WOMEN, WORK AND WOE
A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri
Tucked away in a corner of my local library, vying for my attention with “What is Sustainable Development” in Environment and “Be Her Ultimate Sex Toy: No Batteries Required” in Men’s Health, was an article entitled “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success” in the Harvard Business Review. And somewhere in the Internet was an article entitled “French Enlightenment: The 35-Hour Working Week”. And finally, some weeks ago I read about the formation of a feminist political party in Sweden. To paraphrase James Bond - Once is an incident! Twice is coincidence! And finding three articles on career issues of highly qualified women, while not quite enemy action, points to something churning on this rather different subject. Different because these women are not traditional fodder for gender writing – nobody is beating or trafficking them, they have the right to vote, they are not being raped by landlords while toiling in the fields – nothing pathetic about these ladies. And different because, while the settings are in the US of A, France and Sweden respectively, the points made could well have been about my home and, I am sure, yours. Please read on!
The HBR article identifies it as the ‘opt-out revolution’ and the ‘new brain-drain’, i.e. the phenomenon of large numbers of highly-qualified women (HQW, and the acronym is due to my reluctance to repeatedly type the words and not an attempt by HBR to typify them) dropping out of mainstream careers. It says that snippets of data on this have been available for some time – that 57 percent of the women graduates of Stanford University’s Class of 1981 have left the workforce, and that one in three white women with MBAs is not working full-time, compared with one in twenty men, but that there is no systematic data on this exodus until now. It uses a Center for Work-Life Policy multi-year research to look into what proportion of HQW opt out (go off-ramp), whether they are pushed or pulled, which sectors of the economy are the most affected by this, how many years do HQW spend off-ramp, how easy is it to return on-ramp, and what policies and practices help HQW return to work. It takes a stand that companies that tap into their female talent pool over the long haul will enjoy a substantial competitive advantage, but provides no information as to whether this is actually the case and why it should be so.
And they do opt out - 37 percent of them have voluntarily left work at some point of time in their careers (women with children – 43 percent, men – 24 percent and the reasons are different). The pull factors were caring for children, then for a parent or someone else in the family, and then personal health issues. Off-ramping is higher among the ‘sandwich generation’, women with growing children and elderly parents. Men, by contrast, off-ramp to reposition their careers – to switch careers, to go for additional training or further studies, or to start a business. And, ahem, 40 percent of HQW with spouses “felt that their husbands create more work around the house than they perform”.
Among push factors – 17 percent left because the job was not satisfying or meaningful. These and the lack of opportunity were larger problems than overwork or the job being too demanding. Push factors were particularly powerful in the business sector. And most HQW dealt with a combination of push and pull factors, those hemmed in by rigid policies or a glass ceiling were more likely to respond to the pull of the family.
About 93 percent of HQW currently off-ramp want to get back on. Financial reasons are the main ones – the difficulties of shortfalls in family incomes, the need for an independent source of income, the discomfort at having to ask their spouses for money. But also, to regain the enjoyment and satisfaction they enjoy from their careers, to regain “power and status” in their professions, and to contribute back to society. Professional identities remain primary identities for off-ramp HQW.
Going off-ramp is one thing, getting back on quite another – only 74 percent wanting to do so manage to do it, and most underestimated how hard it would be at the time of going off-ramp. HQW lose 18 percent of their earning power by taking an off-ramp, in the business sector it is 28 percent, and when it is three or more years, it is 37 percent.
Most HQW do not follow the conventional career strategy long established by successful men – of a steep gradient in the 30s and steady progress thereafter. Work-life strategies for HQW include telecommuting, working part-time, and working exclusively or partly from home. When looking back over their careers, 36 percent HQW say they have worked part time to balance professional and personal lives. 25 percent have reduced their work hours in a fulltime job. 16 percent have declined promotion. 38 percent have deliberately chosen a position with fewer responsibilities and lower compensation than they were qualified for because of responsibilities at home.
This is about where the article itself goes off-ramp. The section on reversing the brain drain says all the usual trite stuff – ‘employers can no longer pretend that treating women as men in skirts will fix the retention problem”, etc. It says that employers should create reduced hour jobs, provide flexibility in the day, provide flexibility in the ‘career arc’ (have a ramp-up ramp-down approach and not the up-or-out one currently in vogue), and remove the stigma attached to non-standard work arrangements.
This is where the second article becomes relevant. The French are different from the Anglo-Saxons and combine the world’s best health care, a robust education system, the longest vacations, the highest birth rate in Europe (after Ireland) and, last but not least, the world’s highest per capita wine consumption with the highest GDP per worker (after the US) and more multinational companies in the world’s top 200 than any other European country. French HQW, too, are different – almost all (97 percent) work, most (88 percent) work full time and a majority have several children (68 percent of HQW over 30 years have an average of 2.2 children). Most cite professional success as their top priority. The disadvantages they face are the usual ones. They typically spend a few years balancing work and babies, and when they return to refocus on their careers, organizations have already identified the high-potentials and distributed the plum jobs and the important developmental opportunities. Their careers are thus effectively derailed. And French statistics on women at the top of the professional hierarchy are similar to other European countries, not very good.
A recent French innovation was the introduction of a 35-hour workweek (in 1998, became applicable in January 2000) to deal with unemployment, labour market rigidity and low productivity. It is unclear whether it has addressed these issues, and there is already a move to withdraw it on the logic that those who want to work more and earn more should be able to do so. But what the 35-hour workweek has done is help dual career couples balance their lives – women manage to do a full time job and undertake their additional responsibilities, and men have much more time to help with these responsibilities. Thus, both can be committed, full time workers and involved, egalitarian parents. And, most importantly, the 35-hour workweek levels the career playing field for women – men cannot work more hours, do more, earn more and rise faster.
The article then indulges in a bit of French Rah! Rah! Rah! The Anglo-Saxon model, it says, promotes equality between men and women by ignoring the fact that women have children. And Germany is still stuck in the kinder kirsche kuche (children, church, kitchen) model with no claims to equality, to the dismay of all the highly accomplished women from the other side of the wall who discovered the downsides of freedom. It is not enough to get women into the building and expect that some will eventually clamber into the corner office – we need new buildings, new models and new architects. And the 35-hour workweek is a new model. And finally, the article advises Europe against importing the 500 million workers it needs over the next decade and suggests that, before doing this, a glance could be cast “at the talent on the other side of the kitchen table.” The Swedish article merely adds the point that these issues require political expression, and that a political party was formed in Sweden for expressly this purpose.
I have no data on the Indian situation, and no conclusions to draw. We would be fooling ourselves if we took the attitude that this is a western phenomenon, or that these women are from the elite strata of society and thus their problems do not require our thought. This juggling of many conflicting demands, these derailed careers and this huge unrealized potential is in our own homes. What are we going to do about it?
1. “French Enlightenment: The 35-Hour Working Week” by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox in www.ebfonline.com/main_feat/trends/trends.asp?id=558
2. “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success” by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce in Harvard Business Review of March 2005.
3. “Sweden’s New Women’s Party”, The Economist of 14th April 2005.
Acronyms / Jargon watch
EBF European Business Forum
HBR Harvard Business Review
HQW Highly Qualified Women