Biology in the News Explained

The “opt out” myth

In Lisa Belkin’s recent article on women attempting to re-enter the workplace after leaving to have kids, “while 74 percent do find work, only 40 percent find work they call satisfying.”

This statement only begs the questions: What percentage of men find their work satisfying? What percentage of women who never “opted out” find their work satisfying?

What all the discussions about continuing gender inequality in the workplace fail to address is that for most people, having a job is a less attractive option in many ways than not working, whether you are male or female. White-collar women are faced with a double-edged sword, because while it is harder for them than men to achieve success in most professions, it is also socially much more acceptable for them than men to quit their jobs to raise children. I know several women who were glad to have the excuse when it came along. Men, however, live in a completely different world. Those who stay at home with kids now are in general as anomalous, and disparaged, as the first women who left their kids to go to work, when most did not.

It is a complex issue, because men are more likely to prefer work to staying home for two reasons: one, they are simply expected to so they make their reality fit expectations in order to fit in with society; and two, most professional work is easier for men than for women because it genuinely is harder for women of the same ability to be recognized for such and advance in their careers.

As explained by Ben Barres, (subsq. req’d) most working women actually ignore the signs of sexism in their quest to succeed. This makes perfect sense; if you develop a victimization complex and dwell on perceived or real obstacles that are out of your control, it will waste energy better spent on working around any obstacles that do present themselves. Many women have had the attitude that if they ignore the whole idea of sexism and just do what we do best, they will succeed. The problem with this is that we end up with the situation we have now – a whole generation of young women that don’t believe in a need for feminism, because they believe the lack of officially sanctioned sexism means that women have achieved equality (even when the numbers starkly show that in most professions, increasing proportions of women at high levels have stalled, and in some there have even been recent losses, instead of gains). If women are not advancing at the same rate as men, well, it’s because they have made the choice to “opt out.” Young women are turned off the feminist movement because they see their current situation as having the freedom of choice. But “choice” in this context is quite often an illusion; the fact that the choice made all too often, to settle back into traditional female roles, belies the notion of true equality in the workplace.

Unfortunately the media perpetuates the myth of equality via the propagation of these terms such as “opting out” and “choice”. Is it really a choice to leave a career to raise kids when women have to be twice as good as a man just to keep up? The insidious problem about sexism today is that while it is usually no longer acceptable (not to mention legal) to be blatantly discriminatory in the workplace, there is no recourse, legal or otherwise, for women dying a slow death by a thousand small cuts. From the abstract of an academic paper on the topic (Soares, 2001. Women in science and technology: Restricted success. Quimica Nova 24:281-285):

Along the way [women] come across stumbling blocks that make their progress difficult. Most of these difficulties are not gender-specific, yet women encounter them more consistently than do men. It is remarkably true for the areas of Science and Technology.

Every Ph.D. learns about rejection. All else being equal, if a woman has to apply for several more grants before one gets funded or a dozen more jobs before she gets an interview, then that many more women will drop out before they do succeed. That alone would translate into significantly fewer women in higher academic positions. We can all name plenty of women who have achieved those positions, but that is not the point. The environment is such that highly driven people will likely achieve prominent standing in science, regardless of gender. The continuing disparity lies between those who put forth a fair amount of effort, are reasonable scientists, and succeed, and those who are at least as good at what they do and work hard at their research and teaching, and yet do not have the energy to keep fighting on and on after seemingly endless job and grant rejections. The former group is dominated by men; the latter group is dominated by women. In addition, because men are much more likely to believe they must be the primary breadwinner and thus have a full-time job, which for professional women remains “optional,” it is highly likely that men in the latter scenario will indeed keep fighting longer to succeed. The mistaken conclusion is that this is due to some gender disparity in tenacity, when it is only due to society’s expectations forming men’s and women’s expectations of themselves.

