Look—having been shoehorned into an inhospitable, male-created work fork environment for all these years, it should be no surprise that our attitude toward work is so conflicted. Bu the real headline isn’t that women re quitting in droves, as was the big news ten years ago. It’s how much we’re modifying our professional goals and work habits in order to stay in the workplace.
Whether we’re finally coming clean, or we’ve simply learned the perils of top jobs (or some combination of the two), most women clearly don’t aspire to make that straight climb to the summit anymore.
And this downshift in career ambitions is just as true for the top dogs among us. The same Family and Work Institute social scientists [who released a study concluding that women don’t usually want that promotion], picked out ten top-tier companies (think IBM, Citicorp) and talked with the top one hundred women in leadership positions at those firms. They kept after them for weeks, determined to get an accurate read. In the end one-third of those high-flying women admitted they’d voluntarily scaled back their career aspirations. Why? Not because they weren’t up to the job—but because the sacrifices they would have to make in their personal lives were just too great.
In her twenties, Christine Heenan could clock the hours with the best of them. As a senior policy analyst in the Clinton White House, the long days, the challenge, even the stress were simply steroids for her ambition. “I loved being at the office at 7, working with smart, fast-thinking people till 10 at night, going out after work, talking about work, and getting up and doing it again.”
In 1995 she moved to Rhode Island, where she took another challenge—head of government and community relations at Brown University. It was slower than the White House and there were days when she missed the old pace. Until she got a wake-up call, literally, hours after her first child was born.
“I got a call from my boss in my hospital room as I was holding the baby! There was a major thing happening at the university and she needed to talk to me about it. I told her, ‘There’s a doctor walking in the room, I’ll have to call you back.’ And she said, ‘All right. Well, try to call me by 10 a.m.’”
In retrospect what shocks Christine more than the request was her own response.
“I said, ‘Okay’” remembers Christine, chagrined. “If I look back, it’s one of those conversations I would most love to have a do-over on, and say…‘I’ll call you when and if I can.’”
A few years later, after trying work “flexibility” at the university, and with a second child in her family, Christine quit to start her own company, a company where she offered her employees the same freedom she gives herself.
“Plateauing” is what Wharton Business School calls this lack of appetite for the climb. “Women are no longer willing to step into the ‘high-potential’ pool of employees in part because they want to be sure they have time for their families,” explains Monica McGrath, a professor at Wharton. “These women aren’t lacking in ambition and they want to make a difference in their jobs. It’s a question of ‘how much more responsibility can I take on.’”
Women simply don’t have linear career trajectories anymore. Cathleen Benko and Anne Weisberg, executives with financial consultants Deloitte and Touche, say that’s exactly what prompted them to craft a groundbreaking program called Mass Career Customization at Deloitte. It allows all employees to easily adjust the pace and flexibility of their careers over time. “Women have non-continuous careers. And if we hire twelve thousand people a year in the United States alone, not to mention globally, and many of them are women, that matters,” says Benko. They say the ladder construct is out, lattice is in, for men and women. “We saw that the general trend line was more sideways than straight up, even for men, and even if you are the chairman of Deloitte.”
What we do need to do is renegotiate the rules, reset the playing field, and get off that damn ladder, which, as it turns out, is not very stable anyhow.
Of course the fact that most of us haven’t been able to take advantage of programs like that in recent years is why we’ve fled to smaller firms and the start-up market in search of friendlier terrain. Nearly half of all privately held U.S. businesses are now owned by women.
Bottom line? Many women have to work, and most of us want to work. We enjoy being part of the challenging, captivating grown-up world. Even many of those who’ve quit altogether, unable to strike a reasonable deal to stay on the job, want back in. But Wharton recently followed a group of women who left and wanted to get back in and found that half of them reported the experience frustrating, and 18 percent found it depressing. We so don’t need frustrated or depressing. We’ve got more than enough challenge in our emotional lives. What we do need to do is renegotiate the rules, reset the playing field, and get off that damn ladder, which, as it turns out, is not very stable anyhow.
Claire Shipman is the senior national correspondent for ABC News' Good Morning America and a regular on This Week with George Stephanopoulos . Previously, Shipman was the White House correspondent for NBC news and a reporter for CNN in Moscow , where she earned multiple awards for her coverage of the demise of the Soviet Union. She currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.
Katty Kay is the Washington correspondent and anchor for BBC World News America . She is also a contributor on Meet the Press , The Charlie Rose Show , and The Chris Matthews Show , as well as a regular guest host for Diane Rehm on NPR. Kay grew up in the Middle East and now lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and four children.