October 31, 2003
The Opt-Out Revolution. What in the hell?
There has been a lot of discussion and furor on web chat forums and public service school classroom discussions about last Sunday's NY Times magazine feature article, "The Opt-Out Revolution." The thrust of the article is that smart, educated, successful women are still dropping out of their careers when they have kids. Why could this be? To find out, the author interviewed about 5 women who graduated from Princeton (where the author went to school) in different classes since the '70's when the first co-ed class graduated. These are women who, for the most part, went on to graduate school, obtained a professional degree, and had very impressive careers in law, business, writing, consulting, etc., then stopped working. Some have plans to return to work, probably part-time, and some never plan to work again. Some companies, critics fear, will interpret this article as justification for not hiring women into fast-track positions, because of the likelihood that they'll quit after a few years. As for me, the article just raised a lot of questions. Like, the most obvious one, why would you write a very lengthy article for the NYT that implies broad generalizations about men and women, biologically and culturally, and use only a very few white, upper-middle class professionals who graduated from Princeton as your interview base? What about non-professional women? How do working-class families raise their children with both parents working?
The other most obvious question which, frustratingly, is rarely addressed in articles like this (haven't we been reading some form of this exact same article for 20 years? Can women have it all? Supermom? etc.) is: Why is it still the expectation that if one parent will stop working to raise kids, it will be the woman? What are men sacrificing by working full-time for their entire lives?
I have a few questions about the culture of the American workplace too: When will our increasingly competitive workplaces start to value women and change in such a way as to stop so many of them from leaving at the height of their careers? (The author herself says she thought this was the most important part of the article on the NYT readers' forum.) Won't this have to happen sooner or later, since our economy is clearly no longer designed to function with only half of the adult population at work? And why is the concept of work outside the home still a political issue for women? Women working is just not a big deal any more, for most people. Why can't our society as a whole accept that both men and women can work, and not have to make it a political statement? Why can't women adjust their professional goals to include family and a job and French lessons and softball games and mountain climbing and whatever else they want to do, without losing their careers entirely? Or, do women just use babies as an excuse to get off an unsatisfying career track? Are women duping men into working their whole lives, because it's more expected of men to do so? If that's the case, I hope men start wising up.
The President of Princeton, Shirley Tilghman, has a question for her school's graduates too: "Have these young women internalized the idea that women really do not lead?" I can only imagine that President Tilghman feels some disappointment in the choices of her promising female graduates. One last question. Could the considerable resources ($100,000-200,000) spent on these at-home moms' educations have been put to better use, for example, paying for the education of an economically-challenged man or woman who plans to actually practice law or do some work that requires a degree?