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Lisa Belkin’s “Opting Out” Mea Culpa? Unintended Consequences of an Article That Took On a Life of Its Own

I’m going to begin by making two important points. First, after a decade in the work+life field I can honestly say that everyone I’ve met or worked with approaches their particular area of interest and focus with the best of intentions. And second, I applaud anyone brave enough to stand up and call out a truth as they see it no matter the consequences.

Back in 2003, NYTimes writer, Lisa Belkin, did both of these things in her article “The Opt-Out Revolution.” With the best of intentions (I met her and heard her discuss the article shortly after it was published), Lisa bravely called out a trend as she saw it: professional women who represent the future senior leaders of corporations were “opting out” once they had children. Little did she imagine that her article and the term it spawned, “Opting out,” would have such far-reaching impact.

In response to a study that was just published by Joan C. Williams at the UC Hastings College of Law entitled, “Opt Out or Pushed Out? How the Press Cover Work/Family Conflict,” Belkin was forced to revisit and defend some key of her points in this week’s Sunday New York Times. Her defense of the unintended negative consequences of the “Opting Out” article (as well as other pieces published on the subject dating back to 1980) reinforced some of the concerns I’ve had with the aftermath over the past three years.

Below I’ve highlighted the three primary concerns outlined by Professor Williams, as well as Lisa Belkin’s response to those concerns. And then I’ve added some of my own observations:

Professor Williams points out that the media coverage:
1) Focuses overwhelmingly on the lives of professional/managerial women who comprise only 8% of American women…the result, in her opinion, has caused policy makers to feel free to wash their hands of workplace reform because it is a “wealthy woman’s problem.”
2) Blames the “Opting Out” on the “pull” of family, despite studies showing that 86 % of women cite workplace pushes (such as inflexible jobs) as a key reason for leaving.
3) Creates “an unrealistic picture of how easy it will be for women to re-enter the workforce.”

Lisa Belkin’s defense points out that:
1) Focusing on one segment of women was the point of the article. Any perception that it was a “wealthy woman’s” problem isn’t the media’s fault, but rather a lack of vision on the part of policymakers.
2) We can choose only among the available choices…If the available choices included Door No. 3—a workplace more conducive to work-life balance—then the choice would be better.
3) It is unclear what the next decade holds for workers who leave for a period of time. It is possible they will never regain traction and that they will regret the years lost. But it’s also possible that the looming labor shortage will work in their demographic favor, helping facilitate their re-entry into the workforce..

Here’s what I think:

1) This is exactly why we need to stop focusing solely on one specific work+life fit transition–women becoming mothers—and look at the work+life challenge as an issue for everyone in an increasingly 24/7 work reality. All women who become mothers have to renegotiate the way work fits into their lives. And so do all men who become fathers, all adult children who begin caring for parents, all people approaching retirement. And depending upon their unique circumstances, some will have more choices than others, including leaving the workplace altogether. The problem is that we need to choose from all of the choices, and I’m afraid we are still only seeing two: stay or leave.

2) WORKPLACE FLEXIBILITY DOES EXIST. Even in organizations that have no formal flexibility strategy, individuals can still present plans that will be supported by their managers. What really alarms me is that young women are not interpreting the “Opting Out” article as an interesting case study to ignite dialogue. They are seeing it as a strategy or roadmap for how they should manage their work and life! So, at my lectures, all of these high-potential professional young women come up to tell me that they are developing their “opting out strategy”–even before they have partners or kids!

The strategy they should be taught is how to recognize and interpret their unique work and personal circumstances, and then readjust the boundaries around work accordingly, in partnership with their employers. Especially if they are going to leave anyway. They owe it to themselves to give it a shot. Shoot for the moon and negotiate a “fit” that allows you to stay in the game.

3) I do agree with both Professor Williams and Ms. Belkin on some level. I agree that “Opting Out,” and it’s cousin “Off Ramps and On Ramps,” have created the inaccurate perception that it’s easy to get back in once you’ve left the workforce. Yes, some innovative organizations are trying to implement “encore” or alumni programs for returning moms, but the jury is still out on their success.

But, I also pray that Ms. Belkin is right that demographics and labor shortages skew in favor of moms and open up doors that welcome their return. Again, the better approach for everyone is to get beyond the all or nothing paradigm and begin to encourage us all to make unique work+life choices along the entire work+life fit continuum.

We—the media, academics, companies and individuals—need to stop operating out of the women-only, all-or-nothing work+life stereotypes that have gotten us nowhere. Let’s take it to the everyone-issue, countless work+life options realities of today and find solutions that move us all forward.


2 thoughts on “Lisa Belkin’s “Opting Out” Mea Culpa? Unintended Consequences of an Article That Took On a Life of Its Own

  1. Bravo. There is a centrist view that understands both “sides.” I’ve done it all — full time working mother, parttime working mother, at-home-barely-writer-teacher mother. I’m sick of this fight, which it always ends up suggesting that one is a better feminist and the other, a better mother. You’re suggesting there are ways we can help EACH OTHER, without always making it a fight, while understanding that for some, one way works and for others, another way does. Neither choice makes one woman better than the other. We are struggling with an entire culture. All we can do is the best we can. That includes taking on whatever fights are before us, as we are able, and only as we are able. Thank you for your dialogue.
    Debra-Lynn Hook,
    Family Life columnist
    McClatchy Tribune

  2. It’s about time that we are starting to frame these issues as affecting everyone. Whether we’re mothers, fathers, relatives of the elderly or just people who want a “life” outside of work, we are all potentially in the same boat at some point in our lives, for a variety of reasons. What has been especially unnerving however, is the promotion of the so-called “Mommy Wars” that highlights mothers’ “choices”, implies a right and a wrong choice, and tries to pit mom against mom. There is a movement afoot to debunk this idea, and to draw women together to work for change. (Unfortunately, at this point, there are still more women involved in the kind of caregiving work that most often requires the flexibility being sought.) If women are disproportionately affected, then women need to lead the efforts to make things better. To sign on to a CEASEFIRE in the “Mommy Wars” go to http://www.MothersOughtToHaveEqualRights.org. Let’s take the conversation back and frame it in positive terms. Let’s work together to approach our employers with the facts and figures that show how flexibility works for businesses as well as employees. Let’s use Cali’s method of making a business case for the flexibility we request of our employers. Everyone will benefit.

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