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Women@Work: a glass ceiling or a sticky floor?

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This post is about Women and Careers. At a Senior Women’s conference I heard this bold question being posed – is there something holding us back from our next promotion or are we really the ones keeping ourselves at our level, afraid to move up?

Let me start with a personal story. I used to work with a manager on the West Coast, a 10 hour difference to my timezone. He was being sensitive by scheduling our meetings for 7am PST, which was 5pm my time. I always pushed them out to noon PST. The kids were little and I preferred clearing the afternoon hours for family time and hold my meetings from home when they were already in bed. One day he called to tell me one of his managers resigned since she was planning on starting a family. Planning, and already she needed to resign as she couldn’t see how she could combined work with family life. That was the first time he actually referred to our weekly scheduling ritual and told me: “now I understand what you are doing.”

I remembered this story when a coworker approached me recently, telling me about what he defined as an issue – successful senior women not interested in taking on more senior roles and increased responsibility. It was an interesting dilemma – if the women who’d already made it to the top don’t want further promotions, how can we make any traction with parity in top jobs?

What do women want?

The Center for Talent Innovation researched the question what women want at work and marked five categories. According to this research we want to be able to flourish, excel, combine our careers with meaning and purpose, empower and be empowered and earn well. While women consider themselves ambitious, they don’t always want those top jobs. Some of that has to do with the perceptions about how power is being used and the burdens, struggles, sacrifices female leaders talk about. This leads us to believe the top jobs will not deliver on those five things we want at work. Thus, we become ambivalent about reaching for the top.

Is it possible that it is not the glass ceiling, which prevents women from making it to the top, but a “sticky floor”, the one we are afraid to step off of?

Our career graph

Each one of us has a career graph mapping our income over the course of our lifetime. It is not linear, it has its ups and downs, driven by various career and life decisions we make during the years. Almost every such graph you can find on the web will show women’s careers slow down during the years usually associated with the changes in the family. Most career women know there are periods in their career life, where they need to and/or want to free up time and energy resources to the home, the family, the children. And if you’re now thinking some men would say the same thing, let me quote an HBR research from Dec 2014 which showed that even for Harvard alumni across generations, primary childcare responsibilities lay with the women.

Over the course of our life and career, there are periods where we redefine success in a different way than job levels and promotions. In her 2007 New York Times article The Opt-Out Revolution, Lisa Belkin called out this choice:

Women today have the equal right to make the same bargain that men have made for centuries — to take time from their family in pursuit of success. Instead, women are redefining success. And in doing so, they are redefining work. Success was about the male definition of money and power. There is nothing wrong with money or power. But they come at a high price. And lately when women talk about success they use words like satisfaction, balance and sanity.

Planning the cycles

A woman’s career in many cases includes ~10 challenging years, sometimes between her mid 20’s and mid 40’s. These are the years where she builds her career, her family and her home and finances. Organizations smart enough to support the changing needs of their employees’ work-life fit will reap the benefits in engagement and motivation. One of the challenges for those who chose to leave the workplace at some point during these years, is to find their way back when they are ready to do so.

In her wonderful book, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, Tina Seelig discusses the need to plan this career slowdown and recommends ways to keep developing your skills in some form, for example through volunteer activities. She brings the example Sandra Day O’Connor, who took time off from her career to raise her children but made sure her volunteering activities developed her skills and capabilities so that when she returned to the workplace she rose all the way to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Essentially, our career is what we choose it to be and it needs to fit into our lives and adapt it during the years. Which is why there should be no issue with a personal decision not to go for a promotion at a certain point, in support of the right work-life fit. What is important, though, is that we understand our decisions have consequences and plan our ramps as well as our descents, so that we thoughtfully control what is around the curve. So that one day, when we discover our life has shifted once more, our children are grown and maybe already out of the house and we find we can schedule our plans without needing to coordinate three other calendars, we want to be ready.

It’s a wonderful gift, discovering you can put yourself in the middle. Allow yourself to examine how this new phase of your life affects your career, your changing definitions of success, your career alignment with your purpose and your goals for the next few years, and the dreams you can allow yourself to dream, maybe even to fulfill.

So the next time a career opportunity for promotion comes up, maybe you can lead with a “yes”. And remember, the roles you are worried to say “yes” to, are those worth doing. They will take you up to a whole new level of impact and influence. Life is good at the top, it allows you to focus on what is important to you, what you believe in, what you want to promote. It is not a place to worry about, it’s a place to aspire to. If that’s what you want.