Women Aren’t “Opting Out” of the Work Force. They’re Being Forced Out

Crushed by the load of caregiving, women are leaving workplaces in droves, and the wage gap is an important motivator.

Women Aren't "Opting Out" of the Work Force. They're Being Forced Out
“So many women are stranded between multiple rocks and multiple hard places, and are not seeing a clear way out, because there isn’t one,” writes Fox. (Jeremy Hiebert / Flickr)

Long before COVID-19 upended millions of lives, in the early 2000s, the so-called opt-out revolution was in full swing. Mostly the domain of white women who’d chosen to ditch their high-paying careers in order to raise children, a decade later, many of those same women reportedly wanted back in.

As female-identifying people shoulder the brunt of Zoom school, and are mandated to be back in the home because of shutdowns, job losses, child care concerns, or other combinations of coronavirus impacts, the term “opt-out” has resurfaced. Yet, this language aligns women’s participation in the labor force too closely with some versions of choice feminism.

It also fails to address that outside of the home, it’s still mostly women’s jobs that are seen as the most expendable.

Consider the story of Aimee (last name withheld), reported in The Lily back in March; Aimee, a successful entrepreneur whose husband was unable care for their son for three days without melting down, even though he did not have a full-time employment of his own, ended up shuttering her company.

That experience of being disregarded is not so unlike Kamala Harris in the recent vice presidential debate, who was talked over by Mike Pence to the point that she had to, on national television, remind him that she was speaking

These are just two of many, many events and experiences which help contextualize that a more accurate description of “opting out” is in fact women being forced out of work—forced out by companies that never really wanted us there anyway, forced out by managers who are not amenable to being flexible, forced out by partners who are not willing to pick up their part of the load at home, and forced out by constantly being ground down through silencing, erasure and plain old everyday sexism in our paid work.

All of this sends a stark message: Why are you even here? Isn’t there something else you should be doing?

Indeed, the women who were ever able to consider opting out willingly are people of some privilege, both now and historically, and largely not essential workers.

Yet, at the same time, in this current iteration, using “opt-out” language, which frames leaving paid employment as a choice, ignores the reality that women are basically being left with no options at all. It puts a soft filter on an ugly truth, like transforming a documentary photo into a glamour shot.

We all know the statistics about the gender pay gap, have engaged in some version of the chore wars, or have had to say “I’m speaking.” Continuing to use a term that locates women’s relationship to employment as pure choice consequently makes it sound like working for an average of 19 percent less than male counterparts was in some way voluntary in the first place.

It also suggests that leaving those underpaid jobs, which includes many high-level jobs, to deal with the fallout of the pandemic was just a nice idea someone thought of, rather than what it is: a forcing function.

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Opting out as a concept, in addition to only being accessible in a deliberate way to a certain class of women, is also, in the most generous reading of it, a commentary on how hard it is for women to exist in the dual spheres of work and home generally. It carries the additional subtext of that negotiating those spheres is something that inherently belongs to women, and to women only.

Women, female-identified and non-binary folks on every spectrum of the gender continuum have been agitating for decades regarding our place, whether it’s as a barista or in the boardroom. We already know that we can’t change anything overnight, but what we can do, beginning immediately, is to call opting out what it is: a forcing out.

We must acknowledge that positioning this as choice is the culmination of regressive policy and attitudes which undermine our agency, rather than being a recognition of the dearth of reasonable alternatives.

Alisha Haridasani Gupta, writing for the New York Times, lasers in on this point: Crushed by the load of caregiving, women are leaving workplaces in droves, and the wage gap is an important motivator.

It’s also a harbinger of what the future looks like without real change. So many women are stranded between multiple rocks and multiple hard places, and are not seeing a clear way out, because there isn’t one. By our own commitment to taking responsibility for children, elders, partners, spouses, friends, family and communities, paired with the ongoing disrespect of us in the workplace, many women will continue to be forced out of paid labor. Being punished for caring, in the small ways to the large, will remain.

At the same time, we’ll handle this, and figure it out. However, we don’t have to claim it as our idea, and we don’t have to buy into the language of opting out. We do not have to pretend that it is our choice.

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Wendy J. Fox is the author of four books of fiction, including the novel If the Ice Had Held and the collection What If We Were Somewhere Else. She has written for The Rumpus, Buzzfeed, Self, Business Insider and Ms. and her work has appeared in literary magazines including Washington Square, Euphony and Painted Bride Quarterly. More at www.wendyjfox.com.