Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Opt-Out Revolution

Lisa Belkin's article "The Opt-Out Revolution," is a few years old, but I dug it up after spending a day at the pool and overhearing a group of 3 mothers who I felt resembled the women portrayed in Belkin's piece. The mothers I overheard were talking about how they chose to “give up” their high paying corporate jobs when they gave birth to their children. These mothers talked about staying home full time as being as a blissful existence filled with playgroups, and Mommy-and-me yoga classes, as a hiatus of sorts from their former ‘chaotic’ corporate lifestyles. I don’t have children, and don’t pretend that I know all that motherhood entails; however, I’m willing to bet that for most women being at home full time is no easier, less chaotic, or less tiring than a full day at ANY office. Women could be “opting out" for any number of reasons (NONEXISTENT maternity leave, poor day care system, etc.) but I certainly don’t think it’s because being a full time mother provides the “balance and sanity” that a “career” does not.

I also found myself thinking about how the working mother used to be considered “super mom”, balancing both family and career, but today the “stay at home mom” is the one who seems to be considered larger than life “tossing everything else aside in order to shower children with nonstop attention and encouragement”. I can’t help but think that perhaps women are guilted into staying home full time. In a culture where there are “Baby Einstein” videos to stimulate brain development, where reading Dr. Seuss and playing Mozart to unborn children is common practice, and where more and more children are expected to know their alphabet and basic arithmetic by the time they reach kindergarten, are mothers’ feeling like they HAVE to stay home in order to instill in their kids the early “touchpoints” that our culture is insisting are necessary for a successful future? I don’t know, just a thought....
Here's a portion of the article for your enjoyment:

The scene in this cozy Atlanta living room would – at first glance -- warm an early feminist's heart. Gathered by the fireplace one recent evening, sipping wine and nibbling cheese, are the members of a book club, each of them a beneficiary of all that feminists of 30-odd years ago held dear. The eight women in the room have each earned a degree from Princeton, which was a citadel of everything male until the first co-educated class entered in 1969. And after Princeton, the women of this book club went on to do other things that women once were not expected to do. They received law degrees from Harvard and Columbia. They chose husbands who could keep up with them, not simply support them. They waited to have children because work was too exciting. They put on power suits and marched off to take on the world. Yes, if an early feminist could peer into this scene, she would feel triumphant about the future. Until, of course, any one of these polished and purposeful women opened her mouth. ''I don't want to be on the fast track leading to a partnership at a prestigious law firm,'' says Katherine Brokaw, who left that track in order to stay home with her three children. ''Some people define that as success. I don't.'' ''I don't want to be famous; I don't want to conquer the world; I don't want that kind of life,'' says Sarah McArthur Amsbary, who was a theater artist and teacher and earned her master's degree in English, then stepped out of the work force when her daughter was born. ''Maternity provides an escape hatch that paternity does not. Having a baby provides a graceful and convenient exit.''
Wander into any Starbucks in any Starbucks kind of neighborhood in the hours after the commuters are gone. See all those mothers drinking coffee and watching over toddlers at play? If you look past the Lycra gym clothes and the Internet-access cellphones, the scene could be the 50's, but for the fact that the coffee is more expensive and the mothers have M.B.A.'s. We've gotten so used to the sight that we've lost track of the fact that this was not the way it was supposed to be. Women -- specifically, educated professional women – were supposed to achieve like men. Once the barriers came down, once the playing field was leveled, they were supposed to march toward the future and take rightful ownership of the universe, or at the very least, ownership of their half. The women's movement was largely about grabbing a fair share of power -- making equal money, standing at the helm in the macho realms of business and government and law. It was about running the world. ''We thought there would be a woman president by now,'' says Marie Wilson, director of the Ms. Foundation for Women and president of the White House Project, who has been fighting to increase the representation of women in work and politics since 1975. ''We expected that women would be leading half the companies in this country, that there would be parity on boards.'' Instead, Wilson has just finished a book that includes an examination, in her words, of ''how far we haven't come,'' titled ''Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World.'' Arguably, the barriers of 40 years ago are down. Fifty percent of the undergraduate class of 2003 at Yale was female; this year's graduating class at Berkeley Law School was 63 percent women; Harvard was 46 percent; Columbia was 51. Nearly 47 percent of medical students are women, as are 50 percent of undergraduate business majors (though, interestingly, about 30 percent of M.B.A. candidates). They are recruited by top firms in all fields. They start strong out of the gate. And then, suddenly, they stop. Despite all those women graduating from law school, they comprise only 16 percent of partners in law firms. Although men and women enter corporate training programs in equal numbers, just 16 percent of corporate officers are women, and only eight companies in the Fortune 500 have female C.E.O.'s. Of 435 members of the House of Representatives, 62 are women; there are 14 women in the 100-member Senate. Measured against the way things once were, this is certainly progress. But measured against the way things were expected to be, this is a revolution stalled. During the 90's, the talk was about the glass ceiling, about women who were turned away at the threshold of power simply because they were women. The talk of this new decade is less about the obstacles faced by women than it is about the obstacles faced by mothers. As Joan C. Williams, director of the Program on Work Life Law at American University, wrote in the Harvard Women's Law Journal last spring, ''Many women never get near'' that glass ceiling, because ''they are stopped long before by the maternal wall.''

As these women look up at the ''top,'' they are increasingly deciding that they don't want to do what it takes to get there. Women today have the equal right to make the same bargain that men have made for centuries -- to take time from their family in pursuit of success. Instead, women are redefining success. And in doing so, they are redefining work. Time was when a woman's definition of success was said to be her apple-pie recipe. Or her husband's promotion. Or her well-turned-out children. Next, being successful required becoming a man. Remember those awful padded-shoulder suits and floppy ties? Success was about the male definition of money and power. There is nothing wrong with money or power. But they come at a high price. And lately when women talk about success they use words like satisfaction, balance and sanity.

That's why a recent survey by the research firm Catalyst found that 26percent of women at the cusp of the most senior levels of management don't want the promotion. And it's why Fortune magazine found that of the 108 women who have appeared on its list of the top 50 most powerful women over the years, at least 20 have chosen to leave their high-powered jobs, most voluntarily, for lives that are less intense and more fulfilling.

Why don't women run the world? Maybe it's because they don't want to.