Work, Pause, Thrive
How staying home with your kids doesn’t have to mean career suicide.
Like many Bay Area moms, when Lisen Stromberg had her second child, the marketing and advertising executive made a difficult choice: She quit her burgeoning career—gave up her hard-earned status and income—to stay home with her children.
That hadn’t been her plan, but she saw no way to continue her high-powered job and care for her family at the same time. And as much as she knew what she had to do, she feared she was committing career suicide.
After two brief pauses, Stromberg rejoined the work world and is currently the COO of the 3% Movement, which advocates for more inclusion of female leadership at advertising agencies. She also has a master’s degree in writing from Mills College, a hot new book, and a schedule packed with speaking engagements.
The story Stromberg has to tell is that her successful reentry into the workforce is no fluke. On her personal journey, Stromberg learned that there is a way—many ways, even—to return to the workforce after pausing to parent.
And yet, Stromberg notes, so many women still believe that quitting will irreparably harm their careers. So, she set out to tell the story in her book, Work Pause Thrive. Stromberg conducted a year’s worth of research, interviewing nearly 200 women and gathering quantitative data from more than a thousand.
She found multitudes of women who had rejoined their careers or re-created themselves into new careers, and hardly a one had regrets about taking time off. Stromberg found myriad paths to reentry—a variety of steps and strategies, and dos and don’ts for a successful reboot. For instance: Never stop networking, even if it’s on the sidelines of Little League; keep up with your skills, such as running the school’s fundraising gala. The key to success, she found, was believing it was possible and being determined.
We caught up with the San Francisco author to ask her a few more questions.
Q: Some women who choose to leave their careers and stay home with the kids fear they’re committing career suicide. You have been studying the success of women who return to work. What did you learn about women’s experiences returning to the workforce?
A: I was astonished at how resilient and how much grit the women I interviewed had. Despite all the biases they faced in the workplace, they still managed to reengage in the paid workplace and craft careers and lives that allowed them to thrive. Of women who paused, 89 percent relaunched their careers, and of those, 69 percent felt they were back on track within a year.
The women who had nurtured their careers during their pause had the highest likelihood of success. Also, many women found success by participating in return-to-work internships: We’re suddenly seeing many companies offering these. There are employers who are desperate for great talent—there’s a huge talent void right now—and they’re desperate for mid-career professionals.
But many women get stalled at the first step: submitting résumés. The recruiting process and blind applications don’t work if you have a break in your résumé. You have to end run those systems by using your network. The majority of women I spoke to found their reentry job through someone else—it was all networking.
And once they had reentered the workforce, looking back, 78 percent of these women who paused had no regrets that they had downshifted or paused. So, that whole mythology that pausing is going to kill your career was just plain wrong.
It was so inspiring to learn that women are innovating every day, and we are trail blazing how it’s done. I saw how resourceful we are and how we’ve done it with such grace. We pivot and try it, and if it doesn’t work, we pivot and try it again because we want our families to thrive. That’s the narrative that isn’t being told. There are so many negative narratives.
Q: Where are the negative narratives coming from?
A: If you’re an employer, you don’t want someone to pause her career: You want the ideal worker who works 24/7 and is available all the time. So, one place it’s coming from is our workplaces.
The other source goes back 70 years: During World War II, women worked in all manner of traditionally male jobs. We even had a national child-care program to support all of those mothers in the workplace. But when the men returned en masse from the war, employers and the government essentially pushed women back into the home to make room for the men. Meanwhile, we started to see television programs like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver that extolled the role of the breadwinner father and homemaker mother.
This period in our history gave rise to the notion of the ideal worker—the person who could be all in-at work because [he or she] had someone at home to care for the needs of the family. Even today, our work culture is based on the construct of the ideal worker. It’s hard to be an ideal worker when you and your partner both have careers and someone needs to pick up little Johnny from soccer practice. Couples realize something has to give, and what gives is usually the woman’s career.
Q: What’s the key to successfully pausing without harming one’s career?
A: Without question, the most successful were the women who stayed in the game, who kept their career going whether they were working for money or not. One woman I interviewed volunteered for the school fundraising committee so that she could go into the homes of these community leaders and keep networking in a way that nurtured her career. These women always viewed themselves as still having a career. That’s my number one piece of advice: Look, you have a career whether you’re paid or not. Always nurture your career.
Q: What can pausing look like?
A: There are three major paths I saw: the Cruiser, the Boomeranger, and the Pivoter.
Cruisers—who made up 20 percent of the respondents—downshifted to part-time work, to a condensed workweek of some kind, and stayed with their current employer to do that. They had employers supporting them. What was exciting about Cruisers was that they did not let that path hold them back or let themselves be mommy tracked. When the time was right, they approached the employer—or the employer approached them—and they went back full-time, sometimes even with promotions. That to me was the sign of a truly enlightened employer. In terms of lifestyle satisfaction, the Cruisers had the highest.
Boomerangers left the paid workforce completely but returned to their previous profession and industry—
sometimes even the same company and same job. Of the women relaunching their careers, 41 percent boomeranged back to their original industry.
[Pivoters] took the time in their pause to figure out ‘What’s my life’s calling?’ and they pivoted to a whole new path. One woman was a finance operations director and became a Ph.D. in nutrition science. Another was in the legal field and became an advocate for people with special needs. A number became
entrepreneurs. Of those 89 percent of women relaunching in one way or another, 39 percent pivoted to a new industry, 12 percent became entrepreneurs, and 8 percent became warriors for social good by starting a nonprofit or joining a cause.
