The Opt Out Generation: About as real as feminists burning bras

BlogHer Original Post

To trust mainstream media on this, you would think that MBA thirty-something women are leaving corporate America in droves opting instead to create an Ozzie & Harriet life for their families.

Not so quick, according to The March issue of The American Prospect. The magazine has a Special Report called The Mother Load which asks the question,"Why Can't America Have a Family-Friendly Workplace?

The American Prospect makes no secret of its liberal bent. It's mission is to:

rise to the momentous occasion that confronts all Americans who seek a just society built on our greatest traditions. Contemporary conservatism stands to thwart those traditions; it advances its agenda by way of stealth, fear-mongering, and a massive propaganda apparatus. It is our mission to expose that agenda and the lies that support it.

With that as a backdrop, the magazine contends that it's not so much that women are opting out because of the "pull" to go home but rather they are being "pushed" out because of inflexible working conditions.

The opt-out story line also discusses work/family conflict predominantly as an issue for professional women. More than half (58 percent) of the women discussed in opt-out stories in The New York Times were in high-status or other traditionally masculine white-collar jobs; the number spiked to 100 percent in The Washington Times. This picture is misleading. Only about 8 percent of U.S. women hold high-level and other traditionally masculine jobs. And data shows that highly educated mothers are more -- not less -- likely to remain in the labor force than other women.

Distorted newspaper coverage can distort public policy. When I was talking with a Capitol Hill staffer several years ago, she told me that her office was not interested in public policies to help Americans balance work and family. "My boss is not interested in the problems of professional women," she said -- a misconception taken straight from the American press.

In the blog,TPM Cafe, EJ Graff shares her entire article called"The Opt Out Myth," that was published in the Columbia Journalism Review. Graff also says the danger of the media's misinterpretation of women in the workplace results in bad public policy.

The problem is that the moms-go-home storyline presents all those issues as personal rather than public—and does so in misleading ways. The stories’ statistics are selective, their anecdotes about upper-echelon white women are misleading, and their “counterintuitive” narrative line parrots conventional ideas about gender roles. Thus they erase most American families’ real experiences and the resulting social policy needs from view.

Here’s why that matters: if journalism repeatedly frames the wrong problem, then the folks who make public policy may very well deliver the wrong solution. If women are happily choosing to stay home with their babies, that’s a private decision. But it’s a public policy issue if most women (and men) need to work to support their families, and if the economy needs women’s skills to remain competitive. It’s a public policy issue if schools, jobs, and other American institutions are structured in ways that make it frustratingly difficult, and sometimes impossible, for parents to manage both their jobs and family responsibilities.

So how can this story be killed off, once and for all? Joan Williams attempts to chloroform the moms-go-home storyline with facts. “Opt Out or Pushed Out?” should be on every news, business, and feature editor’s desk. It analyzes 119 representative newspaper articles, published between 1980 and 2006, that use the opt-out storyline to discuss women leaving the workplace. While business sections regularly offer more informed coverage of workplace issues, the “opt out” trend stories get more prominent placement, becoming “the chain reaction story that flashes from the Times to the columnists to the evening news to the cable shows,” says Caryl Rivers, a Boston University journalism professor and the author of Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women (April 2007).

The Plank, the blog for The New Republic, is also talking about the opt-out myth.

Anyone who ever thinks about writing or getting into a conversation about "opt-out" mothers should immediately read EJ Graff's article in Columbia Journalism Review this month about how the media inflates this plainly thin yet self-perpetuating myth. Graff is covering a report issued by Joan Williams of the University of California that should puncture this story once and for all. The vital point that Williams, via Graff, is making is that women very rarely "opt out"--even the women interviewed for those NYT panic articles about Ivy League women dropping out of the workplace in droves admit that if their workplace, say, offered a longer maternity leave or better hours, they would think about staying. In other words, they're not opting out--they're being pushed out by unreasonable workplace expectations.

The media does love the opt-out story just like they love the iconic feminist bra burning story and the idea that parents in the 50s and 60s were just like Ozzie & Harriet.

Of course, the bra burning incident never happened, most of us didn't have Ozzie & Harriet parents and if you choose to believe the latest study reported by The Washington Post and highlighted in The Women's Dish with Diane and Friends, working moms are actually spending more time with their kids than Ozzie & Harriet did. Go figure.

Image Credit: Flickr member Gravityx9

Elana blogs about business culture at FunnyBusiness

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