Alumnae tackle the challenges of resuming—and reinventing—careers after time away from the workplace.
By Elizabeth Mosier ’84
When she graduated from Bryn Mawr, Associate Professor of Political Science Marissa Golden ’83 thought she wasn’t going to have kids. “The model I saw was to have a career; I wasn’t aware of faculty having families, whether they did or not,” she says. Years later, she returned from her maternity leave with a new direction for her research—and a new course in “Women, Work and Family.” For Golden’s student Anne Kauth ’11 (whose work in the class included reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique), the problem isn’t one “that has no name”—but rather, the pressure she feels to have it all. “Like most of my peers, I’m trying to establish myself in my field as soon as possible in order to lay the foundation for a meaningful and secure career,” she says. “I’m concerned about financing my graduate studies, maintaining insurance coverage, and saving for the future—while finding time to nurture a positive and supportive relationship.”
Three decades apart, these women’s different college experiences illustrate how much—and how little—has changed as generations of Bryn Mawr alumnae continue to navigate the challenges of balancing work and family. Golden returned to teaching and research just as New York Times journalist Lisa Belkin reported an “Opt-Out Revolution” of highly educated, professional women choosing to leave paid work to care for children. And Kauth sets out on her career path as media headlines signal an impasse ahead. In The Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who resigned from her position as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, details “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” while Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that “We Need to Tell Girls They Can Have It All (Even If They Can’t).”
One thing is certain, says Golden, a tenured professor whose daughter, Gina, is now 12 years old: “These problems aren’t solved. Friedan was very concrete about the support women need in order to do what she admonished them to do—but that part of the book didn’t become part of the discourse. I think we need to reignite that discussion. Women are tremendous human capital to our society—whether they’re molecular biologists or landscape architects or violinists.”
The Opt-Out Myth
Though the decision to “opt-out” of the workforce is often framed by the media as a choice, for most women, not working is either a fantasy or the result of a family emergency. “Right now I have to work,” says family law attorney Kimberly Cline Gibney ’87, whose husband lost his job less than a month before their youngest child suffered a brain injury caused by undiagnosed Addison’s disease. During the three months when she lived (and managed to do a bit of work) in her daughter’s hospital room, she had reason to recall Katharine Hepburn’s 1985 Centennial Convocation address. “She said that women can’t do both things [work and raise children] well,” Gibney says. “At the time, I was indignant. Twenty-seven years later, I know it is really difficult.” Gibney, who went back to practicing law after 10 years at home raising four children, credits “control over my schedule, supportive colleagues, and staff members who are like family” with making the arrangement work.
The “revolution” Belkin wrote about in 2003 has been reexamined by social scientists, who conclude that the trend applies only to a portion of the female labor force. Most working mothers return to work within a year of having their first child, according to a 2009 U.S. Census Bureau report (based on data from 2005 to 2007). The women most likely to opt out or scale back to part-time work are new mothers employed in particular occupations (management, business, and finance) and, paradoxically, women at the lowest levels (less than $100,000) of household income, for whom childcare costs may be unaffordable.1 Further complicating the discussion, research by Heather Boushey2 and Pamela Stone3 tells a story of women not pulled home by family life so much as pushed out of the office by non-supportive workplaces and, more recently, by the Great Recession.
“In college, I thought technology would solve everything,” says Kitty Cahalan ’92, mother to Jack, 8, and Hannah, 6, who recently left her part-time job managing market research for a company that develops medical devices. “And technology did make it easier for me to have a flexible schedule and work from home. But the culture of work has changed more slowly. People still need to see your face to know you’re doing the work.” Her company’s family-friendly policies eroded in the faltering California economy, and she was faced with a mandatory 30-hour week and a 45-minute commute. “I was reporting to someone who didn’t have kids,” she says. “The day he called to tell me that I couldn’t work from home anymore was the day Jack got home from the hospital after getting his appendix out. I just thought to myself, I can’t work here anymore.”
The Parenting Penalty
In their 2009 report, “Opting-Out: An Exploration of Labor Force Participation of New Mothers,” Jennifer Cheeseman Day and Barbara Downs noted, “Opting out, or merely reducing their levels of labor force participation, requires parents to forfeit future earnings. As such, it represents a major parenting penalty, paid mostly by women.” Another study found evidence that status-based discrimination (including perceived competence and recommended starting salary) plays a significant role in this wage penalty, calculated as 5 percent per child.4
Bryn Mawr alumnae weigh these dire economic costs against other personal gains: strengthened identity, a sense of balance, and the chance to do meaningful work in their communities. “I had always been so comfortable in a corporate environment, and I thought work was my identity,” says Nancy Thaler ’80, who earned a J.D. from Villanova University and began work in Bryn Mawr’s Office of Admissions when her children were teenagers. “But once I had children, I had a very full and complicated life. When I talk to [my daughter] Ali about what her game plan is, she talks about the importance, to her, of a flexible schedule and creating balance in her life. I think she’s learned something about what she wants to do partly from what she’s seen me do.”
“When [my daughter] Alexandra was at school, I threw myself into volunteering there,” says Diane Lewis ’79, who earned an M.B.A. from Harvard and now serves as the director of development at Lesley Ellis School in Massachusetts. “When I decided to return to work, I made a strategic decision to work in the school arena, and to focus on independent schools. In this culture, being part-time and making decisions based on your family is not at all looked down upon. And I think I’m better at what I do because I was home—I understand my parent population, what their realities are, because I’ve worn both hats. My only regret is that I didn’t go into this field when I was younger. I really enjoy my work and would like to take my career to the next level, but I’m running into a real age barrier.”
