Among the countless challenges that come with caring for a family member, decisions around whether and how to continue working are among the most important. For many, simply putting their career on hold seems like the best solution.
In a new book, Ambition Redefined: Why the Corner Office Doesn’t Work for Every Woman and What to Do Instead, author Kathryn Sollmann argues that caregivers should never completely disengage from the workforce. Working in some capacity, even if it’s part time or in a less demanding role, is necessary in order to achieve long-term financial security, particularly for women, Sollmann says.
We caught up with Sollmann to discuss caregiving, ambition, and why she believes you should always work at every age and stage of life.
MemoryWell: What do you see as the biggest takeaway from your book for caregivers?
Kathryn Sollmann: What I’ve tried to do with Ambition Redefined is to show women, who are primarily the caregivers of their children and aging parents and even aging in-laws, that there is more than one way to work. It’s very surprising that most of the women I speak to, whether they are deep in the throes of caregiving or not, still seem to think that work primarily means working for an employer, in an office, full-time, or more than full-time, and long commutes, and maybe even overnight travel. The first thing I’ve tried to do with my books is show that the world has changed quite a bit, and it continues to change in a positive way.
It isn’t across-the-board flexibility at every single company in the world, but there are great strides being made in many of the most traditional fields where you used to be tied to your desk. Eight in 10 companies offer flexible work arrangements to workers, but only 36 percent have a formal, written policy to do so.
MW: You write about all different types of flexibility, including nontraditional schedules, telecommuting, freelancing and consulting, and job sharing. Where can women find work like that?
If you leave the workforce for just one year, you forfeit up to four times your compensation, including benefits, retirement savings, and future earning potential.
KS: A lot of it is happening with the corporate giants, but I also often advise my clients to look at smaller companies. It’s difficult to institutionalize flexibility across huge workforces, but a company that has a couple hundred employees or just 10 employees can set a more family-friendly tone in the office. A recent study found that smaller employers are more likely than larger employers to offer flextime and time off for personal needs.
That’s where, across the board, you will find a tremendous amount of flexibility. There are many possible ways to inject flexibility into your schedule and continue to earn an income, whether it’s on a part-time or intermittent basis, or still on a full-time basis.
MW: Why is it so important for caregivers to continue working?
KS: If you leave the workforce for just one year, you forfeit up to four times your compensation, including benefits, retirement savings, and future earning potential. And most women stay out of the workforce for longer than planned. They’ll say, “I just need a year to get things in order at home while my mother is sick. I just have to get the caregivers set up.”
So, they intend to stay out a year or two, but then life happens and there’s always another reason that it’s not a good time to go back. The average woman spends 12 years out of the workforce caring for family.
As the years go on, you’re really giving up a tremendous amount of compensation and earning potential. And you’re letting your skills portfolio become stale, so it becomes more difficult to get back in. It’s not that you can’t, it’s just that you lose the ability to negotiate for the salary that you once had or the title you once had.
MW: So what should caregivers do when it comes to work?
KS: I’m not telling anybody that you should always work in a full-time job that’s tied to a desk and commuting and everything else. But what I am saying is that you should always work in some flexible way. Even just the occasional freelance project is going to keep your resume current, and that’s going to make it so much easier for you.
MW: The title of your book is “Ambition Redefined.” In what way does it need to be redefined?
KS: It needs to have a broader definition. It’s just not true that ambitious women are only the ones aiming for the C-Suite. You can be an in-demand freelancer, who gets projects with cool companies all the time and you’re continually hustling for new projects. That should be considered ambitious. There’s power in the acceptance of different forms of ambition and success.
Plus, keeping more women in the workforce results in higher pay for everyone. Research shows that for every 10 percent increase in women working, there’s a 5 percent increase in wages across the board—for men and for women.
If women feel comfortable finding flexible work, they’re going to help other women, because more women are going to feel like they can be in the workforce and doing different things. One of the reasons that women do leave their jobs is not only because they feel like they can’t make it work schedule-wise with caregiving, but they also feel like unless they’re in this mainstream push to the top, they’re not really valued.
Beth Braverman is an award-winning freelance journalist and content producer, writing mostly about personal finance, parenting, and careers.