And of course, women combined paths: A number of women boomeranged back to their previous professions first and then pivoted. One went back to marketing for a year or two, and then realized, “This isn’t working for me,” and pivoted to become a social entrepreneur, and is now an executive director of a leading nonprofit. Some women had absolute clarity during their pause, while others needed the confidence of being back in the workforce before making their decisions.
Q: You learned that many women thought they were alone on this journey.
A: So many of the women I interviewed were just blown away that other women were doing what they were doing. We’ve been living in our silos and individually inventing ways to solve a universal challenge. When women start saying to their employers and employees and friends that “I downshifted, and here I am,” the story will get out that these paths can work.
Q: So, why do women still pause their careers if they perceive it to be a bad move?
A: The vast majority who paused did so because their workplace didn’t allow them to be both truly engaged parents and engaged workers: They had to choose.
Q: While you’re saying that pausing doesn’t have to be career suicide, your book fleshes out that pausing does have some real costs. What are those?
A: The number one negative of pausing or downshifting is that you’re not earning your potential, and it will impact your family’s bottom line. You have to do the math: I have a chapter on figuring the financial implications. You’re also taking a risk: When you decide to pause, you’re investing your financial well-being in your partner. What if you get divorced or he passes away, or his job doesn’t become the big win? So, I say try to keep your pauses brief. It’s easier to relaunch your career, and the impact on your financial well-being is far less significant.
Q: What did you learn about the 28 percent of respondents who did not pause?
A: The women who never paused their career had [three] main reasons: One, they loved their jobs, they felt like they belonged, and they found great meaning in their work. Second, they had workplaces that gave them flexibility—“Johnny has a fever, I can’t come in today”—and they weren’t penalized. Finally, 45 percent of the women who didn’t pause were primary breadwinners, so they had the financial responsibility, and they also had stay-at-home or downshifting partners who gave them the freedom to be fully engaged at work. They had flipped the model. Awesome. But doesn’t that say that there’s still something wrong with the workplace that their husbands had to pause?
Q: You’ve said that this is far more than a women’s issue. How so?
A: This is not a women’s problem; it’s a business problem. If one-quarter of our [female] workforce [pauses], what does that do to our economy? Our economy, in terms of female participation, has completely stagnated in the last 25 years. [Many] industrialized countries have more women in their workforce than we do.
That’s because they’re providing an environment in which women can work: paid leave, paid child care, government-mandated vacation, sick leave. We have policies that punish working families, and mothers end up bearing the brunt of it.
Let me be very clear. I am not advocating for women to pause their career; I’m saying that women pause because the workplace doesn’t allow them to be engaged talent and engaged mothers, and as a result, something has to give.
The new truth for employers is that if you’re not working flexibility into the DNA of your company, you’re going to lose your top talent, and you’re going to miss out on the next wave of talent in the [roughly] 75 million millennials who are going to become parents in the next decade. Research shows that the number one thing millennials value is being a great parent, more than marriage and more than having a great career. And this isn’t just women: Millennial men more than millennial women report they are willing to take a pay cut, pass on a promotion, and change jobs to have more time with their families. A workplace that doesn’t support them to do that is going to lose the talent. Silicon Valley is ahead of this wave: They’re already competing to offer great family benefits, because there’s a war for talent. This is not a women’s problem anymore; this is a workplace problem and a talent problem.
Q: You write, “Daily work-life balance is a myth: But over a lifetime, work-life integration is possible.”
A: Balance implies that you’re competing to weigh things against each other. But work and life are now completely integrated: People go to work, come home, work some more after the kids are in bed. At any given time, you might be working too much, but if you look over the course of your lifetime, you might decide that this is the time to be all-in with your career, and the children will just have to wait; and at other times, the children might need all your attention. If you’re strategic about it and take the long view on your career, over the course of your lifetime, you’ll get the integration that allows for a healthier, longer-term view of your life. lisenstromberg.com.
The research: “I conducted 186 interviews with women around the country and then worked with market research professionals to create an online survey to interview about 1,500 women nationwide. All were college educated and mothers.”
The findings: “The vast majority of these working women didn’t plan on becoming opt-out moms—only 11 percent intended to stop for motherhood. But 72 percent did pause their careers in one way or another: 20 percent worked a reduced schedule, and 52 percent left the paid workforce for a period.”
Stromberg’s Tips to Relaunching
1. Keep your pause or pauses short. For women out less than five years, it’s not hard to reenter the workforce. More than five years—it’s hard work. More than 10 years, and it becomes difficult.
2. Keep your technical skills up to date. Avail yourself of retraining programs and back-to-work internships, and consider taking courses to gain credentials: If nothing else, it will boost your confidence. We’re seeing a plethora of new resources:
• Path Forward is creating internships in the tech world—90 percent of interns are now working.
• Maybrooks posts part-time, family-friendly jobs and offers online resources from résumé writing to negotiating.
• ReBoot Career Accelerator for Women holds training sessions in two-day boot camps, five-day or eight-week plans; there are clubs in several cities and workshops ranging from Excel to entrepreneurship.
3. Don’t apologize for pausing. Be transparent and explain it as a career strategy that enabled you to take risks, build new skills, evaluate your goals, and come back stronger than ever.
4. Really use your networks. Including your old professional network, new networks for relaunching professionals, and your mommy network. I met my current boss at the baseball field watching our sons play ball.
5. Develop confidence. Persist! Focus on what you can control; believe that you have value and qualities the workplace needs. The women who didn’t succeed bought into the negative narrative and they quit: “My skills are dead; no one wants me.” That’s malarkey; that’s just not true.