Like a romantic-comedy that closes with a wedding and skips the ensuing marriage, media coverage of women who “opt out” of the workforce often ends with that decision. But who are these women, what fuels that decision, and what happens after it’s made?
In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported: "About one-in-10 mothers with a Master’s degree or more are staying at home in order to care for their family . . . These so-called 'opt-out moms' (roughly 10 percent of all highly educated mothers) make up just 1 percent of the nation’s 35 million mothers ages 18 to 69 who are living with their [minor] children."
For many of these women, the decision to leave the full-time workforce is primarily driven by a conflict between work and family responsibilities. Consider, 69 percent of women in a 2009 Center for Work-Life Policy survey said they would have continued working if more flexibility had been feasible at their jobs. However, when it wasn’t, their family took priority.
These women typically intend to opt out temporarily. It’s unsurprising, then, that the same survey found that “fully 89 percent of those highly qualified women who had left their careers (the plurality of whom did so to care for family) reported that they did plan to return to work.”
Returning to the workforce isn’t necessarily straightforward, though. Among women who wanted to return to work, “only 40 percent were able to successfully return to full-time work. Among those “women who did return, they lost 16 percent of their earning power,” and “over 25 percent reported a decrease in their management responsibilities and 22 percent had to step down to a lower job title.”
These are daunting statistics for any woman ready to return to the workforce. They also help to explain the genesis of Après—French for “after”—which was launched two months ago. It is the only digital platform for educated women looking to re-enter the workforce across various fields, with full-time, part-time, and remote options. There are already 12,000 members, most of whom are based in the United States, like Après’ job listings.
In an effort to better understand the “after” picture for women who want to opt back in, I recently spoke by phone with Jennifer Gefsky, co-founder of Après. Our discussion, edited for length, appears below:
What inspired you to start Après?
Both of us [co-founder Niccole Kroll and Gefsky] are opt-outers. I was a lawyer at a big New York City law firm, then I was in-house, and then I took time off to be with, at the time, my two kids. Looking back, I thought a little naively that when I was ready, I’d be able to go back in. But then when I was ready, I had no idea what to do. There were no resources out there to help women like me, and yet, I was looking around, and there seemed to be a lot of women like me—well-educated, taking time out of their career, and ready to get back in. We decided there was something there. The question was: are companies interested in hiring from this demographic? That’s what inspired us to start it.
How many American women fit the Après demographic?
I searched high and low for that number, and from my research, it doesn’t exist. But based on information from the Center for Talent and Innovation, looking at various opt-out rates, it’s around 3 million women today with a college or graduate degree who are looking to re-enter the workforce. That’s a conservative number, because that’s only a five-year look, and we know there are women who are out for longer and want to come back.
What is your members’ average age?
The typical range is 35-50. We’re right in that Gen X zone for the most part, and we’re starting to pick up the Millennials as well, since the oldest Millennials are now 35. They’re starting to opt out of the workforce too.
Why do Après’ members choose to leave the workforce?
Mostly it’s women, who’ve felt the pull between family and work and taken time out for kids. That’s the primary demographic, but there are definitely other women who’ve taken time off to care for sick kids, parents, or grandparents.
Among your members, what is the typical length of a career break?
It varies. The number one length of time is between five and 10 years. The number two length of time is one year or less. That’s a very different spread. We’ve talked to women who are out 15 years and are now looking to come back.
What typically prompts a return to the workforce?
The primary reason is financial. That’s surprising to a lot of companies, but people live longer today. A woman in her 70s is three times more likely than a man to be at the poverty level. The days where a man retired at 60 and got a pension that everyone lived on are over. A woman’s career can span 40-50 years, so taking off five years is a blip. A woman who takes off and never goes back to work? That’s a lot of lost income. A lot of companies are surprised that our members want full-time work. If everyone could have their druthers, they would have a flexible schedule, but these women are motivated.
What special things do these women bring back into the workplace?
They bring so many things. First of all, it’s of value to companies that this person is energized about working again. Second, they’re incredibly loyal. These women aren’t immediately looking for their next job. They love to empower other employees.
We also talk to employers all the time about how valuable these women are in terms of what the employee does for the rest of the workforce. Millennial women want to see someone down the road who works here, enjoys it, and has a family, someone who can pave the road for me. I never had that. If I’d had a female mentor, it would’ve made it easier for me to stay. This demographic does that by coming back into the workforce. We’re helping companies with their gender diversity problems. Research shows that companies with gender diversity in mid to senior level roles do better. Companies are great at recruiting young women and even having senior women, but they tend to have a problem with the pipeline of women in the middle, and that’s where companies are really doing well with [Après’] demographic.
What are the most common challenges these women face when they decide to return to work?
Probably the same ones I faced. You don’t know where to start; you feel like your skills are rusty. You don’t just wake up one day and say, “I’m going back into the workforce.” It’s a journey. You need to make sure your resume is current. You’ve got to deal with the gap in your resume. A lot of women turn to coaches to help them with this. Maybe you have to take a class or two to brush up on skills...Women also find it challenging to network, even though they’re great networkers on a social level. People are really excited to help women re-enter the workforce. When women start, they see it’s not so daunting. It’s just a matter of getting started.