Getting Women on the Road
Sylvia Ann Hewlett calls them "canaries in the coal mine." Women who drop out of the workforce in their 30s-to have kids or care for older relatives-struggle to find high-powered jobs again. Managers often view them as less committed than other workers, so many women settle for lower-paying positions. In Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success, Hewlett, an economist and founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, argues that women are just the most conspicuous casualties of a broken career model.
Why did you write this book?
It began in the fall of 2003. That was when [New York Times reporter] Lisa Belkin wrote her article "The Opt-Out Revolution." Everyone understood it was a huge issue, but there was no data.
You got the data-from almost 2,500 professional women. What did you find?
Just over a third of highly qualified women will take an off-ramp-voluntarily leave their careers. They don't leave for a whole bunch of time, on average for 2.2 years. Another third take what I call a scenic route-reduced-hour options, flextime, telecommuting.
Why can't they get their jobs back?
The most pernicious property of this male competitive model is this need for lockstep, cumulative, continuous full-time employment, with a whole bunch of face time thrown in, that just knocks [women] off track so completely. Secondly, the demand that the steepest gradient of a career has to be in one's 30s-that's when you either catch a wave or you don't, with no second chances. Given life spans and the natural rhythm of the working life of someone who's involved in care, it makes no sense!
Should employers worry?
The war for talent is really heating up: Employers can't continue to sideline two thirds of the female talent pool.
How does "extreme work," as you call it, factor into this?
It's harder to combine a 73-hour workweek-the average number of hours an "extreme worker" puts in-with, say, that second child, than it was combining a 55-hour workweek 10 years ago. It's not surprising that increasing numbers of committed, dedicated female workers are needing to take a break.
Why are women "canaries"?
There are clearly a whole collection of constituencies for [altering] this rigid model, from 58-year-old baby boomers looking for a second career to 28-year-old gen Y men who want to be better fathers.
You've created a Hidden Brain Drain Task Force to help global corporations find ways to be more flexible.
The whole challenge here is to make this be for real-because this isn't really about trying to shoehorn a few more women into the male competitive model. It's about creating alternative models, which are alternative pathways to power, not just mommy tracks.
This story appears in the June 18, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.