The Opt-Out Revolution Revisited

"I was tired of juggling. I was tired of feeling guilty. I was tired of holding the household reins in one hand. So I quit."

On the cover of The New York Times Magazine for October 26, 2003, a classy looking white woman with long, straight hair sits serenely with her baby, ignoring the ladder that climbs behind her. "Why Don't More Women Get to the Top?" asks the headline. "They Choose Not to."

Inside, Times columnist Lisa Belkin reported on interviews with eight women who graduated from Princeton and a handful of others, three of them with MBAs. All are "elite, successful women who can afford real choice," Belkin acknowledges, yet the Magazine does not evince any hesitation about making generalizations about "women" based on this group's decisions -- to use Belkin's phrase -- to "opt out."

Belkin's piece shifted the cultural frame for understanding women's workforce participation. Prior to her article, coverage typically focused on women who had "dropped out" -- left the workforce altogether. A key insight of Belkin's was that many women who remain employed nonetheless step off the fast track, working part time, as independent contractors, or full time on the "mommy track." Belkin lumped these women with stay-at-home moms as evidence that many women who had not "dropped out" had, nonetheless, "opted out" of the fast track.

Belkin's success in naming and framing reshaped and refreshed a well-entrenched story line: that women are returning home as a matter of choice, the result of an internal psychological or biological "pull" rather than a workplace "push." This has been the interpretation of choice at The New York Times for more than half a century. The Times has been announcing and re-announcing the "opt out" trend since 1953 -- when it published the quote used as the epigram above.


This article presents the highlights of a full-length report analyzing 119 news stories printed between 1980 and 2006. The report demonstrates that many mothers do not opt out, but are instead pushed out by workplace inflexibility, failures of public policy, and workplace bias. For evidence, we need look no further than Belkin's original article. The first woman discussed is Sally Sears, a former TV anchorwoman. Sears took nine years to quit, and "she did so with great regret." "I would have hung in there, except the days kept getting longer and longer," Sears explained. "My five-day, 50-hour week was becoming a 60-hour week."

So she quit, recognizing she lacked the fire in her belly, right? No, actually. Sears tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a part-time schedule. "They said it was all or nothing … It was wrenching for me to leave Channel 2 … I miss being the lioness in the newsroom … [and i]t kills me that I'm not contributing to my 401(k) anymore." (This reference to the economic vulnerability of women who opt out is never followed up.)

In fact, the same all-or-nothing employer who refused to let Sears work part time later offered her part-time work -- but without benefits, with no future, and at a much lower pay rate. The real message of Sears' story is that, despite her talents, she ended up doing virtually the same work she had always done, but in a low-paid, dead-end job. A more accurate headline for her story: "Talented Mother Pushed Out of a Good Job Into a Bad One; Economic Vulnerability Results."


The Opt-Out Story Line Exposed

The central thrust of the opt out story line is that women are "getting real" about their limitations and realizing that their values were more traditional than they thought they were, thus leading them to forego careers in favor of traditional motherhood. This story line has several major weaknesses.

In nearly three-fourths (73 percent) of the newspaper stories we analyzed, the overall tone was one of pulls rather than pushes -- women following the pull toward home, with little mention of how the workplace pushes them out. Yet in a 2004 study by Pamela Stone and Meg Lovejoy, 86 percent of highly qualified women surveyed said work-related reasons, including workplace inflexibility, were key considerations in their decisions to quit. Only 6 percent of the articles we reviewed identified workplace pushes as key reasons why women left work.

The opt-out story line also discusses work/family conflict predominantly as an issue for professional women. More than half (58 percent) of the women discussed in opt-out stories in The New York Times were in high-status or other traditionally masculine white-collar jobs; the number spiked to 100 percent in The Washington Times. This picture is misleading. Only about 8 percent of U.S. women hold high-level and other traditionally masculine jobs. And data shows that highly educated mothers are more -- not less -- likely to remain in the labor force than other women.

Distorted newspaper coverage can distort public policy. When I was talking with a Capitol Hill staffer several years ago, she told me that her office was not interested in public policies to help Americans balance work and family. "My boss is not interested in the problems of professional women," she said -- a misconception taken straight from the American press.

