Early Career

At a Crossroads: Staying in the Workforce or Stepping Out

stock_businesswoman7When situations come up in a career woman’s life—pregnancy, adoption, illness, illness of a loved one —it represents a crossroads. Should she stay in the workforce or should she step out for a time? The decision manifests itself differently for every woman.

For Regan Ebert, vice president of marketing at Frito-Lay in Dallas, having two children meant taking three months of maternity leave and jumping back into full-time work. “It was never a question for me” to stay full-time, she says. “I love having the kids but I also love working.”

When her daughter was born almost seven years ago, the question for Ebert was who would care for her. She and her husband decided on daycare rather than a nanny. But balancing a new baby and her work as marketing manager at General Mills was an adjustment, Ebert says, adding that she occasionally felt overwhelmed. “There were certain moments during that time when I thought, `How am I going to pull this off?’”

She did, with a helpful husband and a job that allowed her to work at home sometimes. Two years later, Ebert was a product manager at Frito-Lay when she returned full-time to work after having a second daughter. While she says having two children was “exponentially harder,” she was promoted to marketing director at Frito-Lay during her second maternity leave. While it meant having to work at home during the last four weeks of her leave, she says she wouldn’t change her decisions. “Sticking in the workforce, I’ve progressed in my career pretty quickly. I know I wouldn’t have had that opportunity if I had stepped out,” Ebert explains. “If you really are committed and love what you’re doing, there’s always a way to create a balance and make it work.”

Rita W. Stevens, a PhD and chemical engineer at Rohm and Haas Company in Philadelphia, made her career work by reducing her schedule to 60 percent of full-time for six months when she had her son in 1988. Back then, the company only offered six weeks of disability as maternity leave (that has since changed). When she returned to work, Stevens realized the 60 percent was a farce. “I did not negotiate my job responsibilities down enough, so I delivered the same job for 60 percent of the pay,” she recalls. “I came back after five months and said, `What’s wrong with this picture?’”

Stevens negotiated harder when she had her second son in 1991. “I knew more what I needed,” she says. What she needed was a more permanent part-time solution. She ended up sticking to a 60-percent schedule for nine years. It worked for so long because, as a process engineer, her decisions were needed weekly rather than daily “so there was more flexibility in the timing of deliverables,” she explains. “That gave me a lot more control over managing the balance of things.”

The other 40 percent of her workweek involved volunteering with her children’s schools, serving as president of the parent-teacher organization, and creating and running a Science Day that today exists in other schools in the district. While she went back to full-time in 2000, Stevens says her time out was invaluable. “The nine years provided me with all kinds of resources that I could draw on when I went back.”

Like Ebert, Stevens knows her decision worked for her. “I knew I needed a certain quality of creative work. I knew the stretch [of work time] I needed to be fulfilled but I also knew I needed a certain amount of time with my children,” Stevens says. “I knew that, for me, it was the right thing to do.”

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