Book Excerpt iOff-Ramps and On-Ramps Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success-i

By Staff Report

Apr. 24, 2007


   Desperate Housewives notwithstanding, talented women who blithely throw their careers to the wind are the exception rather than the rule. As mentioned earlier, the overwhelming majority of highly qualified women currently off-ramped (93 percent) want to return to their careers.

    Many of these women have financial reasons for wanting to get back to work. Nearly half (46 percent) cite “wanting to have their own independent source of income” as an important motivating factor. Women who participated in our focus groups talked about their discomfort with “dependence.” However good their marriages, many disliked needing to ask for money. Not being able to splurge on some small extravagance or make their own philanthropic choices without clearing it with their husbands did not sit well with them either. It’s also true that a significant proportion of women seeking on-ramps are facing troubling shortfalls in family income: 38 percent cite “household income no longer sufficient for family needs” and 24 percent cite “partner’s income no longer sufficient for family needs.” Given what has happened to the cost of housing (up 55 percent over the past five years), the cost of a college education (up 40 percent over the past decade), and the cost of health insurance (up 87 percent since 2000), it’s easy to see why many professionals find it hard to manage a family budget on just one income.

    But financial pressures do not tell the whole story. Many of these women also found deep pleasure in their chosen careers and want to reconnect with something they love. Forty-three percent cite the “enjoyment and satisfaction” they derive from their careers as an important reason to return—among teachers this figure rises to 54 percent, and among doctors it rises to 70 percent. A further 16 percent want to “regain power and status in their profession.” In our focus groups, women talked eloquently about how work gives shape and structure to their lives, boosts confidence and self-esteem, and confers status and standing in their communities. As one former executive put it, “Cocktail party chitchat is so much easier if you can claim to be a professional, even a lapsed professional. Besides which, my children insist on it. My 15-year-old daughter doesn’t want to be caught dead with a mom who is ‘just’ a housewife.” For many off-rampers, their professional identity remains their primary identity, despite the fact that they are currently taking time out. This makes a great deal of sense given the length of women’s working lives—which currently spans 35 to 40 years. For many off-rampers, time out represents a mere blip on the radar screen.

    Perhaps the most unexpected reason women give for returning to work centers on altruism. Twenty-four percent of women currently looking for on-ramps are motivated by “a desire to give something back to society” and are seeking jobs that allow them to contribute in some way. In focus groups off-ramped women talked about how their time at home had changed their aspirations. Whether they’d gotten involved in protecting the wetlands, supporting the local library, rebuilding a playground, or being a “big sister” to a disadvantaged child, they all felt newly connected to the importance of what one woman called “the work of care.”

Lost on re-entry
Though the overwhelming majority of off-ramped women have every intention of returning to the workforce, few understand how difficult doing so will be. While 93 percent of the women surveyed want to rejoin the ranks of the employed, only 74 percent manage to do so. And among these, only 40 percent return to full-time, mainstream jobs. Twenty-four percent end up taking part-time jobs, and another 9 percent become self-employed.

    The implications are clear: Off-ramps may be around every curve in the road, but once a woman has taken one, opportunities to re-enter a career are few and far between—and exceedingly difficult to find. Like Judith, whose story was detailed in Chapter 1, a great many talented women find the on-ramping struggle a humiliating experience—baffling, unfair and replete with rejection.

    When Off-Ramps and On-Ramps appeared in the Harvard Business Review in March 2005, it provoked a flood of letters, e-mails and phone calls. The response was remarkably emotional. Many women saw their own life stories reflected in our data. Many were still smarting from having been cast aside in the wake of an off-ramp, and their pain was sharp and raw. Judi Pitsiokos was one of many women who shared her story:

I am a graduate of a top 10 law school who worked in the securities department of an AMLAW firm for six years before taking an off-ramp. After several years at home raising my children, I tried to gear up and re-enter the workforce. Ten years later, I’m still trying to weasel my way back into a decent job.

The best I’ve been able to come up with is working on my own, doing real estate closings, going to landlord-tenant court, and so on. I am bored and angry—with myself and with the law firms who won’t even look at my résumé. When I’ve had heart-to-heart talks with partners at major firms or legal recruiters, they say, “Why would we hire you when we can get a young kid right out of school?” (Since I’ve been out of the mainstream for so long, I am looking for a job at the bottom rung.) Why? I tell them, “Because I’m very smart, very well educated, have a track record, am done with child-care responsibilities and ready to work long hours.” They laugh. Literally.

