Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an economist and the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, where she directs the "Hidden Brain Drain"—a task force of 35 global companies committed to fully realizing female and minority talent over the lifespan. She also heads up the Gender and Policy Program at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. She is the author of six critically acclaimed nonfiction books, including When the Bough Breaks (winner of a Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Prize), The War Against Parents (co-authored with Cornel West), Creating a Life (named as one of the best books of 2002 by Business Week) and, most recently, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps. She's coauthored articles for Harvard Business Review and written articles appearing in the New York Times, the Financial Times, and the International Herald Tribune. Dr. Hewlett has taught at Cambridge, Columbia, and Princeton Universities, and her TV and radio appearances include 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Good Morning America, Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Oprah, All Things Considered, and Talk of the Nation.
[Bio adapted from her website, www.worklifepolicy.org.]
tompeters.com asks …
Sylvia, your new book is called Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success. Why did you write this book now?
SAH: I think there is an urgent reason why companies must act now to create different career paths for women. Demographic pressures and robust growth around the world mean that the talent pipeline’s looking pretty thin—lots of shortfalls and bottlenecks. I think employers are ready to revisit this challenge of how to retain and re-attach women. My research shows that the female career path remains quite different from the male career path; there are issues in terms of hanging onto this very valuable talent.
Is it a surprise that there’s a sudden shortage of talent? Have people been too cavalier about letting talented women go?
SAH: There are two things happening. First of all, there was this notion that if we just waited a couple of decades for the pipeline to fill with highly credentialed women, they would eventually rise up through the ranks and be represented fairly across the board in corporate America. That hasn’t happened. This flood of new data that I’ve accumulated shows that two-thirds of highly-qualified women have non-linear careers. Almost 40 percent take what I call an off-ramp: they voluntarily quit the labor market for a short period of time. And another third take what I call a scenic route: a reduced-hour job, a telecommuting arrangement, or a flex-time arrangement.
Once you take one of these off-ramps or scenic routes, in the current setup you tend to get sideswiped and sidelined forever. It’s very hard to get back in. This new data shows that 93 percent of these women are trying to get back in. They’re attached to their careers and are eager for this second shot at ambition. But only 74 percent of them find jobs and only 40 percent of them find full-time, mainstream jobs. It’s very hard to find the on-ramp.
There are also huge financial penalties. You lose 37 percent of your earning power if you take three years out. What I show is that, with the work model getting more intense by the day—I have a lot of data on the increasing extremity of work in high-echelon jobs—we can expect increasing numbers of women needing these kinds of breaks. So we have to learn how to fashion a different kind of career path that allows women to step out for a short period of time, and then welcomes them back in because there are big talent shortages just around the corner.
Right now we’re stuck living with what you call the male competitive model of work?
SAH: Yes. We’re in this mess because we have only one way of being successful. It still dominates most career tracks, most occupations. If you want to be successful in this model, first, you have to have a continuous, cumulative employment track record.
Secondly—and this is another thing that’s really hard for women—the steepest gradient of your career path is supposed to be in the decade of your 30s. That is where most careers either catch a wave or they don’t. There are no second chances. Both of these criteria for this male competitive model are difficult for a woman with children to conjure up. Two-thirds of them have to take some kind of break in their 30s. This is why it’s so hard to succeed with this model if you are female.
Now, it’s not true of all women. Maybe a third of women manage to shoehorn themselves into the male competitive model and do well. Many of those women sacrifice family in order to do it. Others of them—and there are few—are just those superwomen who manage to get everything on-track all at the same time. They are the exception. Two-thirds get sidelined and end up in some cul-de-sac for the rest of their lives.
You’ve mentioned women in their 30s raising children. But Baby Boomer women are having to deal with the issue of their parents. So women might get sideswiped again at a later age when they suddenly have two ailing parents who require a lot of time and attention.
SAH: Absolutely. One of the big surprises of the research is that 24 percent of women who take an off-ramp are pushed out by an eldercare crisis.
