Clearing up "opting out"

A Harvard economist does the math: Most women are not trading career for family.

Published March 15, 2006 2:45PM (EST)

On today's New York Times Op-Ed page, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin calmly debunks the myth of the "opt-out revolution," the much-peddled (often by the Times) notion that highly educated women are leaving the workplace in massive the-hell-with-having-it-all droves. She cites a long-term study by the Mellon Foundation showing that only 7 percent of the 10,000 women tracked spent more than half their available time away from the job; on average, the women spent only 1.6 years outside the labor force. Sixty-nine percent of these women had at least one child -- and they "opted out" for an average of just over two years. Did those who stayed at work just downgrade to less demanding jobs? The data on their occupations clearly suggests otherwise. And what about college-educated women currently in their 30s? The percentage who work dropped slightly only recently -- but so did that of their male peers. (It's the economy, stupid.)

Those women who do opt out provide juicy anecdotes for those who smell feminist blood. (As if, sigh, women raising children full time means feminism failed. Or as if opting out means life is easy.) Goldin suggests that the media leaps on these stories because (as a friend of hers put it), "many people have difficulty believing that 'women can actually contribute professionally and participate meaningfully in the raising of a family,'" she says. "But the truth is that a greater fraction of college women today are mixing family life and career than ever before. Denying that fact is ignoring the facts." So let's hope that when it comes to misleading coverage of women giving "it all" up, the Times, henceforth, will opt out.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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