Why is "Opting Out" a Bad Word for Women?

By Meghan Casserly

Lately it seems I can't have a conversation with a women's expert without hearing the phrase "opting out." "Thirty percent of working women will opt out of the workplace during the course of their career," they tell me. "How can we ever expect to make progress when so many women opt out before they reach the truly high-powered positions," they ask.

And 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?

When NY Times writer Lisa Belkin introduced the women's world to the term "opting out" in 2003, she framed it as a revolution: highly educated working women were quitting their jobs in droves to stay at home with their children. "It's not just that the workplace has failed women," she wrote. "It is also that women are rejecting the workplace."

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Doesn't the very phrase Doesn't the very phrase Belkin wrote about a group of Princeton-educated Atlanta mothers who had, by and large, taken the off-ramp from their successful careers to stay at home and raise children. To a one, they described their choice as just that: the decision towards the preferred path. "I don't want to be on the fast track leading to a partnership at a prestigious law firm," one said. "Some people define that as success; I don't." "Maternity provides an escape hatch that paternity does not," said another. "Having a baby provides a graceful and convenient exit."

Sure, they're not furthering the feminist cause by staying home with their babies, but do a handful of moms not living up to their Ivy League potential really do much harm? In the weeks and months and ensuing media flurry, you'd certainly think so. "Opting out" became the phrase of choice for thought-leaders, researchers and women's advocates for not just women who happily choose children over paychecks, but increasingly those whose choices are much more hard-pressed.

And ever since then, "opting out" has been a bad word.

Pamela Stone, the author of Opting Out? and professor of sociology at Hunter College says that the real problem with the phrase is precisely where I had trouble understanding it. She's spent decades researching women's employment patterns and says that, by and large, any illusion of "choice" for women who leave the workplace is simply that-and illusion, often one that women dupe even themselves to believe.

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"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," she 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."

"The crux of the problem isn't that large numbers of women are opting out," says Laura Sherbin, Ph.D., with the Center for Talent Innovation (formerly the Center for Work-Life Policy) who cites research that shows only 31% of highly qualified women take an "off-ramp" during the course of their careers and 58% of highly qualified women working in white collar occupations in large companies aspire to the "top job." "The problem is that employers and managers are counting women out and failing to develop them in the same way they do men based on false assumptions."

So the problem with "opting out" is that it confuses people, myself and employers included, by giving the impression that the decision to stay home with baby, even the one made by a privileged, educated, doesn't-need-her-paycheck-to-survive woman, is footloose and fancy-free. "It's a flavor of the day that implies so much discretion," says Stone. "And it becomes a damning observation." The truth, she says, is that no matter the strides made in women's equality in the workplace, the corporate culture still remains a culture that's not conducive to parenthood. At every turn mothers are met with resistance, and therein lies the rub. "When you have few preferences and at the same time you have barriers and constraints," she says, "You're mis-computing preference."

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No matter which way you mean it you seem to be choosing sides on whether women should stay at home.No matter which way you mean it you seem to be choosing sides on whether women should stay at home.But misleading portrayals of work-family issues have more troubling long-term costs, especially when they support the notion that working (or not working) is a choice for all women. When you perpetuate the stereotype that all [or most] women will eventually drop out of the workforce for motherhood, she says, it's not helping employers to value female employees, or fast-track them to management positions. An employee headed for an off-ramp is certainly not the one seeing the next promotion.

After all this, the theory is that the biggest problem with the use of the term "opting out" is that, no matter which way you mean it (women who prefer to stay home or women strong-armed out of the workforce) you seem to be choosing sides on whether women should stay at home. This is, very clearly, a touchy subject for women, even those of us in the business of giving advice. Choosing to believe the existence of choice or preference in opting out is validating motherhood-as-occupation (and, depending on who you're listening to, setting back women's equal wages, equal rights and every other workplace struggle). Believing that every woman is, despite her protests to the contrary, forced out implies the belief that every single woman would choose work over caring for her children if given tolerable workplace options.

Either way it's a loaded gun and women are in the cross-hairs.

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