Thursday, October 16, 2008

I still hate you, Lisa Belkin.

When you write a bogus trend article about the opt-out revolution by interviewing a non-random sample of your acquaintances, I say "good riddance" to your "farewell" Life's Work column (found, delightfully as ever, in the Fashion and Style section).

Of course, what is most shocking is Belkin's apparent framing of her role as the (finally!) catalyst for open and honest dialogue and even system-wide change, although she politely nods to social, economic, and structural forces too:

Women who had been soldiers in the fight for equality were furious, at me and at the women I profiled, for turning their backs on the cause. Women who loved their work were angry that other women were reinforcing the impression that women aren’t serious about careers. Women who could not afford to just walk away from a paycheck saw this as a class schism.

When the shouting died down, though, change began to happen. I have long seen that piece as a bottle-opener. There was discontent and imperfection fizzing around the workplace, and the article popped off the cap and let it all spill out. The last five years have seen a jump in the attention paid by corporate America to ways to make work work, not just for women but everyone. Things are far from perfect, but I have spent a lot of time of late writing about all sorts of variations on the traditional model, “sit in your chair and do your job the way I tell you.”

I am often asked what happened to the women whose choices I profiled in “The Opt-Out Revolution.” There were predictions by many who took time to e-mail me that they would be abandoned by their husbands, becoming unemployable caricatures of a ’50s housewife.

In fact, one marriage did break up, and because it was messy, the woman in question asked me not to use her name here. It was tough for her getting back to work, she said, because she had allowed a gap to open in her résumé — as tough as her critics had warned it would be.

Others have less dramatic, less “moral of the story” endings. Of the women I tracked down, one, Tracey Van Hooser, a former advertising and marketing executive, is still married, now the mother of a third child and still a stay-at-home mom in San Francisco. Another, Sally Sears, a former television reporter, is itching for a faster pace and plans to go back into television news once her son, Will, starts college in the fall. And Katherine Brokaw is now the dean of students at the Emory Law School, proving that you can take time out and land very well.

Looking back at how far the work/life conversation has come in the last five years leads to looking forward and wondering where things will head from here. The economy, of course, will be the determining factor.

Yeah, good riddance. Yes, I am a petty, petty scholar, but I've always been a bigger fan of Arlie Hochschild, Catherine Albiston, and Marie Blair-Loy on this issue. Not bogus experts. When they retire their quills, I don't think the world is missing much.

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