In the Press

The Opt-Out Myth

In Related News

"The Choice Myth," Judith Warner, October 8, 2009, New York Times opinion.

Warner discusses the latest findings of a Census Bureau report and the need to "reframe our public conversations about who mothers are and why they do what they do," with a reference to E.J. Graff and "The Opt-Out Myth."  

"Most Stay-at-Home Moms Start That Way, Study Finds," Donna St. George, October 1, 2009, Washington Post.

"Stay-At-Home Moms," U.S. Census Bureau, October 1, 2009, Washington Post.

The Opt-Out Myth

Note: Below you will find a version of this Columbia Journalism Review article that includes additional information and links to the original research and resources.

"The Opt-Out Myth," Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 2007, by E.J. Graff, Senior Researcher, Gender & Justice Project, Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.

On October 26, 2003, The New York Times Magazine jump-started a century-long debate about women who work. On the cover it featured “The Opt Out Revolution,”1 Lisa Belkin’s semipersonal essay, with this banner: “Why Don’t More Women Get to the Top? They Choose Not To.” Inside, by telling stories about herself and eight other Princeton grads who no longer work full time, Belkin concluded that women were just too smart to believe that ladder-climbing counted as real success.

But Belkin’s “revolution”—the idea that well-educated women are fleeing their careers and choosing instead to stay home with their babies—has been touted many times before. As Joan C. Williams notes in her meticulously researched report, “‘Opt Out’ or Pushed Out? How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflict,”2 released in October 2006 by the University of California Hastings Center for WorkLife Law,3 where she is the director, The New York Times alone has highlighted this “trend” repeatedly over the last fifty years. Consider these, published in 1953 (case history of an ex-working mother), 1961 (career women discover satisfactions in the home), 1980 (many young women now say they’d pick family over career), 1998 (the stay-at-home mother), and 2005 (many women at elite colleges set career path to motherhood).4

And yet during these same years, the U.S. has seen steady upticks in the numbers and percentages of women, including mothers, who work for wages. Economists agree that this increase in what they dryly call “women’s participation in the waged workforce” has been critical to American prosperity, demonstrably pushing up our GDP.5 The vast majority of contemporary families cannot get by without women’s income6—especially now, when upwards of 70 percent of American families with children have all adults in the workforce,7 when 51 percent of American women live without a husband,8 and when many women can expect to live into their eighties and beyond.

The moms-go-home story keeps coming back, in part, because it’s based on some kernels of truth. Women do feel forced to choose between work and family. Women do face a sharp conflict between cultural expectations and economic realities. The workplace is still demonstrably more hostile to mothers than to fathers. Faced with the “choice” of feeling that they’ve failed to be either good mothers or good workers, many women wish they could—or worry that they should—abandon the struggle and stay home with the kids.

The problem is that the moms-go-home storyline presents all those issues as personal rather than public—and does so in misleading ways. These stories’ statistics are selective, their anecdotes about upper-echelon white women are misleading, and their “counterintuitive” narrative line parrots conventional ideas about gender roles. Thus they erase most American families’ real experiences and the resulting social policy needs from view.

Here’s why this matters: if journalism repeatedly frames the wrong problem, then the folks who make public policy may very well deliver the wrong solution. If women are happily choosing to stay home with their babies, that’s a private decision. But it’s a public policy issue if most women (and men) need to work to support their families, and if the economy needs women’s skills to remain competitive. It’s a public policy issue if schools, jobs, and other American institutions are structured in ways that make it frustratingly difficult, and sometimes impossible, for parents to manage both their jobs and family responsibilities.

So how can this story be killed off, once and for all?

Joan Williams attempts to chloroform the moms-go-home storyline with facts. “Opt Out or Pushed Out?” should be on every news, business, and feature editor’s desk. It analyzes 119 representative newspaper articles, published between 1980 and 2006, that use the opt-out storyline to discuss women leaving the workplace. While business sections regularly offer more informed coverage of workplace issues, the “opt out” trend stories get more prominent placement, becoming “the chain reaction story that flashes from the Times to the columnists to the evening news to the cable shows,” says Caryl Rivers, a Boston University journalism professor and the author of Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women (April 2007).9

