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Yes, I Feel Guilty About Dropping Off the Corporate Ladder to Raise My Kids

Since Ann-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” was published, there has been an ever-increasing buzz online about workplace flexibility and how businesses and employees — women, in particular — are managing . This debate is nothing new; parents have been struggling with how to do their jobs well, spend enough time with their children and spouses, and take care of themselves for many years. Nowhere is this struggle more apparent than the leadership and boards of business, and while I’m not the only one to express “Have you read Ann-Marie Slaughter’s piece?” fatigue, it is still totally a real issue, and if you follow me on twitter, you’ve probably had more than a few exchanges with me about the future of work and family. What I probably haven’t shared is that I feel a ridiculous amount of guilt for not holding onto that ladder leading up to corporate boards and corner offices. I love my little family, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling like I let down career women everywhere by doing what women historically do, I chose my family over my career.  I wish it didn’t have to be this way.

When a woman is primarily responsible for the care of children and home, it can be difficult for her to take on increased responsibilities at work. And though men have increased their domestic responsibilities in recent years, women still bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities, and although my husband would gladly debate that, especially since I’m organizing  Pitch Refinery and running Where are the Women and CWDevs all at the same time, it’s still true for many women, even if my truth is hotly debated.  Add on top of that an inflexible work environment and it becomes clearer why women are not rising to the top of the career ladder. I dropped out of corporate structure as soon as I knew I wanted a family, because really, what’s the point of having it all if I am too exhausted to enjoy it?  And as Slaughter discusses in her piece, her job in the White House required long and inflexible hours. Slaughter left the White House to return to her job as a professor at Princeton University — certainly not an easy job. However, she was better able to control the way she worked. Had her job in the State Department been more flexible (a stretch even to imagine!), perhaps she would have been able to stay. If jobs like Slaughter’s — prominent positions in government, c-suite level positions, board memberships — were more flexible, perhaps we would see greater advancement… and holy hell, imagine how many women (and men) would advance in their middle management careers if we gave them some breathing room, where right now there is no flexibility and no time to make the “extra effort” at work or at home.

I’m not telling you anything new, and problems of workplace inflexibility affect men and women, but outcomes in career achievement point to the fact that for women, the results of workplace inflexibility have a much greater impact on their advancement. Despite the fact that women outpace men in graduating from college and compose more than half of the workforce, women hold only 16% of board positions at Fortune 500 companies and 14% of c-suite level positions at Fortune 500 companies. Like me, women are leaving the workforce before they reach these levels in their careers; too often it is because they cannot take on increased responsibilities at work while having time to raise their families and care for themselves. My guilt about not pushing through the glass ceiling and helping to change the ratio is real, I am built to succeed, I love solving problems, but for this particular problem, no solution was the right solution, so I picked the best one I could find, which was to drop out of the corporate arena and do my own thing, and it was a hard one to make. Now, maybe I’m no catch to begin with, but I’m not the only woman who has made this decision. Businesses are going to continue to lose some real talent if the way we work doesn’t change. Businesses want women to succeed; businesses need women to succeed. But women’s advancement will continue to stagnate until businesses make a concerted effort to change the way work gets done, because right now many of us feel damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. I know there are multiple women and men starting small business that work around their schedule, me included, but this kind of change needs to be systemic to really see any traction, and for that we need to come up with solid solutions.  For those of you willing to add your voice to solving for x (xx, xy) check out the next paragraph and join the conversation happening at The Center for Women in Business’s Idea’s Exchange. Those of us who feel guilty for letting go of the ladder can’t change the past, but we can change the future of women and families everywhere.

The Center for Women and Business at Bentley University is exploring the ways in which American businesses can better attract, retain, and advance women by structuring work in a new way. We need to be ready to take on global challenges, and businesses will be hard-pressed to achieve success without a diverse workforce that includes women at all levels, and as long as women are pulling double duty at work and at home, we’ve got to talk about balance. As part of its work, the CWB is hosting an online Idea Exchange, beginning July 17. Men and women are invited to participate in this forum to discuss ways businesses can improve work to better retain and advance women, and better serve everyone, whether they are raising a family or not. We have a long way to go, but many businesses want to change the way we work for the better, and that’s good for everyone.

14 replies
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  1. Lissa
    Lissa says:

    Just bumped into this one again, despite being an empty-nester for half-a dozen years, when our youngest made clear she’s hit one of life’s big speed-bumps and needs the kind of parental support that means big change (plus investments of time, attention, love, location & money) for mom & dad.

    Something does have to give, and I’m not one to always go to ‘Me’ as the giver but to a kind of creative re-configuring that thankfully, entrepreneurism (& a little intention-setting mojo) makes a whole lot more possible than most corporate-slots do.

    Funny you publish this piece today, when the news of our 1st pregnant CEO hit the inter webs…


  2. Missro
    Missro says:

    Great article! I also wrote in response to Slaughter’s piece – http://girlsonit.com/ladies-lets-find-a-new-term-to-replace-having-it-all. There is no doubt our society in general, our work environments, and a myriad of other things need to change to make it more possible for women to enjoy having a family and a career. I had mentioned that we also need to stop using this term of “having it all”, because it’s really quite relative for each woman. I think what’s most important is how each us feels fulfilled in this life.

  3. zeldman
    zeldman says:

    Great article, and interesting discussion on Facebook. I think about this problem all the time.

    When someone close to me worked in a traditional (corporate non-profit) environment, I saw firsthand evidence of the pressure the business itself put on her to keep climbing the ladder and spend less time with her family. It was even strongly implied that she should not have a second child if she was serious about her career. And, of course, none of the implied promises was worth anything when the business ran into difficulties; she was let go like any other bean on the balance sheet.

    As a single dad and business owner I feel guilty when I say no to a meeting because I have a commitment with my daughter … and also feel guilty, when I’m with my daughter giving her my full attention, and in so doing miss an urgent email from someone who works for me. Although the burden of this falls much more heavily on women, and the treatment of women (and doublethink expectation about how women work) is for sure the real problem here — it is the problem of our times — I’ll just apologetically and parenthetically note that men do feel these things too. Guilt begins with parenting — unless you had it to begin with, and then it goes into hyperdrive when you have a kid.

    Like you, I went into my own business as a means of having more control over my life. I’m fortunate that I was old as hell when I had a kid, which means I got to make all those years of professional sacrifice before they were a sacrifice. There was no child at home, and no wife, therefore I was not sacrificing “family time” to build my career. My girlfriend at the time I built my career was an artist, equally focused on doing her thing. By the time my daughter came along, I was established enough to be able to prioritize my child without falling into poverty. Most people, and especially most women, can’t afford to do that.

    And not everyone who has kids feels the powerful maternal calling. It’s complicated. Feminism has brought us a long way — I’m glad my daughter is growing up with examples and stories and media images of powerful women. Yet she is also bombarded with horrible images of materialism, and Barbieism, and there is still tons of unapologetically sexist imagery out there, in her face 24/7. The Photoshopped impossible beauty standards, the message that you will still be judged on looks alone, the constant and inappropriate messages about sex that our children are exposed to; a movie telling her that she can be a warrior princess while a commercial tells her to be an anorexic vamp….

    This may seem off-topic in a post about women’s work issues, but it’s all evidence of our culture’s extraordinary confusion about women. Feminism hasn’t so much liberated women from traditional expectations as grafted new corporate expectations on top of traditional ones. We (men and women) address women out both sides of our mouths. Women are still “other,” still a problem. It’s crazy.

    The people who solve this will look back on our time the way with the same shuddering bafflement we feel when we consider the days of slave-owning. What were they thinking?

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