By Dr. Tracey Wilen Global Speaker, Media Contributor: Business,Technology, Women & Career Trends
After 21 years of marriage, attorney Mary Hart was blindsided by a divorce. She was raising three children, had no income, and had recently moved to a new city. “It would have been easy to fall apart,” she remembers, but she didn’t. Instead, she started her own law firm. She now employs eight other women, some of whom are also single mothers, and invests in real estate. “I never would have done any of that had I not gotten divorced,” she says. “What I thought was going to kill me ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
Ann Michael was working for a small pharmaceutical logistics company when she discovered she had breast cancer. “I remember sitting on the couch, not feeling very well, and thinking, ‘I’m tired of working for other people because there’s so much else I want to do,’” she says. She went to her boss with a plan: She’d offload some of her tasks and do the others as a consultant. “I wound up making the same amount of money working 20 hours a week, and using the other 20 hours to build a business,” Michael says. She now is president of publishing and media consulting firm Delta Think.
Kathryn Bowsher was out on maternity leave from the consulting firm she ran when she received a phone call about a company that needed a CEO with her precise skill set. After talking things over with her husband, Bowsher decided to take the job, started as a consultant for the new company when her daughter was four months old, and became its CEO four months later. “We increased the nanny’s hours, and adjusted our home responsibilities so I could spend more time at work, ”she says. “It was complicated at first, but we figured it out, and it’s been great. Life’s like that: You figure out what feels like the right thing to do in the moment, and work the rest out later.”
Jean Tully worked for a Fortune 500 hardware and software company for 30years, starting off as an engineer on a manufacturing site and branching out into several different areas of the company, moving into positions of greater and greater responsibility. In 2002, she took early retirement and launched a second career as owner of Creating Clarity, a consulting firm focusing on organizational development. Tully, who calls herself a “recovering engineer,” says, “Though I loved my experiences working for a technology corporation, I discovered what I’m really passionate about is learning and helping other people learn.” A recent experience project-managing the construction of a friend’s courtyard has her contemplating yet another career shift. “That project played to my strengths from both a design and an aesthetic perspective. I’m trying to figure out how to build aesthetics into the learning programs I run so I can have the same kind of wonderful experience I did working on that courtyard,” she says.
These four women represent a sampling of the winding, serendipitous paths many women take through their careers. Hart and Michael didn’t climb the corporate ladder in any traditional sense. Instead they turned adversity into opportunity, using it as a signal to redirect their working lives in a direction of greater freedom, control, and balance. Bowsher made a major career move at a time of personal transition, and achieved great success. Tully chose to stay active following her retirement from a major corporation by pursuing an encore career. None of them progressed in a straight line from an internship to the C-suite, but all of them defined success on their own terms.
In doing so, they’re like many women today. If a job doesn’t square with their values or is interfering with their ability to take care of the ones they love—and if they have the means to do so—many women feel free to strike out on their own, change industries, take time off, or negotiate new working conditions. In the complex social and economic terrain of the 21st century, where longevity and shifting gender roles are reshaping the family and the life course, employees of both genders may need to adopt this “female” approach to customizing careers and life.
Labyrinths, Not Ladders
Women’s career paths are rich, complex, and highly varied—in a word, labyrinthine. For most women, work and life are not isolated spheres but overlapping realms that profoundly influence one another. Women carefully consider how their career decisions will affect their families, friends, and coworkers as well as their own sense of balance, meaning, and purpose while assessing the impact of their life and values upon their work.
As a result, women’s career paths are flexible and tend not to follow predictable patterns. In one study, 58% of highly qualified women described their careers as“nonlinear”; in another, only half of women reported following traditional, upwardly mobile career paths, while the others had varied career trajectories. Rather than ladders, many women’s career tracks resemble “zigzags.” Many women opt to start their own businesses, become self-employed, change industries, take time off, work part-time, or pursue education or credentials during the course of their careers. Men, in contrast, have much more linear career paths. They are less likely to have interrupted careers, work part-time, or change industries than women, and are more likely to draw firm boundaries between their work and non work lives.
Women Have a New Definition of Success
Raising children and caring for family members are primary reasons why women have such fluid career paths. Forty-one percent of women, versus only 21% of men, have made changes in their career for family reasons, and 29% of women change jobs or careers to achieve greater work-family balance, compared with 14% of men.
But women have many other reasons for charting their own career courses. For instance, many women define success in terms of personal satisfaction rather than objective criteria like status and wealth. In one survey, 46% of women described success as “personal fulfillment or happiness.” This definition was the most popular choice, coming in ahead of recognition and financial considerations. Another study found that women preferred working with people they respected (82% chose this option), having the freedom to be themselves at work (79%), collaborating with others (61%), and giving back to the community (56%) to holding a powerful position. Even women who receive lower salaries after temporarily leaving the workforce report being happier with their more balanced lives.