Bumpy Ride

Leslie Morgan Steiner has good news for the playground set. "Back in Business!" she proclaims in this month's MORE magazine. After as long as ten years away, "[d]ozens of women across the country," she tells us, are able to get back in to the workplace with just a few weeks of effort. The chipper article is illustrated by a picture of a barefoot dipping into a pool and turning up with a high heel on.

Morgan Steiner, editor of the Mommy Wars anthology, goes on to cheerily report that dropping out of the workforce to raise kids "does not spell the end of a great career." She recounts the tale of Bonnie Landes Beer, who admits, "I had to confront the reality that years of volunteering at my kids' school and managing our household budget were meaningless in the work world." But, that doesn't hold her back from jumping back in the corporate fast-track. It takes her only a few weeks to land a consulting job, which she soon turns into a full-time job, and then a corporate vice-presidency. Easy as pie.

The process by which stay-at-home-moms supposedly wave their wands and conjure up a pantsuit is cutely entitled an "on-ramp," as if women could just cruise in and out of the workplace like a well-tuned sports car. I was first alerted to this line in 2004 by Kim Clark, then dean of the Harvard Business School, now back with his stay-at-home wife (seven children) at Brigham Young University in Idaho. Appearing on 60 Minutes with me, Clark told the viewers that he believed companies would soon be holding jobs open for women to return to for as long as ten or 15 years. Just months before, the Wall Street Journal had run an article about how impossible women found it to do anything of the kind.

Now Morgan Steiner produces an "admittedly unscientific" study of on-ramps (meaning the quality of data gleaned from calling a few of her friends) in which all the women she talked to went back to work full time. That would be 100 percent of her "sample." The somewhat more tough-minded Lisa Belkin noted the "survey" in her first column for the "Styles" section of The New York Times last week: "After Baby, Boss Comes Calling." (Belkin's "Life's Work" column used to run in the business section, but apparently women are more style than business these days.)

Clark, Morgan Steiner, and others are telling women on the playground that they won't get trapped staying home and can always go back to work. Such good news -- if only it were true. In the only actual quantitative study (meaning the kind of data collected according to generally accepted scientific methods from a statistically meaningful set of subjects), Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Center for Work-Life Policy found recently that just a little more than half of women who wanted to return to full-time work ever found full time work at all. And these weren't just any potential re-employees. The women in the center's study were "highly qualified," meaning they had earned nothing less than bachelors' degrees with honors or professional or graduate degrees.

Of the ones who quit, Hewlett told me, her study revealed that 69 percent wanted to go back to work full time. But only 40 percent of them did go back. That means there were full-time jobs for just 57 percent of the highly qualified women who wanted to go back to full time work. Not 100 percent: 57 percent. Quit your job? You have no better than 5.7 chances out of 10 to go back full time, even if you want to go back full time and have an honors degree or an M.D.

In her "Back in Business" article, Morgan Steiner acknowledges the center's data and interviews Hewlett herself. And then she cheerfully tells us that the difference between her report of a 100 percent success rate and the somewhat bleaker quantitative data is explained by her focus on women who were "completely committed to finding a full time job." But alas, the strength of their desire was not a factor: Hewlett's subjects also wanted to return to work full time. The difference here is simply one of anecdote versus data.

Not only do highly qualified, eager women not always get full time work, other studies have shown that the women never get back full time jobs comparable to the ones they left. Hewlett's data shows that you lose 37 percent of your earning power if you're off more than three years. Morgan Steiner's article places the point of no return at ten years. In The Price of Motherhood, Ann Crittenden reports that the loss of income lasts for the rest of the re-entered women's careers.

Maybe I'm just pessimistic. After all, the economy only moves forward, and the employers described in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago may have seen the error of their ways. But it's a risky business. For a year I have listened to the journalism reviewers bemoan as harmful all the stories of rich women opting out, as if such stories are all but responsible for the failure to pass paid maternity leave. We reporters from the opt-out front don't hold a candle to these "on-ramp" salesmen in the harm sweepstakes. For every ten women they lure onto the playground, there's a good chance almost five will never see full time work again.