Cahalan, who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at Caltech, volunteers in her neighborhood association doing hands-on science experiments with kids in the Pasadena public schools. “I don’t think of the work I’m doing at the school as something I do because I’m a mother,” she says. “I do it because I’m part of a community.” Though she’s looking for paid employment, she’s discovered she’s a “one-on-one person. This is where I can best contribute: one kid at a time, one school at a time, one neighborhood at a time.”
Changing the Culture
To understand how women can remain in—or successfully reenter—the workforce, “A better question,” says Golden, “is how can women have it all?” Golden conducted research in which she looked for women who’d opted out within the educated, professional population she’d studied previously: the federal government.5 What she found were women who’d stayed in their jobs after having children, supported by options (flextime, part-time schedules, telecommuting), services (on-site childcare), and policies (the ability to use sick days for family care through a piece of legislation known as the Federal Employees Family-Friendly Leave Act) offered without stigma to everyone, in a workplace with a 40-hour-per-week norm. These women (many of them “refugees from law firms”) hadn’t opted out of work to stay home, says Golden. Rather, they’d chosen to leave the fast track to stay employed, doing engaging work that was “good enough.”
Now a project assistant for the Women in Public Service Project, Anne Kauth ’11 is “thrilled to be contributing to the goals laid out in Golden’s class: influencing how women are able to work and parent, to lead and gain power to determine the most fulfilling path on their own terms.” Such pressure from the Millennial generation to change the workplace will benefit all women, says Cori Ashworth, the Alumnae Association’s career program manager (see sidebar below). “Smart companies will offer soft benefits—flexible hours, telecommuting, job sharing, opportunities for career development—to hold onto talented employees.”
And how does Bryn Mawr, as an employer, model and facilitate women’s professional needs? Golden, lead author on the Report of the President’s Advisory Group on Work/Life Issues, praises former President Nancy Vickers, President Jane McAuliffe, and Provost Kim Cassidy for their willingness to engage in productive discussion and to implement recommendations based on the group’s research (including subscription to an outsourced childcare and eldercare service, and tenure-clock stoppage for major life events). “In an ideal world,” says Golden, “these changes would be made at a macro, federal level—but in the meantime, you can make change workplace by workplace.”
Shifting Gears: Women Returning to Work, a seminar led by Alumnae Association Career Program Manager Cori Ashworth at Bryn Mawr from July 13 to 15, gave participants time to reflect, tools to assess their values and strengths, and expert guidance in finding more satisfying work that balances better with their lives. Throughout the weekend, guest speakers offered their advice, including how to use “time off” caring for family to successfully transition back into the workforce:
Invest in change. Keynote speaker Cindy Golub, principal at G-Squared Advisory, updated her M.B.A. in finance with certification in financial planning and did pro bono work (with young women, battered women, and the working poor) to develop a new area of expertise. A well-known volunteer in her community, she networked with contacts she developed while she was at home for help in marketing her new business.
Engage in professional activities. “When you are involved with professional activities, you are not completely removed from the workforce,” says Jessica Amelar ’77, a principal court attorney in the New York County Surrogate’s Court. “Your achievements can be confidence building. You interact with people who may think of you when they hear of job opportunities. And the experience you acquire may be useful when it comes time to apply for a job.”
Abide by your core values while you change course. “I had this conviction that no one could raise our son as well as I could,” says Diana Schramm ’62, who stayed at home until her son was 7 and then embarked upon successful careers in museum collections management and later, fundraising. Her husband, Larry, gave her important practical and emotional support during those seven years, freeing her to build an array of new skills—and an impressive resumé of volunteer and part-time work—that paved a different path from the one she’d planned in graduate school. “Your professional path may not be straight, but if you broaden your experience while abiding by core values, your work will be useful and fulfilling,” she says.
Challenge yourself. Vicki Weber ’78 offered to organize volunteers at her children’s independent school “to force myself to learn Excel.” With technology changing at such a rapid rate, “taking classes isn’t as useful as learning by using technology,” she says. A securities analyst who “left Merrill Lynch with my floppy drive full of financial models” and returned to the workforce 12 years later to direct marketing, sales, and strategic research at Behrman House Publishing, Weber asks potential employees, “How do you organize yourself?” to assess how well they’re connected technologically and how willing they are to learn.
Target your job search to meet your needs. Julie Gorham ’12, a prospect research associate in Bryn Mawr’s Office of Resources, advises, “You have to be aware of where you can and can’t compromise. As a slightly older [McBride Scholar] graduate with parents who have health issues, I was looking for a work environment that offered flextime, enough vacation and personal days, and a sick leave policy that could be applied to other family members. After doing research, I only applied to positions in higher education and government.”
1 Jennifer Cheeseman Day and Barbara Downs. “Opting-Out: An Exploration of Labor Force Participation of New Mothers,” U.S. Census Bureau, 2009.
2Heather Boushey. “Are Women Opting Out? Debunking the Myth, Center for Economic and Policy Research,” November 2005.
3Pamela Stone. Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, University of California Press, 2007.
4Shelley J. Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik. “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?” American Journal of Sociology, March 2007, Vol. 112, No. 5.
5Marissa Martino Golden. “Women in the Administrative State: The Impact of Motherhood and Family-Friendly Policies on Women’s Career Paths in the Federal Civil Service,” reprinted as “Paper WP2006-29,” Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 2006.
6Marissa Martino Golden, et al., Report of the President’s Advisory Group on Faculty Work/Life Issues, Bryn Mawr College, May 2007.
Photographs by Jim Roese, illustration by manoluv.