Monday, March 5, 2012

Work-Life Balance and “Opting Out”

ForbesWoman published a thought-provoking piece on February 28 by Meghan Casserly titled “Why Is ‘Opting Out’ a Bad Word for Women?” 

I published a comment to that article shortly after it was posted, but the issue haunted me all last week.  Here’s what I think at the moment about the notion of women “opting out” of the workplace:

1.  Women choose whether to quit working for pay for many reasons. Usually it is a mix of work and family reasons, and a very difficult decision. 

I managed to continue working in a 60 hour a week professional career throughout the years my children were at home.  When my children were young, I got advice from family, friends and colleagues that it would be easier if I quit my position and took a “nice, part-time job” somewhere.  These comments made me mad, and I stayed through the worst of the sick kid years because I was stubborn.  No one was telling my husband to get a “nice, part-time job,” and I earned as much as he did and liked my job better than he did.

2. Women who receive significant positive reinforcement in the workplace are less likely to opt out.

I stuck it out while my children were at home, but I retired early.  By that point in my career, the psychic and monetary rewards I got from working were less important than the goals I wanted to accomplish in my life outside the workplace.  Had I still been receiving developmental opportunities and not had to deal with so many jerks at the office, I might well have remained.
So, yes, my decision was voluntary, but it was in part based on reduced job satisfaction.  Could my company have kept me?  Probably.  But only by satisfying my terms, which wasn’t going to happen.

3. Women have more choices than men.

Women are viewed negatively in the workplace when they opt out, but men are viewed even more negatively if they take more than a few days or weeks right after a baby is born.  This is just as unfair as the business assumption expressed in the ForbesWoman article that women are more likely to opt out, therefore, businesses don’t have to spend as much to develop them.

4. Both “staying in” and “opting out” are rational decisions, and they are very individual decisions. 

Each person will choose the best path for herself and her family at the moment the decision is made.  While it is human nature to impose our own values on another person’s decision, doing so doesn’t help.

5. Businesses do not accommodate family life.

This is true for both men and women, but in our society women get less push back for “opting out,” though I know many men who also have “opted out.”

It is rational for businesses to invest less in people they don’t think will stick around, but it becomes a chicken and egg problem. Women are less likely to stick around if they do not see the benefit to themselves – and investing in their development is certainly a huge benefit and a way to keep women engaged in the workplace. If businesses don’t invest equally in women as in men, why would women stay?

So are women (and men) making truly “opting out” on a purely voluntary basis, or are they being subtly directed toward the option that is easiest for business? My answer to that varies moment by moment.

The better question is:  How do we instead make work and home life both attractive options for women?

And the best question is:  How to we allow everyone – male and female – to create a rewarding life that balances work and family?

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