How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career

Guest: Lisen Stromberg, CEO and Founder of Prism Work


Many of us think of a career as the period between college graduation and retirement. We’ve bought into the myth that taking a pause is considered a career killer because to truly be successful, we have to keep working!

As a result, many companies both large and small have developed a work-first culture that operates 24/7.

But what if we want more from life than just work?

I’m not talking about work and life balance.

I mean taking a real pause that is longer than a weekend or a month vacation and isn’t tied to work (e.g., taking a sabbatical from work to write a book, travel, start a company, or go back to school).

I mean pausing just for a life goal—like parenthood.

Is it even possible and can we do it without killing our careers?

To help us answer this question, I’ve invited Lisen Stromberg, who is the CEO and Founder of Prism Work, a culture innovation consultancy. She and her team partner with companies, leaders, and advocates to innovate the workplace so the next generation isn’t forced to choose between work and family. Lisen is also the author of the new book, Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career.

Here’s what you’ll learn from Lisen in this episode:

  • Why we should consider planning a pause in our career;
  • Why one of the reasons we don’t pause for parenthood is the stigma behind caregiving;
  • How our current work culture puts a strain on fathers; and
  • Why pausing isn’t a career killer and many go on to thrive after their pause.

Watch the episode and let us know what you think in the comments!

Listen to the episode on iTunes!

You can listen to this episode of FemgineerTV on iTunes. Please take a moment to leave us a review. Your positive review will help us get featured in News & Noteworthy and bring more exposure to the work we’re doing, as well as the talented guests we feature!

Back to main

Like this video? Here are some others you might enjoy:

How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career: Transcript

Poornima Vijayashanker: Welcome to the 24th episode of Femgineer TV, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker, the founder of Femgineer. In this show, I host innovators in tech, and together, we debunk myths and misconceptions related to building tech products and companies. One myth that we’ve all come across is the need to prioritize work above life. As a result, it means we can’t take a lot of pauses, and it also means that we end up working for companies both large and small that prioritize work first above everything else. Now, I’m not talking about work-life balance. I mean what if we really want to take a real pause, beyond just a week off or a month off for a vacation? Let’s say we want to pause for something like parenthood. What do we do, and is it even possible to do so without killing our careers? Well, to help us answer this question, I’ve invited Lisen Stromberg, who is the CEO and founder of Prism Work, a culture innovation consultancy.

Lisen and her team work with company leaders and advocates to make sure that the next generation doesn’t have to struggle between making the choice of work and life. Lisen also has a recent book out called Work PAUSE Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career, and we’re going to be talking about her book as well as all the work that Lisen does, so thanks so much for joining us today.

Lisen Stromberg: It’s an absolute pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. You’re welcome. So I remember, when I started my career 13 years ago, I recall a number of people who would end up deciding if they wanted to quit and to become parents, and they would say, “I’m leaving this company to be with my kids,” and I thought, “OK, that’s a little strange,” because I came from a family of immigrants who never paused and just kind of worked throughout their career, but I thought, “OK, good for them,” and then got back to coding, and I thought maybe I’d feel differently as I got older. But I’ve noticed that over the last 13 years in my career, I have come across people who have paused, but it’s always been for something like, “I’m pausing to write a book,” or, “I’m pausing to travel,” or, “I’m pausing because I’m taking a sabbatical,” right, “and doing something else,” so it’s always been sort of work-related. I have yet to hear somebody who said, “I’m pausing to take care of my kids or to take care of a parent,” but what you’re saying is that it is possible to take a pause for parenthood.

Lisen Stromberg: I actually think that not only is it possible, but it’s really important to plan these things into your career. Just like you might plan for a sabbatical, like you might plan to travel the world, explore new things, write a book, you too can also plan to pause for parenthood, if that’s your choice and that’s right for your family. I’m advocating, in fact, rather than just quitting, which I don’t think is the right thing to do, to really be thinking this through and thinking about why you might want to do it, and why you might not want to do it. There’s a lot of reasons not to do it as well.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So let’s talk about your career, right? Because you had a very thriving career and then you decided to take a pause. When did you decide you wanted to pause?

