A mom’s road back to work is often bumpy

Sarah Gardner May 12, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s still not to late to run out and pick something up if you’ve forgotten. Mother’s Day is Sunday. There was a study out not too long ago from salary.com. It said if moms who stay home were paid what they’d get on the open market, they’d be making nearly $135,000 a year. That’s right up there with jobs in the corporate world.

But moms who are in that world are penalized if they take too much time for their families. The Harvard Business Review says they lose 37 percent of their earning power on average, if they take three or more years off. Our Work and Family correspondent Sarah Gardner reports the road back onto the career track has a few potholes.

SARAH GARDNER: When professional women consider taking a time-out to raise children, they often soothe themselves with the oft-told story of Brenda Barnes. Barnes, the legend goes, quit her job as head of PepsiCo’s North American operation to spend more time with her kids. She returned triumphantly to the workforce six years later as the number two exec at Sara Lee. She’s now CEO. Margot Diamond of Carrollton, Texas, says she kept thinking about Barnes during a job interview a couple years ago.

MARGOT DIAMOND: And they’re like, “Well, you do know it’s not a 9-to-5 job and you have kids. And will your husband help with your kids, and will you be allowed to travel? It’s like . . . I’m sure this woman didn’t have to deal with these questions when she went back to her job.

When mere mortals such as Diamond exit the career track to be with their kids, ramping back ON can be a bumpy ride. Even though Diamond had traveled the globe as a garment industry executive before taking a four-year timeout, prospective employers hesitated. She, in turn, prevaricated.

DIAMOND: It’s almost like from “Desperate Housewives” when Lynette went back to work. I mean, you completely have to say, Yes, I’m very cold now and I really don’t like my children as much now that I’ve been at home with them.

Diamond did manage to find another executive position in the apparel industry but she considers herself lucky. A recent study from the Wharton School and the Forte Foundation found that a majority of moms who return to work end up changing jobs, companies and even entire industries, often at lesser pay. Wharton’s Monica McGrath:

MONICA MCGRATH: When they left the workforce they felt positive. When they attempted to come back, however, those positive feelings were changed.

Forty-five percent of the women in the Wharton survey, most of them MBA’s, ended up starting their own businesses. Others went to work for smaller companies that McGrath assumes were willing to be more flexible about work schedules. McGrath says the women who tried to return to their former positions, or something similar, hit a wall.

MCGRATH: Many of them felt that they’d be willing to work in a lower level position to sort of “prove themselves” because they understood that organizations may not want to take a chance on them if they’ve been out for over two years. But they weren’t even getting an opportunity to get in a full-time position at a lower level.

McGrath believes job recruiters are making the assumption that women who “off-ramp” to raise kids aren’t serious about their careers. Kimberly Tso is deadly serious about hers. She has a Master’s from Harvard and had directed a major health policy program at UCLA. When she tried to jump back on the career track, post-kids, she hit speedbumps.

KIMBERLY TSO: Three rounds of interviews and I finally get to the last round. I knew that they were really interested in me. And later, when they called me back to tell me they weren’t going to offer me the job, they said, “You would have had the job if it hadn’t been for the fact that you live so far away and you need to work from home on occasion.

With an hour-and-a-half commute each way, Tso had asked to work from home a couple days a week to be closer to her kids. Tso says her interviewers laughed at that idea. She’s now working part-time for a mental health non-profit.

Kristin Maschka, a former Earthlink manager who routinely worked 50- to 60-hour weeks, tried but failed to negotiate a part-time job at that company when she got pregnant. After three-and-a-half years at home with her daughter, she decided to work for a more flexible employer — herself.

KRISTIN MASCHKA: I was so disillusioned with the experiences I’d had with companies and had so little confidence that I could find something that would work for me and my family that I decided to start my own consulting practice.

Maschka, who also volunteers as president of a national group called Mothers and More, estimates she’s lost about 30 percent in annual compensation since switching to self-employment. Working women, she says, haven’t pushed hard enough to change rigid corporate attitudes on when, how and where work can take place.

MASCHKA: Now they’re struggling to figure out . . . we just got our foot in the game. We don’t want to let go of that toe-hold by rocking the boat. But many women, especially when they become mothers, are finding that, Wait a minute! The rules stink! The rules basically exclude me from participating in this game once I have children.

The “full-time-plus, in-the-office, cellphone-tethered” employee is still the model of corporate success in the US, and of course, for many bosses, the easiest to manage. Kimberly Tso says when she got that Master’s in public policy from Harvard seven years ago she didn’t foresee the conflicts that would arise between a career and parenting.

TSO: I was definitely raised with the feminist movement and really saw myself as wanting to make a contribution to society. But I also grew up knowing that I wanted children and that I wanted to be there with them. I just didn’t think it would be this hard.

That working mom success story, Brenda Barnes, the CEO at Sara Lee? She doubtless knows how hard it is. That six years she “took off” to be with the kids? Turns out she served on six corporate boards, taught an MBA class and did a short stint as interim CEO of Starwood Hotels in her spare time.

I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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