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Posted at 05:49 AM ET, 06/03/2011

Working-mother readers share stories of opting in and out of the workforce

Not long ago, I wrote a piece about recruiting firms who negotiate for flexible work schedules to help mothers who feel they’ve reached a breaking point juggling home and work, as well as mothers who have opted out and would like to get back in the game. I asked readers to share their stories of opting out or opting in.

The response was overwhelming. Some of the stories were inspiring. Some depressing. Some wrote of entire businesses that have embraced flexible work for everyone, or new programs, like those at Georgetown University and Harvard Business School, addressing this very issue: how to keep moms and their brains and skills in the workforce in a meaningful way that doesn’t mean sacrificing family life.

Still others, like Tracy Reilly, wrote that flexibility is not always the answer. “Today was my last day at my job. After 17 years in the advertising industry I’m taking some time off to spend the summer with my kids and consider alternative career options. I had been working a four-day week, but that arrangement created as many problems as it solved.”

The universal theme from readers was pretty consistent: it ain’t working now, and something’s gotta give. Here are some excerpts:

Inspiring:

Elisa Subin wrote: “I work for a local, award-winning company in which nearly 100% of employees work flexible schedules from home offices. We’ve found that such arrangements benefit men and woman, marrieds, singles etc. as well as providing untold benefit to the company itself … the movement away from 9 - 5 has changed work for the better -- for everyone -- not just working moms.”

Attorneys Erin Giglia and Laurie Rowen were associates at Snell & Wilmer when they both got pregnant in 2007. Erin wrote: “Laurie always knew she would opt out once she started a family, while I struggled to make it work because there did not seem to be a good alternative. Laurie opted out when her baby was about 6 months old. I tried to make it work for about a year, but ultimately opted out in early 2009. Laurie and I decided to do contract work together, just for the support and to back each other up. Pretty soon, friends and friends of friends asked if they could join us, and the vision which is now Montage Legal Group was born. Montage Legal Group now has 20 freelance attorneys, all former big-firm lawyers who opted out in favor of flexibility and more time with family. Our attorneys come from schools like Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Michigan Law, Georgetown, etc. and were trained at firms like Gibson Dunn, Latham & Watkins, Morgan Lewis, Allen Matkins, etc….

“The goals of the company, in addition to providing law firms with excellent attorneys at an exceptional value, are to keep women in the legal practice instead of opting out entirely, and bringing women back in after an extended absence.”

Beeta S. Tahmassebi, who works at a consulting firm called EnCompass wrote of its founders: “What they set out to build was a company where people held the highest standards of quality but were able to make choices about when and how to get work done. Flexibility, trust and caring have remained cornerstones of EnCompass’ values where life balance is not only accommodated, but actively promoted.

“I saw your article from a link on Facebook and it is not part of my job description to market EnCompass or its founders, but reading your article made me think about how lucky I am to work for such a forward thinking organization. What they embody and provide to employees doesn’t have to be unique, it just needs to be promoted.”

Depressing:

Meei Shi Child had her daughter shortly after she finished her MA in liberal arts. “Now that she is older and I am ready to establish a career, I find it incredibly hard to market myself. Not only have I not been in the workforce for four years, I also have not had the chance to establish my career prior to taking time off to care for my young child.”

Another reader, a mother of two children under five, worked for a big trade association in DC for seven years, nearly three and a half with a flexible schedule “granted” to her by past supervisors. “I’ve had good performance reviews for many years, until recently. My new supervisor, a woman who’s never married, has no children, has just announced that she’s stripping my flexibility away, because according to her, it has become such a problem, that according to her, the organization’s low morale is caused by MY flexibility. It has become her weapon of attack. Not only she’s taking my flexible schedule away, but also rewrote my job description, with expanded work responsibilities, at no pay...”

Hopeful:

One reader wrote: “I have 14 years of experience in PR for top brands and quit job to stay home with my child for the 1st two years and have been trying to find a freelance job in my field for a long time! I don’t want a mommy job and I can work virtually in my field. I just need some help finding employers open to someone like me who is really good at her job and loves her career but needs to pick her child up from Montessori. And, the article talked about so many moms like me! Yayy!!”

Some readers sent in statistics:

-A 2004 study found that American women who took one year off lost 20 percent of their lifetime earnings, two years off, 30 percent - percentages that reflect what the Huffington Post writer Joan Williams calls a “flexibility stigma” in the workplace, rather than “any objective deterioration in human capital.”

-Another study found that the penalties for part-time work are seven times higher than in Sweden and twice as high as the UK.

-A study by McKinsey & Co. presented at a recent Wall Street Journal conference on Women in the Economy found that women’s share of corporate jobs is 53 percent at the entry level, but falls to 14 percent at the executive committee level. (15 of the Fortune 500 company CEOs are women.) Working mothers are either opting out, dialing back, hitting the glass ceiling or stuck in middle management. And how’s this for a slap in the face: “Middle-management women get promoted on performance, while middle-management men get promoted on potential,” said Vikram Malhotra, McKinsey’s chair of the Americas.

Another reader sent a Forbes blogpost by Ali Brown, arguing that women are opting out of the traditional career path and creating their own.

“Long and hard hours, dreaded commutes, and being cut off from our families for the majority of our day just isn’t how we thrive best. And if we do want to work really hard and make bank, why not work for ourselves… the way we want to?

“This is just one of the reasons I believe we’re seeing a huge increase in women’s entrepreneurship here in the U.S. …Women are leading the charge for combining business with humanity, with family, with--dare I say it--love. Don’t get me wrong… I applaud the women who paved the way up the corporate ladder. They showed us anything was possible, and women are still sorely needed at the top of our nation’s corporations.

“But I’m seeing more women than ever choose something different. Something better. And not settling for anything less than a life they actually love.”

What do you think?

By  |  05:49 AM ET, 06/03/2011

 
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