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The least worst choice

Why mothers “opt” out of the workforce

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

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December 2003

Why don’t women get to the top? According to a recent cover story for the New York Times magazine, it’s because the bright young women who were poised to take over the world would rather be at home with their kids than climbing the corporate ladder (Lisa Belkin, The Opt Out Revolution, October 26, 2003).

The New York Times could have featured a serious investigation of systemic factors that limit the upward mobility of mothers in the workplace. Or a more philosophical piece about why our society is still locked into the idea that mothers, above all others, are responsible for caring for the nation’s children and how this attitude impacts women both in and outside the workplace. Even an in-depth commentary about how U.S. social policy lets down working families, time and time again, would be welcome. Instead, the Times gave pride of place to an article which resorts to pop science to make the case that mothers -- even the really brainy ones -- are biologically hard-wired to prioritize caregiving over competition.

Perhaps the editors were hungry for the controversy that followed the publication of Belkin’s story,(1) or perhaps they were simply content to write off reports of women’s inequality in the professional arena as a product of maternal behavior. Either way, The Opt Out Revolution fails to shed new light on the issue it purports to address: the scarcity of women in political, corporate and academic leadership. “Why don’t women run the world?” Belkin ponders. “Maybe it’s because they don’t want to.”

Or maybe it’s because the world doesn’t want women in charge.

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