There are a number of problems with the moms-go-home storyline. First, these articles focus excessively on a tiny proportion of American women—white, highly educated, in well-paying professional/managerial jobs. Just 8 percent of American working women10 fit this demographic, writes Williams. The percentage is smaller still if you’re dealing only with white women who graduated from the Ivies and are married to high-earning men, as Belkin’s article does. Furthermore, only 4 percent of women in their mid- to late-thirties with children have advanced degrees and are in a privileged income bracket like that of Belkin’s fellow Princeton grads, according to Heather Boushey, a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research.11 That group is far more likely than average to be married when they give birth (91 percent, as opposed to 73 percent of all women), and thus to have a second income on which to survive. But because journalists and editors increasingly come from and socialize in this class, their anecdotes loom large in our personal rearview mirrors—and in our most influential publications. These women are chastised for working by Caitlin Flanagan (a woman rich enough to stay home and have a nanny!) in The Atlantic, and for lacking ambition by Linda Hirshman in The American Prospect.12 But such “my-friends-and-me” coverage is an irresponsible approach to major issues being wrestled with by every American family and employer.

These stories are misleading in a second important way. Williams’s report points out that “opt-out stories invariably focus on women in one particular situation: after they have ‘opted out’ but before any of them divorce.” The women in these articles often say their skills can be taken right back onto the job. It’s a sweetly optimistic notion, but studies show that, on average, professional women who come back after time away—or even after working part-time, since U.S. women working part time earn 21 percent less per hour worked than those who work full time—take a hefty and sustained pay cut, and a severe cut in responsibility level.13 Meanwhile, nearly 50 percent of American marriages end in divorce, according to the latest census figures. While numbers are lower for marriages in the professional class, divorce remains a real possibility. Williams points to Terry Martin Hekker, one of the ur opt-out mothers, who in 1977 published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled, the satisfactions of housewifery and motherhood in ‘an age of do-your-own-thing.’14 In 2006, Hekker wrote—again in the Times, but demoted to the Sunday Style section—about having been divorced and financially abandoned: “He got to take his girlfriend to Cancun, while I got to sell my engagement ring to pay the roofer.”15

In other words, interview these opt-out women fifteen years later—or forty years later, when they’re trying to live on skimpy retirement incomes—and you might hear a more jaundiced view of their “choices.”

These stories have a more subtle, but equally serious, flaw: their premise is entirely ahistorical. Their opening lines often suggest that a generation of women is flouting feminist expectations and heading back home. At the simplest factual level, that’s false. Census numbers show no increase in mothers exiting the work force, and according to Heather Boushey, the maternity leaves women do take have gotten shorter.16 Furthermore, college-educated women are having their children later, in their thirties—after they’ve established themselves on the job, rather than before. Those maternity leaves thus come mid-career, rather than pre-career. Calling that “opting out” is misleading. As Alice Kessler-Harris, a labor historian at Columbia University, put it, “I define that as redistributing household labor to adequately take care of one’s family.” She adds that, even while at home, most married women keep bringing in family income, as women traditionally have. Today, women with children are selling real estate, answering phone banks, or doing office work at night when the kids are in bed. Early in the twentieth century, they might have done piecework, taken in laundry, or fed the boarders. Centuries earlier, they would have been the business partners who took goods to market, kept the shop’s accounts, and oversaw the adolescent labor (once called housemaids and dairymaids, now called nannies and daycare workers).

Which brings us to an even deeper historical flaw: Editors and reporters forget that Belkin’s generation isn’t post-feminism; it’s mid-feminism. Women’s entrance into the waged work force has been moving in fits and starts over the past century.17 Earlier generations of college-educated women picked either work or family, work after family, or family after work; those who graduated in the 1980s and 1990s—Belkin’s cohort—are the first to expect to do both at the same time. And so these women are shocked to discover that, although 1970s feminists knocked down the barrier to entering the professions in large numbers, the workplace still isn’t fixed.18 They are standing on today’s feminist frontier: the bias against mothers that remains embedded on the job, in the culture, and at home.

Given that reality, here’s the biggest problem with the moms-go-home storyline: it begins and ends with women saying they are choosing to go home, and ignores the contradictory data that’s sandwiched in between.

Williams establishes that “choice” is emphasized in eighty-eight of the 119 articles she surveyed. But keep reading. Soon you find that staying home wasn’t these women’s first choice, or even their second. Rather, every other door slammed. For instance, Belkin’s prime example of someone who “chose” to stay home, Katherine Brokaw, was a high-flying lawyer until she had a child. Soon after her maternity leave, she exhausted herself working around the clock to prepare for a trial—a trial that, at the last minute, was canceled so the judge could go fishing. After her firm refused even to consider giving her “part-time” hours—forty hours now being considered part-time for high-end lawyers—she “chose” to quit.

