Summer Book Review #6: Off-Ramps and On-Ramps

In April I joined a dozen women from my Harvard Business School class for dinner at a Mexican food restaurant.  Given that we graduated twenty years ago, we spent the 1st hour of dinner re-acquainting ourselves with one another.  We quickly fell into formal – or not so formal – introductions.    I  was so surprised by how few of my peers were working in a full-time traditional career – 2 out of 12.    A few more had worked a more traditional career path prior to having children but many had never worked a full-time career due to marriage, children, divorce, requirements of a spouse’s job, parental care, etc., etc.  Most chose part-time work at some point. Only three of us, including yours truly, worked full-time after having children.

One woman described her vocational interests as “design & architecture.”  It sounded exciting and creative but I remember being profoundly sad by the way she described it.  “I should never have gone to business school,” was her opening line.  She talked about a circuitous path to finding her interest in residential design & architecture.  Her commentary was almost apologetic.

Prior to the dinner I wish I’d read Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s wonderful Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success.  Ms. Hewlett’s rich vocabulary and thoughtful frameworks would have been a wonderful filter to assist me as I processed the very real women’s transition issues present at the table that night.  More importantly I could have shared her insights with this lovely women who had moved into the “shouldn’t have” pit.  Have you ever been there?  Even for a short stint?  Hewlett offers a radically different approach.

At the book’s core Hewlett posits a “white male career” model as inconsistent with the needs and objectives of most female workers.  She follows that women’s career interests are typically non-linear, or lacking the continuous, full-time characteristics of the male career.

She assesses women’s progress at a phased, macro level.  In her view Phase 1 was achieved as women became as credentialed as men.  She offers compelling statistics on the  % graduating college; % with graduate degrees; etc.   Phase 2 is all about understanding the needs and wants of women so that we can begin to fathom why we are still under-represented in top roles across all industries.  Her discussion of the Phase 2 drivers for women’s career decisions was the most informed and well-written I’ve read yet.

Here are a few Phase 2 tidbits:

  • She conducted primary research and found that a woman’s ambition falls precipitously as she ages;  53% described themselves as extremely or highly ambitious in the 28-40 year old age group versus only 37% for those in the 41 and higher category.  (Off-ramps & On-ramps, pg 49)
  • Her research also revealed that women’s career wants differ greatly from those of men.  For example, the top three career attributes for women in Hewlett’s sample were: high quality colleagues; to ‘be themselves’ at work; and flexibility.  More than fifty percent of the women in her sample wanted a career that allowed them to give back to society.  (Off-ramps & On-ramps, pg 51)
  • Hewlett also makes the case for women’s networks. “Networks boost confidence and create traction by connecting women to peers, provide access to role models, showcase leadership skills, and expand business relationships.”  (Off-ramps & On-ramps, pg 180)  On this one I have to state my bias – I believe women’s networks are invaluable for almost every frame of life.

Hewlett wrote this wonderful book following an article by the same name that appeared in the Harvard Business Review  in 2005.  I read the article then.  I got so much more out of this book now —  what with two kids and an extreme job under my belt.  Hewlett has a running – at times funny – commentary throughout the book on extreme jobs: defined as well paid; sixty+ hours per week;  and attributes like travel, responsibilities for profit & loss, or work-related events outside of regular work hours.

While there are no answers in this book I found it to be very worthwhile.  I leave it with a new set of vocabulary  – my “non-linear” career – and some comfort that I’m not alone as I pivot away from ambition and towards changing the world.  Anyone with me?

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14 responses to “Summer Book Review #6: Off-Ramps and On-Ramps

  1. As always, I loved your review, and will definitely have to read this book. Many of the points resonated for me as I know they would for so many women in my circle. I think the ‘workplace structure’ that women have felt they need to either adapt to – or opt out of – is in need of major need of renovation. Maybe your friend can help us with a new design!

  2. I’m downloading the book on my Nook tonight Linda! Thanks for the highlights.

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  4. Sounds good! On the days when, I too feel like apologizing for taking the money and the time for business school and then going “non-linear”- I may look on this book for some affirmation. I have found that my professional ambition has become more balanced with personal ambition as I have gotten older, but I have not become less ambitious. I think that is an important poing and I’ll read to see if the book makes it.

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