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Noting a phenomenon that might seem to recall a previous era, The New York Times Magazine recently portrayed women who leave their careers in order to become full-time mothers as “opting out.” But, are high-achieving professional women really choosing to abandon their careers in order to return home? This provocative study is the first to tackle this issue from the perspective of the women themselves. Based on a series of candid, in-depth interviews with women who returned home after working as doctors, lawyers, bankers, scientists, and other professions, Pamela Stone explores the role that their husbands, children, and coworkers play in their decision; how women’s efforts to construct new lives and new identities unfold once they are home; and where their aspirations and plans for the future lie. What we learn—contrary to many media perceptions—is that these high-flying women are not opting out but are instead being pushed out of the workplace. Drawing on their experiences, Stone outlines concrete ideas for redesigning workplaces to make it easier for women—and men—to attain their goal of living rewarding lives that combine both families and careers.
Opting out," "off-ramping" and "following the mommy track" are all popular terms to describe professional women who leave their jobs to be stay-at-home moms. But do they describe the truth of the matter? Stone, an associate professor of sociology at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, set out to answer this question after discovering that there was no research on the matter; perceptions of these women were shaped almost exclusively by the media. Stone conducted in-depth interviews with 54 women: white women who had been highly successful professionals and were married to men who could support them while they stayed at home—i.e., women who had a "choice." What Stone found was fascinating and surprising: women quit because of work, not family, and only as a last resort: "They have been unsuccessful in their efforts to find flexibility or... because they found themselves marginalized and stigmatized, negatively reinforced for trying to hold onto their careers after becoming mothers." These women were abandoning "all-or-nothing" workplaces where the demands were so unrelenting that, as one mutual fund trader put it, "there were days when I couldn't get up from my desk to go to the bathroom." Stone's revealing study adds an important counterpoint to Leslie Bennetts's forthcoming The Feminine Mistake. (May)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
The Coxswain. Kate Hadley, thirty-nine and mother of three, was a coxswain. Not just a coxswain, but captain of the women's crew team and the first woman to be elected president of her Ivy League university's rowing club, which included the men's and women's teams. Knowing little about crew, I asked her what a coxswain did. The intensity and enthusiasm with which she answered made clear why Kate had won the confidence and vote of her fellow rowers. "The coxswain," she told me, "is the person who literally sits in the boat and bosses people around and gives commands, calls strategy, motivates them." Perhaps thinking that she was sounding a little boastful, Kate self-deprecatingly added that she was "the unathletic one." The coxswain is the brain not the brawn of the team, the strategist: "You're smart, you can think on your feet and you don't weigh too much because they're pulling you, you're dead weight." As dead weight, Kate explained to me, coxswains were not regarded as captain material, and she seemed prouder of having beenelected captain as a coxswain than club president as a woman. Both were unprecedented achievements.
As we talked in the family room of her suburban Chicago home, it was easy to envision Kate as a collegiate athlete. Tanned and trim, wearing a tee shirt, cotton skirt, and fashionable but functional sandals, she was articulate and reflective as she told me about her life growing up, a life she recognized was privileged and accomplished. The daughter of an international businessman, Kate described her mother as "a classic example of a corporate wife." Kate was accepted early decision and graduated from her Ivy League college in the late 1980s. With a prestigious degree and the benefit of several summer internships, she established herself quickly at a leading research and consulting firm. After about two years there, she was expected to get her MBA, but Kate was not yet ready for that. Instead, she launched a major job search in Europe (where, unlike the U.S., "you could still work for a Fortune 100 company without an MBA"), landing a marketing job with a major brand-name company. Two years into this job, and looking ahead, Kate thought the time was now right for the MBA, "because I wouldn't want to be turned down for a job ever because I didn't have it and someone else did." Accepted by several leading schools, she decided to attend her father's alma mater, Wharton, one of the premier business schools in the country. She proposed to her boss that the firm pay for business school, and with his support, "for some miraculous reason," as she modestly put it, they agreed to do so.
Kate is a star, as are the other women profiled in this chapter and throughout the book. Like most of them, she graduated from a leading college, earned a graduate degree, and pursued a successful career in her chosen Weld. Full-time mothers when I talked with them, they may have arrived home from different starting points, but their early lives were remarkably similar. Most came from middle- or upper-middle-class homes and grew up in traditional families, their fathers working and their mothers at home, as was typical of women of their background and generation. Transitioning from youth to adulthood and school to work, their lives proceeded almost seamlessly, with little disjuncture or disruption. High-achieving, and coming of age in an era in which young women like them were encouraged and expected to reach for the stars, these women, each in her own way, following her own star, did.
