The question being asked in this blogging series is an important one: Why are women leaving leadership roles just before they reach the C-suite? In order to answer that question, maybe it is best to step back a bit. To think about how the careers of many women (myself included) started.
As career-oriented women, many of us went to college, got our degrees and then – despite all the pressure to the contrary – focused on work instead of “finding a husband” and “making grandbabies.” While our other friends and relatives were starting their families, we believed we were different: stronger; more contemporary; gladly focusing on our professional contributions.
During commute-time catch-up calls and through Facebook posts, we careerists tried to relate to problems with teething, potty-training, first days of school, little league, and girl scouts. Even puberty. Most of that time, however, we didn’t fully get it. Sometimes we said, “Wow, glad that isn’t me.”
Other times, we would admit to ourselves:
“Life is passing me by.”
Then, through emotion perhaps most men can’t understand – and with that “women are supposed to be mothers” mantra continuously thrown at us – we start to hear the clock ticking. And you know what I mean when I say, “the clock” – as seen im the movie, Working Girl – “tic toc, tic toc”.
Many, like me, begin to want more than work. We want a family. Yes, we waited until our mid-30s, even our 40s, to have children. And then feel like we must make up for lost time. We embrace our womanhood and motherhood. We, perhaps with a feeling of “finally,” feel whole. Or at least our version of whole.
After dealing with our own drama that is the first tooth, first day of first grade, first trip to the emergency room and first broken heart – we spring ahead 10 to 12 years. With our children now more independent, we see the chance to be more than “Mom” again. We think back to our education; our prechildren careers. We wonder if we can pick up where we left off.
True. The economy sucks. Jobs are scarce. It seems technology has passed us by. When we left, we had white-haired leaders, a “do what you’re told” chain of command and process. Now, we have flat management teams, “authenticity” and collaboration.
Everything we knew has changed. Everyone we knew is gone.
Yet we dive back in. And we, again,over-compensate for the time we lost. Our work, again, comes first. We are ready – again – to prove to our friends, family and male counterparts that we can do this.
Flash forward another decade or so. We women, those who started our families late, are now at the age when most men in Fortune 500 companies reach their professional peak. They have their Diamond status on airlines and hotel chains and their Platinum AMEX cards. They become CEOs; they are asked to join boards of advisors and directors.
And we women?
About this same time, we realize our kids our gone – off to college or starting their careers in a different city. We feel as though we’re right back where we started: no kids at home, focusing on everything but family as we work 70 hours a week breaking through what remains of the glass ceiling. Eventually, we get asked the question most men would die to hear: Would you be our next Director? Our CXO? Serve on our board?
And then we ask ourselves: when was I most happy?
Working those 12 hour days, six days a week and going home exhausted? Or going home to dirty diapers, bloody noses and big smiles from those we care most about? Perhaps, at a more advanced age and at the peak of our “second” careers, now those smiles come from our grown children, grandbabies, and those we serve through volunteerism or living our passions.
But smiles they are. Family, or extended family, it is.
And we think:
“Is life going to pass me by, again?”
I won’t pretend to speak for every woman in my position. But I will say – knowing I have no regrets about working my career early and starting a family late – that a corner office in a skyscraper isn’t a high priority for me. Instead, in a dozen years, I’d rather enjoy my health, my family and serving others.
I don’t need the CXO position like my male counterparts might. Some might see that as abandoning my potential; a failure to accept a prominent leadership role.
I see it differently. I see it as choosing life.
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