Why the economy depends on helping parents thrive
Picture this: I’m 30,000 feet in the air, flying from San Francisco to Chicago. I’ve just been promoted to vice president at Foote, Cone & Belding, one of the largest advertising agencies in the country, and I’m off to an important meeting with a new client. I’m nervous as hell. I’m also thirty-three years old and twenty-four weeks pregnant.
Suddenly, I feel a familiar tightening across my belly. Then another and another. It doesn’t take long for me to realize that I’m in pre-term labor.
This isn’t my first rodeo with complicated pregnancies. My first child was born premature. His first days were spent in the ICU being fed through a tube because he was too weak to suckle. He eventually came home and not long after I raced back to my career as brand manager at Nestle. Why let a little thing like a premature baby hold you back?
I’d always been ambitious, had worked since I was fourteen years old, and had big dreams for my career. When I graduated from Haas in 1991, I thought I would be one of the ones to break that glass ceiling. And why not? I had invested thousands of dollars into my education and had great work experience and the skills I needed to achieve my professional goals.
And then I had kids.
After that plane landed and I was able to get home, my doctor forced me on bed rest. I spent four months doing nothing but gestating. When my daughter finally arrived, I knew something had to change. I loved my job and my team, and we were winning new clients left and right. But I’d been working 60-hour work weeks, traveling extensively, and rarely got home before my son was in bed. I realized I needed to downshift. Not forever, but at least for a while.
This wasn’t an option for my employer. They wanted me all-in or all the way out, as did other employers I spoke to. A highly qualified woman who had two children and needed a flexible schedule was, apparently, not employable. So I did something I never imagined I would do: I became an opt-out mom.
And I’m not the only one. When I went to my twenty-fifth reunion last year, I wasn’t surprised to learn that nearly every one of my female classmates had either downshifted or completely left the paid workforce. These women were trailblazers back in the day and yet not a single one of us had broken on through. Most, like me, had paused their careers at some point.
Did you know that on average 65 percent of graduates from top colleges who go on to get their MBAs leave the paid workforce for a period of time after they become mothers? In a 2015 Harvard survey of alumni, 43 percent of Gen X women said they’d paused their careers to care for family. These women didn’t plan on pausing. In fact, only 28 percent indicated they had always expected to downshift their careers once they became mothers. They found they couldn’t combine their desire to nurture with their will to succeed. Something had to give and what gave was their careers.
But my career didn’t end when I quit my job in advertising. I did strategy consulting for tech startups for a few years then I pivoted to become a social entrepreneur. I started and ran a nonprofit for over five years. When the money ran out, I pivoted again to become an award-winning journalist writing about women, work, and life in Silicon Valley. Now, my career has come full circle. I’m working as the acting COO of the 3% Movement, an organization dedicated to increasing the number of women in leadership in advertising. I also consult with other companies to help them figure out how to create thriving cultures that enable them to attract, retain, and promote women. My dream is that the next generation of mothers and fathers won’t face the same workplace challenges that I did.
Within the next decade, 64 million Millennials will become parents. We’re on the cusp of a nationwide baby boom and the truth is, our workplaces aren’t ready. Most still expect 24/7 commitment from their employees, don’t have meaningful paid parental leave, don’t offer child care, and are skeptical of potential talent who have taken a nonlinear path.
Female workforce participation in the U.S. has stagnated at 74 percent for the past 25 years. Most countries have seen increasing participation. Spain, Greece, even Japan have more women working than we do. I worry that if we don’t solve for this issue soon we’re going to have a talent drain of alarming proportions; one that will hurt not just the careers of women (and men), but also our economy.
These days, business schools across this country are boasting they have the highest enrollment of women in history. Berkeley-Haas, Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton have reported women comprising between 40 and 43 percent of their incoming classes. Yahoo! Imagine all of those future leaders and the great impact they could have on our businesses and economy. Except, it’s likely they won’t. It is time to stop thinking this is a woman’s problem and start realizing this is a business problem.
Lisen Stromberg, MBA 91, is CEO of PrismWork, a culture innovation consultancy. She is also the author of Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career.