Economists studying women and work have consistently cited career interruptions as a one of the main reason that a variety of workplace inequalities persist—from long-term pay penalties for dropping out, to missing promotions that would (theoretically) put women in leadership positions. In fact, the gender pay gap is the most dire for married women. And while the overall pay gap has been slowly closing for decades, the motherhood penalty—whereby women with children experience wage penalties that women without children and men don’t—has not diminished over time.
The term “off-ramping” is used to describe women who are voluntarily leaving their job for an extended amount of time. In a 2015 survey from Pew Research, nearly 40 percent of women with children reported taking a significant amount of time off work, and 27 percent reported quitting their jobs for responsibilities at home. And for these women, the “on ramps” can be hard to locate when they’re ready to rejoin the workforce.
“I guess I had always just expected in my head that I would finish up to a certain point with my children, and then go back to work. When that time came, it was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be,” said Lisa Stephens, who left the workforce in 1992. Stephens had worked at IBM in the software department, and decided to stay home to raise her two sons. Twenty years later, Stephens wanted to go back to work and started strategizing how she could make that happen. She took courses online on software development, and started to pursue an advanced degree, but wasn’t seeing much interest from employers. Her break came in the form of an internship designed specifically for women who had taken career breaks with the data company Return Path. Stephens was part of the inaugural class or a 20-week paid “return internship” at the company, and was hired on full-time as a software engineer at the conclusion of the internship.