Really? It’s 24 percent?
SAH: Yes. It’s a large number. I found in focus groups that many women were keenly aware of this dangerous trend that, for lots of good reasons, our parents are living longer. But it does mean that from around age 42 to age 56, we found this decade where many women were knocked off track for a second time. Of course, it’s particularly hard to deal with that if you’ve only just found your bearings after having taken off a short period of time for your kids.
Generally speaking, child rearing falls to women. But the rationale—maternal instincts, having birthed the child—for that doesn’t apply for women having to depart for eldercare. A man could do that just as well.
SAH: There’s some evidence that eldercare burdens are a bit more equitably borne by men and women. But the AARP has data showing that women are still doing the lion’s share. I think it’s a result of the fact that when you are in your 40s, there perhaps is a considerable gap between what the husband is making and what the wife is making, because she has taken some kind of break earlier on. So, if someone is going to hop on a plane to Florida at a moment’s notice because the mother-in-law broke her hip, it would end up being the wife, because in the family finances her earnings are less significant.
There are all kinds of ways in which traditional patterns are reinforced once you have asymmetry in the earning power of men and women. We’re going to be doing a new study next year, looking very specifically at this problem. There’s going to be a whole flood of concern on this front because of the aging of the population.
I did interviews in China with some Chinese women scientists. They couldn’t talk about anything but eldercare. Because they were 35 to 40 years old, they were the leading edge of the one-child policy. There were no siblings, no cousins. The women felt that they had four elders barreling down the pike, about to move in.
The first half of your book lays out the problem that we’ve discussed. The second half describes six strategies …
SAH: And 18 case studies.
Can you give us a few examples of some good things that are happening?
SAH: Well, the good news is that I put together a task force of 35 companies committed to trying to create some alternative career models for women. Certain companies are reaching out and proactively inviting back into the workplace women who have taken a break.
The best news for employers in this research is that women don’t drift off into the sunset for 15 years. They’re only out 2.2 years on average. This is very comforting to an employer because there’s a realization that these women are not completely de-skilled. They haven’t lost their edge; they’ve just taken a short break. The data were very powerful in persuading many companies to try out some new policies.
Lehman Brothers, for instance, has started something called Encore, where they reach out to women who quit the financial sector two to five years ago. They invite them into the firm, they give them some kind of catch-up on the sector, a little bit of re-skilling, some confidence building. They also offer them a range of jobs that run the gamut of flexibility, from considerable to little.
This program’s been a big success from the individual’s point of view, because these women are enormously grateful to have had this second chance. But the company has also had a very good experience, because they’ve been able to tap into a rich talent pool at reasonably low cost.
I’m sure they spent a huge amount of money recruiting these women the first time around.
SAH: Yes. And they find that they’re getting incredible talent. It’s a much less expensive way of gaining access to this talent than the conventional search firm route. It’s very expensive to hire laterally.
Time Warner has a new program called Breakthrough Leadership, which is very much targeting mid-career women with potential, who perhaps have become discouraged because they’ve taken some kind of break and have downsized their ambition. It’s meant to reignite and rekindle aspirations. It’s a mix of coaching, mentoring, and stiffening of the backbone. The result of this targeted, one-week program is that women are going back into the Time Warner family of companies, getting promoted, and rising up through the ranks.
We found in the research that women lose more than money when they take some time out. Because they have such a hard time getting back in and reestablishing any kind of traction, they often downsize their dreams. They recalibrate what they expect of themselves. So there is this issue of claiming and sustaining ambition, which some of the companies in the task force have addressed head-on.
With regard to eldercare, Citigroup (one of the task force companies) discovered that in terms of its female professional employees, eldercare was now more of an issue than childcare. Encouraged by us, they’ve re-imagined their benefits package and have extended family benefits to eldercare responsibilities. Some of our other companies are also engaged in making the support policies much more inclusive.
