More New Moms Are Leaving Work Behind

Women are opting out of the workforce after having children as fewer promotions and opportunities make work less rewarding. Liz Ryan, a workplace consultant and a columnist for BusinessWeek, speaks with Steve Inskeep.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

For today's Wednesday focus on the workplace, we're going to talk about moms who choose to leave the workforce.

These days working woman are opting out of work more than ever before. According to the center for work life policy, almost 40 percent of all professional women drop out of their jobs at some point and they do pay a price for it. Liz Ryan writes a workplace column for Business Week magazine and she joins us. Welcome to the program.

Ms. LIZ RYAN (Business Week): Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: You're working, even though you've got five kids.

Ms. RYAN: I had tried being home with the children when I actually only had two, maybe three. I was not cut out for it. It was a bad thing for me. It wasn't good for the children and I got back into working.

INSKEEP: Okay. So you are not one of the people who have opted out but many other people have. What's on people's minds? What's driving them to do that?

Ms. RYAN: I read an online discussion community and this is a huge topic for us. And what women say is that after they have children, something in their arrangement, their deal with their employer changes significantly, you know. They're just not viewed as indispensable, promotions slow down and opportunities slow down, and so it just becomes very often less rewarding to stay at work and fight that than to be home with the children where you know that you're making a difference.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. It's not the gravitational pull of home that's pulling people back? It's that the workplace changes on them first?

Ms. RYAN: Well, I don't know what comes first and second, Steve. But I would say that the women that write to me - and that's about 100 to 150 women a day, typically - talk about feeling as though once they had children, they weren't as valued at work. And so that, together with the fact that, you know, there's a lot of really important stuff to be done at home, it's a pretty compelling argument.

INSKEEP: What happens when women leave the workforce but then decide sometime later they want to go back?

Ms. RYAN: Well, of course that's a really common occurrence and that's a lot of the people that I hear from. How do I convince an employer that now that I want to come back, I'm really on it? I'm really dying to be, you know, a marketing coordinator and I'm not going to be one of these people who's got sort of one foot in the office and the other one at home.

INSKEEP: How do you convince somebody?

Ms. RYAN: Well, I have tips for mom's returning to the workforce. Think through what you did at home that has a business application, right? So if you were, you know, scheduling and doing logistics and maybe managing committees and volunteering, the sorts of things that moms often do when they're home with kids, that's relevant. You have to able to kind of put it in terms that employers will understand and value; it might be budgeting, right? They do more than just tending the garden and taking the kids back and forth to playgroups, right? Obviously.

INSKEEP: Are there women who get stuck, in effect?

Ms. RYAN: Heck yes, Steve. This is a huge issue. If women didn't achieve, you know, a certain income level and position while they're working before they left, it becomes really difficult to get back in five or 10 or 15 years later because they're competing with people 22 years old out of school who are, you know, A) have no entanglements, are very current with the technology, which of course is always changing, and are perceived to be about nothing more than their job.

INSKEEP: You've given a couple of pieces if advice, but I wonder, are there women who have pursued a successful strategy to overcome these disadvantages?

Ms. RYAN: Absolutely. The women who turn out to have the easiest time slipping back into the workforce are woman who have kept some finger on the pulse during the time that they were gone. And that can be in a volunteering capacity. It can be being involved with a charitable organization or the local public radio station or exposure to that professional realm that you just don't get in your house, you know, and in your playgroup. That helps a ton because they become conversant in these topics and their eyes don't mist over when you talk about Web 2.0 or whatever it is. It's a big, big differentiator.

INSKEEP: Liz Ryan runs a workplace advice group called Ask Liz Ryan. Thanks very much.

Ms. RYAN: Thank you.

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