For years, there has been talk about the opt-out revolution where women who are well-situated in their careers voluntarily stepped back to raise families. What much of the conversation overlooked, however, is that the decision for many is more about feeling forced out.
According to a survey of nearly 1,500 women for the book Work PAUSE Thrive, only 11% of women planned to step back from work when they became mothers. But 72% actually did. Author Lisen Sromberg concludes, “Something had forced these women out of the workforce.”
That was the reality for Amy Mason, a mother from Washington D.C., who worked on labor compliance and living wage issues for more than a decade.
“I was the first person at my organization to take multiple maternity leaves, and the first person to ask for a flexible schedule,” Mason tells Motherly. “They gave it to me, but I felt like I was asking for ‘leniency.’ I remained on the senior leadership team, but was no longer in the inner circle.”
Feeling squeezed out, Mason recently stepped out of the workforce altogether. She says, “Finally I came to the conclusion that it had to be a full-time job, you had to be all in. And I couldn’t do that.”
The statistics show she’s far from alone—with many women leaving the jobs they love for less desirable jobs that offer more flexibility and others halting their careers entirely.
According to the Department of Labor, 43% of women with a child younger than one don’t work outside the home. As those children age, many women seek reentrance into the workforce—with 75% of mothers who have children older than 6 working outside the home again.
For many of these women, the ability to stay home when the children are young is a choice and privilege. But, for some like Mason, it may feel like the choice is out of their hands.
What we lose when women opt out
These are talented women. They worked hard to develop their skills into significant professional contributions. They have a lot to offer to the workplace, the economy and the world.
But because of the relentless demands of a typical work day, moms like Mason have to make the tough decision between their professional lives and their families. Leaving their careers entirely or taking a job unaligned with their skills is the only way they can balance work with their other priorities.
Other moms choose to stay in a job aligned with their professional skills, but feel the pull of their personal priorities when the workday stretches into the evenings and weekends and clashes with the needs of their children.
Who benefits in this situation? Not organizations that need exceptional talent to accomplish their missions. Not families who need engaged parents. Not moms who want to contribute their professional skills in ways that doesn’t continually pull them away from their families.
Here’s a better question: Are the relentless demands of a typical workday necessary? Are the demands even effective?
When we make this conversation about workplace flexibility or family-friendly policies, it’s detrimental to everyone when employers aren’t forthright about what they can offer. Of her search to combine her family and her career, Mason says, “The onus was on me to ask. There weren’t established policies.”
The irony is family-friendly policies benefit companies, too: According to a 2012 research report from the Center for Women and Work, women who are offered paid leave are 93% more likely to be in the workforce nine to 12 months after their child’s birth. And a 2016 study from EY found 70% of employers reported increased employee productivity when they offered parental leave.
How we can change the workday for the better
What if instead of pushing moms to “opt out” of the grueling 9-to-5 (and then some), we engaged these talented women with a workday structure that respects their time and effort, rewards the outcomes they produce instead of the number of hours they put in and gives moms another option beyond opting out?
It’s time for companies—and the talented moms they hire—to start thinking about the best way to achieve their mission with the right team, the right focus and the right outcomes.
Restructuring the workday to allow parents the freedom to both work hard and focus on their families, will not just result in happier employees; it can improve a company’s bottom line by having the right people working on the right tasks.
It’s time for what Arianna Huffington calls the third feminist revolution: the transformation of the workday. Just imagine an economy that respects the family and gives mothers and fathers the opportunity to work toward positive change, correctly aligned in jobs that use all of their skills without burning them out.
We shouldn’t see people leaving careers they love and have given years to because of the unnecessarily incessant demands of a work day. When we can instead achieve flexibility and family-friendly balances, everyone will benefit.