Debunking the Myth of Why Women Leave the Workforce

By Jessica Marquez

Apr. 23, 2007

In her new book, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps (Harvard Business School Press, 2007), Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, debunks many of the myths surrounding why women leave the workforce (why they “off-ramp” from work) and talks about how companies can go about winning this talent back (giving women “on-ramps” to return). The book, which is based on a survey of 2,400 women and 650 men, provides evidence to employers that if they aren’t targeting this talent, they are missing a huge opportunity.

    Through case studies, Hewlett provides examples of companies, like Lehman Bros that are developing effective programs to recruit and retain women who have left the workforce.

    Hewlett recently spoke with Workforce Management New York bureau chief Jessica Marquez.

    Workforce Management: What prompted you to do this research in the first place?

    Sylvia Ann Hewlett: I was very unhappy with the media blitz in 2003. Lisa Belkin wrote that very famous article in The New York Times, but there was a lot of other media coverage too, which seemed to be saying that women were just dropping out, that they somehow couldn’t hack it, that they lost their ambition, that they lost their edge.

    At that point, we were looking to see where the urgent issues were in terms of retaining and accelerating women’s progress. This seemed like a good place to start. Let’s investigate who was opting out, how long they stayed out and get some facts out there. So much of the media coverage had been anecdotal. It was seemingly a group of very privileged (women)—say, Princeton graduates. I felt that it would be very helpful to this whole debate to actually get the data out there so that we could discuss what’s really going on. And I suspected that we would find a different story, and we did.

    WM: What was that story?

    Hewlett: First of all, we discovered that women were actually not opting out. Sure, almost 40 percent took a brief off-ramp, but it really was brief. The average amount of time a woman spent outside the workforce in terms of these voluntary leaves was just 2.2 years. Ninety-three percent of them were trying to get back in. In our focus groups, we unearthed a lot of very powerful testimony about the attachment to work and about how important careers were to women these days. It was what created a lot of meaning and purpose in their lives. It was their status and standing in the community. This work/identity thing was very important to women.

    There was a kind of celebration of the meaning of careers that came out of this work, and this hadn’t been in any of this media coverage because that was all about the lure of home and about how important it was to be with your 2-year-old. There was very little about their careers and the meaning of their professions. So we redressed the balance in our study.

    We found a lot of women were taking a break, but it was short break. We found that what pushed people out was very complicated. Children were important for 45 percent of women who off-ramped. Spending more time with a child was the trigger reason. But 24 percent off-ramp because of an elder care crisis. It’s not just the children that create this happy responsibility in the lives of modern women. The other thing we found was that there was a lot of push going on in some sectors.

    For instance, in the financial services sector, it was often something that went on at work that pushed the woman out, like they were just passed over for a promotion. Or they felt that they were being sidelined and not utilized. If that was going on and you had a 2-year old, you often did off-ramp.

    But we felt the pull and push were interactive and that your 2-year old might look much more appealing if you had just been passed over at work. So actually a lot of power was in the hands of the employer, because if an employer could produce a supportive but challenging work environment, many women would figure out how to deal with their family responsibilities because they would be very motivated to stay in their careers. So there was a kind of push/pull picture that we drew which was very complicated and I think really does reflect reality.

    WM: From a business standpoint, why should employers care? Why should they go after women?

    Hewlett: For starters, employers are newly aware of the costs of attrition. If an associate in a legal firm walks out the door after spending just two years with your firm, the odds are that it’s going to cost you half a million dollars. It’s the training costs of that person, all of the investments you made in her to that date. Besides which, it’s going to cost you one-and-a-half times her salary to replace her. There are a lot of costs attached to having a kind of revolving door for women who are being pushed out because either they can’t handle a 70-hour week when they have children or because they’re not being fully challenged at work.

    Then there are bigger factors in there that we explored in terms of the business case. If you look at demographics of the workplace, we have 78 million retiring baby boomers and we know that there is a much smaller cohort of trained professionals coming on, so everyone is anticipating shortfalls and bottlenecks because of the baby busts and the retiring bay boomers.

    That’s the big structural shift that is creating a much tighter labor picture, and I think it encourages employers to think hard about retaining women because perhaps in this new demographic stage of things you can’t just throw a third of your talent pool away and think that’s OK.

    The final thing we talk about is the achievement gap between men and women. Women are just an amazing talent pool. They are outperforming men all over the map. Think of two figures: 58 percent of college graduates are female these days, and in health science 80 percent of graduate degrees are going to women. I think employers have no choice but to take this talent pool very seriously and hang on to them.

    WM: To bring women back in the workplace, is it just a matter of offering flextime, or do employers need to do more than that?

    Hewlett: The business school community, but also private-sector companies, are beginning to figure out the explicit need for on-ramping programs to accomplish what they need to do.

    I think the good ones are trying to do three things. First of all, there is a certain amount of re-skilling that women need. Women and men who have taken a little time out need to be caught up in terms of what’s going on in the field. Pretty much any global company today is evolving very fast, and so there is some catch-up that needs to happen.

    Then the other thing they are trying to do is re-network. Maybe your contacts have gone cold. Maybe your confidence has slumped. There is reconnection to collegial and corporate community that also is underpinned and fostered in these programs.

    The new Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania program, which UBS is sponsoring, has created peer coaches and executive coaches so that women have two kinds of support going back in. There also needs to be a menu of choices in terms of the number of jobs that are offered to these on-rampers. The sense is that half of the returnees do need a measure of flexibility.

    WM: In your book, you discuss arc-of-career flexibility. What is this and why is it important for employers to embrace?