Lisen Stromberg: Well, let me start with, I never envisioned that I would actually pause my career. I was a gung-ho, I had worked since I was 14. I was a career woman, and I was a brand manager at Nestlé, and I had my first son, and he ended up coming six weeks early, and he spent the first few months of his life, or fewest month of his life, in the ICU, came home, ultimately was quite healthy. It was great, and I ended up going back to my job and back in all in, decided that I actually wanted to shift my job. I got recruited in by Foote, Cone & Belding, an advertising agency here in San Francisco, was promoted to vice-president.

Things were great, got pregnant with my second, and it was about a third of the way or half of the way into the pregnancy that I ended up really having some trouble, and so I was forced on bed rest. That period of time of literally doing nothing but being in bed rest really shifted who I was and what I wanted out of life, and wasn’t to say I didn’t really want to have a great career, but I also realized that for a period of time, for a pause, I needed to actually be available to my family. When my daughter was finally born, full-term, healthy, I went to my employer, and I actually wanted to not quit. What I wanted was to work part-time, to downshift a little bit just to kind of help me settle in.

Not an option. Nothing was available to me, and at the time, I just said, “Well, they wanted me either all in or all out,” and I said, “Well, I’m going to have to be out, then.” So I paused temporarily, and then I ended up starting my own consulting practice working with high-tech startups here in Silicon Valley. That was a really exciting time, and then ultimately shifted again and moved, and nothing I ever planned on doing, but ended up moving into becoming a journalist, and then now, of course, I’m full circle, and I’m back actually working with companies, consulting with them about culture and helping them figure out how they can avoid making women like me leave because there aren’t options. What a shame.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So then ultimately, what inspired you to write the book?

Lisen Stromberg: Well, of course, when Sheryl Sandberg came out with Lean In, I was incredibly inspired by what she had written. There’s a lot of controversy about what she’d written, but I felt that she was actually naming some things that really had to be named. What she didn’t name, though, and discuss in any detail, was, “OK, how do you do it when you have children?” And I had so many young women come to me and say, “Lisen, you seem to have figured it out, this out. What do I do?” And I thought, “Well, there’s got to be research. I’m a data queen. I love data, right? I’m in Silicon Valley. I want this.” I was astounded to learn that there was nothing, no national research on professional women in their careers and how they were navigating this work-life issue.

Or there was. That’s not true, there is studies, but they’re old. They aren’t contemporary studies, so I said, “Let’s find out what’s going on,” so I actually interviewed 186 women, surveyed 1,500 more, to find out about their career paths, and the one thing that really surprised me is, many incredible professional women, women who were at the top of their field, actually have pauses hidden into their careers, but they don’t talk about them. They don’t really address them.

They sort of, not intentionally, or maybe even intentionally, do kind of hide them, and I thought, “No, no, no. We need to be transparent about this. We need to speak our truth and say, ‘Hey, I did this because I needed to. I’m back in. I’m all for it, and I’m thriving,’” and that was the message that I wanted to convey, so that was the book I wrote.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So in the book, you talk about this stigma that we have in a lot of different working environments where everything is work first, and as a result, we have caregiver bias, and that care could be towards a parent or a child, but for our conversation, we’re going to focus on children and being a parent, so why does this stigma even exist? Can you walk us through this a little bit?

Lisen Stromberg: Well, it was fascinating. One of the things I was trying to understand was, why is it so hard for us, as a society, actually support caregiving? And I was astounded to learn that we have what, and I think we all intuitively know this, we have this thing called the ideal worker bias. And the ideal worker is that person who has no home responsibilities, can just be all in all of the time, can really just give it their all. Which is great, right? We want that. Sometimes. Because the truth of the matter, all the research also proves that the individual who’s all in all the time doesn’t actually produce the best work over the length of time. Sure, we can do that in spurts, but if that’s their constant delivery, that’s not successful, so we’ve got this bias that says if you’re all in all the time, that’s the way you’re the most important, best worker.

What happens, unfortunately, is that that ideal worker ends up getting promoted, because everyone thinks they’re the most successful, whether or not they actually are in terms of producing the best work. They then hire in the next person who’s just like that, and you’ve got this self-fulfilling prophecy. Meanwhile, those who have responsibilities outside the home, typically women, although not always, men actually…more and more men are taking responsibilities for families, but those who have these external responsibilities who are forced to have flexible schedules, who are forced to have these things, they end up being, there is this perception that there’s something called flexibility bias, this perception they’re not really committed. Well, in fact, all the research is now coming out showing that over the course of your lifetime, the most productive and the most effective worker is actually a working mother, and there’s tons of really fascinating research that’s just coming out that I’m really thrilled to share, and I do share some of it in my book.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Wonderful.

