The Hidden Brain Drain

Published: 07/05/2013

The Guardian, Monday 4 June 2007

Five years ago, Sylvia Ann Hewlett terrified women with her book Baby Hunger, a warning against leaving motherhood till too late. Now she’s back with another shocking message: employers are writing off women once they’ve had children. And we’re all losing out, she tells Emily Wilson.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett first veered off the career highway – or “off-ramped”, as she calls it – in her early 30s. She was assistant professor of economics at Barnard College, part of Columbia University, New York, and in the running for a permanent teaching position, when she lost twins in the seventh month of pregnancy. Then she lost her job too: she was told that she hadn’t made tenure because she had “allowed childbearing to dilute [her] focus”.

“One particular irony for me,” Hewlett writes in her new book, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps, “was that Barnard College had no family-friendly policies in the 1980s. This flagship of feminism simply didn’t see the need for them.” Since that first, vicious off-ramp, Hewlett has made a life’s work out of making the workplace more family-friendly – or more precisely, more woman-friendly.

The last time Hewlett had a book to promote, in 2002, it was called Baby Hunger, and it made headlines around the world. In it, Hewlett revealed that almost half of middle-aged, high-achieving women in the US were childless, mostly not by choice. Despite an extraordinary amount of publicity, and the six-figure advance, the book flopped. The consensus was that it was too depressing: once women had heard the synopsis – that they should find a husband by their early 30s and have their first child by 35, before their fertility went into freefall – they were not interested in reading on.

Consciously or not, Hewlett has returned to the fray, five years on, with an overtly positive book: a practical blueprint for a workplace of the future, a workplace where women are not penalised for opting for a non-linear, non-conventional career path.

Still, there is plenty of bad news in the book. Hewlett’s latest research shows that 37% of professional women will drop out at some point in their careers, either to look after children or ailing parents, and another third will take what Hewlett calls “a scenic route”, going part-time for a while, perhaps. And if these women try to “on-ramp” again, they “get lost on re-entry”, paying enormous fines, in terms of both cash and their career arc, for taking trying to go outside what Hewlett calls the “male competitive model” built on a bedrock of unbroken service. “Two-thirds of women are sideswiped, side-lined, pretty much for the rest of their lives, by this model,” she says.

Even more depressingly, Hewlett says, the situation has been getting worse over the past decade. Globalisation, modern communication technology, plus what she sees as the increasing polarisation of the really good jobs and all the rest, has led to a rise in “extreme working”. “The workload has really gone through the roof,” she says, “and the fact that increasing numbers of women are stepping back for a while, or stepping out for a while, is actually not because they got wimpier, but because the work model got worse. And not only did jobs get more extreme, but parenting also got more extreme. The pressure on parents to be massively engaged with their kids has really gone up.” It’s the “folk who can pony up the 73-hour week”, she says, who win in the new world.

So that is the bad news: an enormous, largely ignored, female brain drain. But there is good news too: Hewlett says that things have begun to change, that soon employers everywhere are going to have to wake up to the repercussions of this wholesale squandering of female training and talent.

This is not ivory-tower stuff. Hewlett happens to know a great deal about the state of the corporate universe. After she was ejected from Barnard College, she managed to on-ramp in some style: she got herself a high-flying job in Washington DC, becoming the first woman to head the Economic Policy Council. But in 1987, after six years in the job, she “hit a wall” – she could no longer keep all the balls in the air. “I had three kids by then, my three-year old hit some developmental and health issues, and it was quite clear I just needed to be there more. I did ask for flexibility, and they said no. So I just quit. And that was a very painful thing because I was really shooting myself in the foot. Given my age I just didn’t think I would have another shot at a real career. But I went home and I wrote books out of my bedroom and in the end I did fashion this whole other career.”

The success of this other career gave her the courage, as she told one newspaper later, “to pursue a long-standing dream – to have one more baby before it was too late”. Her baby hunger was not easily sated: it took five years of IVF treatment to have her fourth child, Emma, and she was 51 by the time she was born. This last desperate bid for a final child was held against her by some writers when the book Baby Hunger was published. One female writer accused her of being “obsessed with motherhood”. Now Hewlett says simply: “I spread my children out.”

