Some women are brutally honest and blurt out: "I'm burned out!" But more often than not, the explanation goes something like this: "I just want to spend more time with my family. It's really a personal decision."
Sounds plausible, right? After all, when push comes to shove, many women put family before work. But what are the implications when women insist that it was a matter of personal choice?
It'll make them feel better in the short run, but it won't help women in the long term. That's the conclusion in a study by Nicole Stephens, an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, and Cynthia Levine, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford. (The report will appear in the journal Psychological Science.)
In one part of the study, the researchers surveyed 117 stay-at-home moms with professional backgrounds. Women who emphasized it was their "choice" to leave the workforce reported greater psychological well-being. That also fits with the ethos of the capitalist marketplace because choice is "connected to related American values, such as independence, autonomy, personal control, and responsibility," says the report.
Choice is also appealing because the alternative explanation is a downer. "It's deeply threatening to say there's something out of your control," explained Stephens during our phone chat.
But here's the rub: Women who cite "choice" also showed "less recognition of the structural barriers and discrimination that still hinder American women's workplace advancement, compared with women who did not rely on the choice framework," says the research.
"Women will say there are obstacles to balancing work and family, but that it's their personal choice to quit their jobs," Stephens told me. "It implies that in the long term, you won't recognize the structural obstacles." And if you don't acknowledge those obstacles--such as lack of workplace flexibility and mommy-tracking, "there's no motivation to change anything."
Which might explain why women are stuck.
As the reports points out, women continue to make less than men, and are poorly represented in the upper ranks of many professions, including law. At the same time, though, "the majority of Americans believe that women’s job opportunities are equal to men’s," says the report about a 2005 Gallup poll where 53 percent of Americans feel that men and women have equal opportunities.
In other words, men and women are equal--except in money and power. What a deal!
So, are the women who use the term "choice" holding women back? Are they the smug mommies who think they're the ones doing the right thing?
Stephens thinks not: "I'm agnostic about what women should or should not do."
Her point is to illuminate how the "choice" rationale undermines the obstacles that women face. "There's a lot of subtle discrimination."
What do you think? Do most women "choose" to drop out? Or are they in denial about what's really driving them to quit?
Related post: Harvard Law Women Opt Out.
Hat tip: Huffington Post.
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