Lisen Stromberg: Yeah.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Now let’s talk about maternity and paternity leave. Is that not enough, or…?

Lisen Stromberg: Well, let’s talk about that.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lisen Stromberg: You do know, and I’m sure we all are sort of hearing that we are one of two countries in the world that actually don’t, or industrialized world, that don’t provide paid parental leave to, or maternity leave, let’s say, to our citizens. So that’s unconscionable. How could the United States, one of the leading countries, arguably maybe the leading country in the world, not offer that? That’s ridiculous. So we don’t actually offer it on a national basis. If you’re lucky enough to live here in California, you actually do have six weeks of paid disability leave, but outside of your three states have it, it’s a real issue, so then you’re forced to rely on your employer. Well, your employer, it turns out only 9% of the employers pay full leave, full six weeks leave, in this country. Only 9%.

That vast majority don’t, so what that means is, the vast majority of American women do not have paid leave in any way, shape, or form. They’re forced to just take time off for a new baby, and most of them don’t, because they can’t, so this is a whole…we live in, sadly, a bubble.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Lisen Stromberg: We think everyone has this, and they don’t, across this country, so that’s that answer. Then in terms of what about here, what about this tech world where everyone’s getting it,right?

That’s awesome, and you know what? It is awesome. There’s tons of research around men taking paternity leave and the longitudinal effects of them actually doing it. Studies out of Canada, Norway, and Sweden, who have had paternity leave, paid paternity leave, for 15 years, 30 years, 20 years now, they’re actually showing that longitudinally, the women, their partners, are much more engaged in their careers, and the kids are literally physically healthier and do better in school, so when dads take paternity leave, the families thrive, which I think is fascinating to me, but we, unfortunately, have a real stigma.

A lot of men may actually have access to paternity leave, but they’re not taking it, and that, to me, is a real shame. One, it’s money on the table. If you’ve got paid leave, why are you not taking it? Oh, that makes sense. And two, what a missed opportunity to not bond with your family.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure. So it’s great that, yes, in tech, we have a lot of companies that are offering anywhere from 3 to 12 months of maternity and paternity leave, but sometimes it’s not enough, so what do we do in those cases?

Lisen Stromberg: Well, I think there’s two issues here. One, there’s the issue of just after you’ve had a child, like my experience, how we on-ramp the person who’s been pausing, or taking maternity leave. So how are we? Do we expect them to come in right away, on full board, deliver the day they get back? I think that’s, frankly, unreasonable.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, you don’t expect that even from a first-time hire.

Lisen Stromberg: Thank you.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lisen Stromberg: Exactly right. Especially not a first-time hire who’s still not getting any sleep, is trying to breast-feed, etc.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Lisen Stromberg: Right? So I think the idea of really evaluating and offering smart on-ramping programs makes sense, and really, it comes up to the employee. If some employees are ready to go back in full time. Many aren’t. They need to work three days a week to four days a week to five days a week, and I know a number of smart companies that are there doing that. I interviewed a senior, the head of engineering at Medium, and he actually had done exactly that with the employees in his team. He was like, “Look, if you need to come back in on your schedule, you do,” and that created all kinds of loyalty, so what’s happening is, if you actually are supporting the employee in that re-entry period, they’re less likely to jump ship. Now, let’s say you get them back in and they’re in for a period of time. What do you do then?

And, of course, there’s number of smart companies now, PayPal, and, actually, we had a whole, long list just announced just this last week, indicating that they’re offering what’s called returnships or return-to-work programs. This is specifically targeted to men and women who’ve paused for more than two years to care for family members. It doesn’t have to be a mother. It can be, if you’re caring for a loved one who’s dying, or whatever the issue is, and you get retraining, you do a 16-week training program, and then you’re offered an opportunity to have a full-time job, and those programs are incredibly successful as well, so it gives you just after you’ve had a child, and if you do need to pause, a way to get back in, and your career is not, then…

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, that’s great.

Lisen Stromberg: Yes.

Poornima Vijayashanker: I’m sure people that are in the workforce actually would love that, because it would give them a chance to brush up on their skills and be relevant as well.

