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Helping Women Opt-in

By now, many workforce watchers will have heard of the “opt-out revolution,” a phrase from a controversial 2003 New York Times Magazine article by Lisa Belkin. In it, she wrote about women who had opted out of high-level leadership positions in order to spend more time with their families or pursue other interests. “Why don’t women run the world?” she wrote. “Maybe it’s because they don’t want to.”

Since then, at least two studies have looked at the opt-out idea in an attempt to separate myth from reality. In 2004, members of a task force formed by the Center for Work-Life Policy sponsored a survey “specifically designed to investigate the off-ramps and on-ramps in the lives of highly qualified women” (Hewlett & Luce, 2005). Conducted by Harris Interactive, the respondents included 2,443 women who had a graduate degree, professional degree or high-honors undergraduate degree and a similarly qualified group of 653 men.

The survey found that it’s true that many highly qualified women (37% of all respondents and 43% of mothers) voluntarily leave their jobs at some point, but most of these absences are intended to be temporary. In fact, the average time that these women take off is less than three years, and fully 93% who were out of the workforce at the time of the survey wanted to get back to their careers, though seldom to the same employer they had left.

The problem is that getting back on track is surprisingly difficult. Only about three-quarters of those who want to get back into the workforce wind up doing so, and just 40% move back into full-time, professional positions. “The implication is clear: Off-ramps are around every curve in the road, but once a woman has taken one, on-ramps are few and far between – and extremely costly,” write Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, and Carolyn Buck Luce, a global managing partner at Ernst & Young, in Harvard Business Review.

Another recent study, this one by the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change and the Forté Foundation, arrives at similar conclusions. The study, called “Back in the Game,” looked at 129 women and one man, most of them MBAs who hadn’t worked for at least two years (Quinn, 2005). It found that when women try to get back into the workforce, they often face a range of obstacles, such as recruiters who are skeptical about someone who has taken time off and work skills that haven’t kept up with the latest technologies.

Monica McGrath, an adjunct assistant professor at Wharton and one of the study's authors, sums up, “Women can be completely derailed when they take time off from their career” (Cole, 2005). And they can pay a stiff financial price. The Center for Work-Life Policy found that earning power declines by 11% for women who take less than a year off and 37% for those who take three or more years off (Hewlett & Luce, 2005).

But women aren’t the only ones paying a price. Employers are losing some of their most gifted people, a trend that could have increasingly serious consequences given that women are already the majority of U.S. college graduates and that the number of U.S. workers in the 35-to-45 age range is declining.

There are at least two overarching ways employers can address the problem: by encouraging more women to stay in the workforce, and by helping them get back into it if they’ve left. Hewlett and Luce recommend, for example, that more employers give women opportunities to cut back on their work hours.

They also note that some women may not need reduced-hour jobs as much as they do greater flexibility in their workdays and/or their careers. Greater workday flexibility can help employees balance family and job obligations, as can telecommuting. Meanwhile, career flexibility allows workers to “ramp up” or “ramp down” their job obligations depending on where they are in their lives. To make this work, organizations need to cast off the often unspoken stigma associated with using such programs.

A summary of the Wharton/Forté report suggests that employers “identify resources available for maintaining ties with employees who have stepped out and hold them accountable for success.” Businesses can also ask their department leaders to identify the kind of work projects that lend themselves to employees in the ramp-down phases of their careers.

Another strategy is to encourage and support networking. Ernst & Young, for example, has Professional Women’s Networks available in 41 offices. Corporate recruiters can also be sensitized to the advantages of hiring or rehiring workers who are getting back into the workforce after a ramp-down or opt-out phase.

Of course, no single practice will adequately address this issue. Companies require a multifaceted and holistic approach, one that’s clearly supported by top management. Otherwise, existing corporate attitudes are likely to subtly sabotage the opt-in process.

For more on related issues, please see HRI’s Women in the Workforce Knowledge Center. HRI is a not-for-profit, academic-based research institute whose mission is to research, develop and disseminate information and insights on the trends and strategic issues impacting the management of people in organizations today and in the future. For more information, contact Jay J. Jamrog at 727-345-2226 or jamrog@HRInstitute.info.

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