Though our fixation is on breaking the glass ceiling, the most burning issue for women in the workplace is not about the corporate ranks. Relatively few smart, capable women have the desire or family bandwidth to break the glass ceiling. The more critical and widespread workplace issue for women is participation, not power.
The female labor force participation rate in the US has been stagnant since 2000 (it peaked in 1999 at 60% and has since declined to 57%). This lack of progress is likely due to the difficulty in balancing work and family.
For nearly two decades, I’ve coached thousands of impressive, accomplished women who feel the push-pull of family and work. They represent two demographics: young women in more-than-full-time jobs who are wrestling with the idea of a family hiatus, and middle-aged women who left the workforce and are either waffling about or desperate for a return. Both cohorts of women are educated—often at the schools that confer the most prestigious BAs, MBAs, and JDs. Their tax brackets are middle to upper class. They begin careers with great gusto—determined to capitalize on educations and progress in responsibility and earnings. Then the professional determination loses steam as two heavyweight forces compete for their hearts and minds: a growing family and a job that often seems to need the same constant care.
Younger women who feel they can get by without working often rely on the financial support that their partners provide today and leave the workforce. They rarely think in a long-term way about how this departure will affect their retirement savings or their ability to weather unpredictable financial challenges. If caregiving is not the issue that drives women out of the workforce, then childcare math is next. Women often conclude it’s not worth it to work—and sacrifice time with their children—for the money they will be left with after paying for childcare, as well as commuting and (if it’s an option) more help for household chores.
Women step out of the workforce with the justification they can always return. After so much time out of the workforce, though, the return can be quite difficult. A woman forfeits up to four times her salary each year she is out of the workforce.
Women often interrupt their earnings and put themselves into this precarious financial situation because they still define “work” in one narrow, traditional way. Too many women throw in the towel and completely exit the workforce without fully exploring alternatives to the more-than-full-time corporate grind.
Though the most logical first step is to try to get flexibility in a current job, standing up to the corporate hierarchy is no easy task. Women who believe they are showing weakness by asking for a softer schedule tend to lob only tentative requests—say, to work from home on Fridays— rather than make a comprehensive, professional pitch for the flexibility they really need.
But that flexibility really exists in some jobs. Though working women are often portrayed as stretched-to-the-limit overachievers running breathless through bipolar work-versus-family lives, the fact is that many do find work that fits—and enhances— their lives.
Flexibility makes it possible for more women to participate consistently in the workforce—alongside caregiving roles—and fulfill their own measures of ambition and success. Huge compensation from top corporate roles is not the only path to financial security: when women become better educated about saving and investing steadily at all ages—and they stay in the workforce in some way at all times—they will build more-than-adequate nest eggs, too.
A large part of the problem is the disconnect between seemingly universal expectations about the kind of positions ambitious professional women should want to achieve, and the reality that most women who have one or two big caregiving roles don’t have the singular focus or energy to claw their way to the top.
Let’s focus then on the masses of smart, talented women who want and need jobs that provide greater flexibility—not just the much smaller percentage of women who are actually vying for the corner office. When we redefine ambition, we acknowledge that challenging, lucrative, interesting work can be found in many flexible ways—and in ways that favor personal satisfaction over public applause. We send the message that all professional work is worthwhile work, we put caregiving on par with resumé building, and we pave the way for more sustainable earnings at every age and life stage.
The best career advice is not “get to the top”; it is “stay at it.”
This article has been adapted from the book Ambition Redefined: Why the Corner Office Doesn’t Work for Every Woman & What to Do Instead.