Is the backlash here yet?

After overhyping the so-called opt-out revolution, media outlets are eager to prove no such revolution exists.


Page Rockwell
November 2, 2006 4:29AM (UTC)

Here's some good news: I think we may be witnessing the official "opting out" backlash. Not that the droves of women who've left the workforce are rushing back to work -- the truth is that women aren't leaving the workforce in droves, and those who do leave the workforce are often responding to economic pressures or an employer's lack of flexibility. But after a spate of critical research, it seems that the news media is increasingly catching up to the facts, and when it comes to news stories about women opting out, the pendulum is swinging the other way.

The first paragraph of this week's big debunker, "The Truth Behind Women 'Opting Out'" in the Christian Science Monitor, reads "When New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin coined the phrase 'the opt-out revolution' in 2003 to describe a supposed exodus of mothers from the workforce, her article sparked a media flurry. Other journalists rushed to find their own examples of women heading home for family reasons." The piece, penned by staff writer Marilyn Gardner, reports on two new studies challenging the prevalent opt-out myth. Gardner interviews the researchers, who reveal that the much-touted reduction in women's employment rates between 2001 and 2005 paralleled a trend in the national labor market. Plus, University of California, Hastings Center for WorkLife Law director Joan Williams tells Gardner that "most mothers do not opt out ... they are pushed out by workplace inflexibility, the lack of supports, and a workplace bias against mothers." The piece also notes that stories about "opting out" often focus on the choices enjoyed by the most affluent 8 percent of American women, while ignoring the realities of the other 92 percent.

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Great stuff, but it had me scratching my head in recognition. Then I remembered that Broadsheet covered Evergreen College professor Stephanie Coontz's opinion piece on the same subject in the Christian Science Monitor earlier this year. As in the current Monitor piece, Coontz cited labor trends to show that moms aren't engaged in a mass desertion campaign, and also challenged employers to step up to their family responsibilities. The New York Times Op-Ed page also discredited the opt-out bugaboo back in the spring, flagging the same 2001-2005 economic trend. And in 2003 Salon's Joan Walsh challenged the class bias in Belkin's "opt out" exposi.

The current Monitor article does have some new nuggets to impart: Williams, who coauthored the impressively thorough report "'Opt Out' or Pushed Out?: How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflicts" (PDF), notes that union leaders "still have the impression these are professional women's issues. Unions do not receive the message that work-family issues are core union issues." The piece also features a handy graph of work trends among mothers by race and income level.

More than the Monitor story, though, it's Williams' report that merits a deeper look. Williams and her coauthors Jessica Manvell and Stephanie Bornstein add texture to the "opt out" debate by noting that "better educated women are more likely to be in the labor force than less educated women" and "women's decisions to opt out do not represent a return to 'traditional' values; in fact, much of what contemporary professional moms stay home to do is not traditional." Best of all, the report offers the media more nuanced, more accurate story lines for covering work-family issues, my favorite being the proposed "macroeconomic de-skilling story," based on the idea that "the United States cannot maintain its competitiveness if it continues to pay large sums to educate the many women who then find themselves 'de-skilled' -- driven out of good jobs into less good ones -- by inflexible workplaces and family-responsibilities discrimination."

By comparison, the current Monitor piece does seem to be revisiting familiar ground. But I'm still thrilled to see criticism of the "opt out" myth developing into a cohesive body of work. If we keep repeating the realities of mothers' employment choices, maybe they'll cumulatively counter a couple of years' worth of erroneous "opt out" hysteria.


Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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