Author, The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?; contributing editor at Vanity Fair
Vivian Steir Rabin
Vice president of search firm Salovey & Associates; coauthor, Back on the Career Track
Is staying home with kids career suicide?
Leslie Bennetts: Two-thirds of women who opt out of the workforce want to return later on—but most are unprepared for the barriers they will face, including ageism, sexism, discrimination against mothers, and a strong bias against returning workers. The majority will not find full-time jobs, and many will be unable to reenter the workforce at all.
Vivian Steir Rabin: Returning to work after an absence isn't easy—but the climate for "relaunchers" has changed dramatically. Employers realize they have to get this "woman issue" right, which means allowing women (and men) to work flexibly and take extended leaves if that's what they want.
Bennetts: I would love to believe that you're right—but that doesn't accord with my findings. Many bosses, male and female, are exasperated with women who take time out and are hostile to the idea of hiring them. Frankly, I think upbeat representations like yours are part of the problem because they mislead women about the realities of the workplace.
Rabin: Telling a woman not to take time off because she might not find work again is like discouraging someone from starting a business because he or she might fail. Better to suggest ways to minimize risk, like ensuring your family has adequate savings and staying professionally connected. Give women the tools to return rather than intimidate them from trying.
Bennetts: I'm not trying to intimidate women, but I do think they should know the facts. The intensive period of hands-on mothering lasts 15 years or less, whereas a woman's adult life may span 60 or 70 years. It doesn't make sense to compromise your entire future with a short-term sacrifice that does not benefit your kids.
Rabin: But taking the longer view can just as easily be used to support career breaks. A 3- to 10-year career break (or delayed start) represents a life-enhancing hiatus. Denying women this opportunity chains us all—both men and women—to a treadmill that permits no respite.
Bennetts: This debate was framed in terms of "career suicide," but it all comes down to tolerance for risk. Many women do take time out of the workforce and trust in good luck to protect themselves from bad odds. I personally am not willing to take such a gamble.
Rabin: Let's acknowledge the complexities involved in the stay-at-home decision. Does it make sense to leave a child in the care of others so you can work for minimal pay or in a job that you don't enjoy? I agree it's a matter of risk tolerance, and yes, there's a chance that a woman might not find the sort of work she's looking for quickly. But most people don't run their lives based on worst-case scenarios. Meanwhile, employers are hiring from the stay-at-home pool and will do so increasingly as baby boomers retire. More and more, companies will roll out both extended-leave and reentry programs. We've entered a new era.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.