The Myth of the Opt-Out Revolution Among Professional Women

by Erin Abrams (New York City)

Last week, we posited that women are being hit harder by job loss than men in this recession. This week, we bring you some compelling evidence for that theory. On July 22, 2008, the Majority Staff of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, led by Senator Charles Schumer and Rep. Carolyn Maloney issued a report with their findings. Called “Equality in Job Loss: Women Are Increasingly Vulnerable during Recessions,” this report argues that women began losing jobs in the recession of 2001 and never fully recovered in the labor market, making this downturn all the more painful.

In the 2001 recession, job loss was greatest in industries such as manufacturing, trade, transportation and utilities, professional and business services and information technology, areas in which had all made great gains before the downturn. In 2008, increasing cuts in the financial sector have rolled back gains that women have made on Wall Street. While women still don’t make up a proportionate number of employees in finance, some high profile women, like Zoe Cruz of Morgan Stanley and Erin Callan of Lehman Bros, have been the first to take the fall in tough times on the Street.

These kind of changes have reverberated up and down the corporate ladder, and have caused some to argue that high profile women in finance are discriminated against because of gender stereotypes. For example, in a down economy, ideas among male executives that women in finance are not “tough enough” to weather the storm, or an unspoken policy of cutting back on access to flex-time and maternity leave have made financial jobs less hospitable to the best and brightest women.

The study presented one fascinating finding, which served to dispel the “opt out revolution” myth. It stated, “There is no evidence, however, that mothers are increasingly “opting out” of employment, in favor of full-time motherhood. For this story to be true, the employment rate of non-mothers would have had to diverge sharply from that of mothers, which has not been the case.”

A New York Times article by Judith Warner, called “The Other Home Equity Crisis,” picked up on this thesis. The article argued persuasively that women, especially white collar professionals in fields like law, business and finance have opted out of the workforce in recent years less out of a desire to pursue full-time motherhood and more because they were forced out by economic pressures beyond their control. Citing the Congressional study, Warner explains that “In the past two economic downturns, as job losses have forced women out of the workplace, a sort of angel has appeared to guide their way and re-label their unfortunate circumstances as virtuous “choice.”” Indeed, she argues there has been no meaningful trend towards stay-at home motherhood.

To kick off the fire storm of response about this article, a poster named TJM summed up, in a nutshell, the dilemma of many women professionals in response to the idea that more women are unemployed, either a result of opting out, or because of economic factors. She said:

“I’m so glad that, at long last, this fiction has been officially acknowledged.” Maybe it’s been “officially” acknowledged, by the government, but what about the women themselves?

I’m an Ivy League-educated lawyer and a parent living in an affluent NYC suburb, and I personally know more than 2 dozen women who claim that they’ve voluntarily and proudly left the workforce, or are about to leave the workforce, to “raise a family.”

This includes a current colleague of mine who’s just turned 30, married last spring, describes herself as a “proud anti-feminist,” and speaks openly of how she’s going to start trying to get pregnant this fall. She says that she’ll take her maternity leave and quit as soon as it’s finished; that she wants a large family (four) and that she won’t return to work, if at all, until the last one goes off to college….

The point is I would’ve been more interested in a piece that explored why a significant proportion of well-educated, privileged, affluent women have chosen to adopt this “story,” as you aptly put it, for themselves.”

430 comments followed, in a stimulating dialogue among professional women about whether or not “opting out” is constructed as a choice or a lack of choices for women.

A common strain of the backlash to this argument focused on the idea that women might attend prestigious law school and business school programs in order to meet appropriately wealthy future husbands, with no intention of ever practicing in their chosen fields. While that’s not the case for most female Ivy-league grads, the idea that some may have intended to opt out all along is referred to as a “dirty little secret” of the class of highly educated professional women in law and finance to whom the article and study refer.

A poster named CG struck a cynical chord that may resonate with many hard working professional women who don’t plan on opting out anytime soon. She said, “After the hoopla over this report blows over, I suppose we’ll return to parsing the reasons why upper middle class women blow $100K+ on an advanced degree and then sit at home. I’m paying for mine, I fully intend to use it. As far as I’m concerned, they can choose whatever rationale they want, as long as it doesn’t stick to the majority of women who don’t even have a choice.”

The study, and to greater extent, the NYT article, focused primarily in the choices of highly educated affluent women working in sectors like business, finance, law and technology. Another aspect to the reader backlash included a group of commenters who pointed out that the economic pressures and family dynamics facing working class women and single moms were significantly different than those facing affluent women with power jobs and their even more affluent husbands. These commenters called on researchers to disaggregate data on the two different types of women who might be ‘opting out,” as they are motivated by very different factors.

Another critique leveled at the study is that the definition of “unemployment” only includes those who are actively seeking work but are either unemployed or underemployed. It doesn’t count those who have opted out and are not seeking reentry into the work force, or those who have searched in the past without any luck, and have given up trying. For many formerly successful businesswomen who could afford to opt out for a while, either because of their accumulated income or their husband’s earnings, they may want to reenter the workforce on some level, but don’t face the same urgency to do so that might propel them to actively job seek. Instead, they may use informal networking methods and “keep their ears open” to hear about the right opportunity, but wouldn’t fulfill the active job-seeking criteria to be considered unemployed.

