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The truth behind women 'opting out'

Two reports show a weak labor market and inflexible work policies as the main reasons women are staying home.

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When New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin coined the phrase "the opt-out revolution" in 2003 to describe a supposed exodus of mothers from the workforce, her article sparked a media flurry. Other journalists rushed to find their own examples of women heading home for family reasons.

But don't think of it as a trend. Much of the talk about women "opting out" to care for their families is a myth, two studies report. "Women are not increasingly dropping out of the labor force because of their kids," says Heather Boushey, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. In a study titled "Are Women Opting Out? Debunking the Myth," she finds that although there was a drop in women's work participation rates between 2001 and 2005, it was largely because of a weak labor market. Men's labor rates also dropped during this time period.

"Higher job losses in the recession of the early 2000s have had the effect of making it appear that women – and especially women with children – are opting out of employment," Ms. Boushey says. Yet mothers today are only half as likely to leave the workforce because of their children as they were in 1984, she finds.

"Most mothers do not opt out," says Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings. "They are pushed out by workplace inflexibility, the lack of supports, and a workplace bias against mothers." In one recent survey, 86 percent of women cited obstacles such as inflexible jobs as a key reason behind their decision to leave.


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