Some 37% of the women surveyed -- and 43% of those with kids -- voluntarily left work at some point in their careers, with the average break lasting about two years. In contrast, only 24% of the men took time off from their careers, with no statistical difference between those who were fathers and those who were not. Some 44% of the women cited family responsibilities as the reason for their leaving, compared with only 12% of the men. Among men, who averaged about one year off, the primary reason was career enhancement. The survey results also confirm the pervasiveness of the traditional division of labor within families. Despite the fact that the education gap between women and men has all but disappeared, women in most families are still expected to shoulder the lion's share of caring for children, for elderly parents, and for spouses.
But 93% of the women who took time off from work wanted to return to their careers, despite the painful work-life trade-offs required. Unfortunately, only 74% of those were able to do so, with 40% returning to full-time professional jobs and 24% taking part-time positions. And even those who returned to the workforce lost substantial earning power, with the penalties becoming more severe the longer the break. Overall, women who took time out from careers lost an average of 18% of their earning power; in business careers, the average loss was 28% even though the average break lasted little more than a year.
Such reductions in earnings potential are a primary reason the earnings gap between men and women of comparable education levels increases during child-bearing and rearing years. The survey also found that many women cope with job-family trade-offs by working part-time, reducing the number of hours they work in full-time jobs, and declining promotions.
What should employers do to retain highly qualified women? The survey results indicate that women value jobs with reduced hours and flexible work arrangements. Women are less likely to opt out of work if their employers offer flexible career paths that allow them to ramp up and ramp down their professional responsibilities at different career points.
Larry Summers was on to something when he speculated that many women are unwilling to make the time commitment required to attain leadership positions in demanding professions. But as the presidents of Stanford, Princeton, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- two of whom are women with children -- argued in their response to Summers' comments, the status quo is neither inevitable nor desirable. Employers can and should develop cultures and specific policies to strike a better balance between the demands of work and the demands of family. Laura D'Andrea Tyson is dean of London Business School (email@example.com)