Over the past month we’ve seen new data on women in the workplace — some encouraging, some disappointing and some depressing. As a member of Generation X, a woman who invested in developing a diversified career while having a family, I’ve always believed women shouldn’t have to sacrifice having a career for a family, or sacrifice having a family for a career unless it’s her choice. This strong belief has been a river that’s run through my entire working life yet has also required the ability to see beyond the linear to the curvilinear career path at various inflection points.
The United States Has Fallen Behind
We’re now ranked 20th in the United States compared to other nations when it comes to female participation in the labor force. This point is equally perplexing and disturbing because it represents the downward slide America has taken from 7th to 20th in ranking. There are multifaceted reasons for this and we know chief among them is childcare. In America today, child-care costs can rival monthly mortgage payments for just one child alone. And the costs of childcare coupled with stagnant wages is causing an unremitting strain on dual-career families in significant ways contributing to what McKinsey coined the leaky pipeline.
This leaky pipeline — a time in in a woman’s career that intersects with family building (typically the 30’s) happens often when women are poised to assume increasing levels of responsibility and leadership — yet many women find themselves pressured to ‘do it all’. And as we know from Anne Marie Slaughter, no one can do it all. Invariably something gives, whether it’s a marriage, a relationship, a career, or your health. This can be true as much for men as it is for women.
The Good Parenting Trap
Women downshifting from full-time work during a stretch of time to help offset the cost of caregiving isn’t a new story. What’s newer is that there are increasingly other factors painting a more complex picture on why the downward slope for women is happening. One is that parenting today has taken on the hue of a contact sport.
Antiquated schedules of the American school day persist, competition for after school programming, and managing multiple schedules of kids activities that school-age children are encouraged to participate in to best prepare for secondary school and college, strains the hardiest of dual-career couples. Most often, it’s a woman’s career that takes the biggest hit during this time. While we’ve seen a greater number of stay at home dads, working mothers continue to play the role of central command in the family unit. Women who stay on the full-time career track while raising children often outsource family needs giving them more latitude to stay working full-time and travel. If they’re executive women, they often have a full-time nanny, a stay at home spouse, and sometimes both. Yet despite this, only 15% of women are represented in executive roles at Fortune 500's, a data point that largely remains stuck.
The Price Paid For Downshifting
Leaving the workforce for a period of time can mean working in the same position but reducing hours. It can mean leaving a company in search of another role not requiring heavy business travel and many evening commitments. It can mean a career change, freelancing or pursuing an entrepreneurial idea. While all these options can help women more easily integrate work and life commitments, they come with a price tag. Women who want to get back into the workforce after leaving are mommy tracked and screened out — increasingly today — by candidate bias. Companies are contributing to the downward slide of American women in the workforce through bias towards passive candidates — the notion that the best candidates are ones (in full-time jobs) who’ve never diverged from a full-time career path.
This recruiting tactic overlooks a large cohort of talented females who don’t fit the criteria — and correlates with a noticeable drop of women in leadership roles by compare to men. Underscoring this includes a number of culturally systemic issues in corporate settings of which age-bias is increasingly one: at Silicon Valley tech companies today the average age of the workforce is now 29–31.
Bright Spots Remain, But Why Care?
If gender diverse executive teams and boards consistently outperform competitors, then why are companies slow to adopt strategies for keeping women in the workforce or bringing them back into the workforce and grooming them for leadership roles? Returnships like ReachHire and iRelaunch are helping to get women back into the workforce. LinkedIn’s diversity goals are now tied to performance. While these are positive indicators, the bigger challenge remains culture change. If the data on women in the workplace is moving backwards and culture change is a slow moving ship, why care anymore? We should care because if we’re backsliding on women in the American workforce in 2015, this doesn’t bode well for Millenial women or any other generation that follows.
The Millenial Generation
The oldest Millenials are now into their family building years (if they choose to have kids). Data shows they are much more interested in flexibility in the workplace, feel that they will share caregiving responsibilities with their spouse in far greater measure than any other generation, and prioritize corporate culture in making decisions about which companies they want to join. But even with the best of intentions, a question remains largely unknown: will companies stay committed to Millenial women leaders if they want a flexible career path as their families grow? Will they be able to take paid leave offered to them without the consequences and repercussions that we know still exist in companies today?
Role Models Needed
When I was in my 20’s, I was working for a global accounting and consulting firm. I distinctly remember looking around wondering where the women were in executive roles and why I couldn’t find role models. We need more women in the workforce in leadership roles as role models. We need more women in the workforce to to tackle persistent second generation gender bias. And we need more women in leadership roles to show early-career professionals there is a way forward to stay committed to your career while equally carving a path that successfully integrates work and family commitments.
Which path will be the winning one to turn around this backsliding data about women in the American workforce? Will it be the rise of female entrepreneurs who are disrupting ingrained cultural biases to create new business models that work for them? Or will it be corporate America finally making gender diversity a verb and not a noun?
Hopefully, it will be both.