Thursday, May 17, 2007

Opting-Out, Opting Back In, and What is Wrong with the NYT

A few years ago, Lisa Belkin wrote an article called "The Opt Out Revolution." This article is not known for its statistical rigor, as she basically interviewed her friends and former clasmates and friends of friends, and the figures are something in the "dozens" or "countless" or "many":

But to talk to the women of the book club -- or to the women of a San Francisco mothers' group with whom I also spent time, or the dozens of other women I interviewed, or the countless women I have come to know during the four years I have reported on the intersection of life and work -- is to sense that something more is happening here. It'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.

Catherine Albiston (Boalt Hall) wrote this fantastic response to Belkin (20 Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice 30, 2005):

Now, I'd like to turn to a second narrative that sometimes frames the work family dilemma: “opting out” of paid labor and the rhetoric of choice. One recent example of this narrative is an article by Lisa Belkin that recently appeared in the the New York Times Magazine, in which Belkin asks, among other things, “Why don't women run the world?” Her controversial answer is, “maybe they don't want to.” Belkin argues in the article that an “opt-out” revolution has begun in which women, including elite, highly-educated, and accomplished women, are choosing to leave the workplace to become stay-at-home moms. Why? According to Belkin, women (unlike men) are realizing that their children are more important than working crushing, 80-hour weeks in corporate law firms. Belkin even resorts to research on primates to suggest that perhaps this gender difference is hard-wired.

The most compelling critiques of Belkin, however, take on what Joan Williams calls the “republic of choice” - the pervasive rationale that women are free agents rationally acting on their individual preferences when they voluntarily choose to leave the workplace to care for their children. Here is a second master narrative about work and family that bears a closer look: the idea that it is something endogenous to gender, rather exogenous in the workplace and in society, that drives the opt-out choice. This personal choice narrative implicitly constructs women as less committed workers likely to forgo advancement or to exit the workplace because they are “naturally” driven to choose their family over their job.

The narrative that women (but not men) “choose” not to advance because they prefer family responsibilities over paid employment is not just an outdated stereotype irrelevant in an era of antidiscrimination legislation. It has very real consequences when courts grapple with what constitutes sex discrimination under Title VII. For example, Sears successfully advanced this narrative as a defense against claims that it discriminated against women in the hiring and promotion into commission sales positions. To explain the gender disparities among its commission salespeople, Sears called upon a feminist historian to testify that historically, women have subordinated paid labor to family responsibilities and that therefore women were unlikely to want, or to succeed in, positions requiring after-hours, full time work. Despite that fact that the majority of applicants for these positions were women, this argument prevailed.

The rhetoric of choice tends to frame the work and family conflict as a private dilemma rather than a matter for public policy. As a result, courts remain reluctant to accept legal interpretations that make explicit the connection between family hardship and rigid employer policies.

The rhetoric of choice helps obscure how institutions constrain the alternatives from which women must make their choice. Indeed, critics of Belkin's article point out that the women she interviewed explicitly said that they left their jobs because they asked their employers for more family-friendly work schedules and were turned down. The rigid structure of work makes the “choice” they would prefer--spending a little less time at work and a little more time with their children--categorically unavailable. Belkin never questions whether employers should be allowed to structure work to force an absolute choice between family and job, or why a “free market” economy does not produce flexible yet appropriately-paid (and appropriately valued) positions for these educated, talented women. Nor does she ask why these women, rather than their husbands, are the ones to stay home.(Remember, these are women able to command six-figure salaries.) Perhaps it is because employers continue to view men who take time off to participate in family life with suspicion, whereas the master narrative about gendered choice leads employers to expect, and in some cases encourage, women to exit. Thus, the alternative narrative here is not how women “choose” to exit work for family responsibilities, but how the institution of work constructs both the available choices and the meaning of gender to recreate stereotypical family roles for both women and men.

The critique goes deeper than this, however. The other question that Belkin fails to ask is to whom is the choice to “opt out” available? Belkin's generalized rhetoric of choice, based on a few extremely privileged women with high salaries, builds a universal master narrative on the experiences and available choices of upper-class, white, straight women. Belkin notes in passing (and in parentheses) that although fewer educated white women than educated white men are working full time, “the numbers for African-American women are closer to those for white men than to those for white women,” but then goes on to generalize nonetheless. How are we to understand this statistic for black women? If one rejects the pernicious interpretation that seems to follow from Belkin's thesis that these women care less for their children than white women do, constrained choice seems to be one possible explanatory factor here.

