Going Back to Work: A Reality Check

Three provocative authors — Leslie Bennetts, Pamela Stone, and Sylvia Ann Hewlett — talk about the challenges former stay-at-home moms face when going back to work.

By the editors of MORE magazine

Rejoining the Workforce

What’s going on when women can’t get rehired? Are they to blame? Or is it the family-unfriendly workplace? MORE asked economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy (Off-Ramps and On-Ramps); Pamela Stone, professor of sociology at Hunter College, in New York City (Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home); and journalist Leslie Bennetts (The Feminine Mistake) to join moderator Mary Quigley, a journalism professor at New York University and a coauthor of Going Back to Work: A Survival Guide for Comeback Moms, for a lively conversation.

QUIGLEY: What would you say to women who are thinking about going back to work?

HEWLETT: If you need to maintain the same salary, look in the sector you came from. That’s where your credentials are, where your earning power is. And you’ve got to understand that you’re going to go back in at a lower level and you’ll have to prove your worth again. But all kinds of women do make that happen.

BENNETTS: I tell women that they can’t stop thinking about the fact that raising kids is a finite period in their lives. In my book I call it the 15-year paradigm. The intensive period of motherhood is relatively short compared with the length of your work life and your total life span. So if women aren’t thinking about money, I would suggest that they ought to be.

QUIGLEY: Do you recommend starting a new career?

HEWLETT: Crossing over to something different — joining a nonprofit, for example — is usually a low-paying reality. If you can afford it, then you need to give strategic energy to your mom CV and package your volunteer activities; there are all kinds of organizations these days that do a very nice job of helping you with that. Also, almost 20 percent of women open their own small businesses. But more than half fail in the first year, and you are also unlikely to earn a living that way.

STONE: The stay-at-home moms I talked to had often found a source of redirection in their volunteer work. In it, they saw a different kind of value system, one that wasn’t the corporate capitalist model of money, money, money. They started really changing their own values toward an ethic of caring and connectivity. And their volunteer work did often lead to something concrete.

QUIGLEY: How many women manage to get rehired?

HEWLETT: About one-third of all college-educated women in the workforce will voluntarily leave their careers or take a little bit of flexibility or a three-day week. The bad news is that only 74 percent of them will get back in. They get sidelined in all kinds of ways. They will also suffer a financial penalty: The data shows that you lose 37 percent of your earning power if you’re out more than three years.

Career Obstacles Women Face

QUIGLEY: What keeps them from getting back in?

STONE: If you understand why they’re out in the first place, you can understand what sideswipes them. Most of the women I interviewed for my study were really work-committed. They wanted a life that combined careers and kids. But they were burned by the workplace. They couldn’t get the flexibility they needed. Women are battling tough odds: A lot have come into the workplace with the expectation that it’s family-friendly. Then they find out that it’s not. They’re pretty discouraged.

HEWLETT: The burden on women is getting worse as we speak because of eldercare. Eldercare is even more sex-based; women do 85 percent of eldercare but only 73 percent of childcare. It’s the big explosive issue of our time.

BENNETTS: As I interviewed women for my book, I found that, actually, an awful lot of them weren’t committed professionals. So when they hit roadblocks in their careers, at a certain point, it all just became too frustrating and stressful, and they dropped out. And then when they try to get back in, they realized they didn’t have a real career to return to. We are not socializing women to get serious about their careers and to understand that they’re going to have to be prepared to be financially self-sufficient. We do not tell them that there are huge penalties for being economically dependent on somebody.

QUIGLEY: Is the workplace itself getting more extreme? Does that make it harder for women to get back in?

HEWLETT: Just 10 years ago, the average workweek for an accomplished professional was about 55 hours. It’s now 73 hours. It’s much harder to bring up two kids with a 73-hour workweek than it was with 55. So something has happened to women’s ambition. When you hit enough brick walls, when you’re faced with the 73-hour workweek and the global teams and the 24-7 client demands — all features of the modern-day workplace — it’s awfully easy to redefine who you are and to downsize your expectations. We’ve dealt women an impossible scenario. And for the fortysomething going back to work, it’s truly intimidating.

QUIGLEY: Is it possible to stay plugged in to the work world while you’re home?

STONE: Many women told me they tried to keep up for a while and had difficulty. There are real pressures for moms. We all know how intensive parenting is nowadays. There’s no question that once they’re home, women do get sucked away from their careers. But although I don’t think you can count on keeping up close contacts, you can keep up some contacts. You have to also be willing to swallow your pride: You’re going to have to knock on those doors, and you’re going to have to make those calls.

BENNETTS: Many of the employment experts I talked to were disdainful of stay-at-home mothers. The mothers don’t bother to find out what’s going on in their field, don’t bother to stay abreast of changing technology, don’t maintain their networks. I had an employment expert say, "Well, you can’t just go off to Greenwich or Westport for 15 years and think you’re going to waltz back in." Nobody wants to hire a person whose knowledge base and contact base are 15 years old.

QUIGLEY: How do you avoid just giving up?

STONE: It’s very difficult. Every woman thinks, if I’m smart enough and strategic enough, I’ll figure it out. Women are made to believe it’s their own problem, their own fault, when it’s really all about structure; they’re being blindsided by these larger trends. Objectively, what we know is that they are entering a tough job market. We can’t sugarcoat it: They’ve been out, and they’ve lost traction.