Another poster gives credence to the theory that the “opt out revolution” is an economically constructed myth, stating, “The issue is not a woman genuinely choosing to stay home, the issue is the way that women either are forced into that choice or assumed to be making that choice freely when the reality is that market and cultural realities force that choice upon them.”

Among professional women, there is a new dichotomy dividing the “haves” from the “have nots.” When considering the issue of whether to opt-out of a high paying professional career for some point, the big elephant in the room is the “have” rich husband vs. the “don’t have” rich husband distinction. It draws a clear line in the sand, and leads to palpable tensions among friends and colleagues. No matter how successful the female lawyer, investment banker or corporate vice president is, if she is the primary wage earner then she feels pressure to keep working to support her family’s life style, and doesn’t feel that opting out is an option for her.

Indeed, for the professional woman, the knowing that you can quit your job at any time is the ultimate luxury. Most women working in finance and law can afford to buy themselves a Prada handbag now and again. However, a smaller percentage of those women can rest easy knowing that if they quit their jobs tomorrow, they could continue to provide access to whatever is important to them, whether its luxury handbags, mortgage payments or private school tuition for their children.

This means that, for women whose husbands are not hedge fund managers or law firm partners, the decision-making calculus for opting out is significantly different. This includes single women who decide to have children, gay and lesbian women, women who are divorced, and those in long-term partnerships or marriages to people who earn significantly less than they do.

This data, combined with the rich online dialogue about this subject, seriously undermines the idea of a post-feminist opt-out revolution. We want to know what you think. Do you know anyone who has voluntarily opted out lately, or anyone who has been downsized and then claimed to be ‘opting out’ as an excuse to save face with colleagues? Could you afford to opt out even if you wanted to? Weigh in and tell us, is the opt-out dead? Or viva la revolution?

0 Response

  1. robin

    I would opt out if I could, but like many I do not have the financial back from a partner, so it is not an option. I fear, taking even the shortest of mat leaves as it seems to portray the wrong message and prevent future advancements(this I see all too often); and I have no clue how women take a couple years off and re enter the work force at anything but a low level position, I have rarely if ever seen a women come back at her old level.
    I see that I have 2 choices, kids or a career.

  2. nicki

    the workplace is built around “norms” or values that were designed in the 1950’s around the stepford model of all “good” women being stay at home mothers and wives. The model has not changed , many headhunters do not offer up people with a career gap on their resume- its a problem, not for the recruitment companies but for the firms themselves as they are losing out on talent. The system is changing due to both genders in the next generation not wanting to be cublicle slaves. hooray. the rest of us (anyone over 25 ) have to keep proving that we can do the job better than any man and find mentors and advocates who have the ability to put a good word in for us.

    read Why women mean business – Cox and Maitland.
    Some companies are really on this stuff and are recognising that women/people’s brain’s dont actually turn to jello if they take time out for kids/elder care/ hobbies.

  3. Work needs to change in two significant ways:

    1. Women need to be able to off-ramp and on-ramp, (meaning exiting and reentering the workforce) at the different stages of their career, based on the needs of their family at that time. Work needs to provide opportunities for woman to off-ramp and on-ramp.

    2. Women need more flextime work arrangements made available to them. Flextime is any work arrangement, full or part time, that is not a typical Monday through Friday, 8 to 5 schedule. Right now, if a woman wants a flexible or flextime job, she often has to accept a position beneath her skill set. Women need to be able to obtain flextime jobs that allow them to put their education and experience to work while at the same time, still being able to meet the needs of her family. Work needs to provide more flextime work arrangements.

    What if this happened? What if women had more opportunities to on-ramp, off-ramp and work flextime jobs? Would this all be fixed and just go away? It wouldn’t. As with all things in life, we are our own worst critic. Not only does work need to change, but so does our perceptive of working moms. As a society, our mindset needs to change. It’s often believed that the concept of a working mom and that of a good mom are mutually exclusive. We need to come to the realization that a mother can work, and still be an excellent mother.

  4. Sharon

    Many years ago, I began working in a law office at age 15, later became a legal secretary, then a paralegal. After graduating from college and a brief stint as a manager I went back to school for a JD-MBA. I did well and was hired at a large S.F. law firm but after four years I was frustrated with sexual harassment and lack of ability to transfer to other practice areas in the firm. I tried small firm practice, and then left the legal profession.

    I enjoyed the work. I enjoyed the clients. I enjoyed the physical space of the office. The mostly male environment, workload and “politics” was awful. That was 20 years ago.

    I’ve had my family, been through the divorce, sustained myself by teaching children and adults, among other things, am healthy and happy, and I would like to practice law again. I went back for an LL.M. last year, did well, and, at age 57, am unemployed.

    It is distressing to read and hear that the situation in large law firms and other professional positions for women is still so difficult. One reason I always THOUGHT I could just go back any time I wanted was because I worked in so many offices where there were 80-year-old men. I thought law was the perfect career for longevity. In any event, no one can ever “take away” my education.

    Still seeking my next big thing.

  5. I’m going to come at this from a slightly different perspective…

    When someone “opts out,” there is that decision at the moment that depends on circumstantial factors like workplace environment, husband’s salary, possibility for career advancement, location etc.

    BUT, there is also the question of opting out in advance- deciding before you have even pursued a career in finance or law before you have gotten married, that you would like to opt out.

    Doesn’t anyone remember this famous article?