Today’s working-woman embraces a culture of flexibility, oftentimes juggling dual roles as both a “career woman” and a “family woman.” For most young women, the future holds some hybrid of entering a working world and starting a family. As companies become more sensitive to the various demands placed on women who want both a career and a family, many changes are taking place in the job market. Personal relationships and familial roles are changing as well. Although some couples do share family responsibilities and some men even take the dominant role in family care and housework, these responsibilities still usually fall on the shoulders of the woman, whether she has a career or not.
According to a 2009 employee benefits survey from Working Mother magazine, 54 percent of the nation’s employers offer some sort of flexible working arrangement and almost half offer a telecommuting option. Other lifestyle benefits are also increasingly popular in today’s workplace. These statistics indicate an important message: Do your research. Whether you’re going straight into the workforce from undergraduate school or seeking your first post-graduate position, you need to figure out which companies and firms are making it possible to be a working mother and where these companies are located.
Even women graduates of the most prestigious and selective universities have plans of combining career with family at some point. A few years ago, a famous study focused on a graduating class of Yale University reported that 60 percent of women in this elite school planned to cut back on work or stop working entirely to have and raise children. Even with these astonishing numbers, only a few schools are establishing programs to prepare women to “step-out” and then to “re-enter” the workforce after spending time home with children. Hopefully the myriad of programs, workshops, recruiting firms, coaches, and consultants will grow exponentially as people everywhere work to assist women with the competing demands of work and family.
The problem is that many jobs are organized around a full standard work week, and challenging these arrangements can be difficult. For the most part, women must broker flexible working arrangements using exceptional credentials or skills. On the plus side, flexible workers may be available at more affordable rates, and therefore nonprofit groups, small businesses, and start-up companies may be eager to make a deal and be more flexible with scheduling.
The goal is to find a business solution for stay-at-home mothers who don’t want to make a once-in-a-lifetime decision between working and staying at home. There are several ways of handling the conflict: take a brief hiatus from work, use some combination of flextime and reduced hours while home hours are in demand, or move to a part-time work situation. As a solution, part-time work is often a drawback in professional work settings. Many part-time jobs pay little and don’t provide benefits. One research center found that approximately two-thirds of women who leave work to raise children want to re-enter professional life but feel that companies are reluctant to hire them. In fact, one study reports that female professionals who take three or years off earn 37 percent less, on average, than women who don’t take time off.
What is a woman to do?
Well, it begins with preparing now for what is probably inevitable: at some point, you may wish to have a family. If this is the case, you must position yourself as best you can to fulfill all of your goals. That means you should carefully examine your choice of college, graduate school, career, and city. You should gather information from women who have been down the path before, and learn from their experiences. The following is a list of specific programs at top universities that currently assist women in this process; pay close attention as other schools are certain to soon follow suit.
How Higher Education is Focusing on Women’s Career Needs:
Harvard Business School (HBS) introduced a program called “Charting Your Course,” where alumnae were invited to come to HBS for two days to develop a strategic plan to return to work. One group included women who were stepping out for a few years to raise children and wanted a strategy to bridge the gap, keep skills current, and keep networks going. Another group of women were ready to return to the workforce but needed the tools to re-enter the market, to find the right employers, and to negotiate flexible working conditions. HBS also offered a more intense program called “New Path,” a six-day immersion to help women ascertain how their particular field had changed during their absence, how finance and information technologies have advanced, and how new tools could be utilized to make contact with prospective employers.
A few other elite schools have been developing similar programs to help women either rejoin the workforce after a break or to manage some combination of career and family work. Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business launched a “Back in Business” program to address the needs of women returning to work after taking time off to raise kids. Pepperdine University is at the forefront of these efforts, offering a part-time MBA program specifically designed for stay-at-home moms. Stanford’s Graduate School of Business is addressing the problem with several executive education programs for moms. Babson College offers a variety of programs through the Center for Women’s Leadership, through education, outreach, and research that assist women in achieving leadership goals. They also assist women in areas from stepping back into the workforce to global women’s entrepreneurship. Columbia University’s “Mothers in Business” is one of the nation’s first organized groups that specifically addresses the concerns of MBA moms. The group offers roundtable discussions with alumni and provides networking opportunities and support services for women with children.
Another innovative program is at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Monica McGrath, Wharton adjunct professor of management, has studied the difficulties women face upon their return to the labor force and co-authored a study called “Back in the Game, Returning to Business after a Hiatus: Experience and Recommendations for Women, Employers, and Universities.” According to McGrath, women should prepare for their return to work from the moment they leave. She suggests staying up-to- date on skills and keeping a hand in the working world while on hiatus. This may include keeping up professional licenses, taking courses, and staying connected with professional contacts, even if done informally. McGrath poses short-term consulting jobs or project work as viable options. Women can also improve their chances of job re-entry by keeping up with technology changes while out of the workforce.
McGrath suggests that a woman state her case for hiring unapologetically and proactively, framing her story in business terms and with a positive tone. For example, “I felt I could make a better impact with my children by staying home for these years, and this is how I have stayed current with my skills.” Work for a parent/teacher organization could be framed as, “I was part of a team that raised over $100,000 in a fundraising effort.” McGrath urges schools to offer targeted career services, alumni networks, and educational programs for women hoping to eventually re-enter the workforce, and she urges students to ascertain various career path options that they may want to take after they have worked a few years. According to McGrath, “We need to encourage women to think of their career as a lifetime. They need to be asked, ‘What’s your game plan?’ The most progressive companies are diligent and strategic in planning the path for a talented person’s career. As women, we need to do a better job of that ourselves.”
This blog was extracted from my recently published book From Diploma to Dream Job: 5 Overlooked Steps to a Successful Career; see the last chapter for girls eyes only.