Why Do We Use The Term "On-Ramp" For Women Returning To The Workforce After Children?

Katerina Zacharia discusses why using the term “on ramp” to describe women returning to the workforce after having children is inaccurate, at best, and insulting, at worst.

I’m troubled that we use the term “on ramp” to describe women returning back to the workforce after prioritizing childrearing. I’m specifically uncomfortable that we locate women who work at home raising their children as operating “outside” of the workforce. Such distinctions harken back to a time when a gender hierarchy was integrated into the constitutional fabric of our society. Certainly, gender hierarchy still exists, but at least the law itself as it is written protects equity between men and women. While we don’t legally sanction the discrimination of women, we allow for the social, economic, and cultural discrimination in our corporate and government policy and in the discourse that surrounds workforce and career development. It’s the on ramp/off ramp discourse that we weave through the discussion of women returning to the “world of work” that concerns me right now.

The on ramp/off ramp metaphor divides the world of work. If there is an on ramp, then the highway is the exciting place where opportunity lives and the “real work” happens. The metaphor suggests that on the highway, people think and move fast and forward. The highway is the space where the driver becomes one with the fast, moving tide of progress, intellect, and productivity.

The off ramp, on the other hand, takes the driver down quiet, unoriginal streets where life is sedate and underwhelming. What lies at the end of the off ramp is still, quiet, meaningful, and important, but not relevant to the progress that greets the driver over that on ramp. It’s a metaphor that privileges and honors careers in industry and marginalizes the careers at home.  

People using the term inadvertently negate and disrespect the suite of competitive, managerial, creative, and design skills at work in the off ramp industries. They also deny that the market, like air, is everywhere. We all participate in the market in complex ways. We all impact economic growth and productivity. Work is work. And, all work, I argue, matters to the future of the marketplace. Of course, work that happens at home, related to childcare and development, is mired in gender hierarchy. Anything associated with the home and care is highly feminized, and thus, highly devalued.

The on ramp/off ramp metaphor epitomizes that devaluation. On is always good. When the light is on, it illuminates. When a person’s game is on, he or she performs. Off is not so good. When something is off, it misses the mark of perfection. Off putting, off base, off topic…the list goes on.

I spent most of the first year of my daughter’s life at home with only 30% of my time spent in the “workforce.” Managing a household while nurturing a child physically, emotionally, and intellectually is serious work. I can speak with utmost certainty that managing a team in an office is much easier and rewarding than managing a team of children who are in different stages of development, occupying the same space. If someone offered to double my salary and provide benefits to stay at home, I’d confidently and assuredly refuse without the need to weigh the advantages and disadvantages. I’m positive that I am not alone in my honest appraisal.

So, if we are going to use a metaphor that honors all types of work, then I suggest we replace on ramp/off ramp with “changing lanes.” In deference to those who still don’t value the work that happens off ramp, the changing lanes metaphor does acknowledge a slow, medium, and fast pace of work. If you must create a hierarchy of work, then you can comfortably adopt the changing lanes metaphor without sacrificing your viewpoint entirely. The different lanes, all situated on the same highway, run parallel to one another and all head toward the same destination down the road. Lane changes are seamless with the flow of traffic.

Changing the language pushes the careers discourse in new, more productive directions that may positively impact the exchange between women changing lanes and potential recruiters. So, challenge your friends, peers, and colleagues who use it. Remove the metaphor from the national discourse on career development and employment and we begin to remove the feminized stigma. Language is a powerful thing. By changing the metaphor, we can challenge perceptions. Compelling people to adopt a metaphor that more accurately represents the dynamics of the workforce sheds light on new approaches to understanding management, market development, work-life balance, and diversity. Women who change lanes bring a depth of strategic insights that fuses the ability to move seamlessly across priorities, stakeholders, and work environments. When we embrace the changing lanes metaphor, we invite more diversity into our organizations, strengthening the work produced across and between all the lanes of the highway.

Katerina Zacharia is a media executive, teacher, and sole parent raising two children on her own. She is passionate about her work in media, diversity, and education, her children, her friendships and family, and keeping her sanity. She has no nanny.

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