The years of being at home with the children, of trying for that last child, all ended with a bump with Baby Hunger, the relative failure of which led her literary agent to tell her: “You’re washed up. It’s time to find a day job.” But Hewlett swallowed her “bitter disappointment”, landed herself a couple of university teaching positions, and then, through her not-for-profit New York thinktank, the Centre for Work-Life Policy, she started putting together what she calls her “hidden brain-drain taskforce”. She’s now working with 34 global companies, including Time Warner, BP, General Electric and Johnson & Johnson, to find out what’s really going on with women in the workplace, and to work out ways to keep them not only in work, but on a upward career path. Hewlett, whose oldest child is 29 now, has managed to on-ramp again, and at quite some pelt.

Why have all these companies signed up to her taskforce? “We had this whole load of legislation in the 70s and 80s that was about access and opportunity [for women] that in some ways worked very well, but what we didn’t do was figure out how to keep women and minorities on track. The next challenge, and I call it the second generation of policy, needs to be about how to fully tap into this talent over a lifespan, figure out how to use 38-year-olds fabulously as well as 23-year-olds.”

But why should a macho company such as General Electric care about the fate of 38-year-old women? Well, because of the money, stupid. Hewlett, being a whip-smart economist, has come up with a compelling business case for “messing with the male competitive model”.

Women’s best hope, it seems, is in changing demographics. Falling birthrates combined with huge numbers of retiring baby-boomers have led to what Hewlett calls “shortfalls in the talent pipeline”, and these are scaring employers, just as they are also waking up to the sheer expense of losing up to 30% of their female employees every year. “And then the final factor which is more powerful is the changing face of clients and consumers … you know, these days, the consumer is queen.”

Isn’t she worried that if she goes on too much about the hidden costs of women taking off-ramps, some people will simply think, “Sod it, let’s just hire men”? Says Hewlett: “There aren’t enough of them.”

So how can we change the workplace to make it work for women? In Off-Ramps and On-Ramps, Hewlett details the new programmes that the companies she has been working with are running. It is inspirational stuff. Some of the initiatives are about getting off-ramped women back into the fold, some involve setting up powerful women’s networks focused on getting women promoted; others are about finding ways to keep women in the loop somehow, anyhow, so that when they are ready to “ramp up” to full-time again, it is straightforward. At the root of all of this is flexibility. The key seems to be to convince the people at the top that all jobs can be done flexibly.

“The trick,” says Hewlett, “is to make flexibility totally universal, and to make it very real.” Flexibility can mean working 10 months a year instead of 12, or working a compressed week (a full-time workload compressed into less than five days), or just getting a cast-iron promise that you can have dinner with your kids twice a week. But the main point is that it should be available to everyone.

Hewlett thinks the ageing population will spur change. “I think elder care is the elephant in the living room,” she says. “We’re just on the edge of understanding what it’s like to have a generation of elderly people living much longer, obviously, and leaning on a generation of working women who often would have had their children late.” Helping employees through these issues will help get rid of the stigma that flexible work patterns currently attract. “It’s full of inclusionary spirit, because everyone has parents, and it turns out that elder-care burdens are much more evenly divided than childcare, kind of a 60/40 deal between women and men. Childcare is still a 75/25 thing.”

Isn’t that changing fast? Don’t younger men want to be more involved? Hewlett says that making decisions to work flexibly “hits men even harder than women. Men get really clobbered if they take some of this stuff. But it’s very important to figure out how to get men centrally involved because then you can really change the culture of the workplace, and then it becomes kind of normal.”

Much of Hewlett’s thesis centers around the idea that women need to feel that their work has meaning if they are to justify spending time away from their kids or other passions.

“The storyline for men is still relatively simple,” she says. “The compensation package, the power, the title … money and power. Men are conditioned to understand that this is what gets them respect and stroking in this world.” (Although she adds that she’s “obviously over-simplifying … I’m married to a man who doesn’t reflect any of these things.” Who is the main breadwinner in her family? “For certain periods my husband really did take the primary load,” she says. “This second, I’m probably the main breadwinner, but both of us have always worked, so in a way it’s a very modern marriage.”)

But women want different rewards, she says. “For women, earning power is important these days, but even more important is that the product they sell, the service they provide, is something that they can believe in.” As for big salaries; they make men eligible, but not women.

“Women don’t get the same payoff from their extreme job. If you’re making a zillion dollars a year, and you’re a big deal-maker in the city, that’s not necessarily going to make you eligible; in fact, it might be a little off-putting. It’s not going to help you in the marriage market, and it’s not going to help you in the family formation sphere of life either, because these kind of extreme jobs push you to delay childbearing to a point in time where you actually might never get round to doing it. A very high income for a woman doesn’t get you the kind of social goodies that it gets a man.”

