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Let's Get Our Workforce Out of the 1950s

Is a computer worth more to a company than a female executive who makes six figures and has loads of client relationships?

It might be, according to a New York Times article on Sylvia Ann Hewlett's recent book, "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps," about women re-entering the workforce after time off to care for children, parents or other reasons.

“If a $2,000 desktop computer disappears from an employee’s desk, I guarantee that there’ll be an investigation,” Maury Hanigan, a consultant, tells Dr. Hewlett, adding that “if a $100,000-a-year executive with all kinds of client relationships” quits “to stay home with the kids — there’s no investigation.”

Corporate Giants Lead the Way

According to a blog-post by Hewlett at The Huffington Post:

At the heart of the challenge is a "male competitive model" that evolved to fit the life rhythms of middle class while males in the 1950s and 1960s -- decades when access to well-paying jobs was primarily limited to this privileged group. The success of this model relied on a traditional division of labor between men and women -- men were breadwinners, women were homemakers -- and two key characteristics: a strong preference for cumulative, lockstep careers and a continuous linear employment history; and the expectation that the steepest gradient of a career occurs in the decade of one's thirties. That is the time when an ambitious professional either "catches a wave" or doesn't. There are no second chances.

While this career model suited the needs of Jack Welch and his peers, it's exceedingly problematic for women. Not that some women didn't and don't bend their lives to fit into the constraints of this male model. A minority of them do. But a majority either can't, or don't choose to.

It seems we're just beginning to move our workforce away from an outdated structure.

It's about time.

Some corporate giants like Ernst & Young, Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs are leading the way, Hewlett's research shows, offering on-ramping workers flexible setups. This is more proof that flexible work is becoming the coin of the workaday realm. 

On her blog at Harvard Business Online Hewlett explains:

They're doing this because a "war for talent" is heating up. The danger signals are everywhere: a recent study by the Washington-based Corporate Executive board found that the quality of candidates has declined 10% since 2004, but starting salaries for newly minted MBAs have increased 17% and signing bonuses have proliferated. Add in the fact that growth rates are robust -- particularly in Asia -- and it's easy to see why companies are newly in the business of wooing female talent.

And in the book Hewlett writes:

This shift is being driven by two factors. First, business leaders are newly aware of just how many talented women are being forced off the career track. New data--much of which I have helped develop--shows that two-thirds of highly qualified women either leave the workforce or languish on the sidelines. Second, demographic and other structural shifts are giving an urgent edge to this challenge of better utilizing women. Baby busts and global expansion mean that companies these days are heavily reliant on female talent. As Isaacs [Jeremy Isaacs, Lehman Brothers' CEO for Europe and Asia] pointed out, it's a question of competitive strength and economic survival.

Employers are beginning to feel the squeeze for talent, driving increased flexibility and attention to on-ramping women. Earlier this year a source told me employers would become more flexible when it suited them. I think that's true. While I'd like to believe employers are suddenly becoming enlightened, that we're in the midst of an American workplace renaissance--I'm just glad the road is beginning to rise a bit, and meet women where we are.

The more that happens, the more our nation stands to gain.

It's Broken, But There's No Rush to Fix It

The first chapter in Hewlett's book, "Why Mess with the Male Competitive Model?" offers her theory about why the male competitive model--broken, as far as many women are concerned--hasn't yet been fixed:

Here's my theory: accommodating discontinuity or nonlinearity in career paths can be deeply disturbing to business leaders because it spells the end of an era. Developing serious forms of flexibility that allow women who take an off-ramp (or a scenic route) to on-ramp without major penalty and become newly ambitious at a later point in their lives is profoundly threatening because it means messing with a model that has stood corporations in good stead for many decades.

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