The Real Truth Behind “Opting Out”

When women with children “opt out” and leave the workforce, it is often not due to the lure of hearth and home. Every time there is an article in a well-known publication about highly educated women leaving the workforce, the prevailing theory is that they are doing so because they would rather be at home with their children than pursuing their careers. Pundits hail a sea-change in the feminist revolution and a return to traditionalist values.

Is that what’s really going on here? Are women leaving fulfilling careers where they see an unobstructed view to the top and limitless opportunity? Do they have husbands or significant others who are going in 50/50 on the childcare responsibilities? The answer is most often “no.” Women who opt out usually do so for reasons other than an overwhelming desire to stay at home. They are burned out and fed up.

Working in a Male Culture

In our male-dominated workplace, advancement to the executive suite is difficult for anyone but more difficult for women (as many females who have tried to climb that ladder can attest) and especially for women with children. In writing her book, Opting Out, Pamela Stone found that “most women in fact quit only as a last resort and that for most, work, not family considerations were paramount and deciding factors. Women… go home because they have been unsuccessful in their efforts to obtain flexibility or, for those who were able to, because they found themselves marginalized and stigmatized, negatively reinforced for trying to hold on to their careers after becoming mothers.”

Societal Influences

Societal pressure is also a factor in working mothers’ opting out. Most boys and their parents don’t question whether the males in the family will work for a living. Boys are raised to provide for themselves at the very least and usually for a family and children as well. Women, on the other hand, may have been raised to provide for themselves or not. Society gives its girls an option that it doesn’t give its boys: to raise a family in lieu of pursuing a career. And sometimes this doesn’t feel like an option, but more like a mandate. When my children were young and my husband was making enough money to support the family, I was pressured by friends, in-laws and even my own family to stay at home with my children full-time. Even though I was making enough to support the family as well, it was never suggested that my husband stay at home instead of me.

It is also a well-known fact that men in two career families contribute much less to childcare than their wives do. Why? Because they can. Again, society dictates that women, even those with high-powered careers, are the default when it comes to child rearing. It’s as if we’re working 2 jobs – one that pays and one that doesn’t. No wonder some of us leave the workforce when given the chance. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem worth it.

So the next time you read about women opting out, think twice. Maybe there’s more below the surface than the journalists lead us to believe.

By Erin Wolf

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