A few years ago I was much younger, and my spouse and I were contemplating several big life choices, a few of which included the possibility of moving to a new city. In the considering these decisions, I was thinking about stepping away from work briefly and spending some time as an at-home mom.
Around that time, a series of articles was published, many of which (in my mind) justified my want and desire to be more of a parent, and less of a worker, for some (short) period of time. The main article of that moment was this one — and when I read it, I thought I wanted to be part of the “Opt Out Revolution”: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/26/magazine/26WOMEN.html
Moreover, I did not know what a privileged position I was in when that article was published. I worked for an amazing global company, and I had an incredible manager who even promoted me while I was on bed-rest during my second pregnancy. I was healthy, and my marriage and financial situation seemed to be in fine shape.
But great boss, great company and nice life notwithstanding, as my kids grew a bit older and our careers advanced, things got tougher. Before I knew it, I was drowning trying to juggle my career and my family. Dying. So much so, my friends, that I called the “EAP” number at work — if you don’t know what this is, it’s the “mental health hotline” that big companies give their workers. I got hooked up with a counselor, and was swiftly advised that I was “doing too much”. How unhelpful is that advice?
So guess what happened next? I quit my job. I off-ramped – temporarily, of course – and told myself I was happy with that choice. And then, for a variety of reasons, my temporary break got a little longer. Then a little longer.
And then a few years had passed, we had moved across the country, I had given birth to our third child, and I was in the middle of a divorce. I needed to get back to work. I needed a job for financial reasons. But I also needed one for the sake of my identity and sanity, and because I missed the intellectual challenge. I flat-out wanted to go back to work.
Ironically, that’s when the follow-up articles to the Opt-Out Revolution began to be published. Here is one for your perusal:
And here is the takeaway, friends… Brace yourselves, because it’s ugly: If you are out of the workforce for more than 2 years, you are going to have a VERY hard time explaining yourself, and a TERRIBLE time making it back into the mainstream workforce.
You will be asked to explain the gap in your resume. You will then pray that the interviewer’s nodding is a nod of understanding… of “no big deal.” You will be overlooked for jobs that resemble the one you left when you off-ramped, in terms of seniority, responsibility, and pay. And because of the gap in your resume, you will have to take a step back. But not too far back – you will also be overlooked for junior jobs because you are “overqualified”.
So you have to aim for this tiny target in the middle: jobs for which you are overqualified, but not grossly so.
And then you have to convince the interviewer (and then your coworkers) that you are just as dedicated and smart and drama-free as your peers who never took time off. Because they will probably assume otherwise.
While my specifics differed from that Forbes follow-up article, the underlying truth resonated very loudly… YOUR OFF-RAMP MAY SEEM SHORT AND SAFE, BUT THERE IS A VERY GOOD CHANCE IT INVOLVES MORE RISK THAN YOU ARE CONSIDERING. Mine did. I feel physically ill today when I think of how much I was risking – and sacrificing – on the day that I told my boss I was “going to take a little time off.”
I don’t want to rant, or be crazy here, but I also don’t want to sugar-coat the reality. So here is what I intend to teach my own daughter: The real truth is that you NEED to build a life where you can take care of yourself. Stepping away from your career puts that in serious jeopardy. We are all one divorce, or one health scare, or one name-your-crisis away from real financial and personal trouble, so we need to be able to take care of ourselves.
Sheesh. This is just starting to sound like preaching.
But the truth about off-ramping is in the data. The hard data is terrible. One study of “highly qualified” women who off-ramped showed that within five years, 89% wanted to resume work. Many of these women stayed home longer than they had originally intended. Of those who wanted to get back in, 73% succeeded in finding employment, but only 40% got full-time jobs. By and large, these jobs came with significantly lower pay, responsibility, and title than the jobs they had originally left.
And if that hard data is terrible, the anecdotal data, candidly, is worse. We personally know several very smart, very savvy women who off-ramped for a variety of reasons, who find themselves simply unable to get back into the workforce. Woman whose resumes boast years of experience at blue chip, Fortune 500 companies, and degrees from top-20 business schools and law schools, cannot even land interviews.
Or when they do get interviews, they find that the opportunities are almost absurdly low. We have a friend who used to make in the range of $225,000 per year who was offered a 30-day temp job for $5,000. That’s literally close to 75% less than her previous pay rate. Other friends and acquaintances have told us stories of working for free just to get a foot back in the door. And they are doing this while enduring a lot of eye-rolling and judgement from their coworkers and peers and even their friends. It makes us feel sick to even write these paragraphs because we know personally about how hard it has been on them across every area of their lives.
We don’t deny there should be some career penalty for taking time off. After all, if you are not in the workforce, you are missing out on career development opportunities, plus innovations and changes in your profession. But in truth, women that take time off are taking giant hits grossly out of proportion to their time away from work. And that’s if they can get back in at all.
I was lucky. I eventually managed to find a job after my extended time away. But it took years – LITERALLY YEARS – to even begin to approach the title, salary, and responsibility I had when I breezily walked away from my old job.
And that is why I will never give any other woman the advice that EAP counselor gave to me.
Instead I will say this:
Please…. don’t quit. Stay in the game. I know and understand and empathize with all the challenges that entails – after all, Erin and I spend the vast majority of our free time stressing over and writing about work/life balance, as if there is such a thing. But completely walking away from your career has to be a move of absolute last resort, and it must be done with eyes WIDE open to the risk.
So please…don’t quit. Call Erin or me instead, and we will take you out for a glass of wine and you can rant and rave to us as long as you want. We will share war stories, and laugh and cry over shared experiences. But stay in your career. Stay, so you hold on to everything you have worked so hard for, and so we (you) can change the game in the long term, for the better.