THE BLOG
06/04/2007 10:19 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Off-Ramps and On-Ramps

What do Cherie Blair and Michelle Obama have in common? Well, there's the obvious stuff. They're both married to high octane politicians. But they also share some deep concerns on the career front. As Tony Blair's political star sets and Barak Obama's star rises, these impressively credentialed women are scrambling to re-calibrate their work lives. One is off-ramping while the other is on-ramping.

This last month Michelle Obama packed up her office and said goodbye to colleagues. With the presidential race kicking into high gear, she's decided to resign her job as vice president of community affairs at the University of Chicago -- to help out with her husband's campaign and spend more time with her children, who are not seeing a whole lot of their dad these days.

Cherie Bair, on the other hand, is in the process of ramping up her career commitments -- expanding her staff, moving into newly renovated office space in Cadogan Square. Tony Blair is leaving Downing St. on June 27th and his wife feels finally able to lay aside the role of political spouse and reclaim her ambition. Its not that she ever gave up her legal career, but it has been severely curtailed by her husband's position -- ever since he was elected party leader in 1994. Who knows what this extremely able woman will now choose to do. She's talking about becoming an outspoken human rights advocate. She's talking about reaching for a pinnacle in the legal profession. And she's talking about ramping up her earning power on the international lecture circuit.

In recent interviews both Obama and Blair admit to worries. Obama is asking: Will I ever be able to get back on track? What kinds of penalties will I end up paying for this career break? Blair is asking a different kind of question: "Is it realistic to reach for a pinnacle? I'm 52 and have been in a slow lane for more than a decade."

Obama and Blair have reason to be concerned. A new book published this month by the Harvard Business School Press research demonstrates the costs associated with women's non-linear career paths.

Among the findings of this new study is that 37 percent of highly qualified women take an off-ramp (voluntarily leave their careers for a period of time) and another third take a slow land or "scenic route" (a flextime option, a reduced hour job). A key finding is that among women who leave their careers the overwhelming majority (93 percent) want to return to work. However, only 74 percent of those seeking to get back to work find jobs, and only 40 percent find mainstream, full time jobs. In other words, a great deal of talent is lost on re-entry.

Another finding is that women leave their careers for a surprisingly short period of time -- on average 2.2 years. But even these relatively short interruptions entail heavy financial costs. On average women lose 18 percent of their earning power when they spend two years outside the workforce and this figure rises to a staggering 38 percent when they spend three years or more out.

Money is not the only thing that women lose. The new research shows that career interruptions lead to a down-sizing of aspiration as well as income. In mid-life only 37 percent of women see themselves as very ambitious compared to 53 percent of their younger peers. In the wake of an off-ramp many women lose heart and redefine what they expect of themselves. They downsize their dreams.

So what is it about conventional career models that make success so very elusive for women?

At the heart of the challenge is a "male competitive model" that evolved to fit the life rhythms of middle class while males in the 1950s and 1960s -- decades when access to well-paying jobs was primarily limited to this privileged group. The success of this model relied on a traditional division of labor between men and women -- men were breadwinners, women were homemakers -- and two key characteristics: a strong preference for cumulative, lockstep careers and a continuous linear employment history; and the expectation that the steepest gradient of a career occurs in the decade of one's thirties. That is the time when an ambitious professional either "catches a wave" or doesn't. There are no second chances.

While this career model suited the needs of Jack Welch and his peers, it's exceedingly problematic for women. Not that some women didn't and don't bend their lives to fit into the constraints of this male model. A minority of them do. But a majority either can't, or don't choose to.

The ways in which the male competitive model excludes or marginalizes women are obvious. A strong preference for a continuous employment history penalizes women who need to take time out. The fact is, the dynamics of the model simply don't mesh with the imperatives of women's lives. Take the preferred shape of the career path. For many women, 33 or 37 can be precisely the wrong ages to "catch a wave." At these ages, child bearing and child rearing demands are at their peak and can be enormously time-consuming. Establishing a framework where careers need to take off in one's thirties ensures that work and life clash and collide in the worst possible ways for women.

So what to do?

As is demonstrated by the case studies in this new book, companies such as Ernst & Young, Booz Allen, Johnson & Johnson, GE, Time Warner and Lehman Brothers are getting newly involved in developing a rich array of flexible work arrangements that allow women to both ramp down and ramp up. Eighteen months ago Lehman Brothers (the Wall Street investment house) created a program called Encore -- to welcome off-ramped women who want to get back into the financial sector. Encore offers re-skilling, confidence building and a range of job possibilities. The program has been a huge success -- for the employer (who has been able to tap into a rich pool of talent) and for individual women -- who are immensely grateful for a chance to get back on the career highway.

For reasons that range from a tightening job market to retiring baby boomers employers are newly ready to move on this front. Nowadays companies can ill afford to lose experienced, well-qualified women -- they are not easily or cheaply replaced. A recent study shows that it costs companies 93 to 200 percent of a departing employees annual salary to replace each woman they lose.

New action by employers is urgently needed. While Michelle Obama and Cherie Blair are likely to have more options than most on-ramping women, the challenges they're experiencing this month are front and center for many working moms.