Can women have work-life balance and have a career? Lisen Stromberg discusses in new book

Lisen Stromberg wrote “Work Pause Thrive.”

Lisen Stromberg was at South by Southwest Sunday signing her book “Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career.” (BenBella, $24.95).

She was part of the “Elephant on Madison Avenue” keynote at 12:30 p.m. Sunday in the Convention Center Ballroom EFG with Leslie Wingo of SandersWingo, Bradley Jakeman of Pepsico and Michele Madansky of Michele Mandansky Consulting.

“Work Pause Thrive” talked to women who were highly educated about their careers.

We sat down with Stromberg, 54, at a coffeeshop Friday night to talk about the book, how she’s made parenting and career work, and her work as the chief operating officer of 3% Movement, a group that looks at the lack of women in leadership in advertising and marketing and tries to figure out how to change that.

For “Work Pause Thrive,” she interviewed highly skilled educated women who are mothers about their career path. She also surveyed 1,476 Generation X women for her “Women on the Rise” survey. 84 percent of these women had children younger than 18 living at home and 61 percent had advanced degrees.

She wanted to figure out if these women have everything going for them: education, careers, why aren’t they in the corner offices? Why aren’t they leading their companies?

One thing that separated them from their male counterparts was motherhood.

What she suspected and found out is that women often did not take direct routes in their careers. They “paused” (took time off from work to raise children) or they “pivoted” (took steps up and down and sideways on the career ladder) to make working and raising children doable for them.

In fact, she says, the career ladder for women is more like a lattice. Few women go up the ladder, instead they go in and out of the career world, they choose flexibility instead of job titles.

“Successful women are negotiating nonlinear paths,” she says.

And they don’t talk about it.

“They didn’t want to seem uncommitted to their carers,” she says, but when she talked to them about their career paths and different nonlinear variations that women sometimes take, even the most serious executives, said, “I did that.” They admitted that they had at times gone part time or  taken a break, though many hadn’t told their co-workers that.

Throughout the book are example after example of women who are hiding the two-year career pause they took after having a baby. Of they hide that they work in the office three days a week and out of the office the other two days or even that they might only work three days a week. They also hide that they work nontraditional hours around children’s soccer games, field trips and appointments.

There were women who were able to “cruise” (stay at the same career the whole time) instead of pivot or pause. They had employers and bosses who helped them make it work. They had companies that had helpful maternity and paternity leave policies. They had flexible work hours and an understanding that going to the soccer game instead of a meeting was important.

“They knew they belonged,” she says.

Many of those that did advance to top levels of their career have spouses who have jobs that take backseats.

In fact, Stromberg found many examples of couples who do what she calls “spiraling.” (And not spiraling out of control). No, they took turns having primary and secondary careers based on children’s ages and career opportunities.

Many upper level executives also have nannies or au pairs or some sort of serious help raising children at home — more than would be available through a traditional day care.

Access to available, good quality, affordable childcare with flexible hours is one of the key reasons why women have to take pauses or pivots. Stromberg compares her career to her cousin’s in Norway and her cousin’s in Italy. Things that are different between the U.S. and Norway is longer paid maternity leave and paid child care. And in Italy, they have multigenerational families living at home, so the grandparents are there for the children. They also have a culture that works set hours and then goes home to have dinner with their families.

Stromberg, who had a high-powered career in marketing, had to take a pause for bedrest, for a baby that was born prematurely, for maternity leave. She had visions of being able to do both her career and raise her family, and tried at first, but found that the issue of childcare continued to be a struggle. She couldn’t find daycare that was open later at night. Her commute in Northern California was an hour each way. Her husband had a high-powered non-nine-to-five job. She thought she had figured it out, but by hiring an au pair, but then that au pair quit.

So she pivoted and became a consultant. She found her own career path. Now, at 54, her three children are ages 17 to 23. She could be more “all in” in ways that she couldn’t when they were younger.

Stromberg wrote the book for her children and for Millennials like them, who will soon be entering prime parenting years. She wanted them to know that there were options out there for both women and men that Generation X women had forged for them, but were unwilling to talk about.

And she’s finding that more than the Millennial women, it’s the men who want the flexibility, who want the paternity leave and the ability to go to their child’s doctor appointments and after-school activities. They are the first generation raised by two working parents, in which fathers took more of a hands-on role.

She just spoke to students at the U.S. Naval Academy. Again and again, it was the men who came up to her for advice on how they could be supportive of their partner’s career.

Stromberg makes the case that employers have got to figure out this dichotomy between parenting and career. She points to a 4 percent unemployment rate, the need to not lose a highly trained, highly educated workforce that are women.

“We need women in leadership,” she says. “We need supportive businesses. We need to figure this out.”

She does see movement from the tech industry, which is starting to offer on-site day care, longer maternity leave and paternity leave.

She also points to programs that offer internships for women (or men) who have left the workforce and now want to re-enter it, but need a hand finding their path.

When Stromberg interviewed women, one thing that stuck out to her was their ability to re-enter the workforce. In the back of the book are statistics about ease of re-entry. Of those that stayed out less than two years, 91 percent found work within six months, compared with 69 percent who stayed out two to five years, 56 percent who stayed out six to 10 years, and  44 percent who stayed out more than 11 years.

Also key was what women were doing when they paused. Those that became volunteers and continued to use their same skills or even increase their skills, had a much easier time re-entering. Also key was keeping up their network of people. They found jobs through connections. Often companies use computer programs to weed out applications for jobs and having a pause in your résumé might mean you don’t get past the computer program.

So, what does a perfect parenting-friendly culture look like? Stromberg gives a list of questions to ask companies or look at social media or career websites about them, when making a career choice:

  • Do they have a diverse senior management?
  • Do they have a diverse board?
  • Do they have mothers in leadership?
  • Do those mothers have spouses who work outside of the home?
  • Do the male leadership have spouses who work outside of the home?
  • Do they have generous paid parental leave policy?
  • Do women take full maternity leave?
  • Do men take paternity leave? For how long?
  • Does the company offer sabbaticals? Do people take them?
  • Does the company operate with a ROWE (Result Only Work Environment) culture?
  • Do they offer part-time opportunities?
  • Does needing flexibility curtail future advancement?
  • Do mothers there feel supported?
  • How many women leave after they have children?
  • Do they have a “returnship” program for people who have paused their careers?
  • Do they welcome back employees who have left in good standing?
  • How is your future boss integrating work and life?

It can’t just be companies alone doing the work. Stromberg offers her list in what she calls the Work Pause Thrive Manifesto:

We believe a great country provides the following to its citizens:

  1. Paid parental leave for all new parents
  2. Paid sick leave for all workers
  3. Universal child care
  4. Universal health care for all citizens
  5. Job security for those with caregiving responsibilities
  6. Social Security benefits for unpaid caregivers
  7. Paid vacation days for all workers
  8. Limits on overtime for salaried and nonsalaried workers
  9. Affordable college tuition and the ability to refinance student loan debt
  10. Marriage rewards (not penalties) on taxes