Are You Hurting Your Future By Taking a Career Break?

If you’re thinking of taking a break from your career for a few years, say, to raise family or to take care of an aging parent, then nobody can doubt your compassion. But if you expect your time away from your career track not to have long-lasting results, then you’d definitely be wrong. And if you suspect that this type of break disproportionately affects women rather than men, then oh boy, you’d be right.

career break
Image Credit: mrhayata/Flickr

Women Are the Break-Takers

Women are more likely to be the ones to take a career break than men. They’re the moms who stay home for a few years after having kids, or the daughters who take care of mom and dad when they get older. There’s even a term for the career path left to people who take time out of work to care for family: the “mommy track.” Note that there’s no “daddy track” in the modern lexicon, is there? Generally speaking, women are the break-takers in the workforce, not the men, and ultimately, they’re the ones being punished for this break.

Short Plans, Long Breaks

Those who do press pause on their career think it’ll just be for a few years. But oftentimes, when they try to reenter the workforce, women find that their career isn’t as willing to take them back.

“…[A]t the end of the day, only 40  percent of women who try to return to full-time professional jobs actually manage to do so,” writes Debora Spar at The Daily Beast, summarizing a 2005 study. “The rest settle into early retirement, or slower paced, lower-ranked jobs.”

It’s no wonder that women are underrepresented in leadership roles:

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How Much Is a Few Years Worth?

When you first think of taking “just a few years off,” you might want to add up the missed paychecks for 36 months or so and call it a day, but you’d be terribly wrong. One recent study reported in MarketWatch estimated that 39 percent of women and 24 percent of men plan a voluntary break from work, but most won’t account for the hidden costs of the break. You lose not only the salary, but Social Security contributions, plus the future earning potential of your job track if you had those years back to plug into the workforce. All in all, they estimate a simple three-year break could cost you $500,000 over your lifetime.

This isn’t to say that being a parent at home or a doting son or daughter to your parents isn’t a noble or worthy task. It’s just the sad fact of life that most of this burden has traditionally fallen on women, and until we find a way of sharing that weight, it will always be harder for women to climb the corporate ladder.

To learn more about factors that contribute to the gender pay gap, see PayScale’s report, Inside the Gender Pay Gap. To find out if you’re earning as much as you should be, take PayScale’s free Salary Survey.

Tell Us What You Think

Did you choose to take the break, or keep the income? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.