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Are women opting out or shut out from career tracks?

When it comes to flexible work practices women are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. If the disappearance of females from many corporate career tracks is any indication, the air must be pretty bad.

A new Harvard Business Review article, "On Ramps and Off Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success", by Sylvia Ann Hewlett of The Center for Work-Life Policy and Carolyn Buck Luce of Ernst & Young sheds much needed light on this disturbing trend.

The article describes the results of a survey of 2443 women ages 28-55 conducted in the summer of 2004. It found that nearly four in ten highly-qualified women report that they left work voluntarily at some point in their careers. The biggest reason was family time (44 percent) although elder care (24 percent) and health issues (9 percent) were also cited by respondents. The authors refer to the above as ‘pull factors’; they also cited ‘push factors’ such as jobs not satisfying or meaningful (17 percent); they relocated (17 percent) and they changed careers (16 percent).

Among women who take ‘off-ramps’, the overwhelming majority (93 percent) say they intend to return to the workforce, almost half of these for financial reasons. But many (43 percent) cite enjoyment and satisfaction from their careers as an important reason for wanting to return to work.

These findings are interesting but not surprising. But there’s more. The survey also found that only 40 percent of women who wish to return to the ranks of full-time, professional jobs actually succeed in doing so. The authors assert that while off-ramps are plentiful, on ramps are ‘few and far-between and extremely costly’. Indeed, the article claims that the longer a woman stays out the greater the financial penalty – on average women lose 18 percent of their earning power and in business sectors it rises to 28 percent.
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The most troubling statistic from the survey – only 5 percent of highly qualified women looking for on-ramps back into the career mainstream are interested in rejoining the organizations they left. It was zero for respondents working in the business sector! The authors surmise that these women felt they were not appreciated or well-utilized by their previous employers.

Indeed the authors assert that women in the business sector are pushed off track more by dissatisfaction with work than pulled by external demands. Fifty-two percent of respondents with MBAs in the business sector indicated they left work because they no longer found their careers ‘either satisfying or enjoyable’. It is not surprising then, in the view of the authors that a majority (54 percent) of the women looking for on-ramps wants to change their profession or field. And in most of those cases its women who formerly worked in the corporate sphere hoping to move into the not-for-profit sector.

The authors assert that corporations are failing to deal with the needs of highly qualified women – to their own detriment. "Like it or not, large numbers of highly qualified and committed women need to take time out." How then can this problem be addressed? The article suggests that "the trick is to maintain connections that will allow them to come back from that time without being marginalized for the rest of their careers."

In other words, better on-ramps are needed. Companies like Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson have engendered high commitment in their female workers by offering them part-time work but without reducing their training and advancement opportunities. These workers stay in the mix and are able to move forward as their personal situations change again.

Booz Allen provides what the author’s call a ‘ramp up, ramp down’ program that allows its professionals to balance work and personal life and still do work they find interesting. Participating professionals are either part-time employees or alumni who work on a contract basis. Many of these women eventually return to Booz on a full-time basis and keep their skills sharp in the meantime. According to one Booz Allen executive, "Flex careers are bound to be slower than conventional ones…..The point here is to remain on track and vitally connected."

So are high-caliber professional women opting out or being shut out from the career track? This article suggests both may be true. And neither situation bodes well for corporations who are squandering the potential of some of their best talent.

American business needs to start taking flexible working arrangements more seriously. They are not merely conveniences for a minority of workers but will soon be necessities for the majority. While most large companies offer non-traditional working arrangements, their adoption has been slowed by managerial resistance and the stigma that still surrounds flexible working in many organizations.

This situation is a pity, especially given the intense rhetoric in executive suites about performance-based management. Indeed, companies really serious about sustainable high performance do whatever it takes, including making flexible working the norm, to keep their talent (female and male) engaged and productive.

Tony DiRomualdo is a business researcher, writer, and advisor with Next Generation Consulting. He works at the intersection of people, business strategy, and information technology to help companies create a committed and high performance workforce. Tony can be reached at td@nextgenerationconsulting.com.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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