Gender barriers are being broken everywhere, but a big one remains: Successful re-entry for stay-at-home moms who have opted out of the paid work force to take care of their children.
In theory, those years of family work at home could look great on a resume. Consider the skills required: setting priorities, training others, organizing complex logistics and schedules, and using interpersonal sensitivity to handle difficult people problems. Indeed, some advocates have argued that the time women with advanced degrees spend out of the workplace managing a family is valuable experience for managing back in the paid work world.
I agree it is valuable experience — if the paid job one returns to involves managing a handful of people who are vulnerable and can’t leave. Otherwise, the operating skills for family manager are nothing like the qualifications for workplace professionals.
Don’t get me wrong. I encourage flexible careers that permit multiple choices over a lifetime, with employers who value skills over lockstep career advancement. If women (or men) choose to put their paid work careers on hold while raising children and nurturing a household, I want to see them succeed at reentry and use their talents to the fullest. But myths about the value of their experience as full-time stay-at-home parents are not going to help them succeed in the business world, and some family habits must be unlearned.
Family managers are accustomed to being surrounded mostly by people who are much younger than they are, know little or nothing, and are clearly dependent, unable to function fully on their own. Spending quality time with people with limited vocabularies doesn’t hone complex strategic thinking. But in business workplaces, managers generally need to hire “up,” finding people who are as good or better than they are at significant tasks. Wooing people with career aspirations, then motivating, assessing, and retaining them, is totally different than getting family work done.
Furthermore, family managers who stay home might have a protector and defender in their spouse. But family managers used to having a powerful ally intervene in family conflicts on their behalf won’t benefit from that kind of partnership in most offices. Workplace professionals must stand on their own, something that family managers can forget.
Family managers operate in a world defined by personal relationships and personal favors. Rightfully, loyalty, caring, and deep emotional bonds are important. But in the paid workplace, even the most compassionate ones, objective measurable goals are key. Sentiment can’t substitute for performance.
Carrying over the habits learned from years as a family manager can impede success in subsequent paid careers. For example, a professional with an MBA who went back to the paid workforce failed to rise to the significant responsibilities she craved and didn’t last in that first job. She made classic family manager mistakes: She hired people just like her children, one of them a friend of her son’s, and ignored their lack of qualifications, figuring she could train them. She thought people would do favors for her because they liked her, regardless of results. For marketing, she made lunch dates, not strategic plans.
Structural and institutional norms also impede successful reentry, such as rigid rules requiring people to be all-in the paid workplace or all-out. That only widens the gap between family managers and workplace professionals. This gap disadvantages educated women who might never catch up with their male peers and causes talent to atrophy at a time when society needs every bit of it.
Creative new mechanisms are required to help family managers keep professional skills polished while focused on their children, especially in rapidly changing fields. Former employers who might want them back can offer access to their online training and live events, as well as offering occasional doable-at-home project work. Colleges and universities can target their growing online education arsenal to this segment. Skilled professionals available for part-time assignments can pool together; there are already consulting businesses that operate according to this model. Community centers offering children’s programs can experiment with parallel adult learning exchanges in which family managers talk about their professional fields.
While growing a family is different from succeeding in business, it should be easier to transition between these worlds. Planning for reentry is the next form of investing in the future.