Off-ramps and On-ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success

Human Resource Management International Digest

ISSN: 0967-0734

Article publication date: 21 March 2008




Hewlett, S.A. (2008), "Off-ramps and On-ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success", Human Resource Management International Digest, Vol. 16 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Off-ramps and On-ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success

Article Type: Suggested reading From: Human Resource Management International Digest, Volume 16, Issue 2.

Off-ramps and On-ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success

Sylvia A. Hewlett, Harvard Business School Press, 2007

Keywords: Skills, Labour markets, Women, Careers

This book presents an insight into the alternative career pathways that women traverse over the course of their work histories. While set within the environs of corporate North America, it shows parallels with the experiences of professional women around the world. Hewlett provides a personal and engaging account, lightly interspersed with relevant, academic research results, and complemented with the use of case-study analysis. Graphs and data tables are well integrated and simple to follow.

This book comprises 11 chapters spread over two parts. The first part concerns the challenge that organizations face in attracting and retaining talented women as employees. The second part introduces some successful models that are being used.

In Chapter 1, Hewlett considers what the male competitive model of employment is, and how (hand in hand with the predominant corporate culture) it works against women along with others in the workforce who may have taken a more “scenic” route towards their ultimate, or indeed merely current, career aspirations. The chapter also discusses the increasing talent void that makes the consideration of alternative work models an economic imperative.

Chapter 2 attempts to address the nature of women’s careers. Are professional women opting out of the mainstream workforce and do they tend to take up non-standard work arrangements? Hewlett discusses the stigma associated with undertaking flexible work arrangements, talking about why women and men leave their careers, and how and why they might chose to re-enter the labor market. She presents an eloquent case explaining why the current pipeline model of careers does not work for either women or policy makers because of the losses that occur on re-entry, and the penalties incurred for taking time out of careers. She suggests that we need to reconceptualize the role of ambition, as well as the nature of motivation, as the diversity of workers means that different groups, including males compared with females, may be driven by different factors.

The third chapter expands on the examination of career breaks and looks at the idea of extreme jobs and the extreme demands associated with them. Hewlett discusses the effects of the extended work week, unrelenting responsibilities and the expectations of availability associated with modern technology. She also considers why employees accept these unpredictable and escalating pressures, and suggests that there may be an element of honor involved in surviving such a brutal model of work engagement. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that such extreme jobs exact a huge toll on personal lives, and perhaps more so for women than men. Whether such a work model is sustainable is questionable. However, for those living within traditional gender roles at home, extreme jobs are considerably more sustainable for men than for women.

Part 1 concludes with the business case for diversity why businesses should care how women choose, or are constrained in, their careers. Hewlett does not venture much beyond the typical responses of impact on the bottom line, regulatory requirements and an ever-decreasing pool of skilled workers. These points, however, are still relevant to business leaders, and look set to become increasingly important in the foreseeable future.

The second half of the book provides positive and uplifting success stories, as well as some practical solutions that organizations can place in their own toolkits. By examining organizations such as Goldman Sachs and Ernst and Young, Hewlett argues strongly for a core package of tools to attract and enable women to manage non-linear careers.

The six tools she champions are:

  1. 1.

    establishing flexible work arrangements;

  2. 2.

    creating arc-of-career flexibility (recognizing that women may off-ramp and on-ramp at different stages of their careers);

  3. 3.

    reimagining work life (which includes recognizing that work-life balance goes beyond the nexus between children and employment);

  4. 4.

    redefining and refocusing what ambition is for women;

  5. 5.

    harnessing the altruism and alternative career drivers of women; and

  6. 6.

    reducing stigma and stereotypes so that employees in general, and women in particular, are not disadvantaged by choosing work practices that are work-life friendly.

The book closes with a well-placed nod to pragmatism, discussing the likelihood of the arrangements seen in the case studies becoming more widespread. Hewlett believes that we are clearly on a journey of change, and that a big part of making the journey successfully is transforming working life for men as well.

This element of the book was perhaps a little underplayed, as there is every reason to suggest the male competitive model may not be working well for men either. In contemporary society, where men are both expected and expecting to play a greater role in their families and communities, the essence of work-life balance that comes with the ability to off-ramp and on-ramp from a career is becoming increasingly important to all workers, regardless of gender.

Through her inclusive and personal writing style, Hewlett has created a book that is thought provoking and charming. It is nice to see that her pragmatic and honest view of the world is tinged with optimism and some practical suggestions and examples of ways women’s careers could be better managed. One of the best features is the use of quotes and personal anecdotes that draw the reader into the lived experience of some of Hewlett’s contributors.

The tone throughout is reflective. Overall, the book strikes the difficult balance between being engaging and readable while also having depth and making worthwhile points. Any manager facing the challenges of keeping good staff in the current war for talent will find the book an interesting and informative read, as will any woman or indeed parent who has faced the challenges of balancing work and family.

Reviewed by Beth Tootell, Department of Human Resource Management, Massey University, New Zealand.

A longer version of this review was originally published in Women in Management Review, Vol. 22 No. 6, 2007.

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