More than a third of the articles in Williams’s report cite “workplace inflexibility” as a reason mothers leave their jobs. Nearly half mention how lonely and depressed these women get when they’ve been downgraded to full-time nannies. Never do these articles cite decades of social science research showing that women are happier when occupying several roles; that homemakers’ well-being suffers compared to that of working women;19 or that young adults who grew up in dual-earner families would choose the same family model for their own kids.20 Rarely if ever do these articles ask how husband and wife negotiated which one of them would sacrifice a career. Only by ignoring both the women’s own stories and the larger context can these moms-go-home articles keep chirping on about choice and about how these women now have “the best job in the world.”

Underlying all this is a genuinely new trend that the moms-go-home stories never mention: the all-or-nothing workplace. At every income level, Americans work longer hours today than fifty years ago. Mandatory overtime for blue- and pink-collar workers, and eighty-hour expectations for full-time professional workers deprive everyone of a reasonable family life. Blue-collar and low-wage families increasingly work “tag-team” schedules so that someone’s always home with the kids. In surveys done by the Boston College Sloan Work and Families Research Network and by the New York-based Families and Work Institute, among others, women and men increasingly say that they’d like to have more time with their families,21 and would give up money and advancement to do it—if doing so didn’t mean sacrificing their careers entirely. Men, however, must face fierce cultural headwinds to choose such a path, while women are pushed in that direction at every turn.

Finally, these articles never acknowledge the widespread hostility toward working mothers. Researching the book I collaborated on for author Evelyn Murphy in 2005, "Getting Even: Why Women Don’t Get Paid Like Men—And What To Do About It,"22 I was startled by how many lawsuits were won because managers openly and publicly told women that they couldn’t be hired because they were pregnant; or that having a child would hurt them; or that it was simply impossible for women to both work and raise kids. Many other women we talked with had the same experience, but chose not to ruin their lives by suing. One lawyer who’d been on the partner track told us that, once she had her second child, her colleagues refused to give her work in her highly remunerative specialty, saying that she now had other priorities—even though she kept meeting her deadlines, albeit after the kids were asleep. She was denied partnership. A high-tech project manager told me that, when she was pregnant in 2002, she was asked: Do you feel stupider? Her colleague wasn’t being mean; he genuinely wanted to know if pregnancy’s hormones had dumbed her down. Or consider the experience of Dr. Diane Fingold, an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, where she won the 2002 Faculty Prize for Excellence in Teaching, the school’s highest teaching award. Her credentials are outstanding, yet when she asked to work three-and-a-half fewer hours a week so that she could manage her family demands—“just a little flexibility for a short period in my life!”—her practice refused. She was enraged. “I thought hard about leaving medicine altogether,” she said. Her husband is a successful venture capitalist whose “annual Christmas bonus is what I make in a year!”

Had Fingold left, in other words, she would have fit neatly with Belkin’s hyperachievers. But she loves practicing and teaching medicine, and realized she couldn’t reenter at the same level if she walked away entirely. So she moved to another practice that was willing to accommodate her part-time schedule until, in a few years, she can return to full time. Had she chosen the Belkin course, would she have opted out—or been pushed out?

Experiences like Fingold’s bear out what social scientists are finding: strong bias against mothers, especially white mothers, who work. (Recent research shows bias against African American mothers of any class who don’t work, a subject that deserves an article of its own.23) Consider the work being done by Shelley Correll, a Cornell sociology professor, described in an article in the March 2007 American Journal of Sociology. In one experiment, Correll and her colleagues asked participants to rate a management consultant. Everyone got a profile of an equally qualified consultant—except that the consultant was variously described as a woman with children, a woman without children, a man with children, and a man without children. When the consultant was a “mother,” she was rated as less competent, less committed, less suitable for hiring, promotion, or training, and was offered a lower starting salary than the other three.24

Here’s what feminism hasn’t yet changed: The American idea of mothering is left over from the 1950s, that odd moment in history when America’s unrivaled economic power enabled a single breadwinner to support an entire family. Fifty years later we still have the idea that a mother, and not a father, should be available to her child at every moment. But if being a mom is a 24-hour-a-day job, and being a worker requires a similar commitment, then the two roles are mutually exclusive. A lawyer might be able to juggle the demands of many complex cases in various stages of research and negotiation, or a grocery manager might be able to juggle dozens of delivery deadlines and worker schedules—but should she have even a fleeting thought about a pediatrics appointment, she’s treated as if her on-the-job reliability will evaporate.25 No one can escape this cultural idea, reinforced as it is by old sitcoms, movies, jokes—and by the moms-go-home storyline.

