As I support more women in the throws of balancing teary morning school drop-offs with intense C-suite executive presentations and the dinner, homework, bedtime-pushback trifecta—it’s clear—flexibility is one ticket to keeping some semblance of sanity. But for the subset of women who love what they do, are loyal to their organization and are respected for their work, they often feel like the conversation around flexibility is the career kiss of death. This all or nothing mindset can lead them to keep pushing hard, ignoring the tug to spend more time with family, or completely give up on this seemingly un-ending, un-winnable race they’re running. They opt-out. Or they move to part-time schedules believing they’ve effectively put their careers into neutral.
In her December 2016 Atlantic Monthly piece, “The Ambition Interviews”, Rebecca Rosen identified the women falling into these three groups as: High Achievers, Opt-outers and Scale-backers. In reading the article with my coffee one Friday morning, it dawned on me that our answers in learning more about the next phase of this conversation is within the experiences of this Scale-backer group. We have a lifetime of examples for how to be the hard-driving High Achiever group that staffs up with full-time plus help to make it work. We call those examples men. And on the flipside, women have been staying home or opting out of work since the beginning of women working. We know how that’s done. But it’s that middle group that we’re just figuring out. We don’t have clear role models or mentors for how to do this well without “burning the candle at both ends” as Rosen puts it.
Rosen states that the women in the Scale-backer group “… hadn’t lost their ambition; instead they’d changed the definition of the word. They saw that ambition takes many forms, only one of which is becoming CEO. While everyone may have started out with lofty career goals, many also had lofty personal goals; ambition doesn’t stay in a neatly contained career-goals-only box. Just as many of our classmates had previously aspired to be the best in their chosen field, they now wanted to be the best mother, the best partner, the best everything else.”
While I see this to be true in some of my clients—with many others, I continue to see their ambition rub up against a resignation that flexibility removes the possibility of advancement—which is something for which they yearn. And it’s not about C-suite titles or recognition—it’s about involvement in strategic leadership decisions, building and mentoring teams and continued learning and growth opportunities. The question they ask is the one that’s currently on the table for organizational thinkers and leaders.
Let’s stop asking how women can have it all.
Instead ask, how can women continue to advance while maintaining flexibility and support?
The answer, in a word is: Expertise.
The women I’m describing have done incredible things. They’re attorneys creating unique ways to leverage the law to protect vulnerable populations. They’re award-winning social marketers. They’re IT professionals in male-dominated corporate cultures delivering top tier results.
And yet they have temporary amnesia, resistance or just plain fear when it comes to promoting this expertise in their organizations—and leveraging it to gain both flexibility in a role and advancement opportunities.
Developing a unique value at the organization and internally promoting the shit out of it, is currently your key to creating a happy union between flexibility and advancement in today’s workplace.
I’m reading your mind right now. Why is this so hard? Why do you have to be an absolute rock star to go on a class trip without feeling like you’re running from the law? First, sadly many rock stars still have these feelings of guilt. But the truth is, my hope and life’s work is to be part of the change so that flexibility can be the rule and not the exception.
Flexible workplace conversations are happening and employers are beginning to change expectations and support working parents—but change is slow to trickle down to most of the women in my circles. I believe it’s coming and will work toward that end—knowing how productive, engaged and excited my clients are about their careers when they get the space and support they need to succeed in both areas of their lives.
For now, while we’re in this transitional moment in time, plant the seeds of your badassery often. Set boundaries early. Identify the three areas of flexibility that are most important to you (ie. family dinner 2x a week, doctors appointments, school drop-off 1-2x a week, etc.), and focus your message on those priorities. It’s up to all of us to stand up and advocate for the lives we want to live while the culture is changing around us.