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

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.

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