September 14, 2011 Practice Points

The Unintended Consequences of Opting Out

By Suzanne L. Jones

In a 2003 New York Times article entitled "The Opt Out Revolution," Lisa Belkin suggested that women were making an empowered choice to "opt out" of their careers. According to Belkin, the reason why women were not rising to leadership positions was perhaps because women simply did not want them.

The backlash to Belkin's article was swift. Subsequent studies revealed that professional women were not opting out, but instead were being pushed out of their careers because their employers did not offer flexible work options. The research showed that women wanted to stay at work, but their employers made work-life balance extraordinarily difficult—if not impossible—forcing women to choose between work and family.

According to a recent study by Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, the "opt-out" myth—or the idea that women choose to leave the workplace—makes it more difficult to recognize gender discrimination. According to the study, women who made a choice to leave their careers were blind to the societal and environmental barriers to their advancement in the workplace. The study concludes that while making a choice between career and family is empowering and personal, it ultimately reinforces the gender barriers faced by professional women.  

Nicole M. Stephens, assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg and coauthor of the study, recommends reframing the discussion to reflect that women frequently do not freely choose to leave the workplace, but instead are pushed out by persistent workplace barriers such as limited workplace flexibility, unaffordable childcare, and negative stereotypes about working mothers.

Keywords: work-life balance, working mothers

Suzanne L. Jones works at Hinshaw & Culbertson, LLP, Mineapolis, Minnesota.

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