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The cover story in the Oct. 26 New York Times Magazine, “Opt-Out Revolution,” by Lisa Belkin, unleashed a flood of controversy. In essence, her message was that women are underrepresented in leadership positions, including law firm partnerships, less because the workplace has failed women than because women are rejecting the workplace. “Why don’t women run the world?” asks Belkin. “Maybe it’s because they don’t want to.” This is a familiar claim. It is also the most common explanation that leaders of the bar and business community give for why so many women are missing in action from leadership ranks. But women’s choices are only part of the story. And what is too often missed or marginalized in accounts like Belkin’s is the extent to which those choices are socially constructed and constrained. What drops out of the opt-out narrative are the complex forces that drive women’s decisions. And what are equally notable for their absence are the choices that men make, as parents, policy leaders and managers, that also limit the choices available to women. Belkin’s armchair empiricism relies too much on selective anecdotes, not systematic analysis. Her sample is an Atlanta book group of full-time homemakers with Princeton degrees, a San Francisco mother’s group of MBAs and “countless” readers with whom she has corresponded over recent years. It is, by her own acknowledgment, a sample of economically privileged women who chose to leave the paid workforce because they had high-earning partners who chose differently. Moreover, as Belkin’s profiles suggest, and more rigorous studies confirm, when women drop off the leadership track, it is not necessarily because full-time motherhood is what they want. Rather, it is because no semblance of a balanced life was available in their jobs. The darker truth A recent publication, The Difference ‘Difference’ Makes: Women and Leadership, based on a summit co-sponsored by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession and Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership, found that many well-credentialed women still confront double standards and double binds. They are held to higher standards than their male colleagues and are often criticized for being insufficiently committed as parents or professionals. Those who seem willing to sacrifice family needs to workplace demands appear lacking as mothers. Those who take extended leaves or reduced schedules appear lacking as workers. Part-time policies that look good on paper are penalized in practice; those unable to promise total availability are left out of the loop of desirable assignments and supportive mentors. Yet many full-time women workers without children experience the same problems of exclusion as they move up the leadership ladder; many leave less because of “family values” and more due to gender biases. Other women’s choices are constrained by bias on the domestic front, with spouses committed to equality more in principle than in practice, and unwilling to structure their own lives to promote it. When asked how women can solve the work/family conflict, Gloria Steinem once said, “Women can’t, until men are asking that question too.” If women are choosing not to run the world, it is partly because men are choosing not to run the washer/dryer. The home is still not an equal opportunity employer, for reasons attributable to double standards in domestic roles that are deeply rooted in cultural attitudes, managerial policies and social priorities. Fewer than 15% of Fortune 100 companies offer the same paid parental leave to fathers as mothers, and an even smaller percentage of men feel free to take it. In addition, our insistence as a society that caretaking is primarily an individual rather than social responsibility has also added to women’s burdens in the home and limited their opportunities in the world outside it. America is almost alone among industrialized nations in failing to guarantee paid parental leaves, and quality affordable childcare is unavailable for most low- and middle-income families. By focusing only on a narrow group of economically privileged women, articles such as Belkin’s miscast our most fundamental problems and misconstrue our most crucial responses. The vast majority of both women and men lack the choices that the article describes. Most Americans cannot afford to opt out of paid labor, and most are locked into workplaces that make balanced lives impossible. Choice on these terms is neither a revolution nor a solution. Clouding the issues only compounds the problem. Deborah L. Rhode is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and an NLJ columnist.

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