Opting Back In

By Christine Cupaiuolo — May 17, 2007

It was the article heard ’round the blogosphere.

In 2003, the “opt-out revolution” was coined by The New York Times with the publication of Lisa Belkin’s controversial magazine cover story about wealthy, Ivy League grads choosing to stay home with their children.

Since then, there’s been much written about whether the opt-out revolution exists (see E.J. Graff’s comprehensive analysis in CJR or recent appearance on NPR’s “On the Media”) — and, if there has been an uptick in the number of women “opting out,” then the driving force for many is likely the lack of family friendly work policies and affordable childcare.

Today Belkin charts a new trend for The New York Times: opting back in. More businesses, writes Belkin, are accepting the nonlinear career path and are offering women more flex and part-time opportunities, making it easier to re-enter the workforce.

“It’s a movement that’s still in its infancy. And it is hard to separate lip-service by companies from true commitment for the moment. But should it take hold — should the stopping and starting, the ramping down and revving back up of a career become the norm — it would transform the workplace,” writes Belkin, adding:

Numbers are driving the trend. There has been a 6 percent falloff in labor force participation among married mothers, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But those women are not leaving permanently. They stay out an average of 2.2 years, according to research by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, whose book “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success” (Harvard Business School Press) is just out. Then they try to opt back in. “Ninety-three percent of off-ramped women are trying to get back on track,” Ms. Hewlett says, and while 74 percent do find work, only 40 percent find work they call satisfying. […]

Her new book is an upbeat chronicle of how dozens of major companies are setting out to improve those numbers. A looming worker shortage, brought on by the imminent retirement of the baby boomers, means off-ramped employees, already trained and battle-tested, will be increasingly valuable.

This means more of what we have already seen: flexible work schedules, telecommuting, job sharing. Women in particular, but also a substantial percentage of men, have made it clear that is what it will take to keep them loyal.

The story was already number 12 on the Times’ most-emailed list as of mid-morning, and it’s a safe bet that it will continue to rise in the rankings. But while the issue is always a hot topic, as Belkin herself notes, it’s far too soon to accept that there is a permanent shift underfoot. And the low percentage of women who find “satisfying” work opportunities is troubling. But Belkin concludes somewhat optimistically:

I have been writing about life and work long enough to know that a change in policy is not the same as real change. I hear regularly from workers who were all but laughed at when they tried to take advantage of a flexible program that was nothing but corporate window dressing. Or who work for a company listed in Working Mother’s “100 Best Companies” but who are at the office nearly every weekend. This week I got a typical e-mail message from a woman, in her 40s and trying to return to the workforce, who finds that “interviewers still think your brain has the consistency of baby food just because you’ve spent some time off with a baby.”

So I am too jaded to believe that this small handful of trendsetters will bring transformation overnight. They will not change the fact that too many employers still look at a resume gap as a disqualifying mark; or that women who leave and return pay an average 18 percent salary penalty compared with those who never pause; or that men feel constrained from asking for flexibility because it carries a stigma; or that the only way to eliminate the stigma is for men to start to ask.

But whatever distance is left to travel before these exceptions become the norm, we are five years closer than when Ms. Stepnowski opted out. And I am not so jaded that I don’t recognize that this is a promising, and important, start.

It’s great to read that some enlightened companies are stepping up, but women at all economic levels will benefit only if there is a real shift in political consciousness — and this need to take place at both the state and national levels.

Belkin doesn’t mention MomsRising.org, which was founded a year ago to advocate for changes in public policy. But as the Washington Post noted this past weekend, the organization is already effecting real change with its blend of house parties and coordinated political activism.

“More than 90,000 people have registered, galvanizing around six main issues: family leave, flex time, health insurance, child care, fair wages and children’s activities, such as better after-school programs. Their proposals are not new, but together they create a “motherhood” agenda that has attracted a fresh enthusiasm,” writes Donna St. George in a profile of MomsRising that was published on Mother’s Day.

Said Kristen Kiefer, a mother of two in Manassas: “The reality is that, no matter what your situation is, everyone struggles with this.”

This nascent mothers’ movement sealed its first legislative victory last week. In Washington state, MomsRising members vigorously lobbied for paid family leave for working parents. Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) signed a measure Tuesday making the state the second, after California, with such a mandate.

“The Washington state experience shows moms truly can make a difference, and that is thrilling,” co-founder Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner said, recalling the effort: 14,000 e-mails to lawmakers, hundreds of telephone calls, 600 hand-delivered cookies and a mass display of decorated “onesie” infant leotards.

Some PBS stations have aired (or may soon air) the Motherhood Manifesto documentary film by MomsRising. You can check listings here. Or you can purchase your own copy for only $6.

2 responses to “Opting Back In”

  1. Although they obviously don’t leave the workforce to care for children at the same rates that women do, I think it is also important to consider men when advocating for better “opt-in” policies. True workforce equality will only occur when women are no more pressured to leave their careers than their male partners. Such decisions should be made based on personalities, career goals, and practicalities (income, etc.) rather than sex. By advocating for easier opt-in/opt-out options for both sexes, and decreasing the stigma associated with fathers acting as primary childcare providers, the movement will gain legitimacy and provide mothers with more childcare options.

  2. Thank you Maggie for mentioning that opt-out options should be easier as well. For me, I don’t think it should be a “problem” that women (or men) opt-out if it is their thought-out choice to do so. If they do, we must respect their decision and value their work in whichever setting.

Comments are closed.