In 2003, The New York Times spotlighted a small group of highly successful and educated women who left the workforce at their careers’ peak, in what it termed the “Opt-Out Revolution.”
These women declined to climb the ladder in favor of staying at home with their kids, relying on their spouses’ high salaries to pay the bills.
Ten years later, the Times returned to question whether these women had found their work-life happy endings, and found many struggling to re-enter the workforce.
At the time of the original Times article, Sheilah O’Donnel had just quit her job as a senior executive with a $500,000 annual salary. She felt pushed to the perimeters and less challenged by her work after switching to part-time, and her relationship with her husband was suffering.
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Quitting didn’t solve her marital problems, and not working took a major toll on her sense of self-worth, she told the Times. Following her divorce, O’Donnel needed a means to support herself. She found a job, far lower on the ladder than the one she’d had before, that paid 5 times less, and she had to withdraw money from her old 401(k) and borrow money from her sister to survive before receiving her first paycheck.
Economist and founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation in New York, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, conducted a survey of thousands of women with graduate or bachelor’s degrees with honors in 2004 and again in 2009. Of those who took a significant amount of time off—about a third—the majority said they would have wanted to return to work sooner, and 89% of the subjects were looking to rejoin the workforce. Only 73% of them did find a job, 40% at full-time, with about 25% taking a lower-level position and a 16% average pay cut from their previous jobs.
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According to the Times, the most highly educated, wealthy and elite class of women who opted out were readily able to find jobs, though they earned less. Still, these women said they found the jobs more fulfilling and suited to better work-life balance than the high-powered jobs they had before they left to raise a family.
Lisa Belkin, who authored the 2003 Times piece, reconnected with some of the women she had interviewed. For at least one, “The world had changed in her favor; the part-time work they wouldn’t give her is now what they were willing to give,” she told the Times.
At the same time, most women who returned to the workforce took jobs in more female-dominated, less competitive environments, though many had previously pursued careers in more traditionally male fields, according to a prolonged study by sociologist Pamela Stone.
And for those “who didn’t have the highest academic credentials or highest-powered social networks or who hadn’t been sufficiently ‘strategic’ in their volunteering,” finding a job was much more difficult, the Times reported. Divorce also proved an obstacle in the job hunt.
In Stone’s study, husbands went from indifference to their wives’ working status to preferring that their wives stay at home. At the same time, wives felt more pressured into more traditional—and less egalitarian—gender roles.
For Brown University and John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard grad Carrie Chimerine Irvin, it was the expectations for housekeeping, not childrearing, that made her feel underappreciated at home. She decided to resume her career, finding work she loved as the co-founder of a non-profit start-up. But like many other women, it was her marriage that suffered as a result of her attempt to balance the demands of work and motherhood.
Women “opting out” may have given employers an excuse not to become more accommodating to working parents, the Times reported. Women choosing not to battle to the top has also left certain fields with their gender balance out of whack—just 4% of Fortune 500 chief executives, 17% of corporate board members, 20% of law partners and 19% of Congress members are female.
However, for the majority of former stay-at-home moms, it’s no longer about striving for high-powered professions, the Times reported. Their interest is in intellectually engaging, part-time jobs that leave them some flexibility. But after years out of the workforce, even that may be out of reach.