Pursuing an MBA at Wharton, Kate did the de rigueur business school summer internship not at her old firm, but at a different major consumer brands company, a company she found herself loving and which also offered her the possibility of returning home to the U.S. Departing amicably from her former employer (and paying them back for the tuition money), she launched her career in international marketing with the new firm. Clearly identified as a high flyer, Kate moved steadily upward, at one point easily sidestepping a transfer to another part of the country in order to stay at headquarters and closer to Nick, her soon-to-become husband, quickly becoming the marketing manager of the company's leading brand-the "mother brand" as she called it in her marketing lingo. At this point, newly married and wanting to move to Latin America in order to pursue a career opportunity for her husband, Kate was able to leverage her expertise and experience to transfer laterally to a new job overseas, ultimately getting a promotion to marketing director just before having her first baby.
Kate continued to work after her baby was born, but cut back to 80 percent time, reasoning that this "would be a good way to still be in the game and in the fast track and keep up my networks and reputation, but that it would also afford me a slice of normality or a little bit of balance." "So the plan was I would be four days in the office, and then Fridays I would be at home. I would be accessible for phone calls, sometimes conference calls, and I would still travel and everything." Given the long distances entailed in traveling in Latin America, Kate estimated that she was on the road two to three weeks a month. Despite the grueling schedule, Kate had a second child eighteen months after the first. Shortly thereafter, prompted by her husband's decision to return to the States for his career, the family moved back. Failing to line up a new job, and with family pressures mounting, Kate quit. When I talked with her, she had been home three years. Looking back on her decision, she took satisfaction from how long she had been able to juggle career and family, musing "I probably in some ways lasted longer than maybe some people thought I would in terms of working until my second child was one."
The CPA. The daughter of a police officer and a mother who "never worked," Diane Childs, forty-one and the mother of two children, grew up in the big northeastern city where she still lived, and stayed close to home for college, choosing a local university that was affordable and accessible, and a major (accounting) that was practical. Diane, who had worked since she was seventeen years old, "mulled around in liberal arts for maybe a year or so" before going into the business program, a move prompted by the realization that "I'm going to have to find a job when I get out, pay off school loans, things like that." Graduating in the early 1980s, a time, she recalled, when "there was a big push for women," Diane jumped at the opportunities opening up in her Weld. Recruited right out of college, Diane went to work for a major accounting firm. Although she recognized that this job gave her invaluable experience, Diane "didn't love it." She recalled that the partners "made good salaries, but all looked like they were fifteen years older than they really were." Taking them as negative role models, and now a CPA, Diane decided not to pursue the traditional accountants' career path to partner, and after three years moved instead to a job at a national real estate investment company. Here, she learned the ropes of the real estate and construction industries and found a work environment more in keeping with her style and values. After three years and wanting "to do something that was a little more needed," Diane decided to make another change, transitioning seamlessly to a job where she was responsible for pulling together financing for a company that developed affordable housing. Having found her niche, Diane worked a lot and liked it, despite her realization that relative to the for-profit world, the nonprofit side was stretched thin-short-staffed and under-resourced, with salaries that were "not pretty." The fast pace of deal-making and doing good appealed to her, though, and she derived great satisfaction and "fun" from what she was doing. Five years into this job, Diane had her first child, followed three years later by another. She continued working, changing to a part-time schedule. After twelve years in the position (seven of them working part-time with children), Diane quit and has been home one year.
The Consultant. Growing up in the South, with an engineer father and older brothers who also pursued scientific and technical careers, Elizabeth Brand, forty, who has one child with another on the way, followed in their footsteps, not in her stay-at-home mother's. Liking math and science, she "tended to gravitate where guys did," one of only three women in the engineering program at the prestigious university from which she graduated. Quickly finding work in her Weld, she took a job with a multinational energy company, doing everything "from designing parts of pipelines to developing pipe specifications for a new plant that was going be built." Elizabeth's talents were soon recognized and after only a year and a half on the job, she was offered "a really terrific opportunity" to work at a plant "that had a lot of issues." Located in a remote part of Idaho, a region of the country she had never even visited, this job gave her "nuts and bolts experience" at a very young age. Elizabeth was not only young, she was female, and she described the situation facing her as she started her new job: "I used to kid that I was the only professional woman in the whole town of twenty thousand people. Because anyone who ended up doing that left that town or the state." Despite trepidation from the plant's workers, who had heard that "there is a woman coming from California, and she's going to tell us how to run our plant," Elizabeth was able to win them over, and looked back on the job fondly: "It was a great learning experience. I learned a whole lot from the operators and the maintenance people.... So, on a personal level and a professional level, it was a tremendous growth experience."