Lisen Stromberg: Isn’t that so fascinating, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lisen Stromberg: Exactly, right? Is there some kind of rotational program that we could create so that you don’t have this sense of, “Well, that’s a privileged person because they’ve had a child. What about me? I haven’t had a child. What do I get?” Right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Lisen Stromberg: We need to be really respectful of that, and it’s really important to do that.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So that brings up a good next question, which is the idea of special arrangements. Like a lot of times, companies may have a special arrangement because someone’s been around for a long time, or they’re senior-level position, and so they’re not talking about it, and in your book, you mentioned how it actually creates a lot of disgruntled employees.

Lisen Stromberg: Sure. You can’t hide that stuff.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lisen Stromberg: Let’s be clear. In fact, well, you can. I’ll tell you a story. One of my best friends from college who was a very successful executive in the luxury good business, she told me when I was writing the book, “Well, you didn’t know this, but I’ve been working part-time for the last 10 years.” None of her employees apparently knew. She’d been hiding the fact that she’d been doing that, and the company insisted she hide the fact. I think that’s an utter failure, frankly. I think if we can be more open about these things and then convey to people, “Look, we know we want your lifetime engagement. We know we want you to be engaged in your career. We’re going to support you, so if right now, you need this, we’ll work with you on this, and we’ll end up welcoming you back in after you’ve had that downshifting, and not make it forever but for a temporary period of time.” And the research I did with the 1,500 women that I surveyed, 72% of them had paused their careers, which was surprising to me.

I didn’t go out asking, “Did you pause your…,” highly successful women, “Did you pause your career?” Then, when I came back, to find out 72% had actually paused for longer than 6 months and not maternity-leave related, that, to me, was a real surprise. What they told me was that many of them who had actually worked part-time only worked part-time for two years. That was the average time, so when you create these arrangements and say it’s not going to be forever, it’s, “In this intense period, I only need this now, and my career will not be locked into that,” then you actually create opportunity for awareness. Men can get it, which I think is really important. We’re seeing more and more guys want to be engaged as caregivers and active caregivers and want to be able to do these things, and they’re not given the freedom to do that if it’s all hidden and hush hush. Let’s take the bandaid off and be more transparent.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So let’s actually, let’s dive into the men next. You said…one of the aspects I really liked about the book, and I kept nudging my husband like, “You need to read this next,” was, you talked about the stigma about the stay-at-home dad, right? And how that’s become such a factor and prevents people from, one, taking their paternity leave, but also engaging with their children during their career and kind of they feel, at the end of the day, like, “Wow, I sort of missed out.” Right? So let’s talk about that, about the stigma that exists today for men.

Lisen Stromberg: Well, I’d like to divide it a little bit.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure.

Lisen Stromberg: Let’s first talk about the stigma that exists for men around caregiving. Right? So look, we have, when a man actually engages with his kids, he’s challenging our gender norms. He’s actually doing something that we don’t think, necessarily, is…not “we,” some people might say, “Hey, this isn’t what men do. Men are out there being providers,” but the more we expect men to be the providers, the less we allow women to be providers, and the more we expect women to be caregivers, unless we allow men to be caregivers. So I actually say, “Let’s shift this and kind of break it open and say, ‘Women are providers, men are providers. Women are caregivers, men are caregivers,’” and we have that opportunity.

So there’s that one issue, and then the other issue is the rise, and there is absolutely a rise, of stay-at-home dads, no question about that. The reason there’s a rise is arguably we have this, as you mentioned, this workforce culture. We have the concept of the ideal worker. Well, the ideal worker is irreverent, or it doesn’t matter what the gender is of that worker, so it could literally be a man or a woman. They just have to be ideal. That man or woman needs someone at home caring for the family if they have kids, so what happens? They send someone home, sometimes it’s the woman. Usually it’s the woman, but now it’s increasingly the man. That’s not an optimal solution. I don’t think that’s solving the problem. If we don’t solve the workplace, so both of us can be both providers and caregivers, we’re not creating a solution for all.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So what can we do to engage fathers so that they can play an active role, both as a parent as well as in their companies?

Lisen Stromberg: One of the things I loved about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, which I definitely pick up on, is the whole concept of the maternal gatekeeping, and there’s all kinds of information about how women actually prevent men from being engaged caregivers, so we need to stop that, ladies.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yes.

