New companies are cropping up to help a growing niche: Women who leave full-time jobs to care for family or pursue better work-life balance. Organizations such as Paragon Law, The Mom Project, and The Second Shift are connecting highly skilled professionals, mostly women, with short-term or project-based work in law, public relations, finance, and marketing.
Mae O’Malley started Paragon Legal after the birth of her third child when she noted a dearth of options for working moms in the legal profession.
It used to be that lawyers left law firms for cushy in-house jobs with shorter hours but reduced pay, she explains. But that’s no longer the case as companies expect employees to put in a 65-hour workweek as well as be available on mobile devices 24/7, she says. Women who drop out of law often do so because they don’t want to work those kinds of hours anymore, she adds.
"My company was built out of my experience to find a solution," says O’Malley, who has worked for San Francisco law firm Morrison & Foerster as well as technology firms such as Evolve Software, Escalate, Sygate, and Google. At first, she was just hoping to team up with a couple other moms and share a workload. Then "it took on a life of its own."
Today Paragon has 65 lawyers working on assignments. The company’s success goes to show that there is a lot of pent-up demand, she says. The majority of attorneys at the firm are women raising children, but there are also men and baby boomers seeking more flexibility. Lawyers at Paragon work an average of 35 hours a week, though jobs can range anywhere from 10 to 40 hours a week.
Most assignments last for 12 months, and 95% of Paragon attorneys go continuously from one assignment to another. In addition, attorneys get benefits such as health insurance. Lawyers working at the firm have typically worked their way up to senior in-house positions and then left seeking better work-life balance.
Though many companies have introduced flex-time and work-from-home arrangements, a common problem is that an employee will scale back to a part-time position with part-time pay, but the workload doesn’t scale back accordingly. Paragon gets around this problem by communicating clearly with clients and charging by the hour. O’Malley says Paragon lawyers are paid more per hour on average but work fewer hours.
Professionals in law and technology have been relatively early adopters of this type of work model, but increasingly, it’s spreading to areas such as finance and marketing as well. New York-based The Second Shift connects highly-skilled women seeking flexible employment options with businesses, particularly in finance and marketing.
Another company is The Mom Project in Chicago, which connects professional women with temporary or part-time jobs in finance, human resources, project management, and other areas.
Allison Robinson started The Mom Project while on maternity leave from her sales and marketing job at Procter and Gamble. She read a troubling statistic in a Harvard Business Review study that found that 43% of highly skilled women with children leave their jobs voluntarily at some point in their careers. Of these women, many don’t actually want to leave the workplace, they just want an alternative.
"The mom audience has been underserved, and that’s a huge group of talent," says Robinson.
Robinson has been tapping this underutilized talent by creating a database of professionals and connecting them with companies seeking help. The Mom Project has thousands of professionals on its site and more than 100 companies seeking professionals.
The Mom Project pairs the two groups by handpicking two to three suitable candidates for a position. Now in its second month of operation, the company has placed women in more than three dozen assignments. The biggest area of demand, she says, are "maternityships"—in which professionals will help fill in for someone on maternity leave. Most assignments are on site, while some may also include a combination of on-site and remote work.
These companies are tapping into the growing freelance marketplace. The U.S. workplace in general is seeing huge shifts with more freelance workers. According to a study conducted by software company Intuit, more than 40% of the U.S. workforce, or 60 million people, will be freelance "contingent workers" by 2020.
The growing ubiquity of companies such as Uber highlight the fast-growing freelance economy, but increasingly freelancing applies to highly educated professionals as well. The growing freelance workforce can be attributed to a number of factors: cuts to employee benefits such as pensions, the rise of the dual-income family, lack of paid parental leave, and the high cost of child care. And just as technology has enabled flex-time and more remote working, so too is technology helping to create a freelance workplace.
Employee loyalty has been on the decline for decades, and the trend today is to work for yourself. Some 79% of millennials—now the largest portion of the workforce—say they would consider working for themselves, according to a 2014 study by Elance-oDesk (now Upwork) and Millennial Branding.
"We’re seeing a power shift from employer to employee. The best talent today is looking for greater control over their professional and personal life," says Robinson, adding that millennials are more likely to focus on work-life balance rather than career progression.
Ellen Sheng is a writer focused on business and finance who has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Barrons, and Forbes, among others. Formerly based in Hong Kong, she’s now back in New York and can be found on Twitter at @ellensheng.