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Hazardous Road Ahead: the 'Scenic' Career Route

Can women who opt out of the workforce ever get back in? That's the great unanswered question lurking behind many of the past year's stories about women ditching their corporate jobs and heading home.

Until now, there had been no data on the topic. But last week, on a snowy day in London, a group of high-powered women met in a Goldman Sachs conference room overlooking St. Paul's Cathedral to mull that very issue. They were there for the preview of a new study by the Center for Work Life Policy called ""Off-ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success," authored by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce. It appears in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review.

The news is not encouraging. An overwhelming number (93%) of of the 2,443 women surveyed said they wanted to return to work. Only 74% of those ever managed to get back in, and only 40% return to full-time, professional jobs. About one in four take part time jobs, and 10% go to work for themselves.

The consequences to their earning power is stunning. Women who stay out three or more years lose an average of 37% of their earning power. And they may never make it up.

As Wayne Farrell revealed in his book, "Why Men Earn More," the gender wage gap starts to open up when women have children, and their husbands start working longer hours to make up the difference. Hewlett's research reports the same: at ages 25 to 29, women earn 87% of the male wage. By the time they rearch 40-44, they're earning only 71%.

The goal of the Work-Life task force was to find ways for corporations to address this problem, and to design ways that women, who may chose to take a slightly more scenic route in their careers than their male counterparts, can still end up on the same highway to success.

Some companies Ernst & Young, PWC, and Booz Allen, among them are finding innovative ways to keep their best women. How is your company addressing this issue?