Strengthening Human Resource Strategies: Insights from the Experiences of Midcareer Professional Women

By Whelan, Karen S.; Gordon, Judith R. | Human Resource Planning, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Strengthening Human Resource Strategies: Insights from the Experiences of Midcareer Professional Women


Whelan, Karen S., Gordon, Judith R., Human Resource Planning


Current employee benefit programs, particularly family-friendly benefits, would be inadequate for the workforce of the future. The experiences of midcareer professional women provide insights into the nature and implications of employee benefit program inadequacies and suggest ways to strengthen HR strategies. After a brief overview of changing labor demographics, this article describes the challenges midcareer professional women faced during midlife and expect to face in the next 10 years. Next, the individual strategies these women developed, and the relevance of these strategies to challenges they faced, are shown. The gaps between current employee benefit practices and the needs of the changing workforce are then discussed. The article concludes with issues and recommendations related to HR strategy, basic employee benefits and programs, and organizational culture.

Numerous forces shape human resource management benefits and practices, including population and labor demographics, labor laws, social pressures, unions, technology, and costs. Population and labor demographics have been and will continue to be a primary force. Shifting demographics, for example, have resulted in one of the most publicized and well-known sets of human resource management benefits and programs of the last twenty-five years: programs to benefit working parents and, more specifically, working mothers with young children.

Organizations with active programs that help address issues of work-family balance and interaction have been labeled family-friendly. Corporations and other organizations initially implemented these programs to respond to the needs of women entering the workforce in record numbers in the early 1970s, and more recently to support both working mothers and fathers trying to juggle work and a variety of family responsibilities (Conference Board, 1993). Corporations that successfully implement such programs view them as strategically advantageous because they increase the organization's ability to recruit and retain talented employees, reduce employee stress and burnout, and improve corporate image (Colvin, 1999; Hammonds, 1997; Roberts; 1996; Hirschman, 1995; Foster, 1988).

Recent labor trends have included an increase in the number of women in the workforce and in the number of working mothers (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1998, 1995). At the same time, an overall aging of the workforce has occurred and will continue, which means that organizations will employ a larger proportion of men and women at or beyond midcareer (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1998; Crampton et al., 1996; Capowski, 1994). For the first time, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, organizations employed professional women who had worked continuously since career entry, who had children and had managed a family without significant time away from the workforce (e.g., no significant part-time work or leave greater than four months), and who had achieved success beyond that experienced by the working women before them.

We interviewed 36 such women and believe that their experiences at midcareer offer important insights for HR managers and leaders. The women's common experiences, challenges, and related solutions provide an understanding of the effect of these key demographic trends-specifically the increasing number of women, working mothers, and dual-career couples, and an aging workforce-on HR management practices.

The ability of these pioneering women to achieve at the highest levels of their organizations while successfully balancing family demands encapsulates key challenges faced by many employees today.

The experiences of these women represent a glimpse into the future, and as such offer HR managers and leaders early insight into future demands for employee benefit programs.

This article first briefly describes midlife and the midcareer professional. Next it describes the midcareer professional women interviewed in our study.

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