I wonder what is wrong with a society that cuts smart women adrift when they take time off to raise children. The dollars lost to the economy must be astronomical.

The penalties of time out
   As our data has revealed, women off-ramp for surprisingly short periods of time—on average, 2.2 years. However, even these relatively short career interruptions engender heavy financial penalties. Our data shows that, on average, women lose 18 percent of their earning power when they take an off-ramp. In the banking/finance sector, penalties are especially draconian. In these fields, women’s earning power dips 28 percent when they take time out. As one might expect, the longer the period of time that’s spent out, the more severe the penalty becomes. Women lose a staggering 37 percent of their earning power when they spend three or more years out of the workforce.

    Our findings in this area of financial penalties attached to time out jibe with the scholarly research. Columbia University economist Jane Waldfogel has analyzed the pattern of female earnings over their life span. When women enter the workforce in their early and mid-20s, they earn nearly as much as men. For a few years, they continue to almost keep pace with men in terms of wages. At ages 25 to 29, women earn 87 percent of the male wage. However, when women hit their prime child-raising years (ages 30 to 40), many off-ramp for a short period of time—with disastrous consequences on the financial front. Largely because of these career interruptions, by the time they reach the 40-to-44 age group, women earn a mere 71 percent of the male wage. All of which underscores the importance of producing a continuous, cumulative employment history in the decade of one’s 30s. The words of MIT economist Lester Thurow underscore this reality: “The 30s are the prime years for establishing a successful career. These are the years when hard work has the maximum payoff. Women who leave the job market during those years may find that they never catch up.”

    One final point on the price attached to time out: Penalties are not limited to individuals. Companies also must deal with significant consequences when valued employees off-ramp. The financial costs associated with high rates of turnover are examined in some detail in Chapter 4, but one particularly dramatic finding is worth flagging right here: Only 5 percent of highly qualified women attempting to on-ramp want to go back to the company they once worked for. Indeed, in business, banking and finance, none of the women surveyed (0 percent) want to return to their previous employer. In retrospect, the vast majority of off-ramped women feel that they were not supported in those last months or weeks on the job—that their request for a flexible work arrangement or a more meaty assignment was deflected or turned down. Some were made to feel that “they were letting the side down” when they struggled with their decision to quit. The fact that these bad feelings linger should be a wake-up call for companies. If employers expect to tap into this labor pool of women returning after a time out, they need to understand that the “terms of disengagement” matter.

Downsizing ambition
   It turns out that reduced earning power is not the only penalty attached to taking time out. Women also end up downsizing their ambitions, losing sight of their aspirations, and losing faith in their dreams. One newly on-ramped woman described her changed attitude by saying, “It took me three years to find this much-less-good job, and during that time, I had to accept that I had lost traction in my career. It was a bitter pill. I felt the unfairness of it. I had been out for only 20 months. But it was a fact nonetheless. So I’ve redefined what I can expect for myself.” Another woman, who participated in the same focus group, described her old self—before an off-ramp—as this “soaring, thrusting person.” That person doesn’t exist anymore. In her words, “reality bites.” Off-ramps and on-ramps make the career highway extremely slippery.

    Our survey data shows that highly qualified women are significantly less ambitious than their male peers. Almost half of the men (48 percent) surveyed consider themselves very ambitious, as compared with one-third of women (35 percent). In the business sector the gap is even wider—63 percent of men describe themselves as very ambitious, compared with 45 percent of women. However, our data also shows that at young ages, there isn’t much of a gap between men and women in terms of ambition. But there is a distinct drop-off in female ambition as women head through their 30s. Young, highly qualified women are more likely than older women to see themselves as extremely or very ambitious (39 percent versus 31 percent). In the business sector, for example, 53 percent of younger women describe themselves as being very ambitious, while only 37 percent of older women are comfortable with this label.

