What Opt-Out Revolution?

by Tracy McGinnis
We all remember playing tug of war in gym glass right? The objective was to pull hard enough to push the other team’s flag over the goal line, often causing its members to fall to the ground.

That’s the image I sometimes get when I start reading stories about women trying to make it both at work and at home – at some point one side falls down.

Over the past few years there have been hundreds of articles written about women pulling themselves out of the workplace once kids came into the picture, or as New York Times columnist Lisa Belkin termed it in 2003 “The Opt Out Revolution.”

Recently one hundred of these “opt-out” themed articles were reviewed and published in a report by Joan C. Williams at UC Hastings College of Law entitled, “Opt Out or Pushed Out? How the Press Cover Work/Family Conflict – The Untold Story of Why Women Leave the Workforce.”

The report suggests that most “opt-out” pieces have done a great disservice to women by not providing them with all of the details; suggesting many of them have been pushed out of work by factors such as inflexible workplaces, lack of family support, and a bias against mothers in the workplace, among others.

What’s Missing in Opt-Out Stories?

• A misrepresentation of women - only 5% of articles studied mentioned African American women, and even fewer Latina’s.

• Women in opt-out pieces were interviewed either after they had already dropped out of work or before they were divorced. (Only 2 out of 119 stories featured divorced women. With a 50% divorce rate “opt-out” stories failed to include the economic vulnerability of women who stop working and get divorced.)

• Women in typical “opt-out” pieces tend to focus solely on the short term – cutting back on home costs or rationalizing that child care will take most of their earnings anyway. Omitting long term effects, such as not contributing to a 401K or social security, can put women in vulnerable situations later in life. (Particularly in a country where 2 out of 3 elderly poor are women.)

• 32% of retired women have pensions compared to 55% of men (Munnell, 2004), a women’s average benefit is half that of men’s, and in 41% of couples, the husband’s private pension is not left to his wife upon his death (Ibid), all relevant data the study feels “opt-out” stories should include in order to paint a more accurate picture of what is means for women to drop out of the workforce.