In addition, such stories often paint an unrealistically rosy picture about women's chances of picking up their careers where they left off. More than one-third of the articles we reviewed explicitly adopt the view that women are being "realistic" when they recognize that they cannot "have it all" (i.e., what men have always had: both families and careers). In fact, it is opt-out articles that are unrealistic about women's chances of opting back in. "My degree is my insurance policy," one of Belkin's interviewees states.

But this is an illusion. In a 2005 study for the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change, Monica McGrath and her coauthors surveyed 130 highly qualified women who had spent at least two years away from work. They found that, while 70 percent of those surveyed reported feeling positive about their decisions to leave the labor force, 50 percent felt "frustrated" when they tried to return to work, and 18 percent became "depressed." Some respondents reported that employers interviewed them as if they had no work experience at all. More than one-third (36 percent) thought they might have to take a lower-level position than they had left. One particularly frustrated respondent said she was thinking of taking her MBA off her résumé. Said another, "Be prepared for the realization that in the business world your stepping-out time counts for less than zero … [and] may make potential employers think you are not as reliable as other applicants."

Another 2005 study by Christy Spivey published in the Industrial and Labor Relations Review found that women experienced a significant negative effect on wages even 20 years after a career interruption. This is a message that young women are not getting; the press is not telling them.


Women's Economic Jeopardy

The opt-out story line presents the economic impact of mothers leaving the workforce as a short-term picture of giving up luxuries. No major paper would cover unemployment by having a reporter interview a handful of well-heeled acquaintances and muse on a personal period of unemployment. The idea is ludicrous; unemployment is a serious economic issue -- except, in U.S. papers, the unemployment of mothers.

By contrast, in its April 2006 article entitled "A Guide to Womenomics," the British magazine The Economist decried the fact that "women remain the world's most under-utilized resource." "To make full use of their national pools of female talent," the article stated, "governments need to remove obstacles that make it hard for women to combine work with having children," such as "parental leave and child care, allowing more flexible working hours, and reforming tax and social-security systems that create disincentives for women to work."

In sharp contrast, only 12 percent of the U.S. news articles we surveyed discuss the negative impact on the economy of that loss of talent. Instead, upbeat opt-out stories feature a steady diet of interviews with women after they opt out, and before any of them divorce, in which affluent women explain how they made ends meet by giving up expensive vacations, shopping sprees, and dining out. This story hardly describes the typical American family. Given that American women bring home an average of 28 percent of the family income, most families cannot make ends meet after a mother stops working simply by giving up luxuries.

Very few of the 119 articles we surveyed linked women's opting out with long-term economic vulnerability. In a society in which "displaced homemakers'" incomes fall very sharply after divorce, only two out of 119 articles mentioned any divorced women. Yet, if past trends are any indication, close to half of opt-out women will end up in this position, with not only their own long-term economic futures in jeopardy, but also those of their children (who are statistically less likely than other children to reach the education level or class status of their fathers).


The Great American Speed-Up

A final shortcoming of the opt-out story line is its failure to acknowledge the impact of new, sped-up ideals of mothering and of work in America. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the articles in our survey refer to women's return to "traditional" roles. Yet recent studies report that much of what these "new traditionalist" mothers stay home to do is not traditional. Sociologists Annette Lareau and Sharon Hays have documented the rise of an "ideology of intensive mothering" in professional and managerial families -- the belief that each child needs to be driven to countless practices, play dates, tutoring, and other enrichment activities.

Newspapers' confident assertions of "new traditionalism" also erase the newness of the all-or-nothing workplace. What many opt-out women are rejecting is not work per se, but "extreme jobs." Americans work longer hours than in virtually any other industrialized country, and American men's working hours have risen so sharply since 1980, that now nearly 40 percent of college-educated men work 50-plus hours a week.

The Great American Speed-Up at Work -- like the Great American Speed-Up at Home -- is not traditional. In one-opt out article we reviewed (printed in The Union Leader of Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1995), a mother who left a corporate job for freelance work told the paper that her guiding principle was, "I like to be with my family for dinner." This is a goal virtually any Company Man of the 1950s could attain.


Accurate Stories the Press Should Report

Newspapers could easily replace the eternal drone of opt-out stories with three new story lines -- ones that more accurately reflect real data.

