Feminism’s ‘extreme’ solution to the opt-out revolution

Megan Basham
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Posted: Apr 18, 2007 12:01 AM
Feminism’s ‘extreme’ solution to the opt-out revolution

Since the New York Times lit the fuse on the opt-out debate in 2003—reporting that a growing number of married, professional women are permanently or temporarily opting out of full-time jobs—feminist reaction has ranged from denial to condemnation to the predictable call for more government-funded daycare. None of this has done anything to curb the trend of mothers taking the exit ramp off the career track.

Mirroring the results of more scientific studies, Oprah Winfrey’s recent online poll found that 66 percent of working mothers wish they were stay-at-home moms. Careerbuilder.com’s 2006 survey revealed that fifty-two percent would take a pay cut to spend more time with their children, suggesting women aren’t interested in logging more hours at the office no matter who’s footing the babysitting bill.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone that a forthcoming Bureau of Labor Statistics report is expected to confirm that not only is the opt-out phenomenon occurring, it is wider and more pronounced than previously guessed.

Few feminist commentators have been willing to confront this reality, but some who have are sounding a new alarm as creative as it is ambitious. The problem now, they claim, isn’t that women don’t have equal opportunities or adequate child care options, it is that prestigious jobs are too extreme, requiring more from women than they’re inclined to give. And this, they protest, isn’t fair.

The “extreme work model”—high level, high paying employment that requires 60 or more hours a week— is unjust to women, “[forcing them] out of these very good jobs much more readily than men,” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of a study on extreme jobs for the Center for Work/Life Policy. Of course, in Hewlett’s use, “force” does not mean that companies are irrationally firing top female employees, but rather that women either won’t accept these positions or quit once they have them.

Only 20 percent of extreme professionals are women, and of those 80 percent report that they have no desire to work that hard for more than a year. In contrast, only about half of extreme male workers report the same. “For women there's a flight risk. But men get burned out and are able to stick with it,” Carolyn Buck Luce, Hewlett’s co-author told Forbes in February.

While some might conclude such divisions are the natural by-product of an economic system that allows workers a choice in how demanding a job they will accept, feminists see in it the specter of oppression. Their mantra, as newspapers across the country trumpet it, is that while women may choose to work fewer hours or take a professional breather now and then, they don’t, as the Columbia Journalism Review’s E.J. Graff complained, “…choose the bias or earnings loss that they face if they work part-time or when they go back full time.”

There is something petulant in these objections as they resent a woman experiencing any effect on paycheck or prestige no matter how many fewer hours she works or how much time she takes off. Surely even the most ardent feminists would concede that a man who made similar choices would face similar penalties.

Yet rather than confront the reality that life requires choices—that just as one cannot be an astronaut and a baseball player, one cannot be a 60- to 80-hour-a-week executive and a fully available mom—these forward feminist thinkers argue for changing the requirements of achievement. If a woman cannot find a position that fits her exact number of desired hours while also meeting her expected level of status and compensation, then everyone else must be made to work less. Or at least they must be made to think there is something wrong with working more.

Despite the fact that the majority of workers classified as extreme say they love their jobs and that their hours are self-inflicted, women’s advocacy groups insist the system needs to be adjusted. "There is a sense that you almost have to protect workers against their own desire to self-destruct on these jobs," Hewlett told the Baltimore Sun last December. Hewlett and Luce’s proposed mode of protection—nothing short of “a radical redesign of the high-echelon work model.”

Clearly the idea that workers need to be protected from their own drive to succeed so that the less dedicated have an equal chance to occupy the corner office sounds antithetical to free market ideals. Not so, say feminist organizations who claim that reforms like flextime and more paid leave are necessary if women are to compete for the best positions. But if Hewlett, Luce, and Graff are a bit squeamish about acknowledging the ideological source of their suggestions, some of their more transparent sisters aren’t.

In an essay published March 14 at The New Republic, feminist professor and author, Linda Hirshman comes close to arguing its time to scrap the great experiment altogether in the name of gender equality.

Calling the corporate world “exploitative” to women, Hirshman says its time to reconsider whether Marx was on to something. “[Women] have to work much longer hours than they like; longer than they think anyone should have to work,” she writes. Rather than seeing this as justifiable reason for some to draw back from the workplace, Hirshman believes the U.S. needs to adopt a more socialist model.

“Relentless pressure to achieve huge profits, growing inequality…and the penetration of market values into all aspects of life--the story dovetails perfectly with the classic Marxist description of the unavoidable consequences of capitalism,” writes Hirshman. In other words, if women don’t want to compete for first string positions on a level playing field, we need to create a field that allows them to score the same number of points while spending less time in the game.

But what if it’s a game women don’t want to play? No one watching a busy mom juggle the demands of her husband, children, and—sometimes—her job would suggest women are less willing to work hard than men. They simply have different ideas about what is worth their effort. Perhaps the increasing numbers of women deciding to dedicate more time to motherhood should be taken as an embrace of the extreme career rather than a repudiation of it. With a job description that routinely calls for 100 hours a week or more, constant availability to unpredictable clients, and immediate adaptability to an ever-evolving environment, they may very well be the most extreme of all extreme workers.