In 2002, Harvard Business School completed a study that found only 38% of female MBAs from the classes of '81, '86, and '91 were still working full-time. So much for having it all. A rash of mommy agita journalism ensued, including a story in BusinessWeek about the "stopping out" phenomenon and, a year later, a cover story in The New York Times Magazine called "The Opt Out Revolution." The already extreme debate about mommydom vs. careerhood got ugly, with both sides adopting thuggish, bullying tones that showed just how vexing the problem of trying to do two jobs at once still is.
Out now are four books that deconstruct the underlying causes of stopping out and formulate some smart solutions beyond HR pablum. All are provocative, superbly researched, and required reading for anybody trying to pull off a guilt-inducing trapeze act. Topics range from the insanity of corporate cultures that reward those who loiter late at the office to companies that are beginning to alter inflexible career paths that send much of their best female talent out the door.
The Good How 34 global companies are adapting to women's career needs.
The Bad One wishes Hewlett could personally negotiate the terms of work for each of us.
The Bottom Line Detailed case studies are very instructive.
In OFF-RAMPS AND ON-RAMPS: KEEPING TALENTED WOMEN ON THE ROAD TO SUCCESS (Harvard Business School Press, 299pp., $29.95), Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett focuses on how 34 global companies have realized the value in refashioning jobs and careers so as to accommodate both mega-hour gray-flannel types and talented, get-it-done-quickly mothers. Hewlett also reveals how corporations are designing ways for women to ramp their careers up and down without losing prestige or risking burnout in extreme jobs. The book chronicles how Ernst & Young battled high attrition with a rich menu of flexible work arrangements, of which 82% of all employees take advantage and which save the firm $10 million a year. Booz Allen Hamilton's Adjunct program divvies up jobs into bite-size chunks so they can be done by part-timers, contract workers, or those working from home. Lehman Brothers (LEH ) found remote workers are often more productive than those who work in-house.
The Good A guidebook on navigating careers in various industries.
The Bad More, please, on the personal lives of this fascinating mother-daughter duo.
The Bottom Line Lots of excellent advice for women facing different career stages.
In MOTHERS ON THE FAST TRACK: HOW A NEW GENERATION CAN BALANCE FAMILY AND CAREERS (Oxford University Press, 149pp., $24.95), University of California at Berkeley Graduate Dean Mary Ann Mason and her journalist daughter, Eve Mason Ekman, explore how even though women far outnumber men among graduate-degree holders, they still disappear at the top corporate ranks. The authors divide their book into dishy chapters on how to navigate careers in different industries, including a wonderful description of the largely motherless Condé Nast cafeteria. They show how women have successfully handled the tug-of-war by taking matters into their own hands instead of expecting bosses to do so. There's lots of excellent advice for women facing the make-or-break 30s as well as thoughtful insight into the perennial question, "When is a good time to have a baby?"
The Good Argues provocatively that rather than dropping out, women are being pushed out.
The Bad Fails to admit that there are some women who are thrilled to be at home.
The Bottom Line Engrossing profiles of women who face difficult choices.
Hunter College sociology professor Pamela Stone argues that all those stories about professional women dropping out because they yearn to return to more traditional values are mere hype. In OPTING OUT? WHY WOMEN REALLY QUIT CAREERS AND HEAD HOME (University of California Press, 295pp., $24.95) Stone says women are being pushed out because they can't reconcile their family lives with corporate cultures that value hours over output. She covers some of the same inflexible-workscape themes as Hewlett, with darker overtones. The women Stone profiles didn't quit working because they wanted to recapture 1950s family life. They weren't traditional; the workplace was. For these women, quitting was a last resort and brought on "Ophelia moments" of lost identity and crises of confidence. That's not to mention the high economic price they paid when they returned home to raise children full-time.
The Good A field guide on how to reenter the world of work.
The Bad We'd like to hear more about the trend of Harvard MBA stop-outs.
The Bottom Line The definitive rebuttal to those who say you can't go back.
For those who have put "former" in front of their once-triumphant titles, there's BACK ON THE CAREER TRACK: A GUIDE FOR STAY-AT-HOME MOMS WHO WANT TO RETURN TO WORK (Warner Business Books, 297pp., $24.99). Onetime stop-outs and Harvard MBAs Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin offer a tasty, anecdote-filled field guide to getting back in. Cohen and Rabin masterfully reveal the ambivalence felt by women who can afford to drop out yet may be conflicted about doing so. The book offers lessons on how to de-stigmatize résumé gaps and get spouses and kids to buy in to the idea of a return to work. For those who say you can't go back, this book is the definitive rebuttal.
What all four books make clear is that women can do only so much. For real change to occur—especially for the majority of mothers, who have no choice but to work—Washington must also wake up. For an ostensibly family-values nation, we have too few family-values social policies. Another thing all the women profiled agree on: Those who successfully manage both realms all have one thing in common—husbands who do half.
By Michelle Conlin