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.