Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home

July 24, 2008

Pamela Stone suggests that most sociological interest in the gendering of work and organisations tends to focus on women's labour force participation and career choice. There seems to be very little research that critically examines the reasons why well-educated professional women opt to leave their careers after having children. These women's voices have simply "gone missing", she says. This timely and informative book attempts to unpick the "push/pull" forces of domesticity and employment by analysing detailed personal narratives from 54 highly qualified career women.

Using respondents from the US labour market, Stone suggests that the stories her respondents tell reveal not so much an expression of choice, but what she calls a "choice gap", where a gap is created by the conditions of work these woman faced in elite professions such as law and corporate finance. The book centres on a discussion of how far such women really have a "free choice" to quit work at will, or whether corporate "family-friendly" policies have simply created an "imagery of choice".

The book is divided into nine chapters, with clear themes. Early chapters focus on the workplace and explore the drivers for change. Data analysis tries to understand the ways in which the respondents have tried to reconcile family responsibilities (children, husbands, elderly parents) with the long-hours culture in the workplace. This, Stone suggests, creates the "double bind dilemma women face and the choice gap they confront".

Later chapters examine the coping strategies respondents use as they try to come to terms with having to shed hard-won professional identities and embrace an identity of motherhood. For example, data reveal how one respondent always felt compelled to say "I'm a teacher by training, but I'm at home now", illustrating a need to continue to define herself professionally.

The narratives reveal strong desires to hold on to previous identities, and they demonstrate how academic qualifications and workplace training help women to reinvent and restructure the identity of motherhood along professional lines. Data suggest that their domestic lives become "hyper-organised and scheduled" and have a rhythm more akin to the structure of the working day. Professional identities are honed through voluntary work in the same field as previous labour market experiences in order to maintain continuance of skills. Such volunteer work also provides what Stone calls "a sense of social connection and validation ... that was sometimes missing in their private lives as moms".

Stone's book is very easy to read and well signposted and it should appeal to a cross-section of social scientists, but in particular those interested in gender, identity, family and the labour market. It is also a good example of how oral life histories can be used in social research to obtain rich, thick narrative data. These narratives, or "mini-ethnographies" as Stone calls them, help to animate individual stories. The methodological underpinnings of the study are concisely reviewed in an appendix that discusses both choice of method and possible limitations of the study with regard to the exclusion (by virtue of choice of respondents) of less privileged women and women of colour. The book is also supplemented by a website, http://www.optingout-women.com, where readers are encouraged to exchange their own experiences of workplace choices and dilemmas by interacting with either each other via an online messageboard, or directly with the author.

Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home

By Pamela Stone
University of California Press
314pp
£26.95 and £9.95
ISBN 9780520244351 and 256576
Published 1 June 2008

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