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Joan C. Williams's picture

A decade ago, Lisa Belkin wrote “The Opt Out Revolution,” a New York Times Magazine piece that became instantly famous. It profiled women who had chosen to leave high-profile careers to stay home full-time, arguing that they had opted out because (to quote one) “women’s brains light up differently.” I subsequently wrote a report documenting that the print media in general, and The New York Times in particular, had been writing precisely this story since the 1970s, announcing over and over again that women had finally discovered that they wanted to stay home rather than work.

Some outlets are still recycling this tired tale. That’s what makes it so impressive that The New York Times chose to stop the cycle. Last Sunday’s Magazine returned to the women interviewed by Belkin. What the article’s author, Judith Warner, found was sobering.

When women leave the workforce, one of three things happens. They get divorced and often plummet into relative poverty. They find it nigh-impossible to get back in. Or they find new jobs post-haste and everything is peachy. A bit more on each.

With almost 50 percent of their first marriages ending in divorce at the 20 year mark, many women who opt out for the good of the children end up jeopardizing their children’s futures. For decades scholars have documented that women’s standard of living typically falls if they divorce. Last time I checked, the children of divorce are less likely to reach the educational level or class status of their fathers; child support typically covers about a quarter of what it costs to raise a middle-class child.

Research also indicates that highly educated women who return after a career break end up with radically downsized careers. Warner cites a study that found that only forty percent of highly qualified women who “took a career break” returned to full-time work. Of those who re-entered the workforce, a quarter took jobs with fewer management responsibilities or lower job titles—and the jobs paid, on average, about sixteen percent less than their previous ones.

All this is old news. The new news, from forthcoming research by sociologist Pamela Stone, is that some women, after years at home, find that plum jobs “fall into their laps.” Typically these are women with platinum-edged degrees who have kept up their networks, working (to quote Warner) on major fundraising campaigns, not bake sales.

Three lessons here: one’s for foundations, one’s for the media, one’s for women themselves.

For foundations, the important news is that divorce courts are one of the key engines of maternal and child poverty. Activists last worked on this in the 1980s. Another push is needed.

For the media, The New York Times has broken the cycle of a constant rediscovery that having wives stay home full-time is best for everyone, including the wife. New York Magazine, take note.

For women, two messages emerge. If you take a career break, often it’s not a pause, it’s a permanent dent. Women who take a single year off typically lose 20% of lifetime earnings, and women who take two or three years off typically lose 30%.

The other message for women is that, if you do leave your career, make a conscious decision whether you are retiring or taking a career break. If you are retiring, go in peace. If you are taking a career break, you need to maintain your professional skills and network, which you can do in two ways.

One is to work 10-12 hours a week through one of the many new businesses that offer highly-skilled professionals part-time work; stay tuned for WorkLife Law’s forthcoming report on New Models of Legal Practice, which gathers together organizations that do this for lawyers. But there are many others for different industries, including Forshay, Mom Corps, and Business Talent Group.

If that’s not possible, then do volunteer work. But not the bake sale: do something where you come into contact with people who might hire you when you return to work. What that might be will vary. You can figure it out; Pamela Stone’s forthcoming book will help.

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