To some degree, women working more-than-full-time professionally and women at home caring for the minute-by-minute needs of family believe at least a few blades of grass are greener on the other side. There will always be pros and cons to every work and life choice, but it’s safe to say that life can be less stressful and more satisfying when it is not at one of these extremes. There’s an acceptable middle ground between the 60-hour workweek that gives you only a glimpse of your children and tunnel-vision caregiving that involves no paycheck at all.
Too many women have subscribed to the all-or-nothing approach to work and life. The binary choice appears to be “leaning in” to the all-encompassing career (chasing the highest titles and compensation), or at home “leaning out” (volunteering as many hours as a paid job requires and chasing kids). Decisions about working don’t need to be so black-and-white; women need to give themselves and others respect and “permission” to move to that middle ground. Leaning in only to the degree that actually fits your life can bring you the most solid and sustainable professional success of all.
In my upcoming book, Ambition Redefined, I make what many may perceive as a counter-feminist statement:
Under any circumstances, relatively few smart, capable women have the desire or family bandwidth to break the glass ceiling.
It’s just not true that women as a group are thwarted in an ardent C-Suite quest. Most women want and need less life-consuming flexible work to accommodate the roles of caring for children and aging parents—and women who choose to pursue professional fulfillment and financial security in less lofty, highly-visible ways are not weak, lacking in ambition, or letting down the sisterhood.
Contrary to the women’s leadership mantra, the most burning issue is not how high women should rise in the corporate ranks. Yes, of course, any woman who DOES want to reach the C-Suite should indeed have the pathway and support to do so, but this is not a path that all women should feel pressured to follow.
The most critical and widespread workplace issue for women is participation, not power.
- The U.S. female labor force participation rate has stagnated since 2000 (peaking in 1999 at 60% and since declining to 57%). This decline is largely attributed to the difficulty in balancing work and family (especially when women do not have unlimited financial resources to hire caregivers and household helpers).
- Guiding women toward flexwork that keeps them employed and on track toward financial security not only has personal benefits, there is a widespread workforce benefit, too: every 10% increase in women’s share of total employment is associated with real wage increases of nearly 8% for all other women—and men.
Flexibility—either granted by an employer or created individually by an entrepreneur—makes it possible for more women to participate consistently in the workforce alongside their two major caregiving roles. Huge compensation from top corporate roles or the quest to launch the next small business that can be exponentially scaled and sold are not the only paths to financial security. When women become better educated about saving and investing steadily at all ages—and they always stay in the workforce in flexible, moderate-stress ways—they build more-than-adequate nest eggs, too.
Let’s have at least an equal focus then on all the smart, talented women who want and need jobs that provide greater flexibility—not just the much smaller percentage of women who are actually vying for the corner office.
Corporate women’s leadership programs and professional associations need to help women pursue their own definitions of ambition and success.
While some women are groomed for the C-Suite, many other women need guidance on how to “grow in place”—continuing to cultivate new competencies in current or lateral roles. Still other women need help getting to a higher, but less stratospheric level that doesn’t involve managing thousands of people or billions of dollars.
For both men and women, ambition and success can play out in diverse and interesting ways. You can be a successful small business owner with revenues that don’t come close to $1 million; a moderate hourly rate freelancer in hot demand; the industry expert who gets plum consulting assignments; or the respected 30-hour-a-week worker who contributes to a team’s success, enjoys a competitive salary, receives valuable employee benefits, and has more time at home. When we redefine ambition, we create a new equality for women: all professional work is worthwhile work, caregiving is on par with resume building, and lucrative work can fit and fund life at every age and stage.