2007 – How women can fill the talent gap
I feel just now that I’m paying for a rare weekend
away. All the action this morning was centred in the home-based
box room I call my office. The internet connection had failed.
I hate to admit it, but when this happens it’s almost
like losing a limb.
This is when the IT specialist, who also doubles as finance
specialist, home-keeper, cook and lover, not to mention
bread-winner, steps in to steady the ship. Up before seven
for the school run, down to the gym, straight on to the
internet problems, cooking for lunch, clearing some housework
in the afternoon then on to the local pharmacy for a locum
shift in the evening; my wife has her work cut out.
The weekend had been spent in Giverny, looking at Claude
Monet’s water-lily pond with about 500 other people
who all wanted to have an exclusive picture of themselves
on Monet’s Japanese bridge at the same time.
Monet was an obsessive. He must have completed scores,
maybe hundreds of studies and paintings of his precious
water-lilies, sitting by himself, minding his own business.
It was a selfish occupation, but men are like that. They
lose themselves in their work and sometimes take too little
notice of the different concerns of others, particularly
Women have known this for some time. Men have known it
too, but they have been content to preserve the status quo
or to fall back on gender differences. Women have the children,
not men. Women are the home-makers, the mothers, the carers.
Men chop wood, mow the lawn, bring the meat home.
They also follow linear careers, chase promotion prospects
and work all hours in an unyielding commitment to the job
says Sylvia Ann Hewlett in her new book, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps,
Keeping talented Women on the Road to Success.
The main title is pretty meaningless among a UK readership
and its jaded appetite for an ever-changing transatlantic
diet of management jargon that adds little to our understanding
of the way we work. As might be guessed, however, the book
is trying to shed more light on the problems for women who
leave promising careers only to face problems later if they
want to re-enter the jobs market.
Books like this are important because they are focussing
on the need to adapt the way people work in the face of
changing demographics. As Ms Hewlett points out, the recruitment
market is tightening with increasing competition for the
best candidates in the most high-powered jobs and professions.
But the issue is not simply demographic. There is also
a “reverse brain drain” from the US among talented
Indian and Chinese nationals returning to promising careers
in their home countries. The obvious candidates to fill
the void, she says, are women.
I first came across Ms Hewlett five years ago when she
wrote in the Harvard Business Review about the difficulties
of job re-entry for women. At the same time she wrote of
a new generation of women bent on “having it all,”
working on the often mistaken belief that they could ignore
their biological clocks and delay their families by placing
Her latest book is not so much about having it all, but
about creating careers that better fit the needs and aspirations
of women. Sometime this is just about a readjustment of
attitudes. Her research, for example, found that many women
were deliberately “staying beneath the radar”
at work, happy to do their job and wanting recognition for
their commitment, but not keen take on more responsibilities.
In a US-based survey of women’s working lives carried
out in 2004, Ms Hewlett found that more than a third of
the professional women questioned had left their careers
for a period of time. But the time spent outside work amounted
to just a little over two years on average.
A significant proportion – some 16 per cent –
had opted for part-time work at the time of the survey and
an equal proportion said they had declined a promotion.
When asked to look back at their careers more than a third
of those surveyed had worked part-time at some stage.
Women leave their careers, she writes, for a combination
of reasons, sometimes to rear a family or to look after
elderly relatives and sometimes because work expectations
have risen to an unacceptable level.
One point I didn’t see listed as a reason for leaving
is “because they can”. Looking at many of the
issues behind career breaks, it seems to me that some of
these are just as significant for men, but because of their
traditional role as breadwinner, it is more difficult for
men to make a break.
The survey suggested, however, that a quarter of highly
qualified men were leaving their jobs for a period of time,
usually as a career change or to obtain extra qualifications,
rarely to undertake child care. Sometimes, Ms Hewlett found,
men are envious or angry at a wife’s decision to leave
work. One of those interviewed said: “I thought I
was marrying a high-earning professional, not a stay-at-home
Near Giverny this past weekend we stayed at a family-run
bed-and-breakfast in a former hunting lodge. The man and
wife were both lawyers with five children. In this case
the mother was running the bed-and-breakfast while her husband
continued to work in a legal practice.
Could the arrangement have worked the other way around?
Of course it could. Would either party have been comfortable
with the alternative? I very much doubt it.
Had there been options for each party to mix-and-match
the way they worked, however, the possibility for both partners
to share dual roles could have proved attractive. As Ms
Hewlett points out, there is a dire need for alternative
career paths to run alongside what she calls the “male
Some of the long-hours BlackBerry-dominated stories she
documents in the book are unacceptable for either sex yet
people, particularly in high-earning bonus-driven financial
jobs, are getting sucked in to working patterns that leave
them little time for socialising and family life.
It’s good that some City employers are doing more
to cater for family lifestyles. Deutsche Bank, for example,
now offers a full service nursery at its City office. Lehman
Brothers runs a scheme called Encore that offers career-return
opportunities for those who have left finance. Ernst &
Young, meanwhile, have a series of measures promoting equality
including a women’s leadership conference held every
But human resources initiatives alone are not sufficient
to change attitudes and assumptions that stigmatise those
who try to manage their careers in a way that does not seek
out ever more responsibilities and workloads.
Since women have been the losers within the traditional
obsession with career ladders it is right that they should
be leading change now. Ms Hewlett has established an organisation
called the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force as a catalyst for
these changes in companies. In this case, at least, the
name says it all.
Off-Ramps and On-Ramps, Keeping Talented Women on the
Road to Success, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, is published by
Harvard Business School Press, price $29.95.
see also: Women -
having it all