How Back-to-Work Moms Struggle

When women talk about managing work and family life, the verb they commonly use is "juggle." If one continues that metaphor, Sylvia Ann Hewlett has become the most skilled color commentator on this juggling act. Her research dissects their performance, sort of like a slo-mo video, analyzing their moves and trying to figure out what makes balancing it all so difficult for so many women. In her 2002 book, "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children," Hewlett examined the one-third to one-half of high-achieving women who forgo having children to focus on their careers. Lately her work has focused on a different issue: the challenges facing women who take an extended break from their jobs to raise children, care for parents or attend to other life needs. Last year Hewlett, a Columbia University professor and president of the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York, co-authored a Harvard Business Review report on this subject, which the report labeled "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps." She spoke with NEWSWEEK's Daniel McGinn. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why did you do the "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps" study?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett: We felt there were umpteen anecdotes and stories about women "opting out" but very little data. And there were very incendiary conclusions being drawn from the anecdotes. There had been enormous anger among career women that everyone was insisting there was this huge new wave of women dropping out, whereas most women are very committed to their work. Indeed, when we collected the data and figured out what it was showing, women are not remotely opting out. Thirty-seven percent do "off-ramp," but for a relatively short period. The vast majority of them want to get back in. So it's much more a question of how you deal well with the inevitable interruptions in lives that have multiple responsibilities, instead of labeling women as highly-qualified folks who in the end just don't want careers.

Hewlett: 'Once women off-ramp, even for a short while, it's incredibly difficult to get back in'

How have companies reacted to the study?

It's had a great resonance all over the world. The most encouraging and exciting response has been from the private sector. In June we pulled together the 33 companies of the Hidden Brain Drain task force [a research project sponsored by the Center for Work-Life Policy] and had a summit meeting in New York. We shared 12 emerging models of new practices for better reattaching women, to reconnect them with their careers after taking some time off. It was great to look around the room and realize we'd helped create action on the ground, both with a new set of attitudes and programmatic realities.

What's the connection between off-ramping and the number of women in leadership roles in companies?

The old idea was all you had to do was fill that pipeline and wait around for a couple of decades for women to move through the ranks... [But] there's an enormous amount of leakage from the pipeline. Once women off-ramp, even for a short while, it's incredibly difficult to get back in. There are a lot of institutional barriers. The brunt of our research is [to say] 'Hey, guys, we have to create many more and much better on-ramps.' The challenge is the reattachment of talent after having a really rather short break—that's the way to maintain a kind of rich pipeline.

One of the research findings was that many women are reluctant to go back to work for the same company that employed them before they off-ramped. Why is that?

There are certainly some firms that already have alumni networks, where if you can segue into some kind of partial connection with the firm and not sever your links completely, that's a very constructive scenario. But [often] when women do quit, they find that the terms of disengagement are very unsupportive. Women often feel they ask for flexibility and are turned down. They're left to feel they're letting the [company] down. They feel the company says it's invested a lot in their careers and when a woman wants to [leave], there's a sense of betrayal, and there's this sense of humiliation that can happen... When women go back, a whole lot of people are avoiding the particular boss they worked with, or the particular company they were at, because of the unpleasantness or lack of support that went on around the time they quit.

How do men react when their wives off-ramp?

We held a focus group with men fairly recently. We picked up some interesting stuff. We found that about half the men were simply supportive of their wife's decision and thrilled that the quality of family life would now go up, because the wife and mother was now at home, at least for a while. The other men in the room were deeply troubled by their wife off-ramping. There was a huge pressure [on the men] to produce financially—now they had 100 percent of the mortgage on their shoulders. There is this sense that this is not the deal they thought they had when they got married—they'd married a high-powered, high-earning woman. There was a whole set of anxiety and some resentment.

A lot of on-ramping women talk about starting businesses instead of seeking a traditional job. Is that overrated as a potential solution to this problem?

I've looked at that sector. There's a huge rate of failure. A lot of women do start small businesses, but a lot of them are no longer in business in five years. It's a very risky strategy and it's an extremely hard way to earn a decent income. The other reality is that small business people—both men and women—work enormously long hours. They have more flexibility about when the put in those hours, but this is not some loosey-goosey, lots of time off kind of reality. For lots of reasons, many women would prefer to go back to a real job in a sector where they have more security and can create a more secure niche for themselves.