Megan Basham

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.


Megan Basham

Megan Basham is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide To Having It All

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