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Finding their way, fueling the economy

A high percentage of women in the workforce is an advantage for more than just businesses and families. It benefits all of us.

Monica Desai and Kami Ekins are two well-educated, highly skilled women — the kind of talent American businesses need to innovate and grow.

But at a certain point in their lives, both women felt they needed to make a hard, if not impossible choice: family or career.

“The culture that I was raised in taught that women should stay home and raise a family, if possible,” said Ekins, who didn’t start her full-time accounting career until her late 40s. “But I knew that I wanted to get an education, and I always had the possibility of a career in the back of my mind. So I was trying to juggle all of that.”

In contrast, Desai was devoted to her career from the time she earned her master’s degree in computer science and engineering at Penn State University and began her rapid rise in the tech industry. Then, in her 30s, when she and her husband decided it was time to start a family, she knew she’d never be satisfied with 10 weeks of maternity leave. And she worried her hard-won professional success would slip away.

Both women found a way to combine robust careers with family. But like most women, they couldn’t assume they’d make it work.

The motherhood penalty

Taking time out to care for children often costs a woman professionally. In fact, sociologists have a name for it: “the motherhood penalty.

Several studies confirm that employers view mothers as less capable and less devoted to their jobs. That perception not only hurts women’s opportunities, but it also hurts the economy, because it discourages women like Desai and Ekins from starting or growing their careers at a time when the economy clearly needs their talent.

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Although the U.S. economy is the largest and richest in the world, productivity gains and wage increases since the turn of the century have been minuscule. One reason, experts say, is that the country is not taking advantage of its entire talent pool, especially women with special skills and leading-edge training who have sacrificed careers for motherhood.

“Women are a critical piece of the economy,” said Jen Thompson, executive vice president and director of investor relations and economic analysis for U.S. Bancorp in Minneapolis.

Yet it’s not always easy for women, especially mothers, to fully participate in that economy.

Taking a break

Monica Desai had risen quickly in Silicon Valley. She enjoyed top sales and business development positions at tech firms such as Cisco, NetApp and Citrix. And she was an exception; in the tech industry, women in senior leadership roles are scarce.

Despite all she’d achieved, Desai quit her job in her 30s to devote herself to her new baby. She told people she would go back to work after taking some time off. But deep down, she knew she was taking a big risk.

“Am I going to get the chance to come back?” she recalls worrying. “How will I explain this gap?”

Fortunately, after spending two years caring for her daughter, Desai was able to rejoin Citrix in Santa Clara, California. Moreover, she said, the company’s support allowed her to resume her work almost seamlessly.

Monica Desai, at home in San Ramon, California. She took two years off to spend time with her daughter before returning to work. (Photo by Patrick Tehan)

Desai is now a senior director of global technology partnerships for Citrix. And she’s on a trajectory again: CRN, a publication that covers the IT industry, recently named her to its annual Rising Female Stars list.

“One of the lessons I have learned is that I can continue to be the best mom for my child, but also be my best self,” she said. “The two go hand in hand in many ways, as being a mom makes me better at work, and being at work makes me a better mom. I can’t imagine one without the other, and taking some time off allowed me to understand that.”

Desai was lucky. Her husband also works in Silicon Valley; she could afford to interrupt her career to take time off to care for a child. Single mothers and women with less household income don’t have that kind of flexibility. Nor do many of them enjoy the clear support of their employer as Desai does.

More women, more pay

Research indicates that, far from being a drag on a business, women may actually be key to success. Because they hold more advanced degrees than men, women can offer different perspectives and ideas that can reenergize companies and industries operating under outdated business models.

“The data is clear,” Thompson of U.S. Bancorp said. “A diverse talent pool, with a broad range of thought, expertise and experience, contributes to a company’s growth potential and profitability.”

And there are concrete benefits: Research has shown that greater participation by women in the labor force produces wage gains for everyone. For every 10% increase in the number of women working, overall wages rise about 5%, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Regional Science.

A study by S&P Global showed that firms with female CEOs and CFOs have produced higher stock price gains, compared to the market average. In their first two years on the job, female CEOs oversaw an average 20% increase in the stock price momentum of their companies, and female CFOs witnessed a 6% increase in profits and 8% jump in stock returns.

Bottom line: For the United States to generate more wealth for more people, the country needs women to work. The skills, expertise and experience of women like Desai are especially crucial when you consider the economy has endured three wage-battering, wealth-destroying recessions since 2000.

But the motherhood penalty has deep roots in workplace culture. Employers are less likely to hire mothers than men or childless women. And that works against the prosperity of women, businesses and the economy as a whole.

Late bloomer

Beginning when she was a child, Ekins worked at Christensen’s Clothing, her family’s department store in St. George, Utah. The experience sparked an interest in business, which led to her earning her master’s degree in accounting from Brigham Young University. But she didn’t pursue a career at that time, deciding instead to stay home and raise a family.

During the years she raised her five children, Ekins never let go of her professional hopes. She worked part-time as an accountant when time permitted. And then, in her late 40s, with her children grown, Ekins applied for an accounting job at Vasion, a software company in St. George.

Kami Ekins always hoped to use her accounting to build a career. After raising five children, she’s grateful to have found a company “willing to hire someone at my stage of life.” (Photo by Jack Dempsey)

Vasion hired her over a number of younger applicants and now, at age 50, she works as a senior accountant. Ekins said she hopes to ascend one day to comptroller or chief financial officer.

“I love learning, and I see how far I’ve come in three years,” she said. “I’ve always been tech-savvy, and it has been fun to learn all the software. I don’t feel any disadvantage for having started my career later than some.”

She feels a real sense of satisfaction working as an accountant and using the degree she earned more than 25 years ago.

“It’s amazing, and I feel very satisfied in my career and all aspects of my life,” Ekins said. “I’m really glad that I jumped on this opportunity and grateful the company was willing to hire someone at my stage of life.”

For the benefit of all

Desai and Ekins both enjoy their professional accomplishments. But the rest of us will ultimately benefit from their work.

U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh recently told NPR that women are key to the country’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. The global pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on women, as millions of mothers left the labor force when schools and day care centers closed.

“If we’re going to have a strong recovery, a strong, equitable recovery,” Walsh said, “we need to get women back into the workforce.”

Furthermore, the U.S. economy faces an enormous shortage of workers as baby boomers retire and population growth slows. According to recent census data, U.S. population growth over the past decade slowed to its lowest rate since the 1930s.

For her part, Desai plans to use her influence to help other women to pursue careers.

“I’m now mentoring others, and it’s so gratifying to me,” Desai said. “People did that for me, and I wanted to just pay it forward. But then the other part is, ‘Man, I’ve learned so much in this journey. If I can make it better for somebody else, I want to.’ “

Thomas Lee

Thomas Lee is a longtime business writer and author. His work includes “Rebuilding Empires” (St. Martin’s Press) and “Workquake” (Amplify Publishing), which he ghost-wrote.