    In her book Necessary Dreams, published in 2004, psychiatrist Anna Fels argued convincingly that ambition stands on two legs—mastery and recognition. To hold on to their dreams, women must attain the necessary credentials and experience, but they must also have their achievements and potential recognized in the larger world. The latter is often missing in female careers. Particularly in the wake of an off-ramp, employers and bosses tend to be skeptical about a woman’s worth. A downsizing cycle emerges: A woman’s confidence and ambition stall; she is perceived as less committed; she no longer gets the good jobs or the plum assignments; and this serves to lower her ambition yet further.

    Other research in the field reveals complex ways in which ambition is a gendered issue. A 2003 study by the Families and Work Institute (FWI) found that men aspire to higher positions than women—19 percent of male executives would like to have the top job (CEO or managing partner), compared with 9 percent of women.18 The FWI study also confirmed the fact that women are more likely than men to downsize their ambition as they move through their 30s—4 percent of women become less ambitious, as compared with 21 percent of men.

    Of particular interest is a 2004 study by ISR (International Survey Research), a global HR research and consulting firm, which reveals that men and women are driven by very different factors. When asked what motivates them at work, male executives highlight power and money, while female executives highlight connection and quality. The two top drivers for men are career advancement (20 percent) and financial rewards (10 percent), while the two top drivers for women are relationships at work (14 percent) and delivering a quality product/service to customers/clients (10 percent). In this study, career advancement and financial rewards did not even make it into the top four picks by women. As we will see in Chapter 3, our survey data on extreme jobs tends to confirm the fact that men and women respond to different incentives. For example, 41 percent of young men in high-impact jobs see compensation as a top motivator; this compares with 26 percent of young women.

What do women really want?
   The survey data allows us to develop a complex vision of what women actually want. At the top of the wish list are a series of career goals that speak to the quality of the work experience itself. Talented women very much want to associate with people they respect (82 percent); to “be themselves” at work (79 percent); to collaborate with others and work as part of a team (61 percent); and to “give back” to society through the work that they do, both inside their organization and outside in the larger world (see figure 2-15). They also value recognition from their company or organization (51 percent). In general, women tend to emphasize value sets rather than compensation or benefits. Access to flexible work schedules, the only employment benefit to make it onto the wish list of the majority of the women in the survey, is a priority for 64 percent of the women in the survey. Only 42 percent cite a high salary, and just 15 percent cite a powerful position as an important career goal.

    Women’s priorities thus constitute a sharp departure from the conventional white male model and become yet another powerful reason why success within this model is so elusive for women.

    A final word on altruism: As is evident from figure 2-15, a majority of highly qualified women find giving back to society a powerful motivator.

    Jennifer Moreland, a senior executive at Johnson & Johnson Healthcare Systems, is a case in point. Moreland, who is of Jamaican descent, had been with her company for almost 30 years when a series of devastating hurricanes struck the Caribbean in August 2004. She had long been thinking of a way she could “give back” to her homeland and the timing seemed right for her to join the relief effort: her only child—a daughter—had been “launched,” as she put it; and she was newly able to put family responsibilities on the back burner. But when she went to management to tell them that she wanted to be part of the recovery effort she felt it was a huge risk: She imagined that she might have to leave her job, or, at best, take an unpaid leave of absence. Within Johnson & Johnson, as part of shared responsibility for career development each employee works with management to assess such opportunities. For volunteer opportunities management also considers the risk to the safety of each employee. As it turned out, her timing was perfect: Johnson & Johnson had just created a hurricane fund and Moreland’s boss saw a pivotal role for her. So Moreland spent six months based in Jamaica dispensing grants in the Caribbean region and otherwise driving the relief effort. She described it as “one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life—and one which cemented my loyalty to this company.” Moreland’s biggest surprise was that “far from forcing me out, playing a role in the relief effort actually gave my career new traction at Johnson & Johnson—I will always be grateful.”

    Upon returning, she was invited to make a presentation to senior management at company headquarters, which afforded great visibility for her but also great visibility for her “cause.” It was also good for the company. Moreland had, after all, been able to align her desire to “do good” with her company’s philanthropic interests in the Caribbean. The initiative she helped drive both burnished the company’s image in the region and won new loyalty among local employees and customers. In sum, it was a huge win-win. In February 2006, Moreland received an award from her affinity group at Johnson & Johnson. In her words, “It was in recognition for what I did—and what the corporation did.”