    Hewlett: In the book, I talk about a menu of fairly conventional flexibility options. Like flexibility in the week, the month and the year, but also in the here and now. The other form of flexibility I talk about refers to the ability to ramp down and then ramp up again.

    I think Booz Allen is a very good example of a company that has put that in place. They have created a reserve workforce, called an adjunct program, which allows some of their high performers to ramp down to as little as a few days a month because obviously the road warrior/management consulting lifestyle is very hard to combine with a new child, for example.

    So a woman might opt in to the adjunct program and work on a project-by-project basis for two years, but then she has the option of ramping up again at the same firm and that remains an option open to her for a span of time.

    They are finding that it’s a very attractive program to women and it does mean that rather than opting out and then three years down the road going to work for the competitor, the company is able to hang on to some of its key talent.

    What’s also interesting about the Booz Allen program is that now they have a cadre of men who have opted into this program because obviously some of these issues are not exclusively female issues.

    WM: How important is it to get men into these programs as well?

    Hewlett: It’s pretty important, because you would like these programs to be mainstream. You don’t want them to be seen as an accommodation to women’s needs, but as a sensitive part of your talent management. Having a healthy number of men involved insures that there isn’t any stigma attached to taking any of these options.

    WM: The book also talks about how older women often don’t consider themselves very ambitious. Why is this?

    Hewlett: Lots of data, including my data, shows that there does seem to be this falloff in ambition among women. If you take 25 year-olds, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between men and women in terms of their reported level of ambition. About half of everyone in their professional career would see themselves as very ambitious.

    But if you did the same kind of survey at age 35, there is a widening gap between men and women. In our data, it’s very much linked to this of-ramp/on-ramp reality. A woman who has experienced the discontinuities, the stopping and starting of the off-ramp/on-ramp reality has paid a price for that time out.

    We see this as a kind of downsizing of ambition that happens because women aren’t masochistic. If they took a break and came back into the workforce and really had to struggle to find another job and often had to take a job at a lower level, then that woman has very likely redefined what she expects of herself.
Employers can play a very important role here in helping women reclaim and sustain their ambition. It’s about providing pathways back on to the fast track, which so many of them want. One mechanism to do that with is through very targeted women’s leadership training. Time Warner is an example of a company that has done this.

    Three years ago, the company created something called “Breakthrough Leadership,” which was precisely targeting these midcareer women who were either on the brink of either breaking through or languishing on the sidelines. These women got together at Simmons College a couple of times a year for intensive leadership training and networking so that they can begin to build the kinds of support networks that will undoubtedly help them get to the next stage.

    The company has seen results that show that women who go through the program are much more likely to get on the fast track than women who don’t. This program shows how important it is to figure out initiatives that help women at this watershed moment, which usually comes in their 30s, where they need to rekindle or reinvigorate their ambition.

    WM: What are the biggest challenges companies come across in reaching out to women who have off-ramped?

    Hewlett: The biggest challenge is stigma. I think that over the years it’s been very easy to see flexibility as something that losers do. Something like 38 percent wouldn’t even take what was on the books. They prefer to quit than to go on a flexible work schedule, because in their corporate culture it would label them as a second-rater. So stigma is huge, because you can have the most well-crafted policies, but if people are afraid to take them, then it’s useless.

    I spend a lot of time in the book focusing on case studies of success. One strategy, for instance, is to have your very senior men model these policies.

    WM: What can companies do, though, about those managers who remain resistant to the idea of flexible work schedules?

    Hewlett: I think there is a tipping point in corporate culture. A good example of that is Ernst & Young. That company found that when 25 percent of their professional workforce was working on some flexible schedule, it became normal. Once that happens, even if you have that outlier manager who is pretty negative about it, it doesn’t matter anymore because the culture has changed. Getting to that tipping point is the real challenge.

    WM: In your book, you talk about jobs getting more extreme. How do you define extreme jobs?

    Hewlett: There has been a kind of ratcheting up of pressure on a lot of fronts. This is due to 24/7 client demand and working in different time zones around the world. Everything comes so much more quickly these days, partly because we have the communication technology to allow that to happen. So expectations have shifted.

    Our definition of an extreme worker is someone who worked at least 60 hours a week and had at least five of the pressures that we identified. Taking our definition, 45 percent of professionals at the director level and above at the global companies we surveyed were extreme workers.

    The reason that it feeds into the off-ramps/on-ramps work is the following: Ever since Lisa Belkin wrote that article, there has been this suspicion that women are goofing off. But it turns out that women are not getting wimpier, but the work model got more intense. The average number of hours an extreme worker puts in is 73 hours per week. It’s much harder to combine that with two kids or with a mother who has Alzheimer’s than it was 10 years ago with the 55-hour week.

    So, I think on-ramps and off-ramps and scenic routes and all of those things that we are talking about today are going to become increasingly the norm. Employers will have to see this not as some stopgap measure. I think increasingly high-performing individuals with serious responsibilities in other parts of their lives are going to want to take a short break. But then they are going to want to come get back in, so this is the challenge that is going to stay with us.

    WM: How should companies measure their success?

    Hewlett: Retention rates, the acceleration rate for women so that they rise up in a way that is commensurate with their place in the talent pool—that is a huge measure of success. I also think that all of these programs become a recruitment tool. On any campus visiting day, you will find many of the companies in our task force talking about their programs because 21- and 24-year-olds find them enormously interesting.

    If you are a woman in your 20s looking forward, you certainly want to go work for a company that gives you the possibility at some point down the road of ramping down and then ramping up.

    And increasingly, men are interested too. There is a story recently that two top graduating males from Stanford University Law School are looking for jobs where there is a reduction in billable hour requirements. They are absolutely willing and wanting to work for less money, but have more time.

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