Do women derail their own careers?

Why aren’t there more women in high places? The Economist is asking if women derail their own careers. (You can vote in the survey.) Right now, the poll is running at 64 percent who say “yes” and 36 percent saying “no.”

The impetus for the poll is the new Sheryl Sandberg book that claims that women need to do more for their own careers by, among other things, applying for jobs they are unqualified for, as men do. I’m not disagreeing that men and women operate differently in the workplace. As a general rule, we’re different. But does this difference as it expresses itself in the workplace a problem?

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9 thoughts on “Do women derail their own careers?

  1. Thank you for pointing this out.

    In terms of economics, most of the women I know who have chosen to spend more time with their families either have significantly less earning power than their partners (which can be for a number of reasons including both personal choice and sexism in education, pay discrimination, etc) or have more stressful work environments than their partners.

    To clarify: I have known many women in male-dominated fields who encounter such a hostile work environment every day (from pornography displayed in shared workspace areas to demands for dates and sexual favors from managers to simply always being given the crummy, low-profile projects despite asking for more significant work suited to their expertise) that they decide they prefer to stay home than deal with shenanigans every day. Their partners, in contrast, enjoy their work and don’t seem to have these problems. So it’s an easy decision for them to stay home or work part-time or as a contractor, all other things being equal. Is it a choice? Well, technically, yes, it is a choice, but I would not say it’s absolutely a non-coerced choice that isn’t also the result of sexism in the workplace. Technically they may also choose to go to HR and the EEOC, but as you know that is a fight that can be exhausting and stressful and leave a black mark on your career too.

    There’s also the question of getting your partner to agree to do his share. Can women be careful to only have children with guys who are good at doing dishes and changing diapers? Sure, but that doesn’t ensure he’ll actually do them when push comes to shove. I’ve also seen plenty of couples who have a grudging truce in the Chore Wars, suddenly shift all the childcare work to the wife when a baby shows up. You can leave a sink full of dirty dishes for a week while you shout about whose turn it is, but you can’t do that with a baby, and the social expectation that Mom will do the childcare is pretty strong.

    Which is probably why Sheryl Sandberg has a nursery in her office, instead of her partner having a nursery installed in his office. Just sayin’.

  2. Sure women can derail their careers.

    – By taking the wrong advise about their careers
    – By thinking that being mother is #1 role and its the only acceptable for role women with kids (society pressure and all that fun things. I get so annoyed when I read a article a woman is writing about other woman being a lousy mother because they are no spending all their time taking care of her babies i.e. how could you work when you have kids etc). Having kids is not the only definition of a women. She can do other things in her life too.
    – By following the stereotype of a women should only go into ‘soft’ college courses cause they are going to quit anyways once they have babies.

    I grew up in Asia and for heavens sake, even there women don’t get that much of holy hell as the women in the US do when they don’t focus 100% on their kids.

  3. Well said, Suzanne. Not to minimize the effects of a hostile work environment or stereotypes about women — the fact remains that the majority of women in the workforce do prefer to have some flexibility so that they can take care of family responsibilities. It’s a tradeoff – less money and less “success” in the corporate sense, but with significant rewards.

    1. Yes, there are some problems, but a lot of it is choice based. And some women (and men!) make choices without thinking through the consequences. Therefore, they think they are being derailed, but what they’ve really done is clearly choose a different path.

      Women can get to the top, but they have to make different choices than women who don’t. Likewise, men have to make different choices as well. Not all men want the corner office either.

  4. Hi,
    I am not sure about the US and europeian context about the woman dream about their careers. In India, still women need to break the glass ceilings. Women professionals still need to go extra mile in term of their expectations about self. Their expectations from bosses and copmany are still priviledged. I have certain cases where I encourage them to take extra responsibilities with clear intention of developing their career, but very few are ready to come formward. They have exceuse like travel time, time pressures etc etc. The male counterpart would easily accept the task.

  5. Another problem women face is the fact of belonging to a “protected category” so far as many if not most high-level professional jobs are concerned. That may seem paradoxical, but it just illustrates one more way in which government protection, for all the good it may do, does come with a price tag.

    Sheryl Sandberg also caught a lot of fire for suggesting that prospective employers should be allowed to ask women whether they intend to get pregnant in the near future during job interviews. But what her critics missed was what she actually was getting at, and it is thus:

    An employer wants to minimize the risk of an employee in a key role taking an extended leave or quitting abruptly. Largely because of the pregnancy thing, women happen to be more likely to do so than men do. Not in the absolute, of course – everyone is different – but statistically speaking, that is a true statement. And as we all know, risk minimization is all about actuarials and statistical averages.

    Thus, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that a hiring manager looking to fill a key role for a major project would simply toss the CVs of any female candidates aside, reasoning that the risk of getting nailed for discrimination (in most cases extremely minimal at the pre-interview stage) is outweighed by avoiding the risk of losing a dynamic young cadre in the middle of an important mission.

