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“Time Outs” Take an Increasing Toll on Women’s Careers


Last updated 8/5/2010

The long-term prospects for women who take time out from their careers have worsened since the recession, according to a new study from the Center for Work Life Policy.

Since the recession, the study found, time outs or “off-ramping” from a career for childcare or other reasons have become increasingly unaffordable to women whose income has become even more important to family budgets. Moreover, for women who do take a time out, getting back into the workforce has become even more difficult:

  • 73% percent of women trying to return to the workforce after a voluntary timeout for childcare or other reasons have trouble finding a job.
  • Those who do return lose 16% of their earning power and over a quarter report a decrease in their management responsibilities.
  • 22% had to step down to a lower job title.

Many women can’t sustain the increased hours that many jobs demand today while also keeping up family childcare and household responsibilities. Unless companies offer workable solutions to facilitate off-ramping and on-ramping more effectively, women’s earning power and promotion opportunities won’t measure up to the linear, lock-step progression of male careers. Moreover, over the long term, companies will lose out on the valuable contributions of women, who represent 58% of the highly credentialed talent pool.

Key Findings of the Study Include:

  • In the past five years, the number of women who took an off-ramp fell from 37% to 31%.
  • The average length of an off-ramp rose slightly from 2.2 years to 2.7 years.
  • The decline in off-ramping is likely due to the down economy: 15% of women currently in the workforce would like to off-ramp but can’t afford to.
  • 58% of women have switched to a part-time, reduced time, or flex-time schedule in order to balance work and family.
  • Family “pull” factors remain the top reason for career downshifting. The number of women leaving for childcare issues increased from 45% in 2004 to 74% in 2009.
  • 26% of women who off-ramped felt their careers were not satisfying; 16% felt their careers had stalled.
  • 69% of women say they wouldn’t have off-ramped if their companies had offered flexible work options such as reduced-hour schedules, job sharing, part-time career tracks or short unpaid sabbaticals.
  • Although 89% of off-ramped women want to resume their careers, only 40% successfully return to full-time work.
  • The “second shift” is alive and well: 60% of full-time working women routinely perform more than half of the domestic chores and 56% take charge of childcare.
  • Driven by a tight economy, women are working longer hours: 49 hours per week, up from 40 hours per week in 2004.

How companies can respond effectively
There are proven and relatively inexpensive solutions to off- and on-ramping issues. Since 2005 more than 50 corporations and organizations around the world have initiated on-ramping programs to help women re-launch their careers. The following are some of those solutions:

  • Provide career “scenic routes” that make off-ramping unnecessary: work-life balance options such as reduced-hour schedules, job sharing, part-time tracks, short unpaid sabbaticals, and flextime, temporary flextime, or part-time opportunities.
  • Adequately publicize available work-life options to employees: 54% of women surveyed left their jobs without discussing their options with their supervisor.
  • Create flextime work options over the arc of a career.
  • Reimagine work-life balance.
  • Tap into altruism: data shows that work opportunities to give back to the community are a primary motivator for professional women.
  • Combat the stigma associated with flexible work arrangements.

“As women experience difficulty getting back on the career track, confidence and ambition stall, and many women end up downsizing their dreams,” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, one of the authors of the study and founder and president of the Center for Work Life Policy. “Five years after the original study in 2005, this research continues to have profound implications: off-ramps and on-ramps are here to stay and employers should sit up and pay attention—or suffer the consequences of sidelining and side-swiping 58% of the highly credentialed talent pool.”

The study, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps Revisited, authored by Diana Forster, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Laura Sherbin, Peggy Shiller and Karen Sumberg from the Center for Work-Life Policy, surveyed 3,420 professionals in spring 2009 by Harris Interactive.