Breaking down the wall

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 March, 2008, 12:00am

Economist calls for change so that career-minded women can return to the workforce minus financial penalties

Book Off-Ramps and On-Ramps

Author Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Publisher Harvard Business School Press

When the average business woman takes a career break to raise children, care for parents, or manage other domestic demands, it is not an insignificant choice to make.

However, once they are ready to step back on track they hit a wall, economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett says.

In her latest tome, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps, which is part of a study on the pressures imposed by the21st century workplace on career-minded women, and part a collection of the best practice case studies of corporate America, she describes how relatively easy it is for many to exit a career, but that the financial penalties for doing so are hard-hitting and means of re-entering the rat race horribly scarce.

For example, in 2001, the Center for Work-Life Policy, a non-profit organisation which Ms Hewlett founded, did a survey which showed that 93 per cent of female respondents who had taken such a sabbatical wanted to rejoin the workforce.

Of these, only 40 per cent ever managed to find full-time jobs, while 24 per cent worked part time, and 9 per cent eventually ended up being self-employed. More than a quarter never worked again.

Those that do make it back take a hit to their pockets. The survey found that even those who took less than a year away from work earned 11 per cent less than their female peers who did not stay away from the office. Those that took three years or more were paid on average 37 per cent less.

Not only is this tough on women in terms of a rocky career path and financial losses, but it hurts employers because they lose some of the biggest, best and brightest fish in their talent pool.

Ms Hewlett poses the theory that women are in need of a working policy that enables them to operate according to their needs and wants.

She proposes that their working life needs to move beyond what she terms the white male competitive model and bear in mind their domestic responsibilities and professional aspirations.

This is the driving force behind the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force, a group of change agent teams from 34 leading companies dedicated to research and keeping talented women on track - which Ms Hewlett co-founded in 2004. Company members include Time Warner, Lehman Brothers, General Electric and Johnson & Johnson.

Ms Hewlett is clearly up to the task of helping career women keep a grip on their careers. She is also the director of the Gender and Policy Programme at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University - and the author of five highly successful non-fiction books.

Her particular goal is to develop and drive best-practice models for companies seeking to recruit, retrain and re-attract talented women.

And, as stated in the foreword by Carolyn Buck Luce, the chair of the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force, 'We need ... policy that moves beyond access and opportunity and creates alternative pathways to power and alternative work models better suited to the talents, ambitions and life rhythms of women. We need to develop work environments where women can both take charge and take care.'

This thoroughly researched and erudite work provides helpful strategies for career women determined to take a successful career break - in other words, one that does not annihilate their career opportunities.

Ms Hewlett faces head-on the stigma faced by women who adopt alternative work arrangements and provides the means to combat this. Her aim is to help women 'claim and sustain ambition'.

Input is given throughout by Ernst & Young, Citigroup, American Express and Cisco Systems.These detailed case studies on individuals' experiences add significantly to the book in terms of clarity and serve to advertise the positive attitude and successful arrangements being promoted with career women in mind at the companies in question.

In 'Establishing Flexible Work Arrangements', for example, Ms Hewlett looks at how flexible work arrangements are at the core of corporate policies and practices that allow women to stay engaged with their careers.

These include flexible start and stop times, seasonal flexitime, reduced-hour options, telecommuting and job-sharing.

As she notes: 'These are among the policies and practices that wives, mothers, and daughters yearn for.'

This chapter then analyses the experience at Ernst & Young, BT and Citigroup in considerable detail, looking at the tenets of their policies and how they have met with success in a variety of ways.

One theme that runs throughout the book is the need to give a voice to, as Ms Hewlett puts it, disenchanted women.

It also shines a spotlight on just why women are disenchanted and showcases a range of forward-looking companies and how they are tackling the status quo.

In A Nutshell

Who should read this?

Every woman who is contemplating a career break - or, perhaps more importantly, human resources specialists being entrusted with helping working women take a short-time break and then, in due course, re-enter the workforce. Although it isn't a light-hearted, easy read, and is speckled with footnotes, charts, graphs and detailed case studies, if you are really serious about staying on-track, this could go a long way towards helping you.

Why should they read this?

Because it will give women the courage to demand flexible working conditions, respect for their qualifications and know-how, and for the multitudinous demands of the female working life and the belief that they deserve to claim and sustain their ambition.

1 'Desperate Housewives notwithstanding, talented women who blithely throw their careers to the wind are the exception rather than the rule,' writes Sylvia Ann Hewlett. 'The overwhelming majority of highly qualified women currently off-ramped want to return to their careers.'

2 Today, people are working in extreme jobs that make extreme demands of them, Ms Hewlett notes. Professional life presents escalating tensions, pressures and rewards. 'Work pressures are ratcheting up and jobs, particularly high-level, well-paying jobs, are becoming more extreme,' she says. And it is this workaholic approach that presents a 'new and urgent challenge' to talented women.

3 Although flexible working arrangements are part of the answer to women's career challenges, they are static. 'They're all about carving out partial relief in the here and now, allowing employees to ratchet down the pressure and create a 'scenic route',' the author writes. Flexible work arrangements don't deal with problems presented by high-impact, extreme jobs which are now forcing many highly-credentialed women off the highway

4 'Many of the standard work-life policies offered by companies have been designed with a specific demographic in mind: married with children,' Ms Hewlett comments. 'For decades, the best benefits - and finest family support programmes - in large corporations have been devoted to this group of employees [but] for more and more workers this narrow focus just doesn't cut the mustard.' A large proportion of highly qualified women are childless and a significant number are not married.

5 Finally, 'Ambition is a problematic issue for women,' says Ms Hewlett. 'Our data shows that talented women are not as ambitious as their male peers and that the gap widens as women move through their 30s and 40s. In the business sector, for example, 53 per cent of highly qualified women aged 21 to 40 see themselves as 'very ambitious', whereas in the 41 to 55 age group that percentage drops to 37 per cent.'