Financial security should be a big part of the equation when women consider a return to work, says Kathryn Sollmann, author of Ambition Redefined: Why the Corner Office Doesn’t Work for Every Woman & What to Do Instead. She suggests thinking about work and compensation in a way that’s likely very different from when you were in your 20s and first starting out.
In a Q&A with Path Forward, Kathryn shares her insights, calling for a no-apologies independence from the “lean in” and “break the glass ceiling” mantras. Instead, she says to think about work and compensation in a way that factors in all the complexities of job, life, and family.
Q: What’s the biggest mistake you see women make when attempting to restart their careers?
In all the years I’ve worked with women on hiatus from the workforce, I’ve seen a pattern of waiting, waiting, and then waiting even longer to jump back in. There are a few reasons for this delay.
Women have a tendency to think that “work” means returning to an all-consuming major league “career,” rather than what could be an interesting, professional, lucrative, and flexible “job” that would fit more easily into their complex lives. Women stay out of the workforce an average of 12 years, and 12 years ago there weren’t as many opportunities to work in a flexible way. They remember the traditional corporate grind they chose to leave behind, but don’t realize there are actually different kinds of flex work available today.
When they were going full steam ahead toward a hard-driving career, they were probably fresh out of college or graduate school, maybe unmarried, and probably without the responsibilities of children and aging parents. A career or ardent professional passion — with all the strategic and political moves that entails to rise up the corporate ladder — is optional in my book. What is essential is some kind of work that fits your life and offers financial independence, long-term security, and the ability to fund all of life’s “you never knows.” My advice is don’t delay — get back in!
Q: In your experience, how does money factor into a woman’s decision to return to work?
Compensation is another reason I often see women dragging their feet about a return to work.
They know they most likely won’t be able to walk right back into the same job title and compensation from a long ago job, and they’re worried that the salaries they command now might be too low. To put a finer point on this, it’s usually a husband who feels only a certain salary number makes it acceptable to work. I can’t tell you how many women have repeated this same husband refrain: “By the time your smaller salary is taxed in my bigger tax bracket, it’s just not worth it for you to pay for babysitters, household helpers, and turn the family upside down.”
Q: How should a returner look at compensation when deciding whether to reenter the workforce?
It indeed makes long-term sense for women to earn a professional salary of any size: to invest valuable time into future earning power, build their resumes, expand their portfolio of marketable skills, and earn money that can be invested and saved. Women who have “all or nothing” attitudes about high compensation aren’t thinking broadly about saving and investing.
Financial advisers tell me that many well-educated women don’t consider how the power of compounding increases even a small savings over time. In my book I give an example of a woman who returns to work at age 45. She doesn’t want a big corporate job, so she takes a flexible, part-time (20 hours per week/$25 per hour), mid-level job during school hours at a small local firm. I won’t get into all the specific calculations here and to keep things simple I assume she works for 20 years and her compensation stays the same. She’s able to save and invest all her take-home pay, and by age 65 she’ll have savings of $519,000. That’s more than half a million dollars in savings from a moderate-stress job during school hours and close to home. This is just a very conservative example — many returning professional women will earn at a higher level and opt for flexible full-time work.
But in any scenario, it doesn’t take a high six-figure salary to make work worth it.
Kathryn Sollmann is a career coach, speaker, and author. This interview was conducted by Tami Forman, the founding executive director of Path Forward and a frequent speaker on issues related to caregiving and workforce participation.
See also Preparing for Your Career Restart.
Originally published September 2018.