Lisen Stromberg: Stop it now. So that’s one issue. How do you engage men, actually support them in being great caregivers? That’s the first thing. That is what we can do at home. What can we do in the office? Look, there is really fascinating study that came out, I think it was Ernst & Young who did this, and they basically were revealing that men take as much time, senior men take often as much time as women do, senior women do, to be with kids. They just don’t say, “I’m going out to my son’s baseball game,” or “My daughter’s soccer game,” or whatever, where the woman is much more transparent and forthcoming, “This is what I’m doing.”

So the men are actually perceived as going out to a meeting, when in fact they may actually not be going out to a meeting, so if the men can actually be more forthcoming about what they’re doing, then the woman can be, too, and everyone wins. Everyone understands, “Hey, the guys are actually putting their family as a priority as well, and that means I can,” and that’s a win for everybody.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice. So it seems like pausing is ideal for everybody, but we know that there are some groups, for financial reasons, they just can’t pause. Walk us through who those groups are and maybe how we can avoid having to reduce our standard of living.

Lisen Stromberg: So you’re asking a really important question here, and there’s a lot of ways that we need to look at this. First, let’s talk about the concept of the stay-at-home mom. For the first time in history…in the first time in the last 20 years, we’re seeing a rise in stay-at-home moms, but what’s interesting is, we’re not seeing an increase of 1% stay-at-home moms. What we’re seeing is the rise of middle-class and lower-income or under-resourced moms. That is a problem. It’s not that we want women to stay home. It’s that they’re being forced to stay home, because the workplace doesn’t allow them to integrate these kids with their careers. There’s also this double bind around motherhood. We have almost a double perception of what’s a good mother. If you have means, it’s questionable whether you should actually continue a career. “Why aren’t you at home with your children? Don’t you value your family?” You get that all the time. The flip side is, if you don’t have means, “Why aren’t you out there providing for your family? What’s wrong with you?” Right?

Why is it that we’re always considering mothers as failures no matter what we do? We need to shift that off and say, “We want mothers in the workplace. We want women to contribute, and we need to figure out a way to do that.” What’s happening, though, unfortunately, is they can’t. We have public policies that actually harm working families in this country, don’t have universal daycare. You can’t actually put a child in daycare if they don’t have diapers, and many under-resourced mothers can’t afford diapers, so we’ve got this horrible situation where they’re forced to stay home, even though they want to work. They’re pausing, and it’s not by choice. The other thing to think about pausing is that, in fact, what I’m finding is, the number of college-educated millennial women that I interviewed told me that they were pausing, and they didn’t want to.

They had such high student loans that when they had children, they couldn’t afford childcare and student loans, and what was forced to give was childcare, so they’re actually forced to pay their student loans, can’t go to work, because they actually have to be home with their children because they have, they can’t do both. That’s unacceptable, to me, I would imagine. I would think it’s a real loss to our country, our economy. If we want a happy and thriving economy, we need to create environments where, actually, women can be in the workforce, not kind of be forced to pause, so I actually look at this not as a choice, but as a non-choice, and that’s a concern.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So is the issue, then, providing some subsidized universal daycare, or what are some options that are out there?

Lisen Stromberg: Well, I am absolutely convinced that the best way we can have more women engaged in the workforce, and, by the way, let me address that, our workforce, female workforce participation has stagnated in the last 25 years in the United States. It has not shifted. We hear about working moms. Well, guess what? The reality is, only 48% of mothers with children under the age of 18 work full-time. The rest are either not working or working part-time, so the whole myth of this 70% of moms with kids work full-time, that’s not accurate. We need real truth around this, so that’s one thing that we need to address, but what can we do about it? On a national basis, we have to get paid leave for women at the very least, men, preferably, as well. We have to start there. That’s a great place to start, and the second place, of course, to start is universal high-quality daycare like almost every other industrialized nation has.

We need to have that, and we need to start getting that as soon as possible. It costs more than a year of college tuition to cover a child’s daycare in this country right now. What do you do?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Wow. Yeah.

Lisen Stromberg: You choose, right? I choose to work to take care of my family now, or my children don’t go to college? Something’s got to give.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right. Let’s go back to what we were talking about before around the concept of pausing, and a lot of times we feel like it is a career killer for us, but your research actually points to the contrary. Talk about what you discovered as you did your research.