    In focus groups women talked eloquently about the importance of giving back—to various communities. For some, their interest lay in their corporation or in their professional associations. Heading up a women’s network, acting as a mentor to young women, getting involved with “girl” power and nurturing young talent were typical pursuits. For others, their passions lay in the wider community—fundraising for a charter school, volunteering in a meals-on-wheels program for elderly shut-ins, tutoring in the inner city. Focus group participants talked wistfully about how neat it would be if employers were to recognize this philanthropic work.

    Stephanie is a young highflier with a bright future at her consumer products firm. A recently promoted brand manager, she could be contributing even more, however, if she felt comfortable sharing more of who she is with her colleagues. What does Stephanie keep to herself? The fact that she runs an award-winning Girl Scout troop in a local homeless shelter. She has been doing this for years, bringing warmth and strength to girls from destitute families. “These kids are not going to Harvard; they don’t have a place to live; they don’t know how many times they’re going to eat today; and they need to take care of siblings not much younger than they are,” she explains. But she’s teaching these girls real skills that may help them build better futures.

    In the process of organizing the troop Stephanie is serving as an unofficial goodwill ambassador for her firm. But her work with the troop demands that she leave work at 5:30 p.m. a few times a month. This doesn’t bother her, but it does seem to bother her boss, despite the fact that she arrives at 7:00 a.m. on those days. Stephanie is acutely concerned about being thought of as less than fully committed to her job. So she refrains from talking about her Girl Scout program at work—even though the initiative earned her a Future Leaders Today award and a ceremony at the White House.

    In the few instances where bosses are supportive and celebratory of altruistic or philanthropic activity (such as in Moreland’s experience at Johnson & Johnson), the dividend to the company in terms of increased loyalty and engagement is big. Talented women are hugely appreciative of support on this front.

    In terms of the big picture, what is the significance of the data presented thus far? Thirty-five years after the women’s revolution transformed female opportunities women’s work lives remain very different from men’s. Grouping together women who take off-ramps with those who take scenic routes, we find that a majority have nonlinear careers. A great many women just need to step out or step to the side for a period of time. Looking back at their work lives almost 60 percent of the highly qualified women in this survey describe their careers as nonlinear: They had not been able to “follow the arc” of a traditionally successful career in their sector. An off-ramp or a scenic route had knocked them off course.

    Obviously, what all this amounts to is that large numbers of talented women fail to fit the conventional career model. Emulating that male competitive model is simply a huge stretch for a great many women. Some obviously do manage to do it. Among them are women who sacrifice family life—childlessness is a problematic issue for high-level corporate women—and at least some superwomen who somehow or other “do it all.” But women who are successful within the confines of the male career model are a minority, and this book is not about them. It is about the other 60 percent, the ones who struggle with off-ramps and on-ramps and have a difficult time claiming or sustaining ambition.

    For three and a half decades policy wonks and business leaders have waited for women to get with the program. The challenge was thought to be about providing access and opportunity and then allowing enough time to go by so that the pipeline could fill. The reasoning was simple: If you created a truly level playing field so that men and women had equal access to employment opportunities, then, over time, as successive cohorts of well-qualified female professionals filled the pipeline, women would eventually be fairly represented at the top. As we’ve already seen, this is not happening. Over the years, there has been so much leakage from the pipeline that progress has effectively stalled. While the proportion of partners at law firms who are women has climbed slightly over the last five years, the number of women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies has fallen slightly over the same time period. If progress moves along at this lugubrious pace it will be a hundred years before we have significant numbers of women in top jobs.

    My advice—to policy wonks and business leaders alike—is to quit waiting. The pipeline as currently constructed won’t work, because it requires shoehorning women into the male competitive model—and most of them just don’t fit. What we need now is the development of second-generation policies that provide alternative pathways for women with nonlinear work lives. As we will see from the next chapter, this challenge has become particularly urgent with the rise of extreme jobs. The goalposts, it seems, are shifting in ways that threaten women’s progress in heretofore unimagined ways.

Excerpted from Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett
(published by Harvard Business School Press).
Copyright 2007 Sylvia Ann Hewlett; all rights reserved.


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