When Opting Out Isn't an Option

Introduction to our four-part series on women and work:

Pink-Collar Blues

Outside the 9-to-5

The Invisible Workers
A Family-Leave Safety Net

For too long, the narrative about working women has centered on professionals with children. It's time we focus on the majority of women workers.

To hear the media tell the tale, the central problem facing working women today is the question of whether they should leave their professional careers to raise children.

For much of the past decade, the "opt out" debate has been a staple of style sections and op-ed pages. It's easy to see why. The story of how highly educated, professional-track women choose to construct their personal lives lies at the nexus of personal, political, and economic issues. It is a good fit for business columns, for parenting magazines, for feminist blogs. From Lisa Belkin's coinage of the term "opt-out revolution" in The New York Times Magazine in 2003, to Caitlin Flanagan's excoriation of feminists with nannies in The Atlantic in 2004, to Linda Hirshman's 2005 admonition that educated women Get to Work, upper-class women have never tired of discussing--and dissing--each other's choices. Even though professional, highly educated women who can afford to "opt out" account for only about 10 percent of working women aged 25 to 44, this debate has dominated the conversation about women and work.

Examining the lives of privileged women and their work-life choices is certainly much sexier and more controversial than telling the stories of the majority of working women in this country. After all, most women must balance work with caregiving. They don't have the option of opting out. Where's the debate in that?

The recession is an opportune moment to refocus the narrative about women and work on the majority of women who work--those who don't have multiple degrees or high-power careers. The women who are housecleaners, caregivers, night-shift workers. The women who are stuck in occupations that are primarily female--without union representation or competitive pay. The women who never had a 401(k) in the first place. Instead, the dominant story line about gender and the recession has (surprise!) again been about upper-class women--and men. The Times considered "Why the Sting of Layoffs Can Be Sharper for Men." New York magazine has created an entire beat devoted to covering the emasculating effects of investment bankers losing their jobs and how their wives are coping. When hourly wage-earning workers enter these stories, it is usually as "perks" that wealthier families have had to give up--the nanny, the gardener, the nail technician--not as people struggling just to make it through the financial crunch.

In recessions of the past, women's employment rose as men's fell. When their breadwinner husbands were laid off, women assumed the primary-earner role and entered the work force, usually settling for jobs that paid less than the ones their partner had lost. But this recession is proving to be different. For the first time, women's employment looks like men's: it's falling. The story that men have borne the brunt of the recession is simply not true; they may be losing jobs at a higher rate, but women made up less of the work force to begin with and tend to work in lower-paying industries. This matters because families are relying on women's paychecks now more than ever. During the same years that the media has been preoccupied with the so-called opt-out revolution, notes E.J. Graff in a 2007 Columbia Journalism Review article, "the U.S. has seen steady upticks in the numbers and percentages of women, including mothers, who work for wages. ... The vast majority of contemporary families cannot get by without women's income--especially now, when upwards of 70 percent of American families with children have all adults in the workforce, when 51 percent of American women live without a husband, and when many women can expect to live into their eighties and beyond."

It is time for a different conversation about working women--one that considers the choices and careers of professional women with children, yes. But one that devotes far more time and energy to the needs of the majority of women workers--those without advanced degrees or professional salaries who must work to support their families--and to crafting policies that work for them.


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