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If you properly Lean In, you'll turn into Sheryl Sandberg, or one of the power women featured on her website, if you don't, then you'll (maybe) end up like the sad women featured in this week's New York Times Magazine story by Judith Warner that continues the tradition of magazine stories about women in general, based on a few women's stories. The "opt-out" generation, as featured in a Times Magazine story by Lisa Belkin ten years ago, did everything the Facebook COO warns against, by dropping out of the work force and choosing motherhood over a career. "I don't want to be on the fast track leading to a partnership at a prestigious law firm,'' said one of these women, who left that exact track to stay at home with her kids. ''Some people define that as success. I don't.'' Now, ten years later, some of those women are getting divorced and struggling professionally — just like Sandberg warned.

"When woman work outside the home and share breadwinning duties, couples are more likely to stay together. In fact, the risk of divorce reduces by about half when a wife earns half the income and a husband does half the housework," Sandberg wrote, urging women to stay committed to their careers. A few of the poster women for the "opt-out" generation now find themselves in or approaching that situation. Sheilah O’Donnel, who left a lucrative career at Oracle, divorced her husband in part because of the tensions of her dependence on him. Carrie Chimerine Irvin, who has attempted to add work back into her life after years of being a mom, finds herself neglecting her husband. "I think a big issue is that we both want to be taken care of at the end of the day, and neither of us has any energy to take care of the other," she said.

Of course, these are just the tales of the few — not even representative of the entire "opt out" cohort interviewed in the original Times Magazine article. While some of the former stay-at-home moms have re-entered the workforce to lower paying careers, Katherine Brokaw became an assistant dean at Emory. Like many of these "Have It All" trend stories, the argument relies on the anecdotes of some to paint a picture of generalities. The entirety of the Warner's  argument relies on 22 interviews and two studies, one by an economist who surveyed thousands of women and one by a sociologist, who interviewed 54. Stripping the article of its personal stories, here's the data the article gives us care of the economist's study: 

  • "89 percent of those who 'off-ramped,' as she puts it, said they wanted to resume work; but only 73 percent of these succeeded in getting back in, and only 40 percent got full-time jobs." 
  • "In addition, the women Hewlett surveyed came back to jobs that paid, on average, 16 percent less than those they had before. And about a quarter took jobs with lesser management responsibilities or had to accept a lower job title than the one they had when they left."

So, an overwhelming majority of those women who wanted to go back to work, found work. Less than a majority found full-time jobs, but it's unclear that all of these women wanted that. Women who leave their jobs to take care of children come back to an average lower pay, and another small percentage go back to jobs with less responsibility. This seems to suggest that a lot of women who leave their jobs to take care of kids go back to the work-force, some of them in a diminished capacity, but some of them not. 

That doesn't exactly match the scare-stories told in this week's How Women Live Today article. But, this brand of magazine article never seems to care about the actual data, actual women, or how to solve actual problems. Rather, the lesson here is: You should Lean In, because if you don't you will certainly be unhappy, underpaid, and undersexed, just like Carrie and Sheilah. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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