9 Lives for Women Blog

Look Before You Leap | August 9th, 2012

It’s not surprising that fewer women are making the decision to stay in their jobs rather than “off ramp” for family reasons. In a difficult economy when a spouse could easily lose a job, it can be too much of a gamble to give up the second paycheck.

Even still I think too many women focus primarily on their current home concerns, rather than future financial stability. The most recent off-ramping study, “Time-Outs Take An Increasing Toll on Women’s Careers” (2010),  conducted by the Center for Work-Life Policy (now known as the Center for Talent Innovation), noted that one in three women they surveyed opted for a hiatus—recession or not.

The study found that the average length of an off ramp was 2.7 years. Based on my own obervations, that’s a very low figure. When I co-founded a network of nearly 8,000 mid to senior level women (primarily in the New York metro area but with representation in all major metropolitan hubs), we found that the average length of a hiatus was 12 years.

Let’s split the difference and say that the average time out for off rampers is about 7 years. That’s a long time to be out of the game. I once sat in a meeting with a male managing partner at a major investment bank who said that one of his male colleagues took a three-month sabbatical and worried that he was stale. The investment banker telling the story didn’t say it was untrue.

Without question that’s an extreme story in a tough, male-dominated industry. Most employers let you keep your “current professional” status for two years.  After that you have to do a lot of fancy footwork to prove you’ve continued to develop your business skills in your time out of the workforce.

And the CWLP study opens by saying that “the long-term penalty for women taking a time out from their career has worsened since the recession”.


  • 73% of women trying to return to the workforce after a voluntary timeout for childcare or other reasons have trouble finding a job.  (After 10 years devoted to helping women return to the workforce I can vouch for this fact.)
  • Those who do return lose 16% of their earning power.
  • More than a quarter report a decrease in their management responsibilities.
  • 22% had to step down to a lower job title.

The last three bullet points also seem very conservative based on the women I recruited and placed.  The disparity in numbers may be due to the fact that CWLP’s study group included many more women who had short off-ramp periods.  When women are out 10 years or more, earning power, management responsibilities and job titles take much deeper dives.

Ironically, many of the women I encountered during my recruiting years left the workforce with the intention of returning pretty quickly.  They said things got out of control at home—and they thought a couple of years at the helm of the ship would do the trick.  The problem is that there is always another reason to stay home:  children are transitioning to kindergarten, middle school or high school, math grades are falling, high school parties are starting, college applications are brewing…and before you know it the suits you wore 10 years ago don’t fit.

I understand how time out of the workforce can fly by, but it baffles me that 54% of the off ramping women CWLP surveyed “left without even discussing flex options with their supervisor”.  I’m baffled because not one women ever told me that she left the workforce because she disliked working or building her talents and expertise.  In my eyes, leaving without a conversation is leaving without attempting to make work work.  And it’s alarming that so many women would roll the dice in a bad economy (gambling that their husband’s job has a lifetime guarantee) and put their future financial security at possible risk (see “One Sacrifice Too Many?”)

Some of you may say that any difficulty getting back into the workforce—and any decline in earnings or responsibility—is well worth the opportunity to be at home with your kids.  Sounds like you’re a very well-intentioned Mom, but I’ve been on the other side of the hiatus handing tissues to many, many frustrated and frightened women who suddenly need to work after a husband’s layoff, a divorce or several looming college tuitions.  I’ve seen a lot of women angry that their MBAs don’t give them any leverage, defeated when recruiters tell them they’re no longer qualified for the position two titles below the one they left behind, and indignant that they have to work for someone half their age.

Those who’ve won the lottery, have several major inheritances pending or still have the first penny they earned can easily and completely leave the workforce—for a few years or forever–without looking back.   But for the rest I caution: look before you leap.

I actually created a program called “Look Before You Leap”–a pragmatic three-hour seminar that helps women use their business skills to balance work and life—and in turn help employers retain their high potential talent.  Through a series of exercises and guided discussions, women simulate their life outside of the work force and address the financial, family, psychological and cultural issues that emerge when they too quickly shed their professional selves.  This seminar can be sponsored by corporations or presented to groups of women outside of their work settings.  –KAS

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