Lisen Stromberg: Well, this was a surprise. Here’s the real kind of headline news from the research. I had expected that the women who had paused their careers for an extended period of time would have actually really derailed their careers. What I discovered was the opposite. In fact, what I found was, women who had paused their careers, those who had paused for less than two years found it, vast majority found it easy to re-engage with their careers, wasn’t a problem at all, hop, skip, and a jump. I interviewed Joanna Pomykala at LinkedIn. She actually had paused for two years, worked part-time. She came from Microsoft, went to LinkedIn after her pause. Never missed a beat, now she’s rocking it over there. It’s really exciting to see so many women doing that. The women who had taken longer pauses, their relative ability to get back in shifted, obviously. If you’ve taken out 15 years, it can be challenging, although these returnship programs are creating a real opportunity for women who have had extensive pause to get back in.

But what I found fascinating is that the women who had never paused their career, who had just been all in the whole time, about 35% of them listed their career as senior manager and above. Then you look at the women who had paused their careers, which were the majority of women, 30% of them were senior managers or above, so there was no disconnect in terms of their ability to rise to the top of their level. I mean, a minor difference, not really statistically that significant. Then I thought, “Well, maybe they’re just self-promoting, and their titles are false.” On the contrary. The spread of where they were in terms of where they worked was equal amongst, essentially equal. The women who had stayed in their careers, most of them worked for very large companies. The really neat thing is that 20-some percent of women who had paused their careers became entrepreneurs and had very successful entrepreneurial careers, so here we are in Silicon Valley, and we’re seeing all these women say, “I’m not going to work for you. I’m starting my gig,” and that’s really exciting to see.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, so in your book, you actually talked about three types of pausers. You mentioned the cruisers, boomerangs, and pivoters. Walk us through each of these.

Lisen Stromberg: Sure, so the cruisers are the ones who actually didn’t completely leave the paid workforce. They might have consulted or worked part-time. They actually had, over the course of their careers, the highest life satisfaction. They were the most satisfied with their choice. They were the most satisfied with the way they had navigated their home life and their work life, so to me, that was like the obvious, for sure. And again, the average period of part-time work was about two years, so for me, it’s so obvious that that’s kind of a great long-term solution for the arc of a career. The second group are the boomerangs. These are the women who left completely the paid workforce, paused for a period of time, and then went back into their similar career, sometimes even their same jobs, same companies, etc. These women were really inspiring, because they knew that they wanted to get back in. They had maintained their networks, so when they were ready to reengage, they went back to where they were.

Now, they didn’t always go back at the same level. Because they had been out, they went in lower, but within two years, almost all of them had high-jumped way, in fact, and felt back on track. The vast majority, they reported they felt back on track within one year, and almost all of them within two years. I thought that was fascinating.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, that’s great.

Lisen Stromberg: The last group were the pivoters. These are the women who actually left their jobs and, frankly, that career, because they weren’t finding the right…it didn’t work for them. It wasn’t what they wanted, and they ended up pivoting to brand new careers. They went off and became entrepreneurs. One woman I interviewed ended up becoming a PhD in nutritional science and she was actually a coder. She was an engineer, so she completely shifted her gears. Still tough, but still.

Poornima Vijayashanker: It’s possible. Right.

Lisen Stromberg: Right, so I thought that was really fascinating, to see the number of women who really found a whole…their pause allowed them to find a whole new place in their life and their world that they might not have found.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So they ended up…yeah, they definitely ended up thriving.

Lisen Stromberg: Yes.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So you had mentioned before that some people had taken a short pause versus a long pause. Walk us through, does that actually matter? Does it matter if it’s one year versus 15? Obviously that might matter a little bit, because things change.

Lisen Stromberg: There is no question.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lisen Stromberg: Let’s be clear.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lisen Stromberg: If you’re going to pause in your career, then you need to really have it be a pause. It is temporary. If you were out for 5, 10, 15 years, that is actually opting out, and that’s a different way of looking at your career. It’s not to say that that’s not the right choice for the right individual and the right family, there’s no judgment here, but that’s going to have a different implication for your career. When I wrote this book, I actually was curious about the women who had taken that extended period of time out, and the women who had paused for more than 10 years found it very difficult to get back in. As would anybody who was out of their career. Whether that…for whatever reason, right? So let’s be really clear that that’s just, it’s…it’s not to say they couldn’t. It’s just to say that it was very challenging. The women who had paused for five years or less, particularly two years and less, where it was a no-brainer, for the five year and less, they were actually able to get in fairly well. Now, again, the secret to their success was that they had always viewed their careers as, “I’m still a professional. I’m just taking some time out of the paid workforce,” so that’s the distinction. If you can maintain your engagement, maintain your networks, communicate with people, stay active, keep your skills up, you can get back in.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. So let’s talk about the folks that may have a challenge, whether it’s 5 years or 15 years, because I know everybody says it is a challenge kind of having that gap in your résumé and going in and doing that first interview. What are some strategies that you would recommend to people, regardless of how long they had paused?