First, newspapers can describe how American women are pushed out of good jobs by workplace inflexibility. The American economy has lots of good, long-hours jobs, but part time jobs tend to be hard to find, dead end, and low paid. "I felt like I threw away my career with the placenta," said one lawyer who returned to work part time after giving birth. The economic penalty associated with part-time work is much harsher in the United States than in Europe. Women who work part time here earn 21 percent less per hour than full timers, a penalty seven times higher than in Sweden and more than twice as high as in the UK. On average, people who work 44 hours per week in the United States earn more than twice what those working 34 hours per week earn, according to Warren Farrell in a 2005 New York Times editorial. All this tends to drive professional and managerial couples into neotraditional roles, as the "parenting vacuum" produced by husbands' absence is filled by women who opt out. "He has always said to me, 'You can do whatever you want to do,'" says one respondent in Stone and Lovejoy's 2004 study, "But he's not there to pick up any load."

In working-class families, parents tend to "tag team," where mom works one shift and dad works a different shift, thereby minimizing the need for child care, which is expensive and hard to find. Yet, when combined with workplace inflexibility, tag-teaming can be problematic. If either parent is ordered to work overtime, the family has to choose between mom's job and dad's job -- in a context in which the family usually needs both jobs to make ends meet. Similar problems arise if a child or elderly relative is sick. Many working-class families are one sick child away from being fired (the title of my report on working class families). Not surprisingly, given that many tag-team couples rarely see each other awake, tag-team families also have sky-high levels of divorce, with a divorce rate three to six times the national average.

A second alternative story line for the press is how the failures of U.S. public policy force many women out of the workforce. Nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of the articles we surveyed mention that the high cost and/or the low quality of child care drove mothers out of work. Are these stories about women getting what they want, or stories about the systematic de-skilling of American women (many of them educated at public expense) due to a lack of supports for working families? Lack of adequate non-family child care plays a central role in driving American women out of the workforce and into economic vulnerability. That's why most other industrialized countries have been so attentive to creating systems that provide families with both good options for non-family child care and workplace flexibility so workers can care for their own children. Few, if any, articles in American newspapers mention the role of U.S. public policy in creating the unattractive choices that cause many mothers to leave work.

A third new story line is one explaining how many women leave the workforce because of workplace bias against mothers. Perhaps the most damaging part of the opt-out story line is that it excuses gender discrimination under the rhetoric of "choice." Lawsuits brought by women who hit the maternal wall offer vivid, compelling stories of women who did not opt out; they were pushed out by stereotyping and gender discrimination. Take Shireen Walsh, a top salesperson with outstanding reviews who encountered a sharp change in working conditions after she returned from maternity leave. Her first week back at work, her supervisor told her to stop disrupting the office when she showed her baby pictures. Her hours were closely scrutinized, although, as is common in off-site sales jobs, her coworkers' were not. When Walsh had to leave to take her son, who had persistent ear infections, to the doctor, she was required to sign in and out and to make up every minute of work she missed, despite a policy allowing for unlimited sick leave. Her supervisor threw a phone book at her, telling her to find a pediatrician open after business hours. In her 2003 case against her employer, National Computer Systems, Inc., a federal court upheld a jury verdict of $625,000.

The Center for WorkLife Law has identified more than 800 cases of "family responsibilities discrimination" or FRD. Such cases increased nearly 400 percent during the last decade. FRD plaintiffs are more likely to win than employment discrimination plaintiffs generally, in part because lawyers litigate these as family values cases. Potential liability is substantial: More than 75 cases have involved verdicts or settlements of $100,000 or more, with the highest individual verdict at $11.65 million and the highest class recovery at $49 million.

The argument that women opt out rests on the assumption that we are talking about mothers' choices, not systemic discrimination. Yet choice and discrimination are not mutually exclusive: Consider the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Under it, gay soldiers do have a choice -- they can remain closeted and keep their jobs, or they can come out and get fired. Yet their choice, like mothers' choices, occur within the context of discrimination. Many mothers quit when their careers stall after they are told that mothers belong at home with their children; or when they find that disabled men are offered light duty but pregnant women are not; or when the quality of their assignments declines sharply when they return from maternity leave; the examples go on and on.

News stories about family responsibilities discrimination have spiked in the months since the Center for WorkLife Law released a July 2006 report on the rise of FRD litigation. One was an article by Lisa Belkin, the very reporter who coined the language of opting out, in which she described FRD (and dubbed it "Fred"). Recent press interest may signal receptiveness to new story lines around women and employment. Let's hope so.

Joan C. Williams is Distinguished Professor of Law and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. For the full-length report on which this article is based, "'Opt Out' or Pushed Out?: How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflict," go here.