This is brand-new territory, right? There’s no research, no data; there’s been no experience on a grand scale.
SAH: It’s a healing strategy. The problem with benefits that target only a minority demographic, for instance, folks with preschool children, is that everyone else feels a little left out. In the end, it can be divisive. But the eldercare burden will hit everyone. Everyone has parents. We suspect that men will be quite responsive, too.
We have a whole set of suggested policies focused on inclusiveness, which are called Re-imagining Work/Life. Johnson & Johnson is another company in the task force that has made huge strides with this. They have developed a sophisticated website offering advice and strategies for dealing with elder issues, for instance. It’s one of the case studies in the book.
Each case study has a toolkit, which allows, at a glance, other companies to figure out how to get started, how to make the business case, that kind of stuff. I created the toolkit specifically to make it easy to replicate.
You point out in the book that we, nationally or internationally, haven’t attained critical mass around these very important issues.
SAH: Yes, but I think that the pace of change is really quite fast. As of last count, 57 percent of U.S.-based companies had flexibility. That flexibility’s getting more sophisticated by the minute. This is not a tiny group. Over the last three years, I’ve convinced 35 global companies employing nearly three million people, to put a stake in the ground and create new action. This is real momentum. This is not a tiny slice of reality. I think that there is big change afoot.
There was one story about a male CEO who had a young child late in life and suddenly realized that spending time with his child was important …
SAH: That’s Niall FitzGerald the chairman of Reuters, who was the co-CEO of Unilever for several years. When he was at Unilever, he had a daughter. It was a second marriage situation. He felt that it was a great opportunity to walk the talk, and shout it from the rooftops. He knew that it would make a big difference in terms of giving a green light to other executives to do the same thing. So he was very conspicuous in terms of deliberately shifting what used to be his power breakfast regimen so that he could have breakfast with his child, telecommuting on Fridays, and remaining an effective leader.
He felt that getting rid of the stigma around flexible work arrangements does mean that senior leadership has to model the policy. That’s beginning to happen in some of our other companies.
Regardless of written policies, there are usually unwritten rules in an organization. Everyone’s taking their cues from what upper management is doing.
SAH: We found that in 38 percent of cases, women felt that they couldn’t take advantage of written policies because it would label them as losers in their corporate culture. It’s very, very important to break through the stigma.
GE is identifying key female talent through their women’s network. They’re creating stretch assignments for women who want to ramp up, having taken some kind of scenic route for a period of time. And it’s working magic. For instance, Jeanne Rosario, an engineer who worked part-time for several years when her daughters were young, was ready to punch back in. So the company decided to work with her on that. She ended up doing enormously well; got promoted four times and just recently was made head of aviation engines for the company, which is obviously a pretty key position at GE.
These are stories that could not have happened five years ago. But I think that in the task force, there is a new sense that you can direct the ebb and flow of your career in creative ways. Why not grab this great talent, even if it is a woman in her forties who has had an unconventional career? If she can perform wonderfully, one should absolutely create the opportunity.
I think we are now becoming suspect of people who don’t have gaps in their careers, because it means they’ve just been in lockstep. They’ve followed that male model, which isn’t necessarily such a fabulous thing to do.
SAH: It’s certainly not good for innovation. In the last chapter of the book, I have this image of the canary in the mine. They sent canaries into mines to test for bad gases, because once the canaries started dying, you knew there was a problem. Women are the most conspicuous casualties of this rigid male career model. But just behind the women who are opting out at age 34, or whatever it is, there are other constituencies who also desperately want more flexibility in their careers. They are the 52-year-old Baby Boomers who don’t want to retire, but don’t want to work 73 hours a week for another 20 years. They are looking for high-impact, modulized work.
I also think that many members of Generation Y, who clearly are seeking a different kind of balance, are also very excited at the notion of having more flexibility with their career paths. I think it’s the wave of the future.
Sylvia, thank you for your time.
SAH: Thank you.