Lisen Stromberg: Well, I’d like to actually start with the question of what to do in advance of your pause, and I think this is actually not unique to women. I think this is true for men, too. You need to be really smart about how you want to navigate your career. You need to be thinking about the workplace that you’re in. What does it look like for families and caregivers, and for those with personal responsibilities, be it “I want to run a marathon,” or, “I want to raise, take my dog for the walk?” Whatever it is, does your workplace actually support that? Can you actually be authentic with who you are and say, “I have these priorities. I’m a really deeply engaged worker. I will get the work done. I will do what I need to do, and I’m going to actually take this moment out to go do,” whatever that thing is? Run the marathon, take your child to the soccer game, whatever it might be. That’s the first question, “Are you in an environment where you can thrive?” If you are, great. Don’t leave your job.

If you aren’t and you want to have children, I would get the heck out of there and find a new company where you can actually thrive, and they are out there.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So, I know regardless of whether we take a pause for one month, one year, beyond, it’s going to be a challenge to explain that gap in our résumé getting back in, so walk us through some strategies that can help our viewers who are trying to navigate that.

Lisen Stromberg: Well, there’s a really fascinating study out of Vanderbilt Law School from Joni Hersch, and she actually shared that employers love transparency. If you come in and say, “I paused my career for this two-year period because I wanted to be engaged with my young child, now I’m ready to go in and be full force,” you’re much more likely to get the job than if you actually try and hide what your reality was. Be honest, be transparent. But I would actually back up and say, before you even leave, before you even have children, look at your workplace and figure out, “Is this a place where I can thrive once I do have children?” And this is true for women and men. Look at the senior management. Do the men at the top have partners that actually have thriving careers? Do the men at the top actually engage and are very forthright with their engagement with their families or their passions, whatever that might be? Are the women at top…well, first of all, are there women at the top?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Lisen Stromberg: If there are women at the top, are they actually with partners who are engaged with their careers as well as with their families, etc.? What’s being modeled at the senior level? And also, what’s happening across your peer set? If someone pauses to, for maternity leave, what’s the attitude amongst the peers? How are they handling it? I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Jenni Snyder over at Yelp. She was the first woman in the technical area to become a mom, and she said, “It’s not that they were intentionally trying to be sexist or unsupportive. They just didn’t know what to do,” so she had to be a champion and educate them and support them, and she ended up creating a great moms group. She’s done a lot of educating in the teams over there, and that, to me, means that we have a lot of opportunities to champion. With the tech industry being such a young workforce, we’re going to see a lot of new parents the next decade. In fact, across the country, 64 million millennials are about to become parents.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Wow.

Lisen Stromberg: We got a major issue, and if workplaces aren’t prepared for that, they’re going to be in trouble.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yep. It’s great that you mention tech, because in a previous episode, we had talked about how, as you know, we have a pipeline problem, getting people in just for recruiting, and then retaining them is also a challenge, so it seems like finding parents who have paused or coming off of that pause would be a great way to fill that pipeline. Walk us through how some companies could actually put policies in to capture those folks.

Lisen Stromberg: Well, you’re asking a really important question. We talk so much about the pipeline here in tech. How often do we talk about retention? Do you hear anyone ever actually bring that up?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lisen Stromberg: Why not?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Lisen Stromberg: This is a major issue. In fact, it’s a very striking issue. If you look at…there’s research out of the National Society of Engineers and other places that have indicated that in tech from 50–60% of women leave mid-career, so they’re leaving not because they have children, but because the children are those tipping points. They’ve, all the unconscionable bad behavior, the unconscious bias, the overt bias, the everything we hear about, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Lisen Stromberg: They have all that going on, and they’re kind of willing to stick with it and kind of manage through it, until they have children. And then they say, “Why would I bother? I’ll go do something else,” so they actually have a mass exodus at this point. If you actually want to spend all that time focusing on the pipeline, God bless you, but you have a solution right now. You’ve got a huge alumni network of really talented women in tech. They may need some retraining, do it. Figure out, establish a return-to-work training program. Figure out how to get them back in. I interviewed this really great CEO, Bob Plaschke, CEO of Sonim Technologies. He had actually intentionally hired three or four returners because, he said, “They might be great workers.” His answer back to me was they were the hardest workers he had, because one, they were so, A, grateful to have a job, and B, they were ready to engage. So if you want really deep engagement, the smartest way to solve that is actually to get a woman returning to her career.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right, and I know, also, there are some programs out there. You mentioned GSVlabs, the ReBoot program, which I’ve actually spoken at as well. I think our viewers would benefit. Talk us through ReBoot and what they’re doing.

