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Jul. 14 2009 - 10:54 am | 99 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

Is the current women-heavy workforce sustainable without a major overhaul of the system?

Pamela Stone

Pamela Stone, author of Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home

The recession has all but quashed talk of women choosing to stay home. The media has come around to the fact that few families have such an option. At the same time, the workplace still hasn’t changed to accommodate workers with family responsibilities. This begs the question: Is the current women-heavy workforce sustainable without a major overhaul of the system? Or is it just a matter of time before the “opt-out” debate resurfaces?

Yesterday, Pamela Stone, a sociologist and author of Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, addressed employer and employee complicity in the shortcomings of the American workplace. In Part Two of our conversation, Stone puts the gender equality question—are we or aren’t we?, which is the real heart of the “opt out” debate—to rest: “We’ll know we have real gender equality when a woman is as likely to be a CEO as a man is to be a stay-at-home parent.” Clearly, that scenario is far from today’s reality.

Myth #2: Most women who quit their jobs do so because they choose motherhood over career success.

Pamela Stone: What I saw in my research was that these were women who, by and large, wanted [careers], but for complicated reasons—mostly having to do with unsupportive workplaces– couldn’t keep at them. These are also women who want to return to work at some point to utilize their skills.

The majority of the women I interviewed were highly successful, valuable employees so they had some leverage in getting flexibility from their employers, at first. But what happened is that the flexibility dead-ended their careers. The minute the women worked flexibly, they were “mommy tracked.” In almost every instance the women said they did not ever talk about the potential of their husbands being the ones to opt out. All of a sudden, their careers were slowed and they were earning less while their husband’s went full speed ahead. The privileging of his career over hers was by that time very rational in that it made sense in terms of dollars and cents. These husbands were not sexist pigs or anything. But they were husbands who were themselves in high demand careers and once it was figured that the wife would step back a little bit, it gave the man permission to step forward. It just reinforced traditional roles.

You have to realize that there are still barriers. There are still industry blockages that hinder real “choice.” And that is why I wrote my book. Because on one hand we had this tiny fraction of women at the top level of any major profession and on the other hand I was seeing, in my own life, women who had all the credentials, but who were at home.

Paradoxically, one of the most de-valued positions in our society is that of “mother.” So, women can argue that all choices are equal, but that is not how the larger society sees it. The problem with choice feminism is that it always puts the burden of change on individuals and overlooks the need for social movement. It overlooks the need for change in the workplace and forces people to tailor their lives to workplace realities rather than see themselves as part of a larger group. Choice feminism reinforces the sense that it is “your problem.”

I think there is a shortsightedness in ignoring the larger structural inequalities and the larger social realities that still, regrettably, exist. I’d like to say, as a woman of the second wave generation, that we solved all the problems. But we didn’t. I think it is sticking one’s head in the sand if you don’t recognize that choices are constrained.

What can be done?

Acknowledge that women and men don’t yet have equal choices and work toward a system in which they do.
Stone: Let’s recognize the structural issues that are behind these “choices.” Women don’t really have choices, because there is no support for working families. If we want to argue about whether a choice is a right choice or a wrong choice, well let’s first get to the point where people really have choices. When a man or a woman is as likely to be the primary caregiver. When we have as many single earning mother households as single earning father households. When there is a real mix. When institutions catch up to the reality, which is that we have extremely high labor force participation among women. That is still not acknowledged in our workplace structures. We’re not to that point yet.

Reduce hours for everyone.
I think that the husbands are captive by the same forces of an idea worker model that their wives are. That is why my solution is always to get rid of the ideal worker model and find a way to reduce hours. Because these were not guys who didn’t want to be involved with their families. And all studies show that younger generations of men want to be more involved and there is no question that they are, hours-wise, more involved than before.

While it’s difficult to envision workers demanding reduced hours in the current economic climate, it’s even harder to envision the current system being sustainable in the long run. With fewer families able to outsource childcare and household tasks, and with both women and men wary of requesting flexible or part-time work, fissures in the “ideal” worker model of ours become increasingly clear. It’s also crucial to note that the lack of real choice affects men as well as women. In a time when young men increasingly want to be involved in their children’s lives, an inflexible system makes it difficult for them to do so. When will our work culture acknowledge that employees, men as well as women, also have families—and make it possible to commit to both?

Tune in tomorrow for Myth #3: Being a stay-at-home parent is all roses and butterflies.


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We’re two twenty-somethings who joined the real world armed with diplomas worth a combined half million dollars from Middlebury College—only to find out that we didn’t have a clue. No one prepared us for the inflexibility of the whole workplace set-up. No one warned us that the Mommies were at War, or that employers still assumed men were okay seeing their kids every other week, or that the U.S. doesn’t guarantee paid parental leave, vacation, or sick leave. The current work-life model isn’t working. Let’s talk about it.

In 2007, we started a non-profit called The Lattice Group, which aims to bring awareness about work-life issues to young people, so if you can’t get enough of our musings on True/Slant check out http://thelatticegroup.org.

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