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?

Add New Comment

7 Comments

  • Terry Clark

    Aristotle trumped Longman when he said,"Taxation is slavery". There is no need to engage in a battle over the value of families to America. That point is agreed.

    Our divergence is in the question of who pays. The Constitutional Congress wasn't held to create a Federal society to impose a Robin Hood philosophy. Adam Smith was right when he said, "There is no such thing as a free lunch".

    Government is most effective that is closest to the people. If families wish to live in counties and cities with higher tax rates that pay better benefits they may choose to move there or agree to create a system through their local government, church, or charitable group to provide that level of support.

    My position is simply that the American government was not intended and does not function most effectively as a socialist state. The Soviets tried that system and lost to capitalism.

    A business environment with lower taxes and more individual freedom creates opportunities for all to improve their economic status. We continue to suffer no shortage of immigrants willing to join our system and work hard to improve their family situations.

    No insult is intended to working families struggling to balance their demanding jobs and raise their children. I just don't believe their support should come from the Federal system.

  • Linda Tischelr

    Terry may change his mind if he read Philip Longman's brilliant book, The Empty Cradle, about how reduced fertility and global aging will affect world economies. As the publisher's note says, "State intervention is necessary, Longman argues, to combat the effects of an aging population. We must provide incentives for young families, and we cannot close our eyes and hope for the best as an entire generation approaches retirement age. "

    It's easy to engage in semantic nitpicking about the difference between 'government' and 'country.' The real point is that families with children will be subsidizing those without. And while it's been the 'American' way to do this privately and individually, the consequences of those choices will play out, potentially disastrously, if couples decide it's not worth their while to bear the enormous cost of raising kids in this society.

    It's naive to say that having kids is strictly for "one's own benefit' as if all workers struggling to balance demanding jobs and little children were one step from being welfare queens. And it's not 'unAmerican' to ask why we, of all developed countries, care so little about our families that we fail to support them better. It make take a village to raise a child, but in the US, our villages are more like gated communities -- fine for the wealthy, pretty tough neighborhoods for the struggling middle class.

  • Terry Clark

    Regarding Ms. Tischler's comment,"In a country that does so little to help working families, it falls on individual households to shoulder that burden. If a judgment is to be rendered, it should be leveled at a government that so little values family creation -- but will eventually look to those children -- paid for and raised by hard-working families -- to carry the burden of supporting retirement benefits for older citizens (even those who had no kids of their own) in the future.

    This is a falacious argument of ambiguity. In a democratic republic such as the United States, the government is the people. So her first premise that "this country" does litle to help working families is suspect if one begins with the American principle of individual responsibility. Secondly, using the term "government" interchangably implies that country and government are the same.

    Her argument implies that the "government" will look to the children to support retirement benefits. The retirement benefits are the responsibility of the workers to save and invest in for themselves. All government funds start as money earned by taxpayers. Taxpayers do not owe other citizens their retirement benefits.

    In her previous paragraph Ms. Tischler says," I think we would all agree there are plenty of good reasons for staying home with small children. But that decision does entail costs." The conclusion then should be: And these costs are borne, rightly, by the individual who makes that decision to place the raising of their children higher in priority than earning money.

    To expect to make a choice for one's own benefit that is known to have an economic cost and then to expect someone else to pay it is unrealistic and unAmerican.

  • Linda Tischler

    The study says that men also 'off-ramp', but for dramatically different reasons than women. Most men (29%) take a break to change careers or earn a degree (25%). Only 12% do it for family reasons, compared to 44% of women who cite that as their main reason for opting out.

    The study offered no data on the financial penalties men pay for their detours. But on the subject of women's financial loss, economist Lester Thurow at MIT points out that the very years when men are making their most significant career and salary gains are the prime years when women are launching their families. "Women who leave the job market during those years may find that they never catch up," he writes.

    This is not a value judgment. I think we would all agree there are plenty of good reasons for staying home with small children. But that decision does entail costs. And with the price of housing, education, gas, etc. escalating, that decision can have a serious impact on a family's well-being. Indeed, 62% of women who sought to get back in the workforce cited "partner or household income no longer sufficient for family needs" as the reason they wanted to go back to work.

    In a country that does so little to help working families, it falls on individual households to shoulder that burden. If a judgment is to be rendered, it should be leveled at a government that so little values family creation -- but will eventually look to those children -- paid for and raised by hard-working families -- to carry the burden of supporting retirement benefits for older citizens (even those who had no kids of their own) in the future.

  • Jeannie Walters

    I don't understand this statement:
    "when women have children, and their husbands start working longer hours to make up the difference."

    Too often, companies put value on 'working longer hours' when it really doesn't always equal being more productive, getting a higher salary, etc.

    Companies should value work that is productive - regardless of how many hours people are actually at the office! Too many companies reward people for 'burning the midnight oil,' even if they could have completed the job and left by 5:00.

    And let's stop judging women for the choices they make - whether it's working or not. Each family is unique and people should figure out what works for them.

  • Jill Burke

    It would be interesting to see if the same thing happens to men who opt out of work for any extended period of time.

    I hope too that women who have the choice between staying home with their children or holding onto their 37% they might lose by staying home will make that choice to stay home. Being there for your kids during their formative years is priceless.

  • Joe

    It would be interesting to see figures that take into account questions like "do you have children?" and "have you made career choices based around your husband's career or position?" and "have you ever accepted a significantly lower paying job than you thought you could have gotten?"

    Some of the wage gap is due to kids, but not all of it. Some of it's due to women giving up choices to allow their husbands greater choices. Some women put their men through law school. (Of course, some men put their women through law school, too.) And some people (men and women both) take lower paying jobs because they want to do socially conscious work, for instance, or because they only want to work 3 days a week, or whatever.

    Our western society still feels that it's the man's duty to provide for the family. Thus, there is at least some societal pressure for men to pursue a path that leads to the greatest possible income. It's possible women don't feel driven in that direction as hard.

    Furthermore, even with all these criteria considered, you're still not measuring apples and oranges. There are fewer women available for the top jobs because a greater percentage of good women opt out of the system.

    This is a complex issue. It's not all about babies and male pigheadedness.

    Although that's certainly a big part of it.