BENNETTS: I do think that women need to become more realistic. When I interviewed people, I would say, "Well, what would happen if your husband suddenly asked for a divorce or died or lost his job, and your family’s single breadwinner were gone? What would you do?" They say, "Oh well, that wouldn’t happen to me." But it could! Half of all marriages end in divorce. There’s a reluctance to confront the facts. I interviewed so many women who said, "I never had any idea that ageism was going to be a factor when I tried to go back, that sexism was going to be a factor, that there was the mommy factor." All of these things just blindside women, and they’re not prepared.

What Can Women Do?

QUIGLEY: So is it hopeless?

BENNETTS: No. Obviously there are ways to practice a profession and go around the obstacles. It is possible to have meaningful work and a happy family, raise well-adjusted children, have a good marriage and a successful career.

HEWLETT: There’s enormous potential for women to fashion a different path through a working life because women do want different things from being at work than men do. For instance, while women care a lot about being fairly paid, it is things like meaning and purpose, giving back to the community, having great colleagues, finding friendship at work that trump having the biggest salary. And that opens up opportunities.

QUIGLEY: Where does change start?

BENNETTS: Women need to ask themselves, what am I empowered to do to change my situation? And the answer starts with taking responsibility for your own choices. This whole society needs to look at how high a price women pay for not believing that they have to think about money. Women end up in poverty at twice the rate of men in their later lives, and they’re unprepared to deal with this. I don’t think it’s helpful to women to say the whole society has to change.

STONE: Companies do need to step up and deal with the reality of women’s lives. If you look at the policies that most companies have, they tend to be skewed toward leave policies. Then oftentimes it’s an opening to leave and never come back. So I say what we need is some stay policies that encourage women to keep their jobs.

QUIGLEY: Are any companies making a move to address this issue?

HEWLETT: One of the things I’m proud of is that I’ve persuaded 34 companies to talk about ways to help talented women get rehired after stepping back from their careers.

QUIGLEY: How do demographics factor into this?

HEWLETT: We are on the cusp of a baby-bust generation. The boomers are retiring, and the labor force isn’t growing fast enough to replace them. Any employer looking forward understands this looming talent crunch. There’s also a big achievement gap between men and women: Women are walking away with about 55 percent of all degrees worldwide. It is imperative that we figure out how to keep these women in the labor force.

The Husband’s Role

QUIGLEY: What role do husbands play in this debate?

BENNETTS: Change can’t happen unless women put their foot down and stop agreeing to be the person who does the second shift. I think that a more egalitarian model of marriage is absolutely necessary to permit women to stay in the labor force. Life simply becomes unbearable if you’re doing 92 percent of the stuff at home and the child-rearing and working full-time. It is a source of constant amazement to me that most women do not insist that their husbands participate more. I’m sorry, but you have to make that nonnegotiable.

STONE: One thing that happens with stay-at-home moms is that if they ever had any kind of egalitarianism in their household division of labor, it disappears. Everyone slides into traditional roles. One of the reasons these women are quitting is that they’re competing against their husbands’ jobs. The husbands say, "Honey, do whatever you want." But he doesn’t pick up more slack; he doesn’t cut back his hours. So it’s not only the fast pace of their own jobs that is causing them to go home, but it’s also the fast pace of the husbands’ jobs.

HEWLETT: I did a fascinating focus group of men married to women who were leaving the workforce. I thought the men would tell me that they were thrilled that their wives were going home: Finally there would be someone to do all those things that probably no one was doing. And half the men were thrilled. But the other half were angry, resentful, and not on board with the decision; they saw it as not the deal they bought into. They thought they had married a high-achieving, income-producing wife, and — guess what? — she quits in the middle of the kids’ private-school tuition burden. They also felt that the equality and partnership they’d prized would disappear.

BENNETTS: One of the things that stay-at-home moms are reluctant to look at is how much pressure it puts on their husbands to be the single breadwinner. I interviewed a lot of men who felt tremendous resentment and incredible pressure because everything depended on them. I don’t think it works very well for either side.

QUIGLEY: Is this purely a problem for the elite?

HEWLETT: My data is based on folks earning more than $75,000 a year.

BENNETTS: Not entirely; I interviewed people who were cashiers at McDonald’s and who worked at Wal-Mart, among others. I think it happens everywhere but is more pronounced among more affluent women.

QUIGLEY: What would you tell stay-at-home mothers now?

BENNETTS: I’d like to encourage them to think about going back to work sooner rather than later. And I’d like to put in a plug for work: Not only does it give you money, but it also gives you something meaningful to do with your life. Women often don’t fully understand the extent to which working is a transformational experience: It transforms your marriage if you have power because you have money. It transforms your role in the household. It elevates your family’s standard of living. You’re able to provide your children with totally different educational and cultural opportunities than you might if you were relying only on your husband’s income. If women can find meaningful work, that’s what’s going to carry them over the next 50 years. You can’t count on other people to give meaning to your life. You have to provide something for yourself — and that’s work.

Originally published in MORE magazine, June 2007, as "Reality Check."

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:13

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