When did women first get the idea that it was okay to "opt out?" It is such a delicate phrase, isn't it? It almost suggests that women will just step out on the balcony, for just a moment, and watch life events go on without her. Then, at some indeterminate time in the future, women might possibly "opt back in" and pick up where they left off. Easy as pie! Not even break into a tiny bead of perspiration.
Guys call it something different, don't they? They call it "quitting," as in "taking your marbles and crawling back home." Quitting carries a very heavy stigma while opting out does not. Quitting recognizes the reality that when you leave, there is a gaping, emotional hole left behind. Opting out, on the other hand, carries the promise of "I'll be right back. Save my place for me!"
The key consideration is the motivation behind the "leaving." Women say they are "opting out" to raise a family which actually can result in up to two decades of absence, depending upon the family size. Or women "opt out" to take care of elderly or ill family members. The length of time required, not to mention the emotional commitment, could be sizable. The risk of a non-return is significant given that both the individual and the marketplace inevitably will experience dramatic change in the intervening years.
Other women argue they "opt out" of the traditional male-oriented corporate world because they don't like the traditional male-oriented leadership style they encounter. But, who have they left behind to change that command-and-control hierarchical structure? Are they realistically expecting to be able to "opt back in?"
The difference between "opting out" and "quitting" is the mental frame of mind that the individual brings to the decision. That mental attitude is the juggernaut with which women must come to terms, if they are to navigate this transition successfully. Women must recognize that, when you decide to leave, then you leave. Nothing stays the same after you've left a company or a job. You are naive if you believe you can come back and find that things have not changed. You have changed by your departure. The entity you left will have crafted itself around others in your absence. Others will fill the vacuum you created by your decision to leave.
When guys use the term "quit," they recognize the finality of the change. They mentally pack away the previous status and turn their heads, hearts, and spirits toward the new endeavor. They mentally bring no baggage with them. That means they have created an empty slate on which they can write their new story, a new career, a re-invented life. That means they bring no false hope that their prior role will promise them anything. They pursue their new vision, unencumbered by the past. Only the future calls them.
Women will argue that "somebody should" hold a place for them for after they return from the family duties, just as veterans get promised a place to return after their service to their country. If we are realistic, neither promise serves the individual well. Each person is strongly redefined by their experience. We might better focus on building a growth-oriented economy with enough room and innovation to accommodate re-entry after major transitions.
But growth-oriented economies require that every person we educate become a productive contributor to that growth, one way or another. If we provide top tier education to both women and men, we need them to return something or to re-invest in future growth. How they accomplish that is infinitely variable.
Some talented women understand the requirements of creating new enterprises that foster alternative strategies for career-pathing. I've had the honor of interviewing many of those women leaders and have been introduced to many more. There are women who are crafting another vision for the future. They have pushed their ship out to sea, leaving the security of the safe harbor behind, ready to take on new and exciting challenges.
"Opting out" does not quite cut it. In reality, it is just another way of "quitting."