The Myth of the Working Mom

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In 2003, a now infamous article titled “The Opt-Out Revolution” appeared in New York Times Magazine. In it, author Lisa Belkin concluded that, “women are rejecting the workplace.” Having interviewed one too many female MBAs turned stay-at-home-moms, Belkin argued that women just don’t want to rule the world from the tops of the corporate ladder. Since then a deluge of opinions on the topic has appeared in every crevice of popular media. There were “Mommy Wars” and all sorts of unpleasantness. The problem with the media brouhaha—obscured by Blackberry vs. baby formula mud-slinging—is that too little of it is based on substantive research.

Enter Pamela Stone, a sociology professor at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. In 2008, Stone published Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home (University of California Press) to academic and popular acclaim. Based on in-depth interviews with married moms who quit their high-status jobs, Stone’s work is a welcome antidote to years of bickering about professional women and the workplace.

We caught up with Stone in New York to discuss her book. We don’t want to overwhelm you with too much brilliance all at once, so we’ll be posting our conversation with Stone in four parts. In Part One, Stone debunks common myths about the workplace and provides some refreshingly pragmatic and recession-friendly advice on how to improve it.

Myth #1: An invisible hand in the market dictates that work must be inflexible, brutish, and long.

Pamela Stone: Speaking now, in this economic crisis, it gets harder and harder to argue that there is an incentive for businesses to implement flexible policies. That said, every single study that has ever been done has shown that the introduction of workplace flexibility and new work arrangements result in increased productivity, increased retention, and less turnover. So, in fact, even in today’s economy, there is still a bottom line argument that can be made for flexibility.

I think that employers are often resistant to hearing this evidence because our current models are so heavily entrenched that a lot of people, workers included, tend to mystify their work processes. They think that there is some sort of invisible hand in the market that drives them, not understanding that there is no invisible hand other than our own.

The problem is that we are so used to a “go it alone” kind of market-driven system in the US that we have no idea that in other, comparable countries people consider these things to be rights. It is completely alien to us to think that we have a right to parental leave. Or that we have a right to a certain number of vacation or personal days. The hope is that people will realize that it is not their individual problem to solve, but that it is a collective problem that springs from the enormous mismatch between the institution of the workplace and the reality of working families today.

What can be done?

Nix the long-hour work culture.
Pamela Stone: There is almost a glorification in some occupational cultures, especially managers and professionals, of working to the extreme. Frankly it is macho. These cultures become self-sustaining.

In the old days you’d hear people say things like “that’s not women’s work, I can’t see a woman doing that.” Well, everybody knows that they can’t say that anymore, even if they think it. But what they can do is make the demands of these jobs so great that it is impossible for anyone who has childcare responsibilities to do them. You replace essentialist stereotypes with the so-called “time demands” of these self-important jobs, and you accomplish the same thing. It is all about the construction of jobs and the glorification of crazy time demands.

Small changes have a big impact.
Pamela Stone: What really came out vividly in my interviews for the book is not that these women [who quit their jobs] needed some major change. Rather, they often needed like one day of telecommuting a month or a week. Often it is changes around the margin that make a huge difference between being able to make it all work and not. So we do have to re-imagine work, in particular getting rid of this insane long-hour culture, but I also think that we have to realize how much we can do around the margin and be open to making small changes.

Reform part-time work.
Pamela Stone: I think for the foreseeable future it is tough to deny gender roles. I don’t expect the next generation to become 50/50, even if they do think in more egalitarian ways than previous generations. I think women are still going to be the ones to take on more of the family responsibility and so they are still going to be the ones who ask for flexible work arrangements to a greater extent than men. Believing that to be the reality, and being pragmatic about it, I think that we need to be on guard about making sure that the penalty to part-time work is as minimal as possible or completely disappears.

Myth #2: Most women who quit their jobs do so because they choose motherhood over career success.

Pamela Stone:
What I saw in my research was that these were women who, by and large, wanted [careers], but for complicated reasons—mostly having to do with unsupportive workplaces– couldn’t keep at them. These are also women who want to return to work at some point to utilize their skills.

The majority of the women I interviewed were highly successful, valuable employees so they had some leverage in getting flexibility from their employers, at first. But what happened is that the flexibility dead-ended their careers. The minute the women worked flexibly, they were “mommy tracked.” In almost every instance the women said they did not ever talk about the potential of their husbands being the ones to opt out. All of a sudden, their careers were slowed and they were earning less while their husband’s went full speed ahead. The privileging of his career over hers was by that time very rational in that it made sense in terms of dollars and cents. These husbands were not sexist pigs or anything. But they were husbands who were themselves in high demand careers and once it was figured that the wife would step back a little bit, it gave the man permission to step forward. It just reinforced traditional roles.

You have to realize that there are still barriers. There are still industry blockages that hinder real “choice.” And that is why I wrote my book. Because on one hand we had this tiny fraction of women at the top level of any major profession and on the other hand I was seeing, in my own life, women who had all the credentials, but who were at home.

Paradoxically, one of the most de-valued positions in our society is that of “mother.” So, women can argue that all choices are equal, but that is not how the larger society sees it. The problem with choice feminism is that it always puts the burden of change on individuals and overlooks the need for social movement. It overlooks the need for change in the workplace and forces people to tailor their lives to workplace realities rather than see themselves as part of a larger group. Choice feminism reinforces the sense that it is “your problem.”

I think there is a shortsightedness in ignoring the larger structural inequalities and the larger social realities that still, regrettably, exist. I’d like to say, as a woman of the second wave generation, that we solved all the problems. But we didn’t. I think it is sticking one’s head in the sand if you don’t recognize that choices are constrained.

What can be done?

Acknowledge that women and men don’t yet have equal choices and work toward a system in which they do.

Stone: Let’s recognize the structural issues that are behind these “choices.” Women don’t really have choices, because there is no support for working families. If we want to argue about whether a choice is a right choice or a wrong choice, well let’s first get to the point where people really have choices. When a man or a woman is as likely to be the primary caregiver. When we have as many single earning mother households as single earning father households. When there is a real mix. When institutions catch up to the reality, which is that we have extremely high labor force participation among women. That is still not acknowledged in our workplace structures. We’re not to that point yet.

Reduce hours for everyone.
I think that the husbands are captive by the same forces of an idea worker model that their wives are. That is why my solution is always to get rid of the ideal worker model and find a way to reduce hours. Because these were not guys who didn’t want to be involved with their families. And all studies show that younger generations of men want to be more involved and there is no question that they are, hours-wise, more involved than before.



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