Brenda Barnes can retire her crown. Since 1998, the former head of PepsiCo North America had reigned as America's highest-profile opt-out executive. When she left her job — citing family pressures as the reason — she sparked a national debate about whether women could truly cope at the highest ranks of American business. We wrote about Barnes while covering the issue of why there aren't more female top execs in "Where Are the Women?" (February 2004). At the time, she was wondering whether her six-year sabbatical would affect her chances of getting back into the workforce. "I've been out for a while," she said at the time. "That starts coming into play. I'm realistic about these things."
Barnes was right to worry, even though she's now the CEO of SaraLee Corp., the nation's 114th-largest public company. New data says that women who drop out of the workforce, even for a relatively short period of time, pay a steep career and financial price. According to the Center for Work Life Policy, only 74% of women who take "off-ramps" manage to find another job, and only 40% of those return to full-time, professional careers. More alarmingly, the study found that women who take three or more years off typically lose a stunning 37% of their earning power.
Those statistics are disheartening, but it seems women themselves contribute to that gap. In the study, 16% of women report that they've declined a promotion, and 38% say they've deliberately chosen a position with fewer responsibilities and lower compensation as a way of balancing work and personal life. What's more, only 27% cited a "powerful position" as an important career goal. Although Barnes finally hit the top — and on her timetable, thank you — sadly, she's one of the few who've had both the desire and the opportunity to make that decision themselves.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.