Hitting The Mommy Wall

December 2, 2005
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Having to shatter the glass ceiling isn’t enough for some female business executives. Now a number of them also have to climb the “mommy wall.”

A survey of 130 professional women done earlier this year found that most of those with post-graduate degrees, largely MBAs, lost their place in their chosen field when they stepped out to raise their children; they were unable to get back in the same career line when they were ready to go back to work.

In short, they hit the mommy wall — an invisible partition that blocks the career path for highly educated women who want to have a family and a professional livelihood.

The groundbreaking study showed that slightly less than a quarter of those surveyed were able to find similar jobs in the same industry.

Four in 10 ended-up with a different job in the same industry — for some, one that was less prestigious and lower paying. Two in 10 found the same position, but in a different line of work other than their chosen industry. And 14 percent returned to a different job in a different field.

Monica McGrath, who conducted the study with business consultant Marla Driscoll and Mary Gross of Merrill Lynch Investment Managers, told the Business Journal that when the women decided to step away from their positions, they weren’t prepared for the skepticism they would meet when they attempted to return.

“They seemed to be very positive when they left. So they were kind of relieved in some ways, they seemed energized while leaving. It wasn’t that they were leaving with a cynical or exhausted approach. They were planning to come back to work,” said McGrath, who owns Resources for Leadership Inc., a private consulting practice in Philadelphia, and is an adjunct assistant professor in the management department at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Some of them made the choice not just because they wanted to rush home to take care of the kids, but because they felt they did have a family and were not making the kind of impact (at work) that they expected they would make,” said McGrath. “There was a high level of frustration and disappointment in how they had kind of been put into a double bind.”

Most of the women surveyed only planned to be away from their jobs for two years, but they ended up staying out from four to eight years. And when they tried to get back into the game, they unsuspectingly ran headfirst into the wall.

“They were surprised at the negative response [they received] and it kind of engaged them, I think, in ways that didn’t serve them in terms of just really getting through some of those barriers,” said McGrath.

The typical responses prospective employers gave for not hiring them ranged from the claim that the women would be too expensive to retrain, to they wouldn’t stay even if they were retrained and hired, to they didn’t take their careers very seriously, having already left the workplace once.

“Some of the things we heard were pretty surprising and untested, I think,” said McGrath, who also has directed the graduate leadership division at the Wharton School.

McGrath, Driscoll and Gross are writing a book based on the survey’s findings. In it they will offer advice to women who may be thinking of stepping out of their careers. McGrath pointed out that women who might step away should begin planning for the move early, even while they’re in graduate school.

“One piece of information for women who are getting advanced degrees is to be as thoughtful about the entire scope of their career as they will be about the first job out of their graduate program, to be plan-full,” said McGrath.

“If they are contemplating taking a step out and are currently employed, they should be looking around the organization for what I call the heroes who will give them opportunities to work on contract work or will stay engaged with them while they’re away to keep them engaged and informed about the industry, and, if they want to go back to their old company, about their own company.”


Key ‘Mommy Wall’ Survey Findings

  • Women most often step out of their careers in order to care for children and enhance the quality of their lives.

  • Women stay out longer than anticipated.

  • When women first step out, they feel energized and positive, yet when they attempt to return, they find the experience negative and depressing.

  • Women who re-enter the work force are joining smaller companies.

  • Women who return to the work force shift industries and functional roles.

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