Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success
by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Harvard Business School Press, 320 pages, $29.95 Hardcover, May 2007, ISBN 9781422101025.
I admit it: I take great pride in the fact that our small company has, over the years, made modifications to the standard work week in order to keep talented people working for us. Several of my employees work from home for family and productivity reasons. Another takes a day off once a week to work on a home business. I believe the best way to keep the best employees is to treat them like people. And sometimes that means taking into account the demands their personal lives put on their work lives. But my little company is an anomaly. Most companies have a policy manual written in the '80s and expect all of their employees to fit their performance to the set policies...and anyone who doesn't can go work at the coffee shop around the corner. This is particularly true for women whose lives often demand a more flexible work situation. Off-Ramps and On-Ramps
is a much-needed look into a critical problem in our business world: the current career model and its lack of flexibility for talented women.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett shows that it is becoming increasingly evident that the "level playing field" vision for gender equality in the workplace was an inadequate solution. The idea that, by removing barriers to success, companies could create equal opportunities for men and women was a progressive one--but in many ways it implied that women are just "men in skirts." The existing career model leaves out an important consideration: women take on different responsibilities than men outside the workplace. They bear children, care for aging parents and are responsible for other household demands. And those responsibilities, needs and wants cause women to take career breaks or delay advancement.
Hewlett discusses the problem in terms of off-ramps--reasons to leave or delay a career--and on-ramps--reentering the workforce. As she points out, once women take an off-ramp, it's hard to find an on-ramp--and very rare to find an on-ramp that puts them on the same track they were traveling before. "Once a woman has taken one, opportunities to reenter a career are few and far between...[and] a great many talented women find the on-ramping struggle a humiliating experience--baffling, unfair, and replete with rejection." So, many highly-skilled, ambitious women are simply giving up on the rat race altogether. And that has serious implications for employers.
Great changes are looming on the business horizon: the job market heating up, a growing talent void, baby boomers leaving the workforce, higher demand for knowledge workers. And many companies such as Time Warner, GE, Johnson & Johnson and Cisco Systems are rewriting policies to accommodate the needs of professional women. They're developing flexible work-week options, opportunities for community involvement, continuing education and mentoring programs and more. They're harnessing the power of talented, nontraditional workers. Off-Ramps and On-Ramps
makes a strong case for why this is necessary and offers strategies for implementing such modifications in your own business.