Tuesday, August 17, 2010


The Times Opts Out of the "Opt Out" Narrative

The New York Times, for forty years, ran one story after another quoting women saying they had opted out of the workforce after they had children, according to a 2006 report by the Center for WorkLife Law. The most famous was Lisa Belkin's 2003 New York Times Magazine story, "The Opt Out Revolution."

Now there's change a-brewing on the business page. Last week, David Leonhardt's "A Labor Market Punishing to Mothers" focused not on mothers' choices but on the ways the labor market pushes mothers out of good jobs. Leonhardt pointed out that none of the last three women nominated for the Supreme Court had children. Though this observation could easily have morphed into yet another lament about mothers opting out, Leonhardt struck a different note, arguing that the labor market is structured in ways that artificially penalize mothers. "Our economy extracts a terribly steep price for any time away from work--in both pay and promotions," he writes.

True that. I was once at an event where a woman graduate of Harvard Law School was told that her chances of getting a job were so slim that no recruiter would accept her as a client. What heinous act had made her so unemployable? Taking two years off to care for her son. A 2004 study by Stephen Rose and Heidi Hartman found that American women who took one year off lost 20% of their lifetime earnings, while women who took off two to three years lost 30%. These plummets in women's earnings seem out of proportion to any objective deterioration in human capital.

They are driven instead by what social scientists call the flexibility stigma. That's the stigma triggered when a worker signals a need for workplace flexibility, including not only career breaks but also part-time work. Penalties for part-time work in the U.S., again, are artificially high, seven times higher than in Sweden and twice as high as in the U.K., according to Janet Gornick and Marcia Meyers. These penalties play a major role in denying women equal pay, according to a report by the Joint Economic Committee issued last April. One quarter of employed women usually work part time, and part-time workers face steep earnings penalties. In retail jobs, part-timers receive only 58 cents for every dollar earned by full-timers.

The flexibility stigma affects anyone, male or female, who is unable or unwilling to work in the employment pattern traditional of male breadwinners. Kudos to Leonhardt helping the Times opt out of the opt out narrative.


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