers, and eighty-hour expectations for full-time professional workers, deprive everyone of a reasonable family life. Blue-collar and low-wage families increasingly work “tag-team” schedules so that someone’s always home with the kids. In surveys done by the Boston College Sloan Work and Families Research Network and by the New York-based Families and Work Institute, among others, women and men increasingly say that they’d like to have more time with their families, and would give up money and advancement to do it—if doing so didn’t mean sacrificing their careers entirely. Men, however, must face fierce cultural headwinds to choose such a path, while women are pushed in that direction at every turn.

Finally, the opt-out articles never acknowledge the widespread hostility toward working mothers. Researching the book I wrote for Evelyn Murphy in 2005, Getting Even: Why Women Don’t Get Paid Like Men—and What to Do About It, I was startled by how many lawsuits were won because managers openly and publicly told women that they couldn’t be hired because they were pregnant; or that having a child would hurt them; or that it was simply impossible for women to both work and raise kids. Many other women we talked with had the same experience, but chose not to ruin their lives by suing. One lawyer who’d been on the partner track told us that once she had her second child, her colleagues refused to give her work in her highly remunerative specialty, saying that she now had other priorities—even though she kept meeting her deadlines, albeit after the kids were asleep. She was denied partnership. A high-tech project manager told me that when she was pregnant in 2002, she was asked: Do you feel stupider? Her colleague wasn’t being mean; he genuinely wanted to know if pregnancy’s hormones had dumbed her down. Or consider the experience of Dr. Diane Fingold, an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, where she won the 2002 Faculty Prize for Excellence in Teaching, the school’s highest teaching award. Her credentials are outstanding, yet when she asked to work three-and-a-half fewer hours a week so that she could manage her family demands—“just a little flexibility for a short period in my life!”—her practice refused. She was enraged. “I thought hard about leaving medicine altogether,” she said. Her husband is a successful venture capitalist whose “annual Christmas bonus is what I make in a year!”

Had Fingold left, in other words, she would have fit neatly with Belkin’s hyperachievers. But she loves practicing and teaching medicine, and realized she couldn’t reenter at the same level if she walked away entirely. So she moved to another practice that was willing to accommodate her part-time schedule until, in a few years, she can return to full-time. Had she chosen the Belkin course, would she have opted out—or been pushed out?

Experiences like Fingold’s bear out what social scientists are finding: strong bias against mothers, especially white mothers, who work. (Recent research shows bias against African American mothers of any class who don’t work, a subject that deserves an article of its own.) Consider the work being done by Shelley Correll, a Cornell sociology professor, described in an article in the March 2007 American Journal of Sociology. In one experiment, Correll and her colleagues asked participants to rate a management consultant. Everyone got a profile of an equally qualified consultant—except that the consultant was variously described as a woman with children, a woman without children, a man with children, and a man without children. When the consultant was a “mother,” she was rated as less competent, less committed, less suitable for hiring, promotion, or training, and was offered a lower starting salary than the other three.

Here’s what feminism hasn’t yet changed: the American idea of mothering is left over from the 1950s, that odd moment in history when America’s unrivaled economic power enabled a single breadwinner to support an entire family. Fifty years later we still have the idea that a mother, and not a father, should be available to her child at every moment. But if being a mom is a 24-hour-a-day job, and being a worker requires a similar commitment, then the two roles are mutually exclusive. A lawyer might be able to juggle the demands of many complex cases in various stages of research and negotiation, or a grocery manager might be able to juggle dozens of delivery deadlines and worker schedules—but should she have even a fleeting thought about a pediatrics appointment, she’s treated as if her on-the-job reliability will evaporate. No one can escape that cultural idea, reinforced as it is by old sitcoms, movies, jokes—and by the moms-go-home storyline.

Still, if they were pushed out, why would smart, professional women insist that they chose to stay home? Because that’s the most emotionally healthy course: wanting what you’ve got. “That’s really one of the agreed-upon principles of human nature. People want their attitudes and behavior to be in sync,” said Amy Cuddy, an assistant professor in the management and organizations department at Northwestern Kellogg School of Management. “People who’ve left promising careers to stay home with their kids aren’t going to say, ‘I was forced out. I really want to be there.’ It gives people a sense of control that they may not actually have.”

So yes, maybe some women “chose” to go home. But they didn’t choose the restrictions and constrictions that made their work lives impossible. They didn’t choose the cultural expectation that mothers, not fathers, are responsible for their children’s doctor visits, birthday parties, piano lessons, and summer schedules. And they didn’t choose the bias or earnings loss that they face if they work part-time or when they go back full time.

By offering a steady diet of common myths and ignoring the relevant facts, newspapers have helped maintain the cultural temperature for what Williams calls “the most family-hostile public policy in the Western world.” On a variety of basic policies—including parental leave, family sick leave, early childhood education, national childcare standards, afterschool programs, and health care that’s not tied to a single all-consuming job—the U.S. lags behind almost every developed nation. How far behind? Out of 168 countries surveyed by Jody Heymann, who teaches at both the Harvard School of Public Health and McGill University, the U.S. is one of only five without mandatory paid maternity leave—along with Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland. And any parent could tell you that it makes no sense to keep running schools on nineteenth century agricultural schedules, taking kids in at 7 a.m. and letting them out at 3 p.m. to milk the cows, when their parents now work until 5 or 6 p.m. Why can’t twenty-first century school schedules match the twenty-first century workday?

The moms-go-home story’s personal focus makes as much sense, according to Caryl Rivers, as saying, “Okay, let’s build a superhighway; everybody bring one paving stone. That’s how we approach family policy. We don’t look at systems, just at individuals. And that’s ridiculous.”

* After this New York Times article was published, this statistic came under fire, since it includes “women” 15 and up.

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E.J. Graff is senior researcher at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism