Young Women and the New Have-It-All Myth

Young women are shockingly naive about how easy it’ll be to hop on and off the career track. Have we sold them an impossible dream?

By Sylvia Ann Hewlett

What Women Want

So many of our daughters, bless their optimistic hearts, are certain that, when their time comes, they’ll have this whole work/life balance thing under control. And why shouldn’t they think that, when we raised them to believe that they could accomplish anything? In 1977, when my oldest girl was born, "Free to Be…You and Me" was all the rage, and she and I listened to Marlo Thomas together endlessly. Like so many other mothers, I learned that I was supposed to encourage and celebrate my female child — to a fault. Just how big a fault became apparent when I spoke with college-age women — many of them the product of a similarly rosy-hued upbringing — after the publication of my book Creating a Life: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Having a Baby and a Career (Miramax Books, 2004).

Their confident, ambitious energy was impressive; they couldn’t wait to hit the job market. It didn’t occur to them that anything could stand in the way of success on their own terms. After all, the barriers to entry had been toppled long ago. As one coed told me flippantly, "Back then — when there were dinosaurs — people just did bad stuff to women."

These students planned on becoming wives and mothers as well as high-earning professionals, but they had no idea how hard this can be. Perhaps having watched us wrestle, they didn’t buy into the having-it-all myth of our early careers. But their vision of the future was clouded by a new kind of pipe dream, one filled with fantastically enlightened employers who would make work/life balance a breeze.

The vast majority of women students I informally polled at Washington and Lee University, for example, wanted what they called "in and out careers." Their dream scenario went something like this: a loving, lasting marriage and a high-paying job, with a two-year career break for the first child, a three-year break for the second.

And maybe then a reduced-hour schedule — with a telecommuting arrangement on Fridays — while the kids were in grade school.

Er, come again?

Transitions

This admittedly unscientific sampling left me reeling. Had the American workplace transformed into a family-friendly utopia that we midlife mothers, executives (and, yes, professors and book authors) somehow failed to notice? I decided to undertake some new reality-check research to find out how many talented women do, in fact, take an off-ramp, and whether such career interruptions come with a price.

With funding from Ernst & Young, Goldman Sachs, and Lehman Brothers, I did a national survey of 2,443 women age 28-55: highly qualified women (those with graduate degrees and high honors undergraduate degrees), with results published in the March 2005 Harvard Business Review. More than a third had stopped working for some period of time; 25 percent more took "scenic" routes (flexible or reduced-hour options). Almost 60 percent described their careers as "nonlinear," and childcare wasn’t the only reason they’d left their jobs — 24 percent off-ramped because of an eldercare crisis.

As for the ease of these transitions, well, here’s where the dream begins to curdle.

While 93 percent of the women surveyed had every intention of going back to work after their time out, only 74 percent actually did so (and among those, less than half returned to full-time, mainstream careers). They off-ramped for an average of 2.2 years — the same time frame the college students envisioned for themselves. But this little detour cost women 18 percent of their earning power, and that figure leapt to a staggering 37 percent if they took three or more years off. And I’m not just talking dollars here. Nonlinear female careers often lead to a downsizing of ambition, as well — especially among respondents age 41-55 who’d taken time out. They saw that they lost traction in the job market, and downsized their expectations accordingly.

Judi Pitsiokos, 48, graduate of a top-ten law school, spent several ambition-fueled years in the securities department of a prestigious law firm until reality — her own, and that of the workplace — intruded.

"After my first child was born, I imagined I would go right back to work, but my son needed more than the average amount of care, and so I decided to take ‘a little’ time off. Instead, I took a little more time off, and had a few more children, remaining extremely active in my community and a variety of not-for-profits. Now my firstborn’s in college, and I’m still working on my own, doing real-estate closings, etc. I am bored and angry — with myself, and with the law firms who won’t even look at my resume, not even for bottom-rung positions. When I have heart-to-heart talks with legal recruiters or partners at major law firms, they say, ‘Why would we hire you when we can get a kid right out of school?’ Why? Because I am very smart, very well-educated, have experience developing my own business, am done with childcare and ready to work long hours. They laugh. Literally. "I am now in the process of reinventing myself as a not-for-profit fund-raiser. But I wonder what is wrong with a society that leaves smart women adrift when they choose to take time off to raise their children."

What’s the Answer?

So what’s the answer? After my ’04 survey, I created the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force to try to find solutions everyone could live with. Nineteen global corporations have signed up so far, and they’ve identified several critical ways to keep talented women of all ages on the career highway. The fact that more companies seem ready to have this conversation, and even begin to make changes, is an encouraging sign.

The next generation of working women can help make this happen by voting with their feet and seeking out employers that offer support on the work/life front. But they can’t solve problems they don’t see. Clearly, it’s time we midlife mothers, sisters, friends, and colleagues did more in the way of truth-telling. What really tripped us up, and what got in the way of us realizing our potential?

Looking back, I know I didn’t do a stellar job preparing my daughter for the barriers ahead, and probably contributed to a powerful idealism. Now, if we could just make sure these young women see the roadblocks as well as the road, maybe they’ll be likelier to use that idealism to drive real change for us all.

Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett is director of the Gender and Public Policy Program at Columbia and heads the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York.

Off-Ramp Options to Keep You on Course

Here’s what some companies are doing to promote work/life sanity.

Offering "flex-careers" as well as flex time. Booz Allen Hamilton, the management and technology consulting firm, now offers a "ramp up, ramp down" program that allows workers to "unbundle" projects, separating chunks that can be done by telecommuting or short office stints. International law firm Sidley Austin Brown & Wood keeps reduced-hour associates on the partnership track by offering client assignments that are smaller in quantity but comparable in quality to those tackled by full-timers.

Removing the stigma. Ernst & Young has made flexible work programs so varied and accessible that 27 percent of female senior managers — that’s one step away from partner — now participate. "There seems to be a tipping point," says Carolyn Buck Luce, an E&Y senior partner and co-chair of the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force. "Once a policy is used by more than 25 percent of employees, it transforms the corporate culture."

Nurturing ambition over the long haul. Only 5 percent of highly qualified women looking for on-ramps are interested in rejoining the companies they left. That’s why firms like Deloitte & Touche and Goldman Sachs offer a formal alumni program. "Old girl" networks developed by GE, American Express, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, and Time Warner help all women — including those with nonlinear careers — gain momentum and "encourage more women to aspire to leadership positions," says Time Warner executive VP Patricia Fili-Krushel.

Originally published in MORE magazine, June 2005.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:06

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