Still, if they were pushed out, why would these smart, professional women insist that they chose to stay home? Because that’s the most emotionally healthy course: wanting what you’ve got. “That’s really one of the agreed-upon principles of human nature. People want their attitudes and behavior to be in sync,” said Amy Cuddy, an assistant professor in the management and organizations department at Northwestern Kellogg School of Management. “People who’ve left promising careers to stay home with their kids aren’t going to say, ‘I was forced out. I really want to be there.’ It gives people a sense of control that they may not actually have.”26

So yes, maybe some women “chose” to go home. But they didn’t choose the restrictions and constrictions that made their work lives impossible. They didn’t choose the cultural expectation that mothers, not fathers, are responsible for their children’s doctor visits, birthday parties, piano lessons, and summer schedules. And they didn’t choose the bias or earnings loss that they face if they work part-time or when they go back full time.

By offering a steady diet of common myths and ignoring the relevant facts, newspapers have helped maintain the cultural temperature for what Williams calls “the most family-hostile public policy in the Western world.” On a variety of basic policies—including parental leave, family sick leave, early childhood education, national childcare standards, afterschool programs, and health care that’s not tied to a single all-consuming job—the U.S. lags behind almost every developed nation. How far behind? Out of 168 countries surveyed by Jody Heymann, who teaches at both the Harvard School of Public Health and McGill University, the U.S. is one of only five without mandatory paid maternity leave—along with Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.27 And any parent could tell you that it makes no sense to keep running schools on nineteenth century agricultural schedules, taking kids in at 7 a.m. and letting them out at 3 p.m. to milk the cows, when their parents now work until 5 or 6 p.m. Why can’t twenty-first century school schedules match the twenty-first century workday?

The moms-go-home story’s personal focus makes as much sense, according to Caryl Rivers, as saying, “Okay, let’s build a superhighway; everybody bring one paving stone. That’s how we approach family policy. We don’t look at systems, just at individuals. And that’s ridiculous.”

[1] Lisa Belkin, “The Opt Out Revolution,” The New York Times Magazine, October 26, 2003.

[2] Joan C. Williams, Jessica Manvell, and Stephanie Bornstein, “‘Opt Out’ or Pushed Out? How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflict: The Untold Story of Why Women Leave the Workforce,” University of California, Hastings College of the Law, October 2006.

[3] The Center for WorkLife Law, University of California, Hastings College of the Law

[4] Please check back soon to see this chart in full; it will be posted on this website.

[6] In 2004, working wives’ contributed 35 percent of their families’ household income, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2004, according to the BLS, among married working women, 32.6 percent outearn their husbands. Both figures suggest it’s hard for most women to “opt out,” lest the family go under financially.

[8] Sam Roberts, “51% of Women Are Now Living Without Spouses,” The New York Times, January 16, 2007. *After this New York Times article was published, this statistic came under fire, since it includes “women” ages 15 and up.

[9] Caryl Rivers, "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Market Scare Stories to Women," (University Press of New England, April 2007).

[10] Stephen J. Rose and Heidi I. Hartman, "Still a Man's Labor Market: The Long-Term Earnings Gap," Institute for Women's Policy research, 2004.

[12] Linda Hirshman, “Homeward Bound,” The American Prospect, November 21, 2005.

[13] For instance, in a widely cited article in the Harvard Business Review, published March 1, 2005, “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success,” Sylvia Ann Hewlett of the Center for Work-Life Policy and Carolyn Buck Luce of Ernst & Young report that, after surveying a group of high-flying women (with advanced degrees or high-honors undergraduate degrees) who had paused to care for children and wanted to get back to work, 74 percent could not find jobs—and those who did, even for a year, lost on average 18 percent in earnings, which rose to 28 percent if they worked in business. More time meant bigger losses: “across sectors, women lost a staggering 37 percent of their earning power when they spend three or more years out of the workforce.” Ann Crittenden concluded in her book "The Price of Motherhood" that by pausing her journalism career to care for her children, she lost a total of between $600,000 and $700,000. The National Center on Women and Aging did a 1999 study (“The MetLife Juggling Act Study”) that found that mid-career women who paused to care for elderly parents or grandparents found that, on average, they lost $659,000 in combined earnings, social security benefits and pension benefits. And if mothers work part-time, even briefly, they’ve given themselves a lower earnings history. Williams’ “Opt Out or Pushed Out?” report cites the Boston College Sloan Work and Families Research Network’s findings that “U.S. women working part-time earn 21 percent less per hour worked than full-timers, a part-time penalty that is seven times higher than in Sweden and more than twice as high as in the U.K.”

