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Women 'opt out' of career success

Carly Fiorina
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was forced to quit the computer giant last month.
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(CNN) -- Women are finding it as hard as ever to achieve success in the workplace, according to an extensive new study reported in the Harvard Business Review.

The ousting of Carly Fiorina from her position as chief executive at Hewlett-Packard may have made headlines last month, but the survey shows that many women are choosing to climb off the ladder voluntarily far earlier in their working lives.

It confirms the trend -- described in a New York Times-coined phrase as the "opt-out revolution" -- that highly qualified women are dropping out of promising careers in far larger numbers than their male counterparts.

Around 40 percent of women have taken an "off-ramp" at some point in their working lives compared with just a quarter of men, according to the study, conducted by the Center for Work-Life Policy.

And while men tend to leave jobs for reasons of "strategic repositioning," such as switching careers or starting a business, women are most likely to quit for "family reasons" -- typically to raise children but also to care for elderly parents or other family members.

Among Stanford University's class of 1981 57 percent of female graduates had left the workforce, while just 38 percent of women from three graduating classes at Harvard Business School were still in fulltime careers, the research showed.

The trend has worrying implications for management culture. According to Ethical Corporation magazine, just 11 percent of Fortune 500 senior executives are women, while there are only eight serving female CEOs.

Yet a survey last year by women's advocacy organization Catalyst found that companies with a higher representation of women in senior positions financially out-performed those with proportionally fewer women at the top.

The key to encouraging more women to pursue their careers to a senior level is the promotion of more flexible and female-friendly working conditions, the report suggested.

"No one wants to be a superwoman anymore," wrote Guardian newspaper columnist Madeline Bunting on the report's conclusions.

"Women have struggled to reconcile their femininity with a male working culture built around single-mindedness, competitiveness and self-projection."

Alpha males thrive in a business culture of all-nighters, "road warrior" business trips and Blackberry-dependency.

But the report showed that female workers were increasingly being alienated by a male-orientated approach in which career survival had become "a relentless winnowing process."

While almost all women who had taken an "off-ramp" from a senior position said they planned to return to work, just five percent said they would be happy to return to the same employer.

And in the business sector, 100 percent of women said they would not consider returning to their former company.

"If ever there is a danger sign for corporate America, this is it," said report co-authors Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, and Carolyn Buck Luce, a partner at Ernst & Young.

"Employers can no longer pretend that treating women as 'men in skirts' will fix their retention problems."

"Like it or not, large numbers of highly qualified, committed women need to take time out. The trick is to help them maintain connections that will allow them to come back from that time without being marginalized for the rest of their careers."

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