Friday, August 09, 2013

This just in: NYTimes worries about privileged women. Again.

In "The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In," , Judith Warner revisits the famous "opt-out" group from ten years ago. KJ Dell'Antonia gives the numbers but somehow concludes that women wouldn't want to go back:
Among the anecdotes are numbers: roughly a third of “highly qualified” women leave their jobs to spend time at home; 89 percent of those who “offramped” said they wanted to resume work, but only 73 percent of these succeeded in getting back in, and only 40 percent got full-time jobs, often at lower pay or with lesser job responsibilities. 
 I'm not sure why the Gray Lady is so obsessed with the happiness choices of women of privilege.  Maybe it's like reality shows, where viewers can think, "Okay, you're rich, but you didn't get everything you wanted, did you?"

Or maybe it's to induce schadenfreude in readers like humanities academics, most of whom will never see a six-figure salary in their wildest dreams. Idealism says that the purpose is to  make women aware of the limitations of their choices, but maybe what NYT is saying is that women are justly punished for ambition. Ouch.

At The Atlantic, Magda Pecsenye puts her finger on a possible flaw in the argument:
Blaming struggles of a limited group on personal choice is bad social science. Warner doesn't look at how well the women who stayed in the workforce are faring now, or how the men in their cohort are faring now. Without these comparisons there's no way to know if the women who opted out are doing substantially worse than they might have had they stayed in. 
In other words, "Hello, recession!"

The original participants all stated confidently that they'd waltz back into high-powered jobs when they were ready and are shocked to discover that that's not the case. As Historiann says, "No $hit, Sherlock!  Duhhhhh!  Awesome!!!  Eleventy.  Are there any other cliches and verbal representations of my eyeballs rolling back in my head that I’ve overlooked so far?"

As Bardiac says, "I'm sort of despairing here because the women the article talks about were/are way privileged; they sound like they all had college educations, and they all went to college when feminism was important on college campuses.  They all had job opportunities beyond what most people have."   

Bardiac's right. I think they thought their class privilege would trump the disadvantages of being (1) female and (2) over 40 when they tried to go back to work, which in a sexist and ageist culture is a big mistake.

But academics, and academic humanities, are seemingly in a permanent state of recession (unlike other parts of a university; h/t Margaret Soltan), which is why quitting after tenure elicits such strong emotions.

This reminds me of the "dropping out" issue that Flavia highlighted a couple of months ago.  The thing that her classmate was saying, Paul Revere-style, was that if you make the choice to leave, or opt out, or "drop out," you might never get a chance to opt back in.  And as Dr. Crazy points out, it's only an option for partnered people.

The real question, which is kind of obscured in the NYT's interest in the emotional happiness of the women it surveys, is this: how will you support yourself? And what are you doing to ensure that you can?  This is a human issue, which is another way of saying it's a feminist issue.


Historiann said...

Thanks for the link and further comments. I need to go read the Magda Pecsenye article you linked to here. I take her point that without looking at a control group, the Warner article is merely anecdata, but as they say in my field, "cash is good to eat."

People who stay in the labor market aren't all thrilled with their jobs or lives in their 40s and 50s, either. But having money, health insurance, ability to pay rent/mortgage, etc.--this is why we call it WORK, right? (To quote Don Draper here again: "That's what the money's for!!!") The notion that work needs to be fulfilling or beautiful or creative all of the time is an ideal that's only held up to women workers. One of the men quoted in the Warner article makes this point, which is basically, "I'd love to go on a 'journey of self-discovery,' but someone has to pay the bills!"

Anonymous said...

... my husband is currently going on a journey of self-discovery (while I pay the bills)...

When we talk to his (working class) family we're reminded what a privilege it is to worry about liking your job or not. That Ivy PhD in a tech field opens a lot of angst doors even as it closes the economic stress doors.

A lot of the (male and female) public finance bloggers we read also go on journeys of self-discovery. They either have a wife with health insurance or they take advantage of being healthy men and are able to go uninsured or get affordable private insurance. Mostly they don't spend much money and live off the interest of their investments. The YMoYL model, sometimes with real estate thrown in. And, of course, blogging income.

It happens with both men and women, but the narrative is different based on gender. SAHM vs. financially independent (or "retired" is currently the buzz-word among some of the guys).

undine said...

Historiann--That may be one of my favorite Don Draper quotations ever, despite the scene it's in. I wonder if EAT, PRAY, LOVE and all those self-discovery movies starring women with mysterious sources of neverending money are to blame for fostering this idea, too.

nicoleandmaggie--But see, you have an egalitarian relationship, and self-discovery/reinvention in your case (and maybe for some of the public finance bloggers) really is a reinvention phase while he figures out the next thing, if I've read your blog correctly. And because of his skills in the labor market, he can probably opt back in, can't he?

Anonymous said...

I don't get much of the early retirement community-- they seem to delight in the mundane tasks of daily living. But hey, so does #2. She would make an excellent early retiree. (Me, I'd get bored and start to cause trouble.)

DH is technically self-employed... he just doesn't have a client yet. But if it weren't for my career we'd be living in the Bay area and he'd be doing work at some tech company.

But that self-employed label along with the LLC is a big gender difference-- he's doing his best to keep there from being a gap on his resume (and tech people do consulting businesses and start-ups all the time). Women who "opt-out" don't necessarily think about that in advance.

He should be able to opt-in, but so should a lot of the women who opt-out and have difficulty getting back into regular paid employment. Just like them, he needs to keep his skills up and his networks connected, and to not have nasty gaps on his cv. Men are hurt from jobloss and cv gaps too.

Also opting-in based on skills alone is easier in a tight labor market like the SF bay area, and not as easy someplace like where we're living. Though I guess the women in that article were high skilled and probably NYC-based, so it should have been easier for them as well than the average person living in a city where labor markets aren't as tight.

Historiann said...

Undine: I was also thinking about Eat, Pray, Love when I was writing that comment. Now, must go read your Double Indemnity post. I love watching old movies because the women get substantial roles and also get to keep their (fabulous!) clothes on.

Speaking of which: I just watched (finally) Mona Lisa Smile, and after having seen some of the other movies that Julia Roberts has done (producing the Felicity/American Girl movie, Mirror Mirror, etc.), I think she's the female superstar who's doing the most feminist movies out there (E/P/L probably excepted.) Maybe a subject for another post?