The “Opt Out Revolution” 5 Years Later

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On Friday, October 24, 2008, Lisa Belkin was the keynote speaker at a conference at Pace Law School on “Women and the Law: How Far We’ve Come and Where We Need to Go.”  I was a fan of Belkin’s “Life’s Work” column for the New York Times (she now blogs for the Times at Motherlode: Adventures in Parenting).  Today marks the fifth anniversary of the publication of Belkin’s “Opt Out Revolution” article:  

[I]t’s not just that the workplace has failed women. It is also that women are rejecting the workplace.

I say this with the full understanding that there are ambitious, achieving women out there who are the emotional and professional equals of any man, and that there are also women who stayed the course, climbed the work ladder without pause and were thwarted by lingering double standards and chauvinism. I also say this knowing that to suggest that women work differently than men — that they leave more easily and find other parts of life more fulfilling — is a dangerous and loaded statement.

And lastly, I am very aware that, for the moment, this is true mostly of elite, successful women who can afford real choice — who have partners with substantial salaries and health insurance — making it easy to dismiss them as exceptions. To that I would argue that these are the very women who were supposed to be the professional equals of men right now, so the fact that so many are choosing otherwise is explosive.

As these women look up at the ”top,” they are increasingly deciding that they don’t want to do what it takes to get there. Women today have the equal right to make the same bargain that men have made for centuries — to take time from their family in pursuit of success. Instead, women are redefining success. And in doing so, they are redefining work.  

Time was when a woman’s definition of success was said to be her apple-pie recipe. Or her husband’s promotion. Or her well-turned-out children. Next, being successful required becoming a man. Remember those awful padded-shoulder suits and floppy ties? Success was about the male definition of money and power.

There is nothing wrong with money or power. But they come at a high price. And lately when women talk about success they use words like satisfaction, balance and sanity.  * * *

The workplace needs women. Not just because they are 50 percent of the talent pool, but for the very fact that they are more willing to leave than men. That, in turn, makes employers work harder to keep them. * * *

Women started this conversation about life and work — a conversation that is slowly coming to include men. Sanity, balance and a new definition of success, it seems, just might be contagious. And instead of women being forced to act like men, men are being freed to act like women. Because women are willing to leave, men are more willing to leave, too — the number of married men who are full-time caregivers to their children has increased 18 percent. Because women are willing to leave, 46 percent of the employees taking parental leave at Ernst & Young last year were men.

Looked at that way, this is not the failure of a revolution, but the start of a new one. It is about a door opened but a crack by women that could usher in a new environment for us all.

Belkin’s article still provokes strong responses five years later.  It is true that the article looked at a tiny slice of elite, economically privileged white women.  It is true that there are parts of the story that aren’t told (remember it’s only one Magazine article,  I tell myself).  My own reactions to the article are mixed:  I know some stay-at-home JD/MBA moms, so I recognize part of the world Belkin describes.  But my own sense is that she overstates the lived experience of workplace change. 46% of those E&Y employees were men, but how long was the average male leave compared with the average female leave? Did the men taking leave play golf every day for two weeks (as my former law firm colleague did)? How were the male leave-takers treated when they came back to work?  What were their on-going parenting responsibilities? A year later, when someone had to get home at 6:00 p.m. to relieve the babysitter, my guess is that it wasn’t the male E&Y employees 46% of the time.

Yes, workplaces have changed.  Yes, change happens in subtle ways.  I am persuaded by Alison Stein’s account in “Women Lawyers Blog for Workplace Equality” (blogged here).  But workplaces haven’t changed enough.  Real equality still eludes us — all of us who don’t resemble the undiscriminated-against ideal male worker with a stay-at-home wife — on so many levels.  

It was not that long ago (um, ok, yes it was) when the older girls in my grade school were singing Helen Reddy‘s “I Am Woman.” I remember thinking women wouldn’t “need” that song in the future.  I remember thinking we wouldn’t need cars, either.  We’d all have George Jetson-like space vehicles that were powered by air (courtesy of my childhood imagination).  I assumed the  21st century would be so different from life as we knew it then.  But we’re here and it’s not.  

I don’t sing Helen Reddy any more, and whether I drive or take the train, my transport still emits carbon multi-oxides that can’t be good for anyone.  

But still we hope.  

-Bridget Crawford

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0 Responses to The “Opt Out Revolution” 5 Years Later

  1. bob coley jr says:

    I just wrote a letter that involves my daughter’s options, carreer-wise! KISMET!

  2. historiann says:

    Yeah, Bridget–where’s my flying car? And where’s my equal pay for equal work, while we’re at it? We wuz robbed!

    My undergraduate women’s history students are all very confident that everything is just super-duper now for women, and that they won’t face any discrimination at work or before the law. I sure hope they’re right, but as a historian, I’m pretty sure that by the time they’re 30, many of them will have a different view of gender politics than they have now.

  3. Pingback: GenderSmart Solutions » Blog Archive » Women - still opting out and why

  4. JR says:

    For a careful, detailed look at the empirical reality behind the anecdotes Lisa Belkin strung together in the “Opt-Out Revolution” article, people should read Joan Williams’ work on this topic.

    –short version here in The American Prospect:
    http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=the_optout_revolution_revisited

    –full report here (PDF file):
    http://www.uchastings.edu/site_files/WLL/OptOutPushedOut.pdf

    I can’t do it justice in a little blog comment, but I’ll just say that Williams explains, very powerfully, why we have spent the past five years (!) discussing a supposed “opt-out” revolution that is not, in fact, reflected in any available empirical data. The explanation is that Americans LOVE the “opt-out” storyline because it confirms certain anti-feminist mythologies. That’s what gave Belkin’s article its staying power and that’s why we’re still talking about it.

    If we’re going to discuss the article on its anniversary, that discussion really ought to be informed by the thorough, frankly devastating, critique of this article leveled by Williams and others.