Millennial Women and “The Pause”
Guest Post by Myra Strober, Professor of Education and Economics, Emerita, and founding director of the Michelle Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. She is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Kicking in the Door.
Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times tells us that highly educated Millennial women are now more likely than their mothers and other professional women who came before them to plan a career interruption. She tells us that these women don’t want to struggle to raise children while working full time, but also don’t want to leave the work force permanently. They want a third option—time out with the ability to return. The question is: how much time out will allow them to return to the workforce in a job that fully utilizes their capabilities and permits them to ultimately attain significant leadership positions?
I have been studying work and family for forty years and have watched generations of Stanford Business School students wrestle with this problem. Many of them wanted exactly what these Millennial women want—time out. The difficulty is that after they took the time out, they found they could not return, or at least not to the kind of job they sought. The reason why Millennial women don’t know about this is because either these women stayed out (don’t forget, most of them are in couples where a second income is not necessarily required), or they came back into jobs that were not satisfying.
Women cannot solve these problems by themselves. As Miller explains, they are in a terrible bind. Only public policies that specifically recognize this bind and create societal solutions will help. We need paid parental care so that parents can take adequate time to care for infants and then we need affordable, reliable, high quality child care once the parents return to work, and we need workplaces that provide flexibility in terms of hours and job assignments. It would be helpful if reporters, when they tell us about women’s aspirations also told us about progress (or lack thereof) with paid parental leave, high quality child care, and workplace flexibility.
Women who are considering taking time out need counseling about how long they plan to be home. Short time outs (less than 6 months) are generally not problematic; but long time outs (several years) are generally devastating to career progress. We see this not only in the U.S., but also in countries that have long maternity leaves accompanied by a severe dearth of women in leadership positions.
Women also need help planning their careers so that when they return to work after maternity leave and need flexibility in hours and job assignments they are working for organizations where they are recognized as extremely valuable, and where their managers are extremely interested in retaining them.
Even though this problem is one faced by a relatively small group of women, it is a problem that warrants great public interest. These are the women who are our potential leaders. We cannot afford to lose them; and we cannot as a society look on with disinterest as many of them decide not to have children at all. The children they don’t have are also lost to future leadership.
Miller tells us that Millennial women recognize the importance of women in senior leadership for their own career success. That is good. But they must also recognize that by lowering their ambitions (and right now, planning to take significant amounts of time out is tantamount to lowering one’s ambitions), they are, in turn, depriving future generations of women of senior leadership, because, sad to say, it is highly unlikely that after a significant time out they will continue to be on a senior leadership track.
Instead of focusing just on time out, Millennial women and men, and indeed, all of us, need to push hard for public policies and work organization policies that will loosen this terrible work/family bind for our most highly educated women.
Myra Strober, Professor of Education and Economics, Emerita, and founding director of the Michelle Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. She is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Kicking in the Door. Her recent work on the economics of work and family can be viewed at gender.stanford.edu/work-and-family.