I’ve just caught up on back reading so I’m a bit late to the most recent spate of discussions spurred by Judith Warner’s August 7th New York Times Magazine article titled “The Opt-out Generation Wants Back In”. The subject was back in the news this week as New York mayoral candidates sparred over family leave proposals.
Judith Warner goes back and interviews many of the women profiled nine years ago by Lisa Belkin (also New York Times Magazine) titled “The Opt-Out Revolution”. This cover article profiled highly educated, accomplished, successful women who made a choice to give it all up to become full-time moms. This was the original impetus of the now more than decade old “mommy wars” debate. At the time it garnered extensive media attention and controversy. Not surprisingly, life has not turned out to be blissful for many of these women. They are left wondering if “opting-out” was not the best choice after all. Many of them have opted back in with varying degrees of success.
My problem with this entire discussion (along with “Leaning-in” or “Leaning-out”) is that it is always presented as binary. It is examined through a lens that positions women as making either one choice or the other. We need to change that framework. Depending on life circumstances we are sometimes “leaning in” more strongly and by necessity at other times we are leaning out. Same for Opting. One commentary written by a successful professional in her early 30’s and beginning to think about starting a family said that the Warner article “scared her to death”. How could she think of opting out for a bit if her career, and then life in whole, could end up being so dreary as a result of that decision? The sad truth is that women who take time off, try to work part-time or even try to maintain the same level of work (initially)that they had before children still face a difficult and non-welcoming work environment. We absolutely must change the framework so that we no longer think of this as a binary choice. It is not working and never will.
Women if they choose to (and men also for that matter who are increasingly sharing home and children responsibilities) need to be able to be able to opt-in sometimes and opt-out at other times without the fear that it will have a hugely deleterious affect on their career. Business leaders will have to accept that this “Rocking Chair” approach may be the only way we will stop the talent drain and close the gender inequity in senior business and government roles. No doubt it is challenging. But if we don’t figure out a better way we are stuck in a culture where according to Catalyst Research Group, women comprise just 4% of the CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies and occupy 17% of corporate board seats. The percentages are only slightly better if you include all C-level and Vice President positions in corporate America. In January of this year, Congress saw 80 women in the House of Representatives join 20 women in the Senate – a record for both houses – which has been dominated by white men from the first time Congress was seated in 1789. While this is the highest number of women elected to Congress in the history of the US, women still only account for 18.7% of the Congressional populace (100 out of 535 total members).
One bright note is that according to the National Women’s Business Council, women owned businesses in the US have reached 8 million and counting and have a domestic economic impact of $2.87 trillion. From 1997- 2002, women-owned firms were growing at twice the rate of all other groups and while the current economic woes have dampened business growth for all segments, women owned businesses continue to keep pace with all other business types. Census data also reported that nearly all growth in small businesses came in the non-employer segment, and women had the largest growth compared to other groups. This shift reflects the continued increase in education, experience and characteristics of women in business, but it also highlights the lack of flexibility and opportunities in major corporations.
My utopian “Rocking Chair” approach would require adjustments from many quarters, including businesses that have to find a way to make this work within the realm of driving growth and profitability, and from women and men who have to accept the short-term impact on their careers that “Opting-in and Out” will naturally have. As Sheryl Sandberg notes in “Lean-in”, modern-day careers already look more like jungle gyms than step ladders. Those jungle gyms may also need a few spots that include taking time off when your kids are young, or to travel, go back to school, enduring a family crises or just needing a mental break. The benefits of a culture that celebrates and honors talented worker’s need to change how they live from time to time will far outweigh the status quo today. None of us should be satisfied with the stubborn statistics that show we still have an exorbitant talent drain as women continue to not be presented with the right choices for themselves and ultimately for their businesses. Hopefully we can change the discussions to include an examination on a singular, integrated approach – The “Opting-in and Out Revolution”.
I’ll present some ideas in my next post on how businesses and individual workers could drive this revolution. We serve and champion small and medium-sized businesses here at Powerlinx, and they may actually have the best shot of leading this evolution. If you have an idea please leave a comment here or send it to me at [email protected] so I can include it.