Opt Out with Your Eyes Open

Lean In, Opt Out, how do you decide what is best for you and your family? Most often when women make the decision to opt out they make it alone – no advisor, no realtor, no car dealer, no agent.

We don’t sit down and think, “What is the price of this decision, in today’s dollars and over my lifetime, and is there a chance I could regret the decision?”

Opting out is most often an emotional choice.

Here are some realities and food for thought before you opt out, so if and when you do sit down and think about it, you can decide with your eyes open.

Opting out, leaving paid employment by choice, can result in many repercussions, many of which are monetary, some of which are emotional and mental.

Let’s look at the financial impact first.work-life-family

According to Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, “One study found that women who took just one year out of the workforce sacrificed 20 percent of their lifetime earnings. Women who took two or three years earned 30 percent less. Another study found that leaving the workforce has a significant negative effect on women’s wages even 20 years after a career interruption.”

Women who take a career break are penalized out of proportion to any objective deterioration of their skills. Justified or not, the corporate world values work experience – not PTA service.

Over time some women begin to feel a sense of being in an unequal marriage, specifically when it comes to household duties – not the kids. Many didn’t get degrees and have outstanding careers to be left sweeping the floor and doing the laundry, feeling unfulfilled and unenergized. Some begin to feel they are junior members of a partnership. The intention of husbands is never to make their wives to feel lesser, the dynamic just changes.

As Lisa Heffleman shared in a Huffington Post Parents article, “I stayed home with my kids because I wanted to be with them. I had a job that allowed me very little time with them on weekdays and our time was short. I did not stay home because I believed they needed me or that the nanny I had hired could not do a great job. Now on the downslope of parenting I have misgivings about my decision to stay home. While I don’t know any parent who regrets time spent with their kids, especially kids who have moved on to their own lives – and I include myself among them – in hindsight my decision seems flawed. Although I am fully aware being a SHAM was certainly a luxury, staring at an empty nest and very diminished prospects of employment, I have real remorse.”

So now what? You’ve opted out for several years, what can you expect on the road back to finding a job?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of Center for Talent Innovation in NY surveyed thousands of women in 2004 and again after the financial crisis in 2009. Roughly a third “highly qualified women” with graduate or bachelor’s with honors left the workforce to spend extended time at home. Most stayed home longer than they expected. 89% wanted to resume work, only 73% were able to get back in and only 40% found full-time jobs.  For those that did make it back they came back to jobs paying 16% less than those they had before – adding up to only 38% of men’s income over their prime earning years. Part of the problem is of course women continue to earn 23% less of what mean earn (that’s another entire conversation).

In the years out of the workforce many professions have contracted, changed and even rock-solid fields like law are becoming insecure in ways no one previously thought possible.

Increasingly sophisticated technology used at work – for example, taking time off from the medical profession and trying to re-enter will require catching up on online patient record keeping, or an illustrator who was painting with an airbrush when they left their job now having to learn computer software necessary to even apply for an artwork job.

Unfortunately, and an ugly truth, there still exists age discrimination and forty-something women trying to re-enter the workforce are discriminated against. One in five people aged 45-75 believe they don’t get hired because of their age.

Then there is the state of the current economy, it is a tight job market with skilled and qualified unemployed professionals many of whom have the technology and work experience that makes them an easier choice.

It takes more than hard work and smarts to turn back the clock. Creativity, humility and for many women turning to a job with a purpose can mean more than the paycheck.

So before you opt out entirely, consider what others before you have shared about their feelings after opting out and what they are facing now.  Look for options, and weigh your choices.

You don’t have to leave the workforce entirely. Do contract and consulting work. Ask for flex arrangements or job sharing. Freelance. Keep your toe in the water.  It will make the dive in later much easier.

We must be educated when we make our decisions and prepared to live with them. Whatever the decision is, make it with your eyes wide open and fully informed of the potential impact and compromises. No matter what the decision is, respect others choices, know that as women, it is our obligation to help other women or as Margaret Thatcher said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

We’re all in this together.

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