Career Track Challenges for Women
An Interview with Sylvia Ann Hewlett
As a woman, your career track may well be at odds with the fast track, particularly if you have or are planning to have children.
That’s the message in Off-Ramps and On-Ramps, the follow-up to Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s widely publicized book Creating a Life, in which she suggests top-level women are sacrificing children for careers. Hewlett is an economist and founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy and the director of the Gender and Policy Program at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York City.
In this new book, Hewlett points out that childbearing women are likely to off-ramp (temporarily leave the workforce) or take what she calls a “scenic route” (work part-time, telecommute or decline promotions) when they most need to put the pedal to the metal to succeed. Years later, when women try to on-ramp their careers, they are often closed out or stigmatized.
The time has come, Hewlett says, for corporate America to look beyond the traditional white male career model and embrace nontraditional work paths. If not, the workplace will soon find itself short of talent.
We caught Hewlett as she was awaiting a flight to California and asked her what women and employers can do to make nontraditional career paths work.
Monster: You said in your book that women often tend to emphasize value sets rather than compensation when making career decisions. Could you explain?
Hewlett: There are big differences between men and women. There are many other value sets that women seek out in jobs that trump the money issue. (Their career wish list) is about high-quality colleagues. It’s about the meaning and purpose of the work. It’s about getting opportunities to give back. Don’t get me wrong. Women want to be fairly paid, but they do have a more complex and richer set of goals.
Monster: So why is it important for women and companies to be aware of these value sets?
Hewlett: It’s an opportunity, because companies that can create more meaningful work and more opportunities for altruism (have) a big retention tool, whether it be mentoring, big-sister or outreach programs. What I show in the book is that women have a very high bar to clear. You go to work in the morning leaving your 2-year-old at home; you need to feel you’re accomplishing a lot in the day and not just earning a paycheck.
Monster: What are some other things companies can be doing to help women?
Hewlett: Have a rich menu of options…telecommuting as well as staggered hours and compressed workweeks. The thing I feel that companies probably don’t explore enough is seasonal flexibility, because most products and services have something of a cycle. It can work very well for business needs to figure out whether you can exploit your business cycle and in doing so create some seasonal flexibility for your employees.
Monster: When you look at a lot of these companies that have these policies, you find that utilization rates -- i.e., the rate at which women take up these options -- is lower than one might expect. Why is that?
Hewlett: Tackling stigma around these policies is a must-do challenge. I find that making sure that some senior men take this step is very powerful -- walking the talk at the top. It’s also true that if (employers) can get it to a point where, say, 25 percent of everyone is taking at least a small amount of flexibility, you kind of reach a tipping point in the corporate culture, and it becomes kind of normal. There are a lot of men at both ends of the age spectrum who are potentially great candidates for this.
Monster: And what can we, as women, be doing to make sure this happens?
Hewlett: We find that one of the best pressure points to make sure that some of these policies actually get used is women’s networks. If your company doesn’t have one, you absolutely should start one.
Monster: Scenic routes aside, what about off-ramping? Let’s say one decides to off-ramp or leave the workforce entirely, what can one do to make the on-ramp transition better?
Hewlett: We find on-rampers often have a crisis of confidence, because their networks have gone cold. If you’ve off-ramped, you need to activate some of the external networks out there. For instance, maybe your former company, college or business school has an alumni association. Some colleges now have on-ramping programs that can help you reconnect. And think of the external networks of this world -- from the PTA to the soccer leagues to the church groups -- just joining and playing as active a role as you can in a strategic area can help. For example, I have a 10-year-old who’s heavily involved in the Met Opera Children’s Chorus. I took on the fund-raising this fall, and I now have a whole track record if I ever wanted to showcase that in terms of being able to play a strategic part in a small arts organization.
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