What Larry Summers Got Right

Yes, many women opt out of the workplace. What can business do?

In his controversial remarks about the underrepresentation of women in engineering and science, Lawrence H. Summers, president of Harvard University, argued that top leadership positions in academia, business, and law require a time commitment that many women are unwilling to make. In both the U.S. and Europe several high-profile cases of successful women quitting their jobs seem to confirm his view that women are choosing to opt out of high-powered jobs. The opt-out hypothesis could explain why, according to a recent U.S. survey, 1 in 3 women with an MBA is not working full-time, vs. 1 in 20 men with the same degree. Today many companies are recruiting female MBA graduates in nearly equal numbers to male MBA grads, but they're finding that a substantial percentage of their female recruits drop out within three to five years. The vexing problem for businesses is not finding female talent but retaining it.

HOW LARGE IS THE OPT-OUT PHENOMENON, what are its causes, and what can companies do to retain talented women? A fascinating article by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce in the March issue of Harvard Business Review provides some answers to these questions. The article summarizes the results of a carefully designed survey of highly qualified women and men -- defined as those with a graduate degree, a profes-sional degree, or a high-honors undergraduate degree. Individuals with such educational attainments are likely to have outstanding career opportunities and to have considerable talent to offer employers. But as the survey reveals, a large percentage of such highly qualified women do indeed choose to take time off from their careers, and they pay a huge price in terms of future job opportunities and financial rewards to do so.

Some 37% of the women surveyed -- and 43% of those with kids -- voluntarily left work at some point in their careers, with the average break lasting about two years. In contrast, only 24% of the men took time off from their careers, with no statistical difference between those who were fathers and those who were not. Some 44% of the women cited family responsibilities as the reason for their leaving, compared with only 12% of the men. Among men, who averaged about one year off, the primary reason was career enhancement. The survey results also confirm the pervasiveness of the traditional division of labor within families. Despite the fact that the education gap between women and men has all but disappeared, women in most families are still expected to shoulder the lion's share of caring for children, for elderly parents, and for spouses.

But 93% of the women who took time off from work wanted to return to their careers, despite the painful work-life trade-offs required. Unfortunately, only 74% of those were able to do so, with 40% returning to full-time professional jobs and 24% taking part-time positions. And even those who returned to the workforce lost substantial earning power, with the penalties becoming more severe the longer the break. Overall, women who took time out from careers lost an average of 18% of their earning power; in business careers, the average loss was 28% even though the average break lasted little more than a year.

Such reductions in earnings potential are a primary reason the earnings gap between men and women of comparable education levels increases during child-bearing and rearing years. The survey also found that many women cope with job-family trade-offs by working part-time, reducing the number of hours they work in full-time jobs, and declining promotions.

What should employers do to retain highly qualified women? The survey results indicate that women value jobs with reduced hours and flexible work arrangements. Women are less likely to opt out of work if their employers offer flexible career paths that allow them to ramp up and ramp down their professional responsibilities at different career points.

Larry Summers was on to something when he speculated that many women are unwilling to make the time commitment required to attain leadership positions in demanding professions. But as the presidents of Stanford, Princeton, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- two of whom are women with children -- argued in their response to Summers' comments, the status quo is neither inevitable nor desirable. Employers can and should develop cultures and specific policies to strike a better balance between the demands of work and the demands of family.

Laura D'Andrea Tyson is dean of London Business School (ltyson@london.edu)

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