Off-ramping: Women jumping off the career track

Posted: Mar 22, 2007 11:47 AM
Off-ramping: Women jumping off the career track

The public square is still filled with those who argue that women are at a disadvantage when it comes to employment; even more believe women face a glass ceiling when it comes to promotion. New facts, though, indicate that the playing field at work is quite level; indeed, in some instances women have a distinct advantage both in hiring and in promotion. Studies also show that highly-qualified women can jump off the fast track and then catch up when they are ready to jump back on. It’s called “off-ramping;” increasingly, talented women who want to balance career and family are taking that route.

Thirty years ago, women earned far less than 10 percent of the medical, law and M.B.A. degrees awarded in the U.S., now they earn at least 40 percent of those advanced degrees. The big accounting firm, Ernst & Young claims that at least half of their new hires are women. Among workers under age 30, according to the Census Bureau, slightly over 25 percent of men hold bachelor’s degrees as compared with slightly over 32 percent of women. These credentials prove an open door for women to have lucrative careers, many with a distinct advantage over their male competitors.

A partner at Ernst & Young, Carolyn Buck Luce, said that the current job situation boils down to a “war for talent.” Many corporations are willing to adjust to a talented, well-trained woman’s needs in order to keep her on the roster. At Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), 10 percent of the firm’s female partners are on a part-time schedule. Officials at the firm insist that stepping off the fast track does not mean career suicide. Toni Riccardi told Time magazine in 2004 that going part-time “might slow your progress, but it won’t prohibit you” from climbing the career ladder.

The attitudes of corporations like Ernst & Young and PWC have empowered Generation Xers, those men and women who were born mid-sixties to mid-seventies. Time magazine reported on a Catalyst survey from 2001 that found Gen Xers are unwilling “to make the kind of trade-off” that previous generations made. Further, Catalyst found that “both women and men [Gen Xers] rated personal and family goals higher than career goals.” These findings indicate a profound shift of attitude in the workforce.

Leslie Stahl reported on 60 Minutes (CBS, October 2004), that over the past decade the number of stay-at-home moms increased by 15 percent. Even so, nearly three-fourths of mothers with children under 18 are in the work force. Well-educated mothers with infants, though, are dropping out (59 percent in 1997 compared to 53 percent in 2000). The Beverly LaHaye Institute first reported this trend in its Data Digest. Nearly a quarter of these stay-at-home moms have graduate or professional degrees. This trend is “huge” says Howard Hayghe, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

According to a 2005 Harvard Business Review (HBR) study, family responsibilities are identified as the motivating force behind young careerists who choose to “off-ramp.” Gen X parents say they spend more time on child-rearing (51 percent of the women are stay-at-home moms) and household tasks than the Boomer parents (33 percent of the women were full-time mothers) did; further, they express the desire to spend more time –– especially those in the higher income brackets. The Los Angeles Times reported that fathers today are helping around the house much more than a decade ago (34 percent compared to 24 percent).

HBR estimates that women lose about 18 percent of their earning power when they off-ramp. Many young professionals view this as an acceptable loss for being able to parent their children.

A study of senior-level executives in Fortune 1000 companies –– by Harris Interactive for Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management –– revealed that fewer than half of senior-level executives are concerned about off-ramping because nearly 40 percent think that within two to four years a woman will make up the losses in salary and position. Another 12 percent, though, think catching up will take more than four years and 13 percent think it unlikely that women who off-ramp will ever fully catch up.

Some women chose to become entrepreneurs so that they can be their own boss and set their own hours; women-owned businesses grew by 14 percent from 1997 to 2002 (compared to a 7 percent growth in U.S. businesses overall). Perhaps more startling is the fact that these women-owned businesses are growing enough to increase their hiring by 30 percent (compared to other businesses at 18 percent nationwide). Also surprising is that in more than a quarter of two-income households now the wife is the primary breadwinner. Molly Selvins (LA Times, 2/4/07) compared the percentages from 1987 (17.8 percent) to today when 25.3 percent of the wives earn higher salaries than their husbands.

These economic factors, though, apparently have little to do with a woman’s happiness. The Heritage Foundation’s Family Fact 8219 reveals that a husband’s beliefs about family, the value of marriage, desire for children and respect for traditional gender roles are key in determining whether a wife reports happiness with the love and affection of her husband.

CWA’s Brenda Zurita and Sarah Rode compiled the research for this article.

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