I was intrigued with the premise of this work right from the beginning. Well put together and deeply researched, this book goes beyond the simple explanations to get down to the how and why of it all.
Noting a phenomenon that might seem to recall a previous era, The New York Times Magazine recently portrayed women who leave their careers in order to become full-time mothers as “opting out.” But, are high-achieving professional women really choosing to abandon their careers in order to return home? This provocative study is the first to tackle this issue from the perspective of the women themselves. Based on a series of candid, in-depth interviews with women who returned home after working as doctors, lawyers, bankers, scientists, and other professions, Pamela Stone explores the role that their husbands, children, and coworkers play in their decision; how women’s efforts to construct new lives and new identities unfold once they are home; and where their aspirations and plans for the future lie. What we learn—contrary to many media perceptions—is that these high-flying women are not opting out but are instead being pushed out of the workplace. Drawing on their experiences, Stone outlines concrete ideas for redesigning workplaces to make it easier for women—and men—to attain their goal of living rewarding lives that combine both families and careers.
I have always hated the term “opting out” and I’m really starting to understand why. I feel like it misunderstands the choice. Opting out makes it sound like women are choosing to disengage from the greater of two goals, when I never believed that to be the case. This book gets into that part of it and even helped me put some better language to my own feelings about it.
It begins by presenting the reason for the study and then spending some time detailing the reasons why this specific set of women were chosen to be studied for this. Stone exclusively studies married, highly educated, well off, and high achieving white women because they are, theoretically, the women with the least amount of barriers to success in the workplace. None are “opting out” for those reasons we attribute to those who are less off, which are typically attributed to child care costs.
Stone details several reasons why women are not staying at the same workplace they had their kids at and why some appear to be leaving altogether, even when some aren’t. They do freelance work or volunteer locally at a professional level.
The book makes the case that the women are more likely being pushed out of the workplace by policies that make it impossible to be good at mothering or that don’t allow women to have a good relationship with their children and then are given permission to give up on their original careers by husbands who aren’t under the same pressures to be available for their children and their boss in the same way and at the same time. Mothers and fathers are not looked at in the same light by employers or society at large, so fathers are not typically subject to the double bind that pushes these women out. I thought it was an interesting touch to see their husbands, most of which were similarly qualified at the beginning of their marriages, as a control group.
The other issues that are discussed in this book alongside the why’s and how’s are that it’s presented as a choice for women to work and therefore a privilege for women to not work. It discusses how it’s seen by the women making this choice as an act of feminism rather than a defiance of it. There is also a discussion on identity and whether it is career or parenthood that identifies a person and how these women handle that question too.
Altogether, I found the book interesting and enlightening. It isn’t entirely new information for me, but that’s mostly on account of countless conversations with women who were also in the double bind and figuring out what to do. It didn’t sound like a lot of these women had female peers to talk to about it but I have had plenty of these conversations with women who make significantly less but who are debating whether to continue difficult career paths and several with my husband as we discussed what to do when we were expecting our son. We had the same “one of us will be home with the kids” idea that some of the women in the book had, but ours came to a different conclusion. I was making more, but more important to our decision, I was under a contract that would have been near impossible to get out of. By the time my contract was over, my husband had been home with our son a few years and it would have been ludicrous to try to switch given other life situations.
This is a great book for anyone interested in researching women and the workplace, or simply interested in why women still leave the workplace for family while men still don’t do it much. The end gives prescriptions for how workplaces can entice women to stay and reasons it would be good business for them to do so, but even the author has little hope of this happening any time soon.
Its pre-Lean In Movement, in fact, it’s referenced in the Lean In book, which was where I first heard about it. It was only used as a reference to the way that women give deference to husband’s careers, thus ensuring that husband’s will be in better positions to be the one who stays at work after kids are born, but still an important part of the point that Sandberg strives to make as well. Coincidentally, this better position would also give husband’s a better standing to bargain from in order to get more time or accomodations for kids, but that’s not a typical expectation for them. We still tend to see male careers as important and female careers as options. Workplaces and society both do this and so women’s careers suffer, even when the women are committed to them, even when the women don’t have the option to opt out. Change needs to happen, but first we need to understand how our problems are created. This book digs in and looks at this one.
I borrowed it from the library, but if you’d like to purchase it, click on the cover and you’ll be redirected to the Booklikes book page where there are worldwide purchase options.