An Equal Opportunity Commute
Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an author and economist, president of the Center for Work-Life Policy and director of the Gender and Policy Program at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. She is also a mother — one who, like so many other women, was compelled to step off the fast-track to care for her family. Her difficulty in managing her career and re-entering the work force inspired her to write Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success.
Alternatives to a Tired Paradigm
Although the book was motivated by personal experience, it is far from a memoir. Unlike the vast majority of other books on the work/family conundrum, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps is neither a self-help tome nor a broad social analysis. It focuses specifically on what companies can do to help women and presents a compelling business case for doing so. The book gives a clear perspective on the unique external factors that can influence a woman’s career, posits some solutions and profiles several companies who have successfully implemented policies that attract and retain talented women.
The first half of the book is devoted to establishing Hewlett’s assertion that the current paradigm, what she calls the “Male Competitive Model,” is both outdated and ineffective. Forged in the days when gender roles were clearly regimented, with men as the breadwinners and women as the caretakers of home and family, the rules of the working world have never evolved to accommodate women’s broader opportunities and successes. Companies that insist on clinging to this model draw from a much smaller talent pool and, therefore, lose an important competitive edge.
Having clearly identified the problem, the latter portion of the book is devoted to exploring and advocating solutions. Each chapter covers a different approach such as “Combating Stigmas and Stereotypes” or “Reimagining Work Life” and provides a profile of current best practices in each category. Each profile with the chapters is capped off with a “Tool Kit” that lays out the business case for implementation, provides advice on getting started for companies and lists critical elements for success.
Programs at Work
Lehman Brother’s Virtual Workplace is one of the initiatives profiled in the “Combatting Stigmas and Stereotypes” section. After losing their offices in the 9/11 attacks, and concerned about the possibility of an avian flu outbreak, the firm stepped up its commitment to telecommuting as part of its disaster-preparedness plan. As a side effect, because the work-from-home option is widely available — not just used primarily by working mothers as it often is elsewhere — the playing field at Lehman’s is considerably more level.
“Creating Arc of Career Flexibility” contains the story of Booz Allen’s Adjunct Program. The demands of working for a consulting firm can be brutal to those looking to start a family. Losing a valued consultant can be difficult for a company that markets itself on expertise and experience. Therefore, the firm created the Adjunct Program which provides part-time contract work to employees who otherwise would have left the firm entirely. By allowing seasoned consultants to “ramp down” instead of “off ramp,” Booz Allen not only reduces attrition, it creates a flexible work force that can nimbly respond to business cycles.
Like other work/life initiatives, the Adjunct Program creates opportunity for both sexes and for the employing company. Such, argues Hewlett, is the business paradigm for the future.
Why We Like This Book
Hewlett’s case for rethinking the working world’s current dynamic is both compelling and convincing. By shining a spotlight on currently active programs and the tangible benefits they produce, she has created a handbook for forward-thinking companies looking to improve their bottom line by expanding their talent pool and retaining valued employees.