A sociology professor at Hunter College in New York, Stone began to note the number of professional women in her own well-heeled suburb leaving the paid workforce in favor of full-time motherhood. She decided to do something perfectly rational but revolutionary in these flame-throwing times: she contacted several dozen upper-middle-class so-called opt-outers across the country, and listened to their stories without passing judgment on their lives.
The results are in Stone’s recently published book Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home. She found a world where inflexible workplaces, second shifts on the home front and societal expectations combined to create a Gordian knot for many modern women. They realized something – or, rather, someone – was going to have to give.
Babble spoke with Stone in New York, where she discussed what’s wrong with the phrase “opt-out,” generational differences amongst women who take their leave of the work world, and the importance of paid work to women. – Helaine Olen
Do you think “opting out” is a good term?
It’s a very bad term. “Opting out” makes the decision seem kind of light. It has the real potential to do harm by reinforcing the idea that women aren’t interested in work, that careers are disposable and ephemeral. It also lets employers off the hook. I use the term “silent strike.”
I think what the women I interviewed were saying is that there’s a better way to work, that they need more flexible options. They don’t want a life that is all work and no family. Yet they want to work in the future, they don’t want to burn bridges with their coworkers and their employers. So it’s a silent strike, because they do tend to leave and tend to leave fairly quietly, and once they’re out it’s tough to hear from them.
Why did you decide to concentrate solely on upper-middle-class, professional women?
First, these are the women who are supposed to be working the most. The very fact that you get a professional degree, that you put yourself into the competitive environment of trying to go to an Ivy League or highly selective school, all of this is taken as prima facie demonstration of work commitment.
Then there is another part. Despite the fact that we know that professional jobs had been ramping up in their time demands, by other measures they are actually more family friendly. There are people who are fired if they miss a day of work to take their kid to a doctor’s appointment. That doesn’t tend to happen to professionals, they’re not as vulnerable. So the question becomes, if they can’t make it work, who can?
Did any of these women try to negotiate work/home boundaries with their husbands before they left the workforce?
The majority of them probably did not. The husband’s careers are often deferred to and there are a lot of reasons for that. It’s not just sheer sexism. Oftentimes, the husbands are making more money. But many did try to address it. A woman I talked to in the book talks about how she told her husband, “We have kids, somebody has to be there.” But he wouldn’t stop. And so somebody had to, so it was going to be her.
You don’t like the use of the word “choice” when it comes to the opt-out phenomena.
There is a disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality. Women almost universally talked about their decision as a choice, and they talked about how fortunate they were to have a choice. And in some sense they’re right, because they can afford to forgo their incomes. But when you step back, what they are really saying is, “I’m fortunate to give up years of training. I’m fortunate to give up years of investment and success.”
These were women who had very good credentials, who had tended to go to very good schools, who had been in competitiveI used to sit across from these women, and hear their resumes and think, “Why would any company let a woman like this walk out the door?” educational and work environments, and they don’t see themselves as victims in any way, shape or form. They don’t see themselves as buffeted by the fickle finger of fate – that’s not their self-perception.
A lot of writers and social commentators – I’m thinking specifically of Leslie Bennetts’s recent book The Feminine Mistake – seem to think that women do not realize how hard it is to re-enter the workforce once they take a leave of absence from it. Did you find that to be the case?
They certainly understood that. They often talked about things like, “I understand that if I’m going to be out at all, contacts are going to go cold, and networks, my knowledge is gonna get obsolete.” Most of them said they were not going to go back to their former profession. They felt shut out of it. They still wanted flexibility, they still had kids, and they hadn’t been able to get it. They had tried and failed. So they saw that the only way they could work again was by reorienting. A lot of them wanted to become teachers. They became much more open to traditional women’s jobs.
Why won’t more corporations help these women out?
I used to sit across from these women, and hear their resumes and think, “Why would any company let a woman like this walk out the door?” I think that you really get back to how hard change is. And we’re definitely seeing a speeded-up workplace. Bankers used to have what were called banker’s hours, because they were good hours. Well, a banker’s hours are horrible hours now. All these professions are going into a speed-up at the same time that you have more women with family responsibilities. So there is this head-on collision of these two trends.
Did you notice generational differences in the women you interviewed?
The women who were in their thirties were more likely to be denied part-time work. They were more pissed and angry about their situation. They felt their careers were cut off at the knees. I also think their expectations were higher. They were assuming that the family-friendly workplace was much more of a reality. And they were more likely, nonetheless, to invoke choice feminism, and say, “Isn’t it great that we have choices?”
What finding surprised you most when you researched this book?
How much about work it all was! Because, given the prevailing rhetoric out there and the power of the media depiction and the like, I really did think that I was going to hear women talking very much about being supermoms and redefining motherhood. Instead, there was such a strong desire to maintain work in their lives and such an unmet demand for flexible work options.
To order Opting Out?, click here.