Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Stay Home (EEM Book Review)

Opting Out Book Review: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Stay Home

Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Stay Home Book Review

Quick Look

TITLE: Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home


PAGES: 295

DIFFICULTY 0-5 (with 5 being most difficult): 3

TL;DR: watch this Harvard Business School message by Pamela Stone.

“Research shows that women—even successful women—encounter obstacles of all sorts, that the workplace can be hostile and chilly, especially to mothers, despite family-friendly rhetoric to the contrary. The skeptical sociologist in me had to ask, based on what I know of the literature: if work had been so great, their employers so accommodating of their families, why were they leaving?”

Pamela Stone, Opting Out, pg. 4

What you will get:

women sitting on table with cups of coffee and laptop
Photo by Edmond Dantès on Pexels.com

This book is a compilation of interviews with 54 women in their 30s and 40s who interrupted their careers to be full-time mothers. The book aims to be true to the voices and perspectives of the women by following the mothers’ lead throughout the conversation. The author ties the mothers’ perspectives together in a narration of the major struggles facing mothers in the workforce today.

What you won’t get:

Opting Out has a very narrow focus. As readers, we are accustomed to reading studies of majority white, middle-class, cis-women in heterosexual married relationships with biological children. Opting Out takes it a step further. The participants in these interviews are also from a selection of top-tier universities and, prior to their choice to stay home with children, were engaged in high-powered careers. To say that few of us fit this criteria is an understatement. The author says she focuses on this subset of the population by design to underscore the unfairness of how the workforce treats mothers: her study participants are are high-powered leaders in their fields, yet even they get pushed out when they have children.

What I can’t stop telling others about:

Before “lean in”, there was “opting out”. The word “opt” connotes options, and the ability to choose the best among many. But Stone’s book makes it clear that there aren’t enough options when it comes to working mothers. Most of the high-achieving women in this book are yoked to partners unwilling to take a step back from their work, employers uninterested in accommodating part-time schedules, and a culture focused on whole-hearted devotion to work at the expense of anything else. Women caught in this web of partners, employers, and a culture that doesn’t make space for their families ultimately don’t have much of a choice at all.

Top Five Takeaways:

1. The Pull of Motherhood is Hard to Plan For

“Taken by surprise by the depth of their feelings for their new babies, about one-third of the women saw their long-held plans for combining work and family crumble in the face of this newfound and unanticipated “baby love”

Opting Out, pg. 45

Many of the women in this book were used to being successful, hands-on, and diving deep into every project they embarked on. When they had a child, they approached motherhood the same way. They read books, interviewed nannies, talked to their bosses, and thought they had an idea how things would work out. But after having children, several of the women said they couldn’t imagine leaving them in the hands of someone else. These mothers placed a high priority on being the ones to teach their children, watch them reach milestones, and bond with them. They didn’t anticipate the bond they would have with their baby or how emotionally taxing it would be to leave their baby with someone else. 

Photo by huanshi on Unsplash

The lack of options for these women often means they are left without options if they decide they want to spend more time with their baby than they previously planned on. Figuring out work life balance was more difficult for women having children in their late 30s, women who experienced complications at birth, and women with babies in need of extra medical care. Often these women didn’t have a choice other than to quit and take care of themselves or their baby.

2. Sacrifice, Not Support, is What Working Mothers Need from Partners

Another pattern that emerges from all these studies is that gender strategies really come into the fore when children arrive on the scene. It is especially then that couples begin the ongoing negotiation to accommodate their new responsibilities, constantly trading off their respective careers against one another’s. And in this negotiation, for a variety of reasons…women defer to their husband’s careers as primary and perceive theirs as secondary

Opting Out, pg. 64

The women interviewed in this book often had husbands in equally prestigious careers. Before children, they both worked hard to succeed and didn’t find their ambitions eclipsing each other. When they had children, the landscape shifted. Some of these women expected their partner to dial back time and make sacrifices that mirrored their own. Others expected to make sacrifices but didn’t anticipate they would be as extensive as they were. Still other couples decided that the woman would stay home with the children and support her husband’s career. 

Picture by priscilladupreez from Unsplash

What stood out for me from these stories is that most of these women described their partners as supportive of whatever choice they wanted to make. But support isn’t the same as sacrifice. Their partners would say things like, “You should cut back”, “You need a break”, or “I’ll support you in whatever you decide to do.” However, these words of support never, for any of the couples, translated to men asking to move to part-time, not accepting a job offer, or demanding changes in their work to accommodate their children.

3. Work Culture Doesn’t Accommodate Motherhood

“Regina…had been smitten with her new baby and told of commuting to her job ‘crying on the train.’ But she also adored her job and was ‘a very strong force’ in her industry. Wanting to reconcile her desire to be with her baby with her desire to keep working . . ., she put together a detailed job-share plan with a colleague who was also a first-time mother. Their plan was promptly denied. Instead, her employer ‘threw money at me to stay full-time.’”

