Opting Out

OPTING OUT….Are women opting out of the workforce in ever greater numbers? In the Columbia Journalism Review, E.J. Graff notes that far from being new, this “trend” has been discovered over and over again during the past 50 years — and it’s no more true today than it was when the New York Times first wrote about it in 1953. However, aside from being factually wrong — statistics don’t bear out the idea that increasing numbers of women are leaving the workforce — these stories all share another flaw: they assume that women who do leave the workforce are doing so primarily as a matter of lifestyle choice. But in a study released last year called “‘Opt Out’ or Pushed Out? How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflict,” Joan Williams collected meticulous evidence showing that this is rarely the case:

Williams establishes that “choice” is emphasized in eighty-eight of the 119 articles she surveyed. But keep reading. Soon you find that staying home wasn’t these women’s first choice, or even their second. Rather, every other door slammed. For instance, [Lisa] Belkin’s prime example of someone who “chose” to stay home, Katherine Brokaw, was a high-flying lawyer until she had a child. Soon after her maternity leave, she exhausted herself working around the clock to prepare for a trial — a trial that, at the last minute, was canceled so the judge could go fishing. After her firm refused even to consider giving her “part-time” hours — forty hours now being considered part-time for high-end lawyers — she “chose” to quit.

The media’s insistence on rediscovering this trend every few years — and misreporting it — has a real impact on obscuring the actual policy issues at stake. Read the whole piece to learn how.