on ramps & off ramps: the choices women have to make
I remember the first time I found out I was pregnant. All of these emotions and thoughts were just running through my head as to what this next chapter in my life would look like. Unfortunately, I miscarried but now, s**t just got real, because I'm 5 months pregnant with my first child and I still ask myself these questions!
The question that I kept asking myself was, "What about my career? How will my boss take the news, will I still have this job when I return to work as a working mother, will I even still have a career and how will I balance it all?"
I know most women who find themselves in this position wonder the same thing. And as someone in her late 30's who has built up an impressive career working my buns off to get here, its like a constant beating on my chest that gets louder and louder. I'll be the first to admit its harder now than if I were in my mid-late 20's when I was climbing the corporate ladder. But no, I had established my career. I had found my calling and was great at it.
I have put up with the bullshitters, the naysayers, the bullies and the ego-maniacs in addition to working for some of the most humble, kind, motivated, hard working people in business who I look up to and consider my mentors. I've been there and done that, so I felt like I knew my position in life when it came to my career.
But one thing remains: women ultimately have to be the ones to make the difficult decision to either leave work or find a way to balance their work and family. Do they stay or do they go? Can they even financially afford to leave the workforce? Can they take the time off they need to raise their family and then return when they're ready, making the same money and landing the same position? Not likely.
Lets get real here for a minute: there are not a lot of men out there who are eagerly raising their hands to leave their job to stay at home with the kids while mom goes to work and brings home the bacon. You do hear the occasional story of some men taking paternity leave or opting out to be the stay at home dad, but still, the majority are women who take it all on. Whether its to raise a family, care for a loved one, or go back to school, there are more women taking the off-ramp to their career and its getting harder for them to get back on.
I remember my father telling me the story of a successful female lawyer at his firm who was on the fast track to becoming partner. She worked hard, she was brilliant and skilled at what she did, but she gave it all up because she couldn't keep up with the demands and work load that was expected of her in order to make partner. And she wasn't willing to do it at the risk of not being a present mom to her then 2 year old son. She ultimately made the choice to bow out of her high-powered career to stay at home with her son. When I heard this story, I just wanted to cry but I also felt angry, because why should it always be the woman that needs to make this choice? Now that I am older, a bit wiser and surrounded by more women who are mothers or career women (or both), I realize that some women are OK making this choice because it is after all, a choice in most cases, but I feel more empowered as a woman. We ultimately create our own destiny and if we're lucky enough to do so, we can make amazing things happen. FOR US!
Over the past several months, I have noticed more and more companies popping up aimed at empowering women and creating the space and resources for them to re-enter the workforce. A friend of mine told me about this amazing and eye-opening article in the Harvard Business Review entitled Off-Ramps and On Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success. This was published in 2005 but I feel like it was way ahead of its time, but I couldn't help but wonder, why is this still even an issue? Maybe because I was lucky to be raised by a mom who always had the ability to keep her career, work and still be a present mother. And that was in the 1970's! Very rare, but it was my environment, so I assumed it could be done and I assumed this was the norm.
The HBR article focuses on questions we all have including the limited amount of research into these questions and why some women don't return to the workforce after having children. Across professions and across sectors, what is the scope of this opt-out phenomenon? What proportion of professional women take off-ramps rather than continue on their chosen career paths? Are they pushed off or pulled? Which sectors of the economy are most severely affected when women leave the workforce? How many years do women tend to spend out of the workforce? When women decided to re-enter, what are they looking for? How easy is it to find on-ramps? What policies and practices help women return to work?
I recently interviewed Jennifer Gefsky, Co-Founder of Apres Group on this very subject matter and she had some interesting insight. She said, "There are more women in generation X opting to go back into the workforce compared to the baby boomer generation and companies just aren’t used to seeing this, as shocking as it is". I was surprised to hear this because we assume most companies are forward-thinking but you'd be surprised at how many still struggle with this. More on my interview with Jennifer coming soon.
Another organization making waves on this subject matter as well is Path Forward. A non-profit organization started by the founders of the success email tech company Return Path. Executive Director, Tami Forman (and former VP, Marketing & Communications of Return Path) is a career woman and mother of two who knows first hand what its like to re-enter the workforce after raising a family. Tami recently gave a great talk at DisruptHR NY on Making Room for Moms in Today's Workplace. The truth is, EVERYONE has work/life conflict, including men, but the difference is how we perceive our bias about work/life conflict and how people react to it. Heaven forbid a man take on these domestic duties and put their career on hold.
Stay tuned for 2 new features for my In Good Company series where I interviewed both Jennifer and Tami, their missions and how they are making an impact.
Now, as I prepare to embark on motherhood (December 2016), take on this new role working from home and starting over in a small city, I am more passionate than ever on this subject matter. Its important, its needed and its a subject we should ALL be talking about. Men included.
Stay tuned for more on this and my features where I will be interviewing both Tami and Jennifer. You will want to hear what these women have to say. Trust me!