Opt-In or Opt-Out? What Will the Next Generation of Women Do?

These were the women my generation had fought for -- so that the future would be brighter for all women and ultimately, the world.
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The recent New York Times Magazine article "The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In" followed up with the women featured in "The Opt-Out Revolution", an article originally written by Lisa Belkin in the New York Times Magazine in October 26, 2003.

When the original article came out, I was infuriated. How could these smart, successful business women who invested time and money in getting an advanced education and energy and dedication to their careers suddenly drop out to become stay-at-home moms? Not that there is anything wrong with being a stay-at-home mom. I do believe it's a worthwhile endeavor. Except that in the case of the women profiled in the article, they were future leaders -- women who could change the balance of power in leadership in corporations, government and professional services. They could help gain gender parity due to their experience and commitment. These were the women my generation had fought for -- so that the future would be brighter for all women and ultimately, the world.

What's more, I opted-in. I took minimal time off from my job and went right back to work along with millions of other women, hoping to prove that women could be counted on and that corporations shouldn't write us off because we would eventually drop out to become full-time mothers. Now, 30 years later, I look at my children, now adults, and I say, "I'm glad I did what I did." My children are successful in their careers and are living happy full lives. My decision to keep working after they were born does not seem to have hurt them. In fact... perhaps it benefitted them. And it allowed me to run a business and lead many organizations.

Did I do the right thing? In my mind, the answer is yes.

Did these opt-outters do the right thing? It would seem that they did what was right for them at the moment, though it might not have helped the cause for gender parity.

And now, most of the women who opted-out are trying to opt-in. According to the article, some are successfully getting jobs, albeit at much lower leadership and pay levels than they had expected, and some are having a problem gaining any position at all. Returning to one's career during a recession is not an easy feat, especially if you seek a management position. It is particularly challenging if you have not continued to stay in touch with your colleagues and those influential members of your entourage who surrounded you during your time in the workforce. Taking 10 years off to be a dedicated mom also cuts you off from the being current on the global challenges being faced in this fast-paced, hype-connected world. And for many, their personal situations have changed in 10 years -- some are divorced and must be self-sufficient and others have husbands making much lower pay than they did in the good old days. Life and the unexpected happens to all of us.

In my case, I never wanted to be totally dependent on my husband. I always wanted to share responsibility for the household income, the children and the house. That worked for me and my family. My husband and I just celebrated 40 years in a happy marriage. Maybe we got lucky -- or was it the shared responsibility that did the trick?

Looking back, we could argue about whether these women made the right decision to stay home for 10 years.

However, rather than looking back, I would prefer to look forward. What's most important is the current generation of women and their goals. Based on the past, what should the coming generation of educated, ambitious women do?

The world is different today. More men want to spend more time with their children. Many are actually choosing to be stay-at-home dads. Thanks to technology, many companies have instituted more flexible working arrangements, so people can work from home more often, some telecommuting 40 hours/week. However, who gets the leadership positions? The people who are seen each day at the office, or those working from their homes?

The evidence exists. More women leaders are needed to lead businesses. McKinsey & Company's "Women Matter" study reports that the companies where women are most strongly represented at board or at the top-management level are also the companies that perform the best.

Organizations like Impact Leadership 21 and Take the Lead are committed to preparing women to take on roles at the highest levels of influence, and encouraging men to champion women in their organizations. In Japan, Prime Minister Abe is pushing corporations to engage more women. He has set targets of at least one female executive per company and offered tax incentives to companies that encourage mothers to return to work. Companies like Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi are taking the lead.

The world needs more women in leadership positions. At this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman, said: "A world where women make up less than 20% of the global decision makers is a world that is missing a huge opportunity for growth and ignoring an untapped reservoir of potential... decision making is better when there's a diverse set of people making the decisions."

Attention young women! You are needed. You are needed as mothers, partners and advocates. Be all you want to be. But most of all, be a leader. The world needs you. Men like Klaus Schwab and many others are champions of women. I still believe in the tagline for an inspirational wartime poster in 1943 with the image of a woman showing her muscle. The headline, which is equally relevant today, shouts: "We Can Do It!" Women have the brains. Women have the flexibility. Women have the natural leadership skills required for today -- collaboration, curiosity and empathy. We need young women to take the lead and help make companies, organizations and the world a better place for our children and for future generations. We can do it! You can do it! Together, let's do it!

- Leslie Grossman is author, "LINK OUT: How to Turn Your Network into a Chain of Lasting Connections" (Wiley, 2013); president, Leslie Grossman Leadership; Vice Chair, Global Advisory Board, Impact Leadership 21; co-founder, Women's Leadership Exchange.