In 2003 Lisa Belkin coined the phrase ‘opting out’ (of the workforce) with her New York Times article Opt Out Revolution. Since then the Internet has been flooded with blogs and articles about moms who have ‘opted out’ of high paying corporate jobs and careers to raise their children, but who are now returning to the work-force with great success. So if one believes everything that is posted on the Internet, re-insertion into the job market is a ‘piece of cake’.
However, if you scratch the surface of these ‘success’ stories, most are about women who have taken a 4-8 years break, armed with MBAs and/or PhDs, and have impressive high-level work experience before ‘opting out’ – with only 6-8% of the general female population in the USA belonging to this “upper-crust” labor-market, with European numbers lagging slightly behind.
Judith Warner in The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In explores the plight of “those who didn’t have the highest academic credentials or highest-powered social networks or who hadn’t been sufficiently “strategic” in their volunteering… or who had divorced often struggled greatly”.
Most advice for the women who wish to maintain their career while out of the workforce concentrates on continuing education, volunteering, networking, and the ability to re-invent oneself; all good advice, but not cure-all solutions. With the price of graduate and professional schools sky-rocketing, dishing out $100-$350,000 for a marketable degree is not always a possibility for families on a budget – not to mention that earning one of these degrees is a full-time job. And, while there are plenty continuing education courses in administrative support, accounting, IT services, coaching, writing, graphic design, teaching, consulting, and language proficiency these options do not significantly elevate a woman’s earning potential, particularly without professional experience to back it up.
Volunteering, while highly rewarding and demanding, is not considered ‘real work’ experience by most employers. Unfortunately, it even perpetuates the stereo-type of the stay-at-home, socialite woman, who “does not really know how to do anything” in the mind of prospective employers. In my own case, my 30 years of managerial, volunteer experience was considered irrelevant, with one interviewer saying “I guess you had to do something to keep busy all those years.”
When it comes to networking, the lives of stay-at-home moms is extremely busy and taxing, particularly with toddlers in tow. Moms with pre-school children work 14-16 hours-a-day between childcare, housekeeping, cooking, grocery shopping, and family errands (100+ hrs./week) – and understandably upset when told “they don’t do anything”. Obviously, ‘doing lunch’ with former colleagues is not logistically possible for many young moms. The good news is that with the advent of professional networking websites, keeping in contact with former colleagues has become much easier.
Also worth noting in relation to networking skills and “useless” stay-at-home moms – she is a true professional at networking. For hundreds of years it has been her networking and gracious entertaining skills – often on a shoe-string – that has furthered her husband’s career, maintained her family’s status in the community, and offered support to her children and family in a wide variety of ways. But, even in face of the present furor, from corporate America all the way down to small businesses, around ‘social media’, the social networking talents of these women are totally over-looked by prospective employers.
Until recently most of what has been written about career maintenance and re-insertion into the work-force has placed the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the woman, and her ability to adapt to an outmoded workplace model.
A recent and insightful report by Work Life Law (WLL) “Opt Out” or Pushed Out?: How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflict, challenges this position, stating that “The USA cannot maintain its competitiveness if it continues to pay large sums to educate the many women who then find themselves “deskilled” — driven out of good jobs and into less good ones — by inflexible workplaces and family responsibilities discrimination… The argument that women are opting out typically rests on the assumption that motherhood involves “a mother’s choice,” not discrimination… a choice by someone stuck between a rock and a hard place cannot be considered a free choice… Mothers’ choices often occur within the context of family responsibilities discrimination. This analysis sheds new light on the common complaint that mothers are asking for “special treatment.” Sometimes, far from asking for special treatment, mothers are simply asking to be treated the same as other similarly situated co-workers.
This situation, and the discriminatory nature of it, was brought home to me in 1990, and what influenced much of my own decision to ‘opt-out’. I asked the ever present question – “But, what about my children and family?” The response was “They, [the employers and society] consider that they are doing us a ‘huge favor’ by letting us work outside the home, so we should not dare question how we are going to manage having it all”.
As if burning the candle at both ends is having it all.