While few women we interviewed pointed to sexism as a factor in leaving the workforce, workplace sexism is often also oblique and subtle. We tended to hear stories about blatant sexism rather than the kind where you might not be sure where the fault lies. As Ann Friedman put it in New York Magazine, “In real time, it’s hard to be sure what’s sexism and what’s you.” An advertising agency copywriter who clocked 80 hours a week and was constantly praised for her work told us she’d been passed over for promotion to associate creative director when her boss chose to promote a man with less experience. At another company a couple years later, the same subject was poised for another promotion, only to have her boss question her readiness when he discovered she was pregnant. She fought for the promotion and was set to receive it, but then, near the end of her pregnancy and soured by the experience, she left the company to stay home with her newborn.
We don’t know if many of our other Opt Out subjects weren’t moving up at the pace they should have been; we don’t know if they were tired of the dance they had to perform on a daily basis between aggression and sweetness, the constant adjusting of one’s personality to meet someone else’s needs. We only know that many felt dissatisfied at work. They used phrases like, “it wasn’t a fit for me” frequently. They said that a job didn’t work or wasn’t rewarding or deeply satisfying; they never stated outright that they thought they were being judged too harshly. But the odds are strong that they were, and then when the time came to choose between a career that wasn’t proceeding quite right for a range of reasons or their children, they chose their children.
Some of our former classmates’ children are now edging into their teen years, and many of these mothers are considering their future in the workplace. Having taken a pause in their careers to have and raise children, they’re struggling to reengage in the professional world. Five have returned to work part-time, or in flexible jobs, but only one has managed to accelerate her career beyond where it was when she left. Though these women were high achievers when they graduated, they lost much of their professional currency and earning power. For those with children nearing college age, economic privilege has shifted into economic need—the need to pay for their kids’ higher education. One woman who holds a J.D. but was in the process of getting credentialed as a teacher when her husband got a job in the foreign service hasn’t worked in the 15 years she and her family have lived overseas. She has wanted to go back to school to get her master’s in teaching, but admits, with not a little sadness, “We’re saving for our kids’ college, not mine.”
We heard a mixture of pride and sadness in the voices of most of our stay-at-home moms. They love being involved in the details of their children’s lives, and feel pride in making a home that functions well for their kids and their spouse, but were also ambivalent about having left the workforce. The former financial planner feels that while she is fully present for her children, she may be doing them a disservice by not having a career.
“I fully intend to go back to work,” she said. “I feel I’m letting my girls down by not working.” But she isn’t sure the grass is greener for those moms who take the train into the city to their midtown office jobs every day, either. “I don’t feel like anybody’s thrilled with their choice. The women who work feel badly about it and are disconnected, and the women at home, all of them have fantasies about going back to work.”
Read the next piece in this series here.