Opting Out, pg. 88

Women offered a variety of reasons for making the decision to quit, but in telling these stories, it was conditions of their work life, not their family life, that dominated these narratives. Despite feeling the pull of motherhood, it was work factors that precipitated their leave from the workforce.

woman in gray hijab sitting behind an office table
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com

Women described  the “all or nothing workplace” where they were expected to continue to work sixty-hour weeks, be on-call when they were home, and travel for business half of the time or more. All of these women loved their careers and had worked for at least a decade to get where they were when they had their baby.  But despite their loyalty to their company, long-time relationships with bosses and employers, and making every effort to commit to their work amidst family demands, they were denied options and expected to continue as if they had never had children.

4. Mothers are often “mommy tracked” if they transition to part-time work

“And I’m never going to get anywhere–you have the feeling that you just plateaued professionally because you can’t take on the extra projects; you can’t travel at a moment’s notice; you can’t stay late; you’re not flexible on the Friday thing because that could mean finding someone to take your kids. You really plateau for a much longer period of time than you ever realize when you first have a baby. It’s like, you’re going to be plateaued for thirteen to fifteen years.”

Diane, non-profit executive (pg. 91)

Some of the “fortunate” mothers in this sample were able to transition to part-time work. However, they soon found out that part-time work didn’t include the same opportunities they previously enjoyed. For some lawyers, for example, instead of working on cases, doing depositions, or arguing a case before a judge and jury, they were tasked with administrative work more closely resembling a paralegal or secretary. In other cases, women were essentially expected to work full-time hours for part-time pay. In these instances, these mothers felt like they couldn’t leave the office when they needed to, were asked to complete tasks when they were over hours, and were expected to complete projects and assignments that couldn’t be completed within their contracted time. 

woman in red t shirt looking at her laptop
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Many of the interviewees fought back against these barriers, applied for promotions, petitioned for flexible jobs, and were still denied. Of any of mothers likely to make these changes happen, it would be these mothers. But eventually, the interviewees described feeling burnout from doing all that they could while still not finding the balance they sought. After seeking flexible part-time work and finding the results unsatisfactory, these women chose to stay home where they knew they would be in full control of their schedule, even though this choice exacted significant costs.

5. Once you step back, you can’t return to where you were before

Classically, someone in a double bind situation attempts to exit it, but the double bind is like quicksand: in attempting to escape, one only becomes more entrapped. As the before and after stories…illustrate, women’s ongoing desire for family flexibility remained a barrier to the realization of their dreams, their desire to make a contribution and to be a role model for their children, especially their daughters. The irreconcilable nature of their aspirations to combine mothering with a meaningful career prompted their decision to quit in the first place, a decision whose true parameters of constraint were concealed by the rhetoric of choice.

Opting Out, pg. 213

A few of the women interviewed in this book never expected to go back to work after having their baby and had few complaints about their current employment opportunities. But for the majority of the women who opted out, they expected to either get back to work after one to two years of leave or never leave at all. However, after being away from the workforce to raise children, they found significant barriers to their re-entry. For many mothers, the barrier was work flexibility. For others, it was the feeling that the person they had become as mothers was no longer compatible with the person they needed to be at work. So they opted out.

Photo by fgalarza on Unsplash

One of the strengths of this qualitative study is the nuance it captures in these women’s stories. At surface-level, it seems like these women decided to leave and then never returned, even when there were opportunities to do so. However, Stone says that when the women say they “wouldn’t change a thing” about their decision to opt out, they did so with a lingering “what if”. What if employment and motherhood weren’t mutually exclusive? What if my skills as a mother were seen as an enhancement to my team, not a liability? Pressing these women on their belief that they had “chosen” to leave revealed the truth: they had been pushed out, sacrificed to the double bind expectations that they need to be both a perfect mother and a perfect employee.

Final Thoughts

The interviews in Opting Out are perfect examples of the “leaky pipeline” that loses highly qualified women when children come into the picture. While society has typically blamed woman for choosing to have a family, Opting Out reveals where we should really place our blame: the workplace. We believe most employers would move mountains to keep these women in the workforce, and voices like Cheryl Sandberg (author of Lean In) makes us feel like these women can effectively manage work and family if they just assert themselves. But no amount of leaning in is going to make sixty-hour workweeks, 24/7 accountability, and 40% travel requirements for a job work while juggling a spouse and children.

The central tenant of EEM is supporting women to find the right balance of work and home at each stage of their career. Some women want to be there to raise their kids while they are young, but want a path back into the workforce later. Other women want to continue to work while they raise their children. In any capacity that they choose to work, we believe there should be real options to support that choice–like meaningful part time work that doesn’t expand past its bounds, and substantive on-ramps for mothers who have taken some time outside of the workforce. Opting Out (and its companion, Opting In, which we will review in the coming months) shows that at present, those supports don’t exist. Mothers disguise their move from work to home in the rhetoric of choice, when typically they leave not because they choose to, but because they are pushed out by inhospitable policies. If we want to include women in the workforce, we need to take their family responsibilities seriously, and make accommodations that will make workforce engagement attractive to mothers rather than making work a place where mothers don’t feel they are fully seen.

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