Lisen Stromberg: I’m on the advisory board.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, great.

Lisen Stromberg: It’s great.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lisen Stromberg: So ReBoot’s fascinating. It’s actually started by Diane Flynn, who’s the chief marketing officer of GSVlabs, and a number of other of her friends and colleagues. She herself was out for 13 years, so she’s really been a success.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, wow.

Lisen Stromberg: She’s a Work PAUSE Thrive success story. She thought, “This is ridiculous. We’ve got to get a way, create a way to help women re-enter and re-engage after they’ve taken a pause in their careers,” so they actually have an eight-week, deeply vetted training program that you go through, mostly technical training programs, get those technical skills up to speed. But the thing that’s really fascinating that Diane says, and they’ve landed a whole bunch of, people have gotten all kinds of jobs, they’ve got kinds of great research. It’s really a fascinating program, but one of the things that Diane said is, “The biggest challenge these women face isn’t necessarily bias from the employer. It’s actually their own confidence.” They’ve been out for so long they doubt that they have value, and then, of course, once they’re back in, boom, they realize, “I have so much to offer. Why did I doubt myself?” But there is that period where they’re trying to find a job and are questioning, and they know that they’re facing motherhood bias, and they know they’re facing caregiver bias, and they know that they’re facing this, and it’s true. One of the things that tech can really do is look at, who are the gatekeepers? Are the HR gatekeeping people who you’re interviewing, do they actually understand how powerful these employees could be? Are they actually looking at motherhood as not a problem, but actually a great value add? That’s a real training they’re going to have actually in the HR departments and actually look at the gate-keeping thing.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Well, I want to dig in more. Well, I want to save some good stuff for people out there to pick up a copy of your book. So last question for you, what are some trends that you’re seeing amongst millennial workers? You mentioned there are 64 million millennials out there who are going to be parents soon. What are you noticing?

Lisen Stromberg: Well, what I like to tell my clients is that if you actually solve for motherhood, you solve for millennials and the reason I say that is, if you look at my generation of Gen X mothers, we are these incredible career innovators and trailblazers. The women who work, pause, and thrive, the reason they thrive, just because they actually create their own gig economy. They went out there, they did gig work, they actually did all this. This is what we’re seeing millennials do right now. The other thing we’re seeing is millennials, more than Gen X and baby boomers, have indicated they really value work-life balance. In fact, Ernst & Young did a study that showed that male millennials, more than female millennials, are willing to pause their careers, are willing to take lower pay, and are willing to change jobs if they don’t get work-life balance.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. Good.

Lisen Stromberg: They don’t talk about it.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lisen Stromberg: They don’t call it that, but that’s what they’re doing. That’s how they’re acting. If we could actually look at that and say, “Hey, employers. You’re going to actually thrive if you can figure out how to deconstruct this for, deconstruct the caregiving issue for millennials, you’re actually going to have a more engaged workforce,” so that’s what I sort of see happening, and we’re seeing more and more of that happen.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Wonderful. Well, it looks like the future is positive, and I hope it continues to stay bright through your work. Thank you so much for joining us today, Lisen.

Lisen Stromberg: It’s an absolute pleasure.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lisen Stromberg: Thank you for having me.

Poornima Vijayashanker: You’re welcome. And thanks to all you viewers out there for tuning in today, and special thanks to our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker, for their help in producing this episode of Femgineer TV. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, and I’m hoping that you have, please share it with your friends, your teammates, and certainly your boss so that people can see they can pause for parenthood and get back right into the game and continue to thrive. Please subscribe to our YouTube channel to get the next episode of Femgineer TV. Ciao for now.

This episode of Femgineer TV is brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. Build better software faster.

FemgineerTV is produced as a partnership between Femgineer and Pivotal Tracker. San Francisco video production by StartMotionMEDIA.