Re:Gender works to end gender inequity and discrimination against girls and women by exposing root causes and advancing research-informed action. Working with multiple sectors and disciplines, we are shaping a world that demands fairness across difference.
Lately it seems I can’t have a conversation with a women’s expert without hearing the phrase “opting out.” “Thirty percent of working women will opt out of the workplace during the course of their career,” they tell me. “How can we ever expect to make progress when so many women opt out before they reach the truly high-powered positions,” they ask.
When NY Times writer Lisa Belkin introduced the women’s world to the term “opting out” in 2003, she framed it as a revolution: highly educated working women were quitting their jobs in droves to stay at home with their children. “It’s not just that the workplace has failed women,” she wrote. “It is also that women are rejecting the workplace.”
Belkin wrote about a group of Princeton-educatedAtlanta mothers who had, by and large, taken the off-ramp from their successful careers to stay at home and raise children. To a one, they described their choice as just that: the decision towards the preferred path. ”I don’t want to be on the fast track leading to a partnership at a prestigious law firm,” one said. “Some people define that as success; I don’t.” ”Maternity provides an escape hatch that paternity does not,” said another. “Having a baby provides a graceful and convenient exit.”
Sure, they’re not furthering the feminist cause by staying home with their babies, but do a handful of moms not living up to their Ivy League potential really do much harm? In the weeks and months and ensuing media flurry, you’d certainly think so. “Opting out” became the phrase of choice for thought-leaders, researchers and women’s advocates for not just women who happily choose children over paychecks, but increasingly those whose choices are much more hard-pressed.
And ever since then, “opting out” has been a bad word.