Does Hewlett worry that by focusing so intensely on high-flying women, she is ignoring the needs of the vast majority? “I decided to focus on the workplace, to see what employers could do, and also focus on the women with market power, because if you could get this group to drive change then you would obviously refashion the rules of the workplace, you would transform the culture of the workplace, and there would be lots of trickle-down to less privileged women.”

Baby Hunger is often said to have “enraged feminists”, but did it really? “I don’t think so. There’s a chapter of Baby Hunger which I wish a few more women had read, about women’s bodies. For centuries, women paid such a huge price for their children. If you had enough kids in the 17th century, you actually didn’t need patriarchy to keep you down. There was no way in which you could do anything in the world because you were so dragged down by the crippling effects – and I use that world literally – of repeated risky pregnancy. So I think the overwhelming agenda of feminism was to bestow freedom on the reproductive front. And the battle was extremely important, and largely won.

“But I guess the pendulum needs to swing back a bit, because I do think that we need to gain for ourselves the opportunity to choose to have children, as well as to choose not to have them.”

Hewlett describes herself as having been an “incipient feminist” from early childhood, growing up with five sisters in a macho coal-mining community in South Wales. This is the surprising fact about her. In her book-jacket photo, she looks a bit scary, very done, very Dallas. In the flesh, she is tousled and girlishly pretty, not scary at all. But she looks, and sounds, very American. It turns out that being a girl from a working-class family in Cwmbran wasn’t such a plus when she got into Cambridge. “It was so overwhelming,” she says. “I had a very strong working-class Welsh accent. I didn’t have a clue which fork to use.”

So she reinvented herself. She ditched the accent “rather deliberately”, then, after Cambridge, ditched Britain. She won a Kennedy scholarship to Harvard, and although she returned here to do her PhD, she was off to New York not long after, and has lived in America ever since. “I saw America as somewhere where I could lose my class origins and I was very eager to do that because I didn’t want to have two struggles – gender was one, class was the other.”

Whether she pulls off this second reinvention of hers – her attempt to reinvent feminism, or at least translate it into the language of economics – remains to be seen. But Off-Ramps and On-Ramps, ostensibly aimed at the people who run companies, probably ought to be required reading for everyone who works in one.

· Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, is published by Harvard Business School Press, priced £15.99.

‘I like a little chaos’

Five mothers in top jobs

Belinda Earl, 45, chief executive at Jaeger

Earl’s decision to take maternity leave in 2001 while she was chief executive of Debenhams, following the birth of her second child, was deemed so extraordinary that it made headlines (it was the first time that a CEO of a leading public company had done it). She was back at work six weeks later.

Marjorie Scardino, 60, chief executive of Pearson

Dame Marjorie has raised three children and was, for a long time, the only woman to run a FTSE 100 company (she is now one of three). She was back at work within days of giving birth to each of her three children, who are now grown up. “We used to say: ‘Marjorie, this is not the cottonfields. You don’t have to drop the baby in the field and keep ploughing’,” her husband said in one interview. “I don’t have any special formula for family life … I like a little chaos,” said Dame Marjorie.

Nicola Horlick, 46, chief executive of Bramdean Asset Management

Horlick, the fund manager labelled who was “Superwoman” by the press, also brought up six children. “I am a planner: I have to think months ahead,” she wrote in her book, Can You Have It All?. “I timed the conception of my children so that my maternity leave could include the Christmas holidays.”

Karren Brady, 38, managing director of Birmingham City FC

Brady has a son and a daughter, who are both under 10. “My eldest, Sophia, was born to order, I suppose,” Brady said. “I chose a hole in my diary and rang our doctor with the request that I should give birth at that time. I was back to work within the week. But I never really calculated how hard it would be. Now I go to bed at 8pm – the same time as them – or I’d be exhausted.”

Ruth Kelly MP, 39, communities and local government secretary

Kelly has had four children since winning her seat in 1997. “My husband resigned as a councillor after I was elected,” she has said. “We decided one parent had to be at home in the evening, preferably two. I get up at 6.45 – that’s not bad for most parents. I see [the children] out to school, leave the house at 8.45. And we have a nanny during the week. In relation to other women, I don’t consider that more difficult.”

Emine Saner