Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Is 'Opt'ing Out Even an Option?

Over the last year, Facebook Chief Operating Office Sheryl Sandberg, has made a splash with her “Lean In movement,” which seeks to elevate the role of women in the professional world. In her book and preceding TED talk, Sandberg---a former VP at Google, and former Chief of Staff at the US Department of Treasury---has been trying to “keep women in the workforce...because I really think that’s” why we have so few women leaders. “The problem…is that women are dropping out.

At the New York Times, Lisa Belkin had written a piece called the “Opt-Out Generation, about educated mothers who have left a career to stay home, usually to take care of children. (Statistically, the revolution was limited to an economically fortunate few). More recently, follow-up articles have talked about how the promise of home life didn’t deliver: how “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In,” but is having trouble reintegrating into the workforce.

In last week's WAPPP Seminar, Opting Out among Women with Elite Education: Evidence, Causes, and Societal Consequences, Professor Joni Hersch of Vanderbilt Law School looks at how valid these views really are. She looks at national averages across different types of college-educated women, and finds that most opting out is concentrated among married mothers who are graduates of elite institutions like Ivy League universities. To the extent possible, Professor Hersch even looked at how a woman’s parents’ educational background affects their current decisions; and indeed, the more educated her parents, the more likely she stayed in the workforce.

Women are more likely to stay in the workforce if they have science and engineering background; if they have graduate degrees; if they are employed in management, science, or health (rather than service or blue-collar industries); or if they are not married to very high-earning men.

Of course, as Anne-Marie Slaughter famously argued, the pressures on all women, in lower income and upper-echelon circles alike, to focus more attention on their own family remain strong---maybe even biological. The option to have a better work-life balance ought not be limited to those of elite educations, backgrounds, and industries, nor should this only pertain to women. Women that are not able to pay for nannies and other surrogate caregivers are particularly in need of “opting out” themselves.

Some steps toward that include lowering institutional barriers to that work-life flexibility: increasing public funding and other access to childcare and family leave, through legal protection.

That's definitely a vital start. But a sad paradox is that many industries that have welcomed women over the last decades---from increasing their numbers to improving work-life balance---have supposedly lost their economic and social “prestige” at the same time, making even that hard-won progress seem incomplete.

So, even as we start to change institutions and policies, we've got to influence how people think of their work and colleagues as well.

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