30-something, Career-driven Women and the Family Crossroad Dilemma
Recently I was speaking with a 30-something year old close friend who is a very successful woman with a top job in leadership at a large company who told me she's pregnant. Of course joy is what you'd naturally want to feel as a result of such beautiful news, however I could sympathise with her stronger feelings of anxiety associated to the impact of having a child on the career she worked so hard for. After years working their butts off to get more responsibilities and land leaderships positions - the prospect for women of having to slow down at a pivotal time for their careers [due to biological reasons] is frightening to say the least. This often results in women delaying any family planning to keep the momentum going at work, potentially risking their chances of starting a family in the long run. Despite the progress made over the last few years in terms of awareness around gender-based unequal policies and opportunities, more and more women are finding themselves at a crossroad that almost requires them to choose between investing on their career or on their family.
Chances are that many more women in the 30-something age bracket out there are facing this same dilemma. They are probably carefully trying to plan their career around family aspirations and vice versa, knowing that the question of investing in one of the other would result in missing out on opportunities on either side (aka missing out on promotions or on the biological window). Because sadly, this is still a choice career-oriented women (who would also like a family) are having to make. Having been blessed with the biological responsibility of growing humans inside their their bodies, mental and physical recovery is a stage that cannot be overseen - meaning careers are still very likely be negatively impacted or slowed down by the much-deserved time to recover.
In addition to that, in many instances the pressure of being the family breadwinner adds another layer of complexity to the dilemma, often making women wonder whether their current employer's maternity policy would even offer a financially viable option. I've had employers whose maternity packages would only pay for the first three months' salary (the minimum required in the UK, with up to 52 weeks unpaid leave) - and I know things can be way worse in the the US. However, to me this is proof that companies still assume women have a partner with them who can take care of the household finances whilst they're on maternity leave, which is often not the case knowing that "a third of working mothers in Europe were the main breadwinners in their families and a quarter of women in heterosexual marriages earned more than their husbands in the U.S. (Forbes). Based on a 2015 report referenced by the IPPR, "in Britain [..] the increase in mothers in couple households becoming breadwinners was fuelled a substantial rise between 2008 and 2011", which raises questions around the appropriateness of current maternity policies in most organisations.
However, whilst the number of women breadwinners is increasing in certain circumstances, the gander pay-gap is still alive and well recording 6.5% (mean) and 15.9% (median) lower salary for women in the UK and 16% lower in the US. It comes with no surprise that in many cases "motherhood can also lead to interruptions in women’s career paths and have an impact on long-term earnings" (Pew Research Centre). This is something broadly explored in the book "Invisible Women" by Caroline Criado-Perez, alongside many other relevant topics such the unequal split in childcare responsibilities which adds to the limitations women face in relation to investing in their career (besides, can we please normalise men becoming the centre of the household already?). Without a doubt, this book is must-read for any leader who, regardless of gender, is willing to start addressing gender-based inequalities.
Additionally, the fact that women currently only account for 5% of leadership positions in the technology sector (PWC) is likely to be symptomatic of a society & support system (or lack of thereof) that allows women to keep growing their careers whilst on maternity leave (I have personally only heard about a couple of women being promoted whilst on leave in my 10 year tenure). Whilst figures state that "FTSE 250 companies are appointing more women to senior leadership roles", the fact that only 18.6% were appointed as executive committee members confirms the overwhelming lack of women in top roles (Catalyst). In her eloquent 2010 TED talk "Why we have too few women leaders", Cheryl Sandberg eloquently stated that
"The problem is this, women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. The numbers tell the story quite clearly: 190 heads of state – nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 per cent are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top, c-level jobs, board seats – top out at 15, 16 per cent. The numbers have not moved since 2002 and are going in the wrong direction. Even in the non-profit world, a world we sometimes think of as being led by more women - women at the top: 20%"
Considering women are also intrinsically less likely to go for promotions and raises than men (People Management), and even less likely to promote the achievements that would help getting those promotions (The Harvard Gazette) - adding some time off to nurture a child can only add to the stats seeing women being passed on for promotions.
Considering the complex (and shall I dare saying, challenging) landscape in which ambitious career-driven women have to play, deciding when and how to invest in their career and family life has become more like a strategic game of chess rather than a joyful decision to grow both paths in parallel. Decision that is particularly pivotal for my fellow 30-something year old women out there who are well aware of that biological clock ticking. And whilst 35 might no longer be considered a clear fertility cliff, it is no doubt many women share the same dilemma at this stage.
As Sandberg stated, "Women face harder choices between professional success and personal fulfilment. A recent study in the US showed that of married senior managers 2/3 of married men had children and only 1/3 of the married women had children".
Despite the overwhelming amount of data that highlights the problem, there isn't as much data to show how it's going to be addressed by most organisations and society at large.
..Is this going to remain a question of choosing one path over the other? Are leadership roles going to remain unattainable for most women choosing to have a family in their 30s? How do we change the numbers to see more women at the top? Which steps shall we take as a society to ensure women are supported in their career development even throughout the incredible journey of becoming mothers?
As a 30-something year old woman currently figuring out the best balance between 'professional success and personal fulfilment', the one thing I am sure of is this: I am looking forward to being part of the change that will allow all the future leaders wanting to grow both their careers and families to have the opportunity to be equally fulfilled in both.
Link to LinkedIn Article here.
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