The opt-out narrative assumes a set of baseline conditions unlikely to be met in many, if not most, families. As one critic points out, “for most single-parent and dual-earner families, reducing or forgoing one parent's wages in the interest of ‘putting family first’ is not a realistic option.” Opting out assumes a particular family structure, and a particular class privilege, that Belkin leaves largely unacknowledged. Women partnered to other women (who, because of discrimination, do not earn as much as men), single-parents, and women in working class families where both parents struggle to make ends meet have even more constrained choices than the privileged Princeton graduates Belkin interviews.

And here is the rub. The master narrative that Belkin promotes does more than simply perpetuate gender stereotypes by suggesting that women who choose not to adopt traditional gender roles within the family care less for their children than those who do. This narrative also implicitly condemns those women who are economically unable to “opt-out” to care for children for not meeting these gendered norms. Nor does Belkin ever acknowledge that “opting out” does not *47 have the same cultural meaning across race and class lines. For mothers who receive public assistance, opting out is not viewed as virtuous conformity with biological imperatives, but as lazy opportunism. Indeed, while some may applaud the choice of Princeton-educated women to stay at home, there is far less support for stigmatized poor, single mothers, and particularly women of color, to make the same choice.

Belkin's framing of the problem also helps to dissipate the demand for institutional reform by locating the solution to the work / family dilemma in the choices of women, even when no desirable choice is available. This lack of meaningful social policy reform is perhaps most damaging to the women for whom “opting out” is just one more hypothetical “choice”--like affordable childcare, flexible work schedules, and fairly-compensated part-time work--that does not realistically exist. Legal reforms to make these options reality are unlikely to happen as long as the master narrative of choice remains the dominant discourse.

But Belkin's back! This time, the "Life's Work "column ("a column about workplace trends and office culture") is not in its usual place in the Sunday Business section, but rather the Thursday Styles. A bit telling. I ask you, what the heck is wrong with the NY Times?! But anyway, Belkin is here to tell us that after opting-out, women are opting back in:

But now it is time for another phrase, “opting back in,” a term that not only describes Ms. Stepnowski’s decision to return, but also reflects the growing acceptance by business of a nonlinear career. 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.

The law firm of Heller Ehrman, for instance, created a group called the Opt-In Project, which has spent the past year studying the way the firm does business. At the end of the month, the group plans to unveil a proposal to abandon the idea of billable hours that is deeply ingrained in the profession. “We can’t afford to keep losing all these people,” says Patricia Gillette, founder of the project. “The way we currently reward spending more and more hours at work makes no sense in a world where people demand balance.”

This growing demand for balance, or what I prefer to call sanity, is also leading businesses to accept that some employees will leave no matter how much flexibility exists, and that it is better to keep the door open for their return, rather than slamming it tight.

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 résumé 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.

I think Albiston's critique of Belkin's articles leaves little to be said. (Although I do appreciate Jack Shafer's press criticism of the NY Times' bogus trend-reporting.) I will note that if we accept Belkin's reporting in the latter article, then the endogenous change of workplace leave/return policies and culture is significant. My dissertation will concern organizational responses to the Family and Medical Leave Act: how management interprets, promulgates, and enforces the terms of the FMLA, which creates an entitlement to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave (subject to how the statute defines who is covered). The literature in the field suggest that it's the organizations and work culture that define the scope of the right: who is "entitled" to take leave, the desire to avoid being framed as a "slacker" or "bad worker" even if this is an entitlement, what is "work" and who is a "worker." I'd be pleased to see a top-down shift in workplace culture and governance.

But I can't say I trust such anecdotal evidence--just because a few elite firms are changing their policies, or just because there is a "many" or "most" shift in public opinion about work/life balance doesn't mean that there's really a change coming. I hope there is one. But I'll believe it when I see it--or rather, the empirical data and a pro-worker amended statute.


I have a follow-up post at MoneyLaw that discusses the Belkin/Albiston articles from an academic perspective, regarding extension of the tenure clock. Several articles about tenure clock extension are excerpted, and I provide some examples of university tenure extension policies, as well as my own thoughts on whether policy changes will really affect how work and gender are constructed.


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