In 2003, Lisa Belkin caused a stir with her New York Times column ‘The Opt-Out Revolution’. The question whether or not successful women opt out of their high powered careers to stay home and raise their young children has been hotly debated both in the media and in academia ever since. There seems to be little agreement about whether or not this indeed is a phenomenon at all – for example, are women really opting out or are they being pushed out? However, while statistics show that relatively few women are giving up their careers to become full-time stay-at-home moms, we are living in a time where ‘on your terms’ has become something of a mantra. Maybe the focus on opting out has been wrong. Maybe it isn’t only about women with young children. Maybe it isn’t only about quitting work altogether. Maybe opting out is actually about opting in, or rather opting out of certain expected ways of having a career in order to opt in to new lifestyles where one can live and work on one’s own terms.
In my study on opting out, I found that most of the women I interviewed did not become full-time stay-at-home moms at all – they didn’t want to. While it was not unusual that children were given as a reason for leaving – perhaps because that is something that is hard to argue with – these women ended up creating new ways of working, and of combining work with other interests and areas of life. They did this in a way that provided them with a sense of balance and coherence, both of which they lacked while they were still on the so-called fast track. But perhaps most importantly, this new lifestyle provided them with a greater sense of control: they had more control over their time and their lives. And with regards to their children, in general they did not have more time with them, but they had control over when they spent time with them. Despite having to give up the recognition and financial rewards that come with high-powered careers, these women felt opting in improved their quality of life.
Ingrid Biese is a Postdoc researcher and project manager at Hanken School of Economics. She recently received her PhD from the Hawke Research Institute at the University of South Australia. The title of her thesis is: Opting Out: A critical study of women leaving their careers to adopt new lifestyles.
Read more at: McKie, L., Biese, I. & Jyrkinen, M. (2013) ' "The Best Time is Now!": The Temporal and Spatial Dynamics of Women Opting in to Self-Employment', Gender Work and Organization, 20(2): 184-196.
Contact Ingrid by email