After Opting Out, Moms Struggle to Rejoin Workforce

November 19, 2019

A decade later, Professor Pamela Stone revisits the subjects of her talked-about book, Opting Out.

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(Credit: Getty Images)
Professor Pamela Stone (GC/Hunter, Sociology) took on a phenomenon that had captured the public attention with the publication of her 2007 book, Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home (University of California Press). Drawing on her in-depth interviews with more than 50 highly educated, professional women, Stone found that opting out wasn’t the choice it was thought to be.
A decade later, Stone revisited her subjects to see how it all — their dreams, hopes, and plans — turned out. Had these former professionals returned to their careers, now that they were in their 40s and 50s and their children were in middle school or beyond? Her new book, Opting Back In: What Really Happens When Mothers Go Back to Work (UC Press), co-authored by Harvard University’s Meg Lovejoy, provides surprising answers.
Stone credits her current and former students at Hunter — Katherine Cross, now pursuing her Ph.D. in sociology at The Graduate Center — and, at The Graduate Center, Lisa Ackerly Hernandez, Erin Maurer (Ph.D. ’16, Sociology), and Robin Templeton — with helping her to reconnect with more than 80% of the women who appeared in the first study. “If I hadn’t had this great group of graduate students, I’m not sure the research would have gotten done,” she says. She recently spoke to The Graduate Center about her work:
The Graduate Center: Opting Out? confronted a media narrative that dates to a 2003 cover story in The New York Times Magazine by Lisa Belkin. What are the misconceptions about the “opt-out revolution”?
Stone: Lisa Belkin focused on women very similar to the ones I studied — highly educated, affluent, married, and white — who left their careers behind. Belkin interpreted their decision as a change of mind — that maybe a career wasn’t what they wanted after all — and she highlighted their supposed preference for a return to traditional gender roles. My book told a very different story. I found that women’s decisions were all about work, not family — and decidedly not a preference shift on the part of professional, highly educated women in favor of tradition. These women weren’t saying that they’d prefer to be home; they were facing the problems of sustaining high-intensity careers once they became mothers.
GC: And in Opting Back In, you show that once women had halted their careers, they faced a new pressure to stay home, and out of the workforce, in order to maintain their family’s lifestyle.
Stone: These women never wanted to be at home, and never expected to be full-time, stay-at-home moms. As a result, they had a very difficult time adjusting to that life, but once they did, they took on the attitude of ‘I’m going to be the best damn mother I can be.’ Plus they started to realize the value they added at home. We know from other research that upper middle class parenting is very intensive. Meg Lovejoy and I discovered in the follow-up study that a lot of women’s time and effort at home went into what we call “status keeping” — preparing and positioning their children to maintain upper middle class status. This status keeping, because it involves overseeing the lives of adolescent and teenage kids, ends up keeping them home longer than they ever would have thought.
GC: Is this what you mean by the “paradox of privilege” you discuss in Opting Back In?
Stone: It’s part of it — that women’s role as family status keepers undermined their attachment to work and economically marginalized them. The paradox of privilege is multifaceted. Women like the ones we studied, who are seen as the “best and brightest,” are channeled into top jobs in elite firms. But these are the jobs with the most demands, the most hours, the ones that require 24/7 availability and put an enormous premium on “commitment.” They also have very few options for part-time work or flexibility that might work for mothers, and furthermore, flexibility, when it is available, is stigmatized. These jobs are the most difficult to sustain once women become mothers, with the result that, evincing paradox, the best jobs are the worst jobs.
Also, these women tend to marry men like them: other professionals. Even within their marriages, they face more of a battle to maintain their own careers — because their husbands’ careers are doing so well, their own careers take a back seat. Marriage to professional equals creates unequal professionals.
On the one hand, these are very privileged women, but what we see in our research is how their class privilege is at odds with their gender interests and actually undermines their attachment to work, their success at work, and their economic independence.
GC: Why did you choose to study this privileged group?
Stone: These are the women who, by virtue of their advantages and achievement, are best positioned to make a dent in gender inequality, to move into positions of leadership, and to close the earnings gap. But we know there’s been very little progress on these fronts.
I wanted to understand what was perpetuating the leadership gap, and what was stalling progress toward closing the earnings gap. Highly educated women have played an important role in the overall progress we have seen — they are a major reason that the needle has moved at all. While leaving the workforce to become full-time moms for a spell — one manifestation of the so-called leaky pipeline — is certainly not the only reason why we have continuing inequality gender gaps, it is one reason. I felt that understanding this most extreme of decisions was an important piece of the puzzle.   
GC: You say in the book that “in fact [these professional women] have limited options in returning to professional workplaces little changed from those they left behind.” If you could make one policy change to help them, what would it be?
Stone: One of the things that makes it difficult for them to go back to their former careers — and you notice in the book how many of them don’t go back to their former careers — has to do with hours of work. Extreme-hour jobs are wreaking havoc on working moms like the ones I studied. On working dads, too, but childcare is still very gendered, and women bear most of the responsibility. So I’d reduce these extreme-hour jobs and bring them in line with reasonable, full-time work hours.
We also need more flexible work options such as part-time and job-sharing. But it’s equally important to eliminate the stigma attached to flexibility and these other work arrangements. Women with flexible schedules are not seen as committed. They’re not given good job assignments, and that creates the incentive for them to quit.  

But this brings up yet another paradox of privilege. Professional women have far more flexibility than women in other types of work, but the long hours they currently work basically negate this advantage. If you’re working 50, 60, 70 hours a week, no amount of flexibility will help you out, which is why cutting back hours of work, along with flexibility, is so important.
GC: You found that reentry to the workforce was both “easier and harder, and more complicated” than your subjects had expected. How have their paths and expectations changed?
Stone: They can get jobs. Quite easily. They said over and over again in our interviews: ‘The job found me.’ These women were well qualified and well networked, and that part — getting back to work per se — was not an issue. Finding the right fit, really starting up a new career — that was the hard part.
They still had an eye on their children’s lives, especially their schooling. And because they’d quit, their husbands’ jobs now had more prominence. Their husbands were often used to their wives being home and doing more at home, so the husbands could do more at work. All this meant that even with — or in their case, probably especially with — older kids, they still wanted flexibility.
Additionally, most of these women didn’t need to work for strictly financial reasons. As a result of their volunteer experiences, and getting a little older, they started looking for work that was meaningful — that was another thing that became important. Finally, many felt really burned by their experiences in their former careers, so didn’t even consider returning to them. As a result of all these factors, there was a lot of experimentation, of women bouncing in and out of different jobs that didn’t work, before they found something that did — a process that took about 10 years.