So the difference has nothing to do with ability, drive, competitiveness or any of the nonsense hypothesized by sociologists and Larry Summers. It simply has to do with a still unlevel playing field in day-to-day accomplishments versus rewards. Barres, with his experience both as a female and male scientist, is in a unique position to cut right to the heart of the issue:

I think people do what they are rewarded for doing, and I think women realize, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, they are not going to get the rewards. So they put the hours into their families or whatever.

Barres does bring in the child support issue, which needs to be recognized as a worker issue, not a women’s issue. However, he is still probably right to mention it in tandem with the higher hurdles women face because in our society child care is still considered a women’s issue, and thus the lack of it results in a double-whammy:

It is very much harder for women to be successful, to get jobs, to get grants, especially big grants. And then, and this is a huge part of the problem, they don’t get the resources they need to be successful. Right now, what’s fundamentally missing and absolutely vital is that women get better child care support.

Certainly no one can deny the truth of his last sentence. But until we all recognize that this is just one of many working conditions (such as long hours, short vacation times, etc.) that makes many jobs unpleasant for everyone, the gender disparity will continue. People have worked hard at societal attitudes over the years, and no one can say they haven’t improved. But it would certainly help if the mainstream media weren’t constantly reinforcing the myth that advancement at work is all about choice.


2 Responses to “The “opt out” myth”

  1. TigerHawk says:

    A couple of friendly observations.

    First, it is not enough to talk in general terms about the challenges women face in the workforce. I think that they vary tremendously from one industry to another, and even within an industry they vary based on the subjectivity of success.

    For example, in sales nobody cares what your gender is — all that matters is your numbers. The life of a sales rep is very demanding and extremely hard to reconcile with having children, but women are often among our top reps and freely recognized as such.

    Same thing with lawyering — yes, there may be a lot of sexism out there, but if you win your cases and close your deals nobody is going to care what your gender is.

    Not surprisingly, there is no affirmative action program in sales or lawyering, because the objective measures do the job and everybody knows it.

    Academia is a different kettle of fish. Progression in academia is absurdly subjective and political. It is not surprising that subtle sexism and racism would be harder to eradicate. We deal with this with affirmative action, which is a double-edged sword for the beneficiary.

    General rule: The more subjective the indicia of success, the more sexism and racism.

    I also think you miss a point which may or may not amount to structural sexism: Many men prefer the clear hierarchy of the work place to the confused lines of authority in the modern household. At work, I know my responsibilities, I know from whom to take orders, and I know to whom to give orders. Men find that sort of clarity to be very comforting, but I do not think that women do. Anybody who doubts that “female” collaboration is structured differently from “male” collaboration should participate in a school parent organization. Goddamn, everything is a long discussion. Nobody wants to be either the chief or the indians.

    Finally, it is obviously possible to turn all of this around — yes, women have a tougher time in most workplaces, especially those ruled by subjectivity. But, in the end, today’s cultural norms approve of a wider range of choices for women than for men, many of whom regard themselves as trapped in fairly narrow roles defined for them (not me, but I know it is a common sentiment).

  2. Papa Ray says:

    I had one job for thirty years. Over that time period there were six women that tried to the the same type job I had and all quit because it was just too hard, too demanding and too stressful.

    Which is to say nothing about most of the issues you touched on.

    But, in my long life, knowing hundreds of people in various occupations and situations I can tell you that women who enjoy their work, don’t let their family have priority over their lives will do well, most times as well as men and sometimes as stated above better.

    There are jobs that women do much better at and are accepted better at, which enables them to do better than a man could/can do in that job.

    One thing. I think that the feminist “movement” has been highjacked. I think it is actually hurting women now, kinda like unions are doing now. They both had their place and accomplished their missions. This is why most young women won’t have anything to do with it.

    Well, except those liberal, socialist types.

    A feminist would be like a fish out of water down here in the lower and western states. Women want an education, family, home, happiness, security and really don’t think that having a man supply all of that or help get it is a bad deal.

    They think it’s a good deal.

    But then we are a little more ol’ fashioned (except places like Austin, which has been taken over by the liberals)than the rest of the Republic.

    What goes around comes around my Mama told me.

    Papa Ray
    West Texas

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