Women face challenge in balancing business, family
When Cheri Elefante was pregnant with her first child, she continued to work at the Family Nurturing Center until she was nearly due to deliver.

She liked her job as a family place coordinator, which fell right in line with her SUNYIT degree in psychology.

Having daughter Victoria, now 2, changed her and her husband's priorities.

"Once I left, that was it," said Elefante, 36, a Marcy resident who still is a stay-at-home mother.

Elefante is part of the large exodus of professional women from the workplace for an average of 2.2 years, a practice that's known as "off-ramping."

The issue is among those that will be discussed across the country this week as National Business Women's Week begins. The week publicizes women's participation in the workplace, as well as issues of concern, including women taking off-ramps.

The driving factor in off-ramping is usually the pursuit of more family time, followed by leaving work to pursue a degree, according to "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success," published in the Harvard Business Review in March 2005.

While 37 percent of highly qualified women reporting leaving their careers at some point, the percentage with children is even higher — 43 percent. Professional women are defined as those possessing at least a high-honors bachelor's degree.

It's tough to say how common off-ramping is in the Mohawk Valley. The percentage of working women with children under 6 years old actually increased between 1990 and 2000, going from 59 percent to 65 percent in the Utica-Rome area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But part of that could be attributed to more women taking on entry-level and blue-collar jobs in the Mohawk Valley, experts say. The census data does not track the mothers' types of jobs or education levels.

"Their husbands are making less money so they have to work in order to just pay the mortgage, so they have no option to stay home," said Trudi Renwick, senior economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute in Albany.

Part of the reason women take off-ramps, experts say, is because they don't have enough flexibility in their work arrangements, such as job sharing or flex schedules, or believe there's a stigma attached to working such schedules.

For some, the answer is leaving the work force to branch out on their own.

"You can't be everything so you have to reinvent yourself," said Sharon St. John, business advisor at the Small Business Development Center at SUNYIT.

The center, which assists individuals in establishing small businesses, sees college-educated female clients that fall into one of two categories: older women who have hit a glass ceiling in the corporate world and younger women who find working for an employer is too demanding for their young families.

St. John is also the head of community outreach for the Mohawk Valley Business Women's Network, one of the sponsors of a series of local events during National Business Women's Week.

"We find that women that are off-ramping ... tend to be further along in their careers versus someone who is entry-level," said Ayoka Blandford, spokeswoman for Business and Professional Women/USA, the Washington, D.C.-based organization that founded National Business Women's Week in 1928.

And for those who do choose to re-enter the work force, they sometimes find they've lost some of their earning power.

"You leave work to commit yourself to your family and when the need arises to go to work...it's almost a penalty," said Eleanor Moran, executive director of the Women's Employment and Resource Center in Utica.

Six years ago, JoAnn Saba Hall was juggling two toddlers at home, caring for two close family members who were ill and working as a senior account executive at an insurance company.

Something had to give, and that something wasn't going to be her family.

"It was life. Life made me stop working," said the New Hartford resident, who is now a stay-at-home mom, although she is planning to re-enter the work force by taking a part-time job.

Hall, who has a bachelor's degree in public relations from Utica College, recently had a second interview for a job with a health care company.

"Women have a lot of choices that previous generations didn't have," she said. "Whatever makes the mother happy is going to make the family happy."

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