I came across an interesting study the other day that found that, when it comes to independent work – freelancing, consulting, you name it – those indie workers are more likely to be women. According to MBO Partners’ Independent Workforce Index, some 8.5 million women are choosing to fly solo when it comes to work, making up 53 percent of all independent workers.
It’s all about work life balance and career satisfaction, the study found, adding that many of the women they surveyed are finding their choice to go it alone more rewarding than traditional work.
Sounds quite dreamy, doesn’t it?
But when you look beyond the numbers, you realize there’s more involved here than the entrepreneurial spirit or the freedom to go to work in your jammies — which, when you come right down to it, really isn’t all that dreamy. One reason for the growing number of women saying “oh, phooey” to the land of nine-to-five may speak to something beyond career satisfaction, and that’s the workplace itself, which still skews a little Mad Men, where, for every Don behind the desk, there’s a Betty at home to take care of business. (Okay, Betty’s been replaced, but you get my point.)
This especially hits women with kids. Back when we were reporting our book, we came across a relevant study by Joan Williams, who’s a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and director of the Hastings Center for WorkLife Law. Her report, The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict, authored with the Center for American Progress, found that women with families were often marginalized or even pushed out when their jobs demanded 24/7 availability or when “full time” meant fifty hours a week or more.
In today’s workplace culture, that’s just about every job, right?
And then there’s this: while women make up close to half the workforce, they have yet to make their mark at the top of the ladder. According to the Catalyst 2011 Census:
women have made no significant gains in the last year and are no further along the corporate ladder than they were six years ago:
• Women held 16.1% of board seats in 2011, compared to 15.7% in 2010.
• Less than one-fifth of companies had 25% or more women board directors.
• About one in ten companies had no women serving on their boards.
• Women of color still held only 3% of corporate board seats.
• Women held 14.1% of Executive Officer positions in 2011, compared to 14.4% in 2010.
• Women held only 7.5% of Executive Officer top-earner positions in 2011, while men accounted for 92.5% of top earners.
• Less than one in five companies had 25% or more women Executive Officers and more than one-quarter had zero.
And don’t forget the “mommy track”—a term coined by the New York Times and based on an idea that Catalyst founder Felice Schwartz proposed in a Harvard Business Review article back in 1989. The term still stings. Schwartz’ article suggested that businesses could accommodate the growing number of working mothers by offering them alternative career paths. Good perhaps in theory, but in practice, what it meant was that women who bought into such arrangements were stereotyped as less serious about their careers. The upshot? Rather than corporate America changing structures to accommodate those who wanted/needed a life outside of work (um, all of us?), many women had the choice made for them and found themselves sidelined.
Still do. Which is why, I suspect many women, as as several sources told us and as MBO found, are thumbing their nose at the mommy track entirely and carving their own paths, often from their own homes. (One such “mompreneuer” is the quintessential Gen-Xer, Soleil Moon Frye—a.k.a. Punky Brewster—who cofounded an ecofriendly baby-products business called The Little Seed.) But what those women often find – whether or not they have kids – is that they’re always “on” – working longer, harder, faster –- often juggling several things at once.
We found other women who tried to make work work by cutting back to part-time. A report from the U.S. Joint Economic Committee showed that in 2009, some 17 million American women worked part-time— approximately one-fourth of all working women. And while part-time arrangements can be a good compromise, the bad news is that they not only present their own glass ceilings, but they pay less too. The report found that part-timers (nearly two-thirds of them are women) make less per hour than full-timers—even for the same work. And, as one bright thirty-something found, even the best part-time arrangement can have its own set of hazards.
A media liason who cut back when her first child was born, she thought she’d hit the jackpot when she negotiated a job-sharing gig: Two days in the office, one day working from home. But what she realized is that the flexibility had bought her a whole new set of hazards:
“My own expectations were too high,” she told us. “News seemed to hit on days I wasn’t in the office. I had only co-ownership over my position and therefore less power. And I seemed to disappoint my boss regularly, just by virtue of the schedule. It’s a tough adjustment to go from being a valuable team player to a part-timer who has to be out the door at five and won’t be in tomorrow. Also, there was no hope for advancement…”
And finally, there’s this: when you work at home, what you gain in flexibility, you sometimes lose in sanity. Trust me on this one. Back when my kids were young, I worked from home as a freelance magazine writer, and more often than not, I’d get a callback from a source right around five o’clock, known to parents everywhere as the witching hour. Once I flipped open my notebook, it was a cue to my kids for all hell to break loose. It often did. You can ask me about that sometime.
Then again — if you’re about to declare your independence — don’t.