After a provocative magazine cover recently asserted that women still can't have it all, the article was shared more than 180,000 times on Facebook. The statement clearly struck a chord with working women, who often find themselves pulled between family life and their professional one.
The bad news is that in a tight economy, women can find it even harder to take a short break from the workforce to care for their children: The Center for Work-Life Policy has found that not only are the penalties for doing so greater, but women increasingly earn such an essential portion of household income that their families can't afford to go without it, even temporarily.
Almost 3 in 4 women who take a voluntary break report having trouble finding a job later, the survey found. Those who manage to get hired are forced to accept salaries that are 16 percent lower than their former ones, and 1 in 4 women report that their management responsibilities decreased. Despite these downsides, 1 in 3 college-educated women still choose to take a job break, with an average length of about two-and-a-half years. With employees asked to work long hours and women shouldering the majority of childcare and household responsibilities, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, says women just don't feel like they have a choice but to quit.
If you find yourself stuck in this kind of no-win situation, here are five suggestions for getting your career—and your family life—back on track:
1. Find a company that values you. Some employers understand better than others than allowing flexible schedules will enable them to keep their best women—something that will benefit companies themselves in the long run, says Hewlett. "If you make it hard for women to continue their careers, you'll lose half that generation," she explains. And since two-thirds of women who leave the workforce say they would not have left if they had some flexibility, employers can get them to stay—and guarantee future loyalty—by adjusting to their needs during the short period when they have young children.
2. Look for flexible policies that workers actually use. Even more important than official policy is how employees take advantage of it, says Hewlett. "In some companies, there is a culture that is so driven that you don't even ask for this stuff. If you have a flexible work policy at work but no one is taking it, then [taking it] could label you as not serious about your career," she says. The recession has put even more pressure on workers at some companies to stay in their office for long hours in order to look "indispensable," which means flex schedules are even more stigmatized.
3. Ask for what you want, especially if it's not much. Many working moms hesitate to explore telecommuting or job-sharing options for fear it will put their job at risk. In fact, the Center for Work-Life Policy study found that 54 percent of women who left the workforce did not even bring up the possibility of flexible options first. At the same time, 7 in 10 women say they would not have off-ramped if their workplace had offered a flexible schedule. "It's really flex at the edges that people want," says Hewlett. "Just the ability to come in later one day and maybe go home at 4:00 another day, and work more hours later, when the kids are in bed."
4. Make a deal. Instead of simply asking for flexible options, Hewlett recommends negotiating in a way that benefits your employer, too. Many companies, she points out, are trying to cut costs, so trading a 20 percent salary reduction for a flexible schedule might benefit both sides. "Make a business case for why the flexibility will work for both you and your employer," she recommends.
5. Consider creative "scenic routes." Stepping out of the workforce altogether can negatively affect a career in the long term, especially when women face bias from company policies, supervisors, and their peers. Instead, Hewlett recommends what she calls a "scenic route," where women turn to creative options such as job sharing, flexible scheduling, or telecommuting. "It's easier to ramp up than ramp in," she says. Employers benefit too, because replacing productive workers is expensive.