“Off-Ramps and On-Ramps,” Hewlett and Luce. Scan the press release for the report here. Or purchase the article here.

[14] Terry Martin Hekker, "The Satisfactions of Housewifery and Motherhood In an Age of 'Do-Your-Own-Thing,'" The New York Times, December 20, 1977.

[15] Terry Martin Hekker, "Paradise Lost (Domestic Division)," The New York Times, January 1, 2006.

[16] Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2006, (“Women stopping out at every level”), reported on a late 2006 analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that many women continue to take short job breaks (sometimes called maternity leaves) when their children are born. But those breaks are getting shorter, not longer, and now stand at between one and three years. “Most women are taking between three and six months,” explained Heather Boushey in an interview. “More take three.” Overall, Boushey says, if women have children, 60 percent work; if they have school-age children, 75 percent either work or are looking for work, and 80 percent work once their children are over 12.

[18] “For four decades, American women have entered the paid workforce--on men's terms, not their own--yet we have done precious little as a society to restructure the workplace or family life. The consequence of this "stalled revolution," a term coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, is a profound "care deficit." … It is as though Americans are trapped in a time warp, still convinced that women should and will care for children, the elderly, homes and communities. But of course they can't, now that most women have entered the workforce. In 1950 less than a fifth of mothers with children under age 6 worked in the labor force. By 2000 two-thirds of these mothers worked in the paid labor market… The care crisis starkly exposes how much of the feminist agenda of gender equality remains woefully unfinished.” From Ruth Rosen, “The Care Crisis,” The Nation, March 12, 2007.

[19] Rosalind Chait Barnett, “Review: Women and Multiple Roles: Myths and Reality,” Harvard Review of Psychiatry, May/June 2004.

[20] Kathleen Gerson, “Work Without Worry,” New York Times, May 11, 2003.

[21] Or see Williams, “‘Opt Out’ or Pushed Out,” p. 28. 

[22] Evelyn Murphy with E.J. Graff, "Getting Even: Why Women Don’t Get Paid Like Men—And What To Do About It," Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 2005.

[23] Amy Cuddy has been looking into whether white and African American mothers face the same biases. In short, no. In two studies, she emailed what was billed as a marketing questionnaire to a large national sample. In the first, allegedly an evaluation of a diaper ad, people were asked to rate the competence and warmth of a particular mother, who in the picture and caption was either white or black, working or staying at home. The white stay-at-home mom was evaluated most positively—and the black stay-at-home mom most negatively. In the second, people were asked how much should be spent on a Mother’s Day gift. The most expensive gift was recommended for the white stay-at-home mom—and the least expensive gift for the black stay-at-home mom. White mothers are, quite literally, valued most highly when they stay home, while black mothers are expected to work. That puts African American mothers in a double bind. In Correll’s hiring studies, African American mothers were graded just as poorly as white mothers, but were “offered” the lowest starting salaries. No wonder black women don’t show up in the moms-go-home stories.

[24] In another experiment, Shelley Correll asked for an evaluation of how many times an employee could arrive late or leave early before being fired. Mothers were allowed significantly fewer late arrivals than the other three; fathers were allotted more than nonfathers. In another experiment, comparable and highly qualified resumes were sent to real-life employers. Once again, mothers got the fewest callbacks, followed by childless women and fathers. Please contact the author for reprints of the paper.

[25] See "Getting Even," Chapter 9: Working While Mother: The Mommy Penalty.

[26] Further, Cuddy adds, people in a disadvantaged group—mothers, in this case—have a tendency to embrace and claim the best parts of their stereotype, according to an ongoing body of research into stereotyping and bias. If mothers are seen as nurturing and warm but not very competent or ambitious, then it would be natural for women who’ve left high-powered careers to raise kids to celebrate their loving, nurturing sides. That’s the emotionally healthy response being spotlighted in these moms-go-home articles.