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

"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.

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