    So what I think Sandberg wanted us to consider was this: would employers be more open to hiring and promoting women if they could have frank and earnest discussions with them about their future family hopes? (Nota bene: I suspect the oft-derided “Where do you see yourself in five years?” interview question is, at least in the hands of the savvy recruiter or boss, one way of neutrally “testing the waters” on this issue without actually asking the big question.)

    The flip side to this is that the economy in general has an interest in giving incentives to talented men AND women to reproduce, and discriminating against women who intend to have families does not seem to be conducive to such a goal. But with the average corporation these days lasting 15 years as opposed to 80 or 90 a couple generations ago, it is difficult for an employer to see the long-term wisdom in such accommodations.

    Things to think about! Thanks as always to Madame Lucas for an insightful article on an important subject!

    1. PP, are you honestly blaming laws banning workplace discrimination for workplace discrimination? Trust me, the person who is going to toss the resume of every single female candidate that comes across their desk in the name of “minimizing risk” isn’t going to change that habit just because they can ask women invasive questions about family planning. The reason why this behavior wouldn’t change is because this behavior is motivated by sexism, not reason. And before anyone argues, “Nuh-uh, discriminating against women because of maternity leave is TOTES rational,” here’s why it isn’t. The average woman in the US will get pregnant just over two times in her lifetime. A full 1/3 of those will never take maternity leave and of the remaining 2/3, the average length of maternity leave is just over 10 weeks. Even assuming EVERY woman took a 10-week maternity leave, that means a woman will miss a whopping 20 weeks–5 months–of work over her 40-or-more-year career. In other words, employers who refuse to hire women because of potential pregnancies are refusing to hire women because of a maternity leave that will take up roughly 1% of a woman’s professional tenure. ONE PERCENT. That is not rational. That is discrimination.

      My thoughts on the linked article: the author couldn’t even get the name of the Yahoo CEO correct, even while quoting another article containing her name. (It’s Marissa, not Melissa.) And while, yes, women may make the choice to “change tracks,” that choice doesn’t happen in a vacuum. When it comes to being a parent, often someone has to give up or sidetrack their career in order to be able to raise healthy, happy children. It’s hard to do that when both parents are out of the house at 7 AM to commute in and don’t make it home until after their kids are in bed and then spend their weekends checking their work e-mails and taking conference calls. And when it comes to deciding who has to take the career hit, that choice often goes to the parent making less money–which thanks to a market that simultaneously underpays female workers in all industries and undervalues entire fields dominated by women resulting in lower average salaries for the entire field, tends to be women–and to the parent who is already doing the bulk of the parenting work–which even in homes where women are the breadwinners and work longer hours, still tends to be women. Seriously, most women are so slammed at home doing MOST of the parenting and so slammed at work trying to prove they have just as much skin in the game as Joe Bro sharing their cubicle, it’s no wonder they cut their hours or get out of their job entirely. It’s too much. This is without even touching the fact that many women’s careers stall out as soon as they tell their boss, “I’m pregnant,” because of the exact sort of BS cited by the previous poster.

      I get so tired of reading things that insist women CHOOSE to be home with their kids and CHOOSE to “change tracks” in their careers while leaving out all of the messy, uncomfortable context, especially when it comes from other women. Yes. A lot of us do CHOOSE to be home with our kids. There are complicated reasons for that, though, and I just can’t anymore with people who conveniently leave those out of a conversation about the challenges working women face that working men never, ever do.

      You will never find a book directed at men telling them to LEAN IN, which is short for “work twice as hard and be twice as interested, passionate, and capable as your male peers in order to be taken half as seriously because your uterus makes you a liability in the eyes of your male coworkers.” (And then you’ll have your catchphrase for being taken seriously professionally turned into a joke about your breasts in a televised event broadcast to millions of people.) Just like you will never encounter anyone who will insist that men should have to answer invasive questions about their private lives in order to land a job, especially when those questions are about something that will impact 1% of that man’s career. It would never happen!

      F— “choice.” Either let’s have a serious conversation about sexism in the workplace or let’s not have the conversation at all. If you’re going to take all the teeth out, why get the dentures at all?

      1. This is a very fine example of missing the forest for the trees.

        First of all, maternity often takes up well more than 1 percent of a woman’s working years, because women may choose to stop for longer. How do I know? My mother, a chemical engineer, took four months when my younger brother was born and ended up deciding to quit indefinitely. She only returned to work after he turned 18.

        Second, most employees do not spend their entire careers at one company: these days 3 to 5 years is perfectly normal. And the risk is not distributed evenly. If an employer interviews a 22-year-old woman for a job and a 48-year-old woman for the same job, what are the chances he or she will be having to deal with maternity leave for the former candidate? For the latter? There is, still, even a considerable difference between 25 and 35. This is why an employer interviewing a young woman will probably consider that on average her maternity leaves will take up considerably more than 