Although she loved her job and the athletic, outdoorsy lifestyle of the Rocky Mountains, Elizabeth decided to apply to business school. Recognizing that her engineering background and unusual work experience would distinguish her from many applicants, Elizabeth recalled (realistically, not boastfully), "Because I had a unique application, it was really easy to get in. I applied to, I think, MIT, Wharton, and Harvard, and got into all three, and decided to go to MIT because I thought it just seemed to be the right fit." Moving to the East Coast to attend business school, to what she considered "another totally foreign place," Elizabeth once again found herself in a male-dominated world, one with "a lot of very conservative, particularly economically conservative individuals." "Sort of relying on those old strengths," she took a lot of finance and technology classes and landed a summer internship with a leading management consulting firm, eventually joining them upon getting her MBA. Elizabeth worked for them during a period of rapid expansion and her own career progressed apace. In what she characterized as the "up or out" world of consulting, Elizabeth quickly moved up, from consultant to vice president in only seven years. Throughout her career, she worked on a variety of projects, many of them international in scope, in a range of industries, and made partner at age thirty-four. Two years later, Elizabeth had her first child, took maternity leave from which she never returned, and handed in her resignation. She has been home two years and, after undergoing a series of fertility treatments, is pregnant with her second child.
The Editor. Wendy Friedman, forty and the mother of two, grew up in "a little, little" town in western Ohio, the daughter of a businessman "who was always working" and a mother who was home and "around." Loving books, she majored in English at the "public Ivy" university she attended. When Wendy graduated in the early 80s, "like everyone else who wasn't going to medical school at the time," she thought seriously about going to law school (even taking the LSAT), before realizing that she could pursue her love of literature professionally. Told by a hometown friend about a well-known publishing course, Wendy applied and was accepted. "And then I thought, well, if I still like it, I'll move to New York, and get a job in publishing, because obviously you need to be in New York." True to her vision, Wendy arrived in the city on Labor Day weekend following her graduation, landing a job with a leading publisher. Although her title was editor, she quickly realized that she was little more than "a glorified clerk/secretary." Her boss "needed someone who didn't have any ambitions, who was happy to get the paycheck, who was very nine-to-five." Wendy was not that someone; she was "dying to kind of be there longer and read manuscripts over my boss's shoulder. I was really interested in learning this business." With this goal in mind, she started interviewing and soon found the kind of job she was looking for at a smaller, highly respected press, again as an entry-level editor, but this time actually editing. She recalled her time there "working your way up, trying to convince agents to send you stuff and to acquire. What was good about being in that kind of a situation was there were so few hands, and there were so many books that still had to be published."
While Wendy advanced to associate editor, the publishing industry was changing around her. She recalled that period: "At that point, it's so sad, all these publishing houses were still independent. And then gradually [a major publishing company] took over, and they fired a lot of people, and then they moved us over into their building, and after about four years, they just killed the imprint, and we all lost our jobs." Freelancing for a while, helped by "generous colleagues who kind of got me work here and there," Wendy soon found another editing job, making a lateral move to what she felt was "a much better house." Not only was this press a better house, it was a good Wt, and Wendy settled in, advancing in just over a decade from full editor, where she had "half an assistant," to senior editor ("where I got my own assistant"), to executive editor ("two assistants"). While moving up, Wendy had two children, after which she continued to work full-time, often working a day a week at home. Being home, Wendy longed to spend more time with her children, and was starting to question whether she could sustain the long hours of her job, reading manuscripts late at night and on weekends. She also started to burn out a bit, wondering whether she would "still be schlepping" manuscripts home in her fifties. Meanwhile, after she had helped support her husband through school, his career began to take off and stabilize, making it possible for her to take some time out, both to be with her children and to rethink her own next steps. When we talked, Wendy had been a stay-at-home mom for one year.
The Trader. Meg Romano, forty-one, has three children. Meg spent twenty years as a trader before leaving her career four years ago. Despite being one of the few women on the trading floor when she started out in an industry rife with sexism, Meg managed to rise rapidly in the ranks, becoming a head trader by the age of twenty-six. During her childhood outside New York City, Meg's "primary influence" was her mother, "a summa cum laude graduate of Mt. Holyoke, and she graduated college in 1958 when, you know, women just got married and had kids. And always as a kid, my mother's primary thing was 'You need to have your education and you need to think about what you want to do with your life. You need to be able to support yourself as a woman so that you can have lots of choices.'" Meg's mother did not work herself until she had to, when Meg's father, a banker, lost a series of jobs as a result of the collapse of the savings and loan industry during the 1970s. While Meg's mother was successful at what she did and was able to put her children through college on her earnings, Meg and her siblings recognized that they needed "to pay for as much as we could." Describing herself as "a mediocre student," Meg attended a public university in a neighboring state, majored in economics and political science, and "got out of school [in the early 1980s] not really knowing what I wanted to do."
Excerpted from Opting Out? by Pamela Stone Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Illustrations
1. The Dream Team
2. Family Matters
3. Home Alone
4. Gilded Cages
5. The Choice Gap
6. Half-Full, Half-Empty
7. Mothers of Re-
8. Cocooning: The Drift to Domesticity
9. Dreams and Visions: Getting There
Appendix: Study Methodology