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The truth behind women 'opting out'

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Ms. Williams is coauthor of a report released last week, " 'Opt Out' or Pushed Out?: How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflicts." The study finds that press coverage of these issues typically focuses on highly educated professional women who account for just 8 percent of American women. Ms. Belkin's now-famous "opt-out" article, for example, profiled eight women who were graduates of Princeton, her alma mater. Such articles also give the impression that women's departure from work is a matter of choice.

These rarefied portrayals do not feature workers like Michelle Lee of Norfolk, Va. She has never heard the term "opt out." And she never intended to leave her job as an administrative assistant at a pharmaceutical company. But when she needed time off to take her three sons to various appointments for chronic conditions, her boss was unbending.

"I was willing to come in early, leave late, and eat at my desk to make up the time," Ms. Lee says. "They gave me an ultimatum: I could not miss any more days. I told them it would be better for me to resign right now."

Ellen Bravo, former executive director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, describes the challenge many workers face. "Low-wage women don't have the option of opting out," she says. "We have to guarantee that being a good family member won't cost you your job."

Asked what would have enabled her to keep her job, Lee sighs and says, "Flexibility. Just mere flexibility. I'm not a slothful person."

"Opting out" also hardly describes Jennifer Marx's departure from a Seattle radio station. Three weeks ago Ms. Marx, the mother of a 9-month-old son, was laid off from her job as a producer during a company downsizing. Now, as she looks for another job, she wonders if she can find comparable flexibility. "I was in an incredible situation where my boss told me, 'I don't care when you're here as long as you get your job done,' " she says.

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