Anne-Marie Slaughter, Meet Ruth Reardon O’Brien (Conan’s mom)

By Carol Fishman Cohen

 “Personally, I have never seen a woman in her 40s enter the academic market successfully, or enter a law firm as a junior associate, Alicia Florrick of The Good Wife notwithstanding.”

– Anne-Marie Slaughter, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, The Atlantic

In Anne-Marie Slaughter’s widely read article in The Atlantic, she takes a very personal look at the collision of family needs and high level work responsibilities in the context of “having it all.” However, by acknowledging she doesn’t know any women who have made a successful mid-life transition back to paid work after time away, she does not explore the career path that includes a hiatus as a possible solution.

For some, “having it all” means taking a career break, sequencing work and family obligations, as Arlene Rossen Cardozo first discussed in 1986. This path was largely ignored before 2000, but was populated by a few high-profile pioneers such as Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who took a five-year career break from her law practice when her three sons were young. The contacts she made as a volunteer in the Republican Party led to her job in the Arizona Attorney General’s office when she relaunched her career in 1965.

Ruth Reardon O’Brien, Conan O’Brien’s mother, successfully returned to Boston law firm Ropes & Gray in 1971 as a part-time associate at age 39, after 11 years at home with five children. A year after her return, her sixth child was born. Six years after her return, O’Brien switched to full time, and in 1978, she became the second woman to make partner at the firm.

More recently, after a stellar career at General Foods, Ann Fudge took a two-year career break. She relaunched her career as Young & Rubicam’s CEO in 2003. Brenda Barnes left her post as CEO of Pepsico North America to take a six-year career break. In 2004, she returned as COO, and then CEO, of Sara Lee Corporation.

As for Slaughter not knowing anyone who made a mid-life return to a junior associate position in law or who was successful in academia after a career break, consider the story of Cynthia Wells, a mother of six who joined Sidley Austin’s New York office as a Staff Attorney at age 51 after 20 years at home. Wells started at Sidley after completing an “externship” there, as part of Pace University School of Law’s New Directions for Attorneys program for returning lawyers.

In academia, the return-to-work stories are just as compelling. Margaret Rayman, a tenured professor at University of Surrey is one of the world’s leading experts on the mineral selenium in cancer prevention. An Oxford PhD in Inorganic Biochemistry, Rayman relaunched her career after a 17-year career break via a two-year fellowship from the U.K.’s Daphne Jackson Foundation which funds research internships for returners in science, engineering and technology.  She worked her way up the academic ladder over a 10-year period, gaining tenure in 2007.

Back on this side of the Atlantic (the ocean, that is), Susan Adams, Professor of Management at Bentley University and Senior Director of Bentley’s Center for Women and Business, returned to academia after a 10-year career break. Originally a math teacher and then conflict management consultant, Susan began her return by getting a PhD in Management from Georgia Tech. She taught classes at two Southern California universities, and when her family moved to the Boston area she began teaching at Bentley. Over time, she took on a heavier course load, received top teaching awards, moved to the full-time tenure track, and was ultimately granted tenure.

Returning to work after a career break is not only getting more popular, it’s getting institutionalized. In The Atlantic article, Slaughter confessed, “Honestly, I’m not sure what to tell most of them” when speaking to mothers looking for return-to-work advice. There is actually a lot to say. The Pace Law New Directions program now has over 100 graduates. The Daphne Jackson Foundation has over 200 success stories. A portion of the 700 graduates of the 40-year-old University of Massachusetts Women in Politics and Public Policy Graduate Certificate Program are mid-career re-entrants. This is just a sampling of formal return-to-work programs running today.  

After interviewing hundreds of women who have returned to work after lengthy career breaks, I can say the decision to take a career break is not the dead end so many make it out to be. To young people who may have felt discouraged after reading Slaughter’s article, realize this is one person’s story. There are multiple paths to “having it all.” Don’t be afraid to put yourself in a holding pattern at certain points in your career. If taking a career break is what you need to do to meet your family’s needs, know there is growing precedent for return-to-work success.