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kanterOh, boy, is Rosabeth Moss Kanter in the soup.  She’s a Harvard Business School professor and blogs for the Harvard Business Review.  And her latest post takes on the myth that staying home with your kids somehow equips you to be a captain of industry, in Why Running a Family Doesn’t Help You Run a Business.

Kanter makes a point that the skills look good in theory, but the reality is that it’s not an apples to apples comparison.  For example, in the workplace, you don’t generally tower over your staff by several feet and have to cut up their meat for them.  (This is a very liberal paraphrasing of her perspective.)

Here’s my take on it.  Some really smart, capable women stay home with their kids. It’s a choice they make and they generally know that they’re going to pay a price for it.  The young woman in the next cubicle over who has a baby and doesn’t stay home, but instead juggles family and work life may lose a lot of sleep and her house is probably not very clean and she may fight more with her husband about who has to go to the grocery store on the weekend… but she is also learning new skills, getting challenging assignments, building a network, and getting promotions or a job at a new company.  At most, the stay-at-home mom is volunteering at the library or organizing the Boy Scout fundraiser. Ten years down the road, the stay-at-home mom has had one set of experiences, and the family-work juggling mom has had a different set.   These experiences do lead to different skill sets.

And frankly, one of the skill sets is salable.  And the other one isn’t.

So… let’s revisit that smart, capable woman.  Call her Lucy.   Let’s imagine Lucy is 28, head over heels in love with Frank, and she’s just given birth to little Sam.  Lucy likes her job as a coordinator at a midsize nonprofit, but she doesn’t love it, and since Frank is doing well, they decide she will stay home with Sam.  Sam is followed by Max and Lily… and when Lily goes into first grade, 40-year-old Lucy decides to re-enter the job force.   Her resume stops 12 years ago.

But her contemporaries – the smart and capable women who stayed on the job for the past 12 years – are now directors and VPs.  (Because they were smart and capable.)  So Lucy isn’t competing with them.  She’s not qualified for the jobs that they currently hold, let alone the next step up the ladder.

Lucy’s competing with the 28-year-olds who have a few years experience or just got out of grad school.  The women (and men) that are functioning at the level Lucy was at when she opted out.  These young people have up-to-date skills and recent successes in the workplace, and they “fit” the job they are applying for. The sad thing is that Lucy would probably be a great hire.  But her competition is an easy hire.  And that’s how Lucy gets derailed, permanently.

Scanning the comments, Kanter’s taking a lot of heat.  Where’s the data? people want to know.  Who did the study?  Personally, I like to see Rosabeth Moss Kanter show a little spark.   Blogging’s all about opinions.  But real life will tell you – no study needed – that coming back to work after a few years away is a hard row to hoe, and whether that’s right or fair, it just is.

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