Ramping Up Opportunities for Women

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Ramping Up Opportunities for Women

I often think our government and corporate America are destroying the modern family. Roadblocks thwarting paid maternity leave and earning disparity between men and women make it hard to embrace the dual roles of mother and colleague. I don’t have children and the reasons I consider not having them are twofold: it’s clear that my country doesn’t support me if I do have them, and the cost of childcare is daunting. I’m also not certain that I could afford it, childcare costs withstanding. I was shocked to learn that women who leave the workplace for more than two years typically lose 30 percent of their salary upon re-entry, and many lose their position altogether.

Dr. Sylvia Hewlett, author of Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success and founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy is trying to transform these statistics into broader opportunities. She has spent much of her life researching the corporate roadblocks affecting women—many she has experienced herself—and finding solutions that not only benefit female workers, but also boost a company’s bottom line. Finally, she hopes her book and tour can educate women on just how poorly our country is taking care of families.

Hewlett grew up in Wales as one of six daughters in a family on the lower end of the financial spectrum. As a teenager in a small village with an unemployment rate of 35 percent, she had two options: she could marry an unemployed miner or she could go work for Woolworth’s. When her father took her to see Cambridge University, a third option opened up around the same time the women’s movement started to take off. The Labor Party had ruled that highbrow institutions should now accept women and low-income students, and so Hewlett took advantage. She went on to receive her PhD in Economics at London University and got an assistant professorship at Columbia University, but it wasn’t until Hewlett started her family that she hit the “hidden wall.”

Back then, Columbia didn’t have policies surrounding maternity leave, so Hewlett took her first “off ramp” before she had even defined the term. Ten days after giving birth to her first child, she came back to work, “doing at least four things badly,” she explained recently in a talk given to 200 female professionals at YourOnRamp’s launch event in Silicon Valley. Two years after her first child’s birth, she lost twins when seven months pregnant. Shockingly, she only received three days off to recoup from the tragedy. A year later, she had her second child, and Hewlett decided to take a three-month leave of absence—only to be fired by Columbia University.

Why Companies Should Care

Retaining female employees is essential for a company’s bottom line. Human resource executives typically estimate turnover costs to be twice an employee’s salary. This doesn’t take into consideration the time and aggravation of training a new employee or the ripple effects these changes can have on corporate culture. A woman who has years of experience is worth retaining—even if in a part-time role. And, frankly, it pays to have senior female executives. According to a recent study by Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit organization that studies women in the workplace, companies with more women board directors have higher financial performance.  

Hewlett pointed to other studies showing that companies with more women in senior management earn more than those with mainly male executives.

This research has inspired Hewlett to collaborate with Fortune 500 corporations including Avon, Intel, Time Warner, and Ernst & Young to form the Hidden Brain Taskforce.  

“The private sector is really starting to grapple with: how do you create scenic routes that work to retain and deepen the extraordinary potential of the women that are now in the pipeline?” Hewlett explained.

From the taskforce, Hewlett and top executives discovered five innovative paths to retain and accelerate female talent:

  • Establish a rich menu of flexible work arrangements: Ernst & Young created thirteen flexible work schedules—one example allows employees to work overtime in November and December in order to take the summer off.
  • Create arc-of-the-career flexibility: Booz Allen created an adjunct program allowing employees to work less hours for a period of time, such as ten hours a month, and then ramp up to work more hours over a period of time. The women in this program reportedly produced high quality work, survived three levels of corporate cutbacks, and reduced the company turnover.
  • Re-imagine work life: Intel has decreased its carbon footprint and costs, while receiving a tax break, through telecommuting programs. Intel has also rented “rotating cubicle office space” for remote employees, as necessary.
  • Mentoring programs: Time Warner’s “Breakthrough Leadership Program” brings together top female executives  to mentor others by sharing success strategies and learning experiences. This helps foster paths for advancement and retain talent.
  • Tapping into altruism: Hewlett’s research found that 56 percent of working women want to volunteer. Cisco took that statistic to heart by allowing high performers to take a volunteer sabbatical. Employees can work at a non-profit or volunteer with a charity for a year while receiving their full salary. Not surprisingly 75 percent of the participants are women.

If your company doesn’t offer any of these programs, perhaps you’ll get motivated to suggest one. And if you’re prepping to request an extended leave or a flexible schedule, do your homework first. Network with other employees to see if any flexible schedules are currently in place. It’s also important to read the employee handbook to see what, if anything, has been written about this topic. For more suggestions, read: Working Part-Time for a Living

Reality Bites

While Hewlett’s research is inspiring—and appears to be affecting change within some corporations—we still have a long way to go. This is painfully obvious when it comes to maternity leave. As Joan Blades, co-founder of MomsRising.org pointed out earlier this year, having a baby is the main reason American families stumble into poverty. With no paid maternity, paternity, or family leave programs, America falls into the ranks of third world countries in how it treats families.

“Forty-three percent of American women have no rights for any kind of leave after they give birth because they work for companies that have fewer than forty people and they are exempt from the Family and Medical Leave Act,” Hewlett told the crowd. “This is not a country that does well in terms of its public policies … Women are the canaries in the coalmine of a career model that is out of date.”

In contrast, all European countries offer paid maternity leaves and typically foster corporate cultures that allow women additional leaves of absence unpaid, with the guarantee of their jobs upon return. It just makes sense. 

At the end of the talk, the women in the audience around me beamed from Hewlett’s inspiration. I was inspired, but am still ambivalent. I still sit on the fence about whether to have children, but am grateful to be surrounded by a female workforce that will be in my corner, supporting my individual process, if the time ever comes.

Related Story: MomsRising: Fighting for What Families Care About