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.

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