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.

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