Lady Boss Busted

Is the "glass ceiling" a matter of choice?


For years, conservatives have been saying that the "glass ceiling" holding American women back in the workplace is largely a trumped-up issue and that women aren't at the top because, mostly, they would much rather stay home with the kids or work in less demanding jobs.

For years, they have been denounced as sexists for making these claims. Now, a cover story in The New York Times Magazine seems to vindicate their position. The Oct. 26 article by Lisa Belkin, titled "The Opt-Out Revolution," examines the phenomenon of professional women giving up or curtailing their careers.

Pointing to several high-profile women who stepped off the top of the ladder to spend more time with family, such as former Bush adviser Karen Hughes and former Pepsi-Cola president Brenda Barnes, Belkin writes, "Why don't women run the world? Maybe it's because they don't want to."

Is this antifeminist heresy or profound wisdom, a new gender revolution or a counter-revolution?

"Annoyingly clueless," "horrifyingly retro," "dangerous and almost misogynistic"—these were some of the epithets flung at Belkin's article in letters to the Web magazine in response to editor Joan Walsh's critique of the piece. You'd think Belkin had called for the repeal of women's right to vote.

Some critiques, including Walsh's article, focus on points that Belkin actually acknowledges: for instance, that she looks only at a subgroup of privileged, mostly white women who can afford to scale down or quit because they have high-earning husbands. Yet there's a reason Belkin limits her portrait to this sample: These are generally the kinds of women who were in the best position to get to the top and chose not to get there. While 95 percent of men with MBA degrees work full-time, only two-thirds of their female counterparts do.

One Salon reader huffed, "Unfortunately, the author did not touch upon the fact that so many women 'opt out' because they get sick of watching men with less seniority and less work ethic pass them on the ladder." Yet there is no evidence that sexism is a major factor in the "opting out" phenomenon; Belkin cites a recent survey by the research firm Catalyst which found that a quarter of women one promotion away from the most senior management levels don't want that promotion.

Belkin is hardly the first to write about the fact that many women in the corporate world and in the professions take voluntary detours from the career path. Most of these women, like the ones profiled in the article, do not give up working altogether; rather, they take more flexible jobs that leave more time for a life outside work but are unlikely to lead to the upper echelons of power. In other cases, they start their own businesses or work free-lance. Belkin herself left the Times newsroom, giving up the chance for a top editorial slot, but she has a fulfilling job as a home-based writer.

One revelation in Belkin's piece is that for many women, the main reason for "opting out" is not that they feel they need to be with their children but that they realize a high-powered, high-stress career isn't the life they want. As one woman told Belkin, "Maternity provides an escape hatch that paternity does not."

That leads us to Belkin's biggest omission: men. True, she mentions that women's demands for a family-friendly workplace have enabled many men to take paternity leave. But the husbands of the "opt-out" women exist in the article only as sources of income. One letter-writer faults Belkin for failing to ask why it was always the wife in the two-career couple who cut back (at least in her examples), and to acknowledge that these choices may be made in a context of unequal power.

But in many cases, perhaps, it's not that the women have less power but that the men have less freedom. Society still tends to frown on a man who "opts out"—and few successful women are willing to support such a choice by their husbands. If the wife cuts back on work, the husband will likely be forced to work longer hours. Yet in a 2000 Harris poll, more than four-fifths of men in their 20s and 30s said that a work schedule which allowed for family time was more important to them than a challenging or high-paying job; only about one-quarter said that having a prestigious job was very important.

Could that be the next revolution? If so, it will have to win the hearts and minds of women as well as men.