BPW Foundation's Women Misbehavin' Blog

Well behaved women never make history

A Workforce that Punishes Worklife Balance Choices

Posted by egehl on August 16, 2010

I don’t have kids and love my career, but that doesn’t prevent me from thinking about the future and how it would be nice someday to take time off to focus on a family.  However already I have doubts about whether I would ever make that decision for fear of inevitable career and salary reprecussions. 

No matter how much you love your job and career the grind and intensity of it can get wearing, and what’s important  gets clearer as you get older.  It’s the relationships you create and build, both family and friendships, over a lifetime that matter and to get the most out of them you need the space to devote adequate time and energy. 

I think instinctively most people know this yet somehow our society never changes when it comes to cultivating work-life balance opportunities, and having an open and supportive mind to those who have decided to take time away to raise children or tend to family needs. 

A number of my female friends who are all working mothers have said they are scared to leave the workplace to stay at home for fear they could never find another job, or one that compliments their abilities, background and worth.  If they felt safer and more assured to leave the workplace, they would take the leap because they want to spend more time with their young children.

A recent New York Times article entitled “A Labor Market Punishing to Mothers” builds on this notion by focusing on the ways the labor market pushes mothers out of good jobs.  The author argues that the labor market is structured in ways that artificially penalizes mothers, and goes on to say that our economy extracts a terribly steep price for any time away from work in both pay and promotions.  If you leave the workforce, people often cannot just pick up where they have left off.  Entire career paths are closed off and the hit to earnings is permanent.

Therefore it isn’t just about whether worklife flexibility choices exist out there, but the choices women can’t make because they know how unsupportive our workforce, especially during this economy, will react.  As the article argues, “the main barrier is the harsh price most workers pay for pursuing anything other than the old-fashioned career path.”

A 2004 study by Stephen Rose and Heidi Hartman with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that American women who took one year off lost 20% of their lifetime earnings, while women who took off two to three years lost 30%. These plummets in women’s earnings seem completely out of proportion to any subjective deterioration in experience based on time away from work.

Many women instinctively know the penalties they will face if they decide to leave their jobs for a career break, part-time work or to raise children.  A flexibility stigma persists in our culture even though companies and workplaces talk about supporting it.  The worklife dialogue and policy conversation needs to go beyond simply how to create more flexibility options in the workplace, but also ways to change our attitudes about taking advantage of them.  Only then can a true cultural shift take place.  

Otherwise it will not matter how many flexibility options and benefits exist if no one feels comfortable to take advantage of them.

The bottom line is that the flexibility stigma impacts everyone, not just women, because flexibility is important for the family as a whole.   And nowadays with more men leaving their jobs either for a short-term break or to stay at home to oversee the household while their wives work, this stigma isn’t just a “woman’s issue”.  With the burgeoning trend of “house husbands”, men need to equally care about how the labor market reacts to people who’ve chosen to take time off to care for their family. 

The stubborn views regarding anything not full-time work related are outdated, and wrongfully judgmental about a person’s potential worth to an employer.  Thankfully there are groups out there working to bust through this stigma by showcasing the value of women who’ve been out of the workplace.  One in particular, Momentum, is educating employers about the advantages of hiring mothers and helping those mothers find part-time work that best suits their talents, skills and schedule. 

With groups like Momentum and a concerted effort by women, men and policymakers, hopefully barriers and attitudes will continue to break down and finally shift.

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