Should women “opt out” of the workforce, or – in author Sheryl Sandberg’s words – “lean in”? Several journalists have discussed the issue this week, most championing women’s right to career acclaim. An August 8 New York Times story profiled women who left prestigious jobs to start families, but are now trying to re-enter the workforce. The story prompted a plethora of contributors to ask whether women should always put career first, or whether there are benefits to “opting out.”
The Times article said it was difficult – if not impossible – for women returning to the workforce to procure jobs at a status level previously enjoyed. Forbes writer Deborah Jacobs finds this reasonable:
“I would like to feel empathetic, but find none of this surprising. The corporate world values work experience, and no matter how you spin the story about your PTA service and volunteer work, staying home with the kids is not work experience.”
Jacobs wrote an article on this subject for the Times in 1994, entitled “Back From the Mommy Track.” She described mothers “working their way back from the sidelines,” seeking a career after years at home. The opportunity costs to their years of mothering, she said, were extensive. Now, she believes women “must be prepared to live with our decisions.”
But does “leaning in” guarantee the alternative gratification these women imply? Perhaps not: the Times also published a story Saturday, analyzing whether prestigious jobs truly enrich women’s lives. Their findings generally demonstrated that women derive less pleasure from career power than men:
“Men tend to perceive more intrinsic rewards either from feeling influential or from having authority. For women, by contrast, both conditions seem to be necessary to get this reward. This matters. For women, just having authority may not be enough (as it seems to be for many men). And so even when women do occupy the ‘corner suite,’ so to speak, they aren’t guaranteed the personal and professional rewards men garner.”
The authors blame most of this dissatisfaction on “broader societal norms” and “stigma” that harm women’s ability to “lean in.” They call this a “psychosocial rewards gap,” and suggest it may dissuade women from pursuing high-powered careers.
Most of these stories paint “opt out” women as discontent with their place “on the sidelines,” pursuing the thankless work of motherhood. Yet many of these mothers – who unfortunately possess a less vocal position in the media – enjoy their life and find it worthwhile. In contrast, those who pursue a career do not always find ultimate fulfillment, either: even if they attain that “corner suite,” they may be disappointed with the rewards. In that moment, they may wish they “opted out” of the office and “leaned in” a little to their families.
It is important to note this decision faces fathers, as well. Even if men face less stigma than women in the workplace, they must choose between home-centric and career-centric pursuits. This is not to suggest that women never face a “psychosocial rewards gap.” Rather, it is possible that this very gap exists for men as well in the inverse: they may feel pressure to build career achievement rather than family involvement.
Regardless of the vocation pursued, there are opportunity costs involved. Whether pursuing a life of “opting out,” or striving for the top-dog position at a Fortune 500 company, one must decide what costs are worth paying.