Weighing In On Women Opting Out; an interview with Ruth Owades

Ruth Owades is best known for the success stories of Gardener’s Eden and Calyx & Corolla. She is a member of the Committee of 200 and a supporter of Astia and We Own It – all organizations focused on advancing women in business leadership and entrepreneurship.

As the 4th Annual We Own It Summit approaches, I asked Ruth to weigh in on the discussion around women opting out of executive careers and high growth entrepreneurship.


Heather Boggini interviews Ruth Owades
Heather Boggini interviews Ruth Owades

PSDNetwork: In 2009, when presented with the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, you said women were sometimes opting out of high-level positions in order to have a family because they had seen how hard it is for women before them to have a balanced life. You referenced increased enrollment of women in Harvard Business School as a sign of encouragement for more women in the business world.

That was four years ago and the opting out discussion continues. Today, in your opinion when are women opting out and why?

 Ruth Owades: Women opt out at different times depending on the corporation they are with, their profession and personal issues. Opting out does not always occur when a woman has a baby, which is the typical assumed reason.

What hasn’t changed enough – or maybe at all – is the conversation between women managers and their employers about how we can “off ramp” and then “on ramp”, as the Harvard Business School phrases it. If a female executive (or a male, for that matter) has a personal issue which requires substantial time off, (having a baby, dealing with parents’ health problems) the executive should be able to step off the fast track but then be able to step back on that track (on-ramping) and not be made to feel that she has lost her place on the corporate ladder forever.

The majority of women don’t have that option now. And that is one of the reasons (in addition to the glass ceiling) that people like me continue to step off of the corporate ladder and start our own businesses.


PSDNetwork: How would you respond to the statement that opting out is actually a way of culling the field? After all, not everyone is cut out for high pressure, high level careers or for high growth entrepreneurship.

Ruth Owades: I don’t agree with that point out of view. Often I’ve observed some of the best people opt out. This is because the most talented people are so demanding of themselves that if they can’t give 120% they think it’s not worth sticking around. We women are hard on ourselves, which is why we make great entrepreneurs.

I don’t believe opting out is a way to cull the field, but I do believe opting out serves many roles but few are positive ones.

PSDNetwork: What can each woman do to increase the chances that when she arrives at these opt out points, she is positioned to opt in and stay working and navigate her own path if that is her choice?

Ruth Owades: That is a great scenario you have painted. There are things she can do, and other things the business world and society can do on a broader basis.

Women must network, communicate, talk to their bosses and express their plans and ask their questions. When you have stepped out for a year or more, always keep in touch. Networking may be an overused term but it is important. Stay connected and don’t let people forget about you. Maintain currency in your field and sharpness in your profession.  Don’t lose confidence and always know that you are at the top of your game.


PSDNetwork: You said to me that opting out is very final. What can corporations do to make that not the case?

Ruth Owades: There are many opportunities for small and large companies to keep women connected. For example: part time projects, consulting work, weekly gatherings by video or in person. These women are a rich set of resources, they are accomplished and successful and corporations are just letting them walk out the door.

This is a two way street. Women need to stand up for what is important. The business world and women must meet each other halfway to create a win-win for everyone.

PSDNetwork: What can organizations like We Own It do to increase the number of women who opt in?

Ruth Owades: I think We Own It, Astia and other organizations are doing great service to women, men, and the global business community by getting the conversation going. The We Own It collaboration encourages women, men and the venture community to speak to each other and find common ground to build on going forward. There is so  much to gain in these conversations and nothing to lose.

You can hear Ruth speak at the 4th annual We Own It Summit in London June 27-28, 2013 in London. She is participating in a panel discussion with Nicola Horlick titled “Bold Entrepreneurs. Risky Business. Windows into Success“. To register and learn more go to We Own It.

YOUR TURN: have you come to a crossroads in your career that you would consider an “opting out” point? What did you do and were you prepared for to make that decision. Please leave a comment below and I will share it directly with Ruth.

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Heather Boggini
Heather Boggini
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Heather's blog explores the start-up experience from her perspective as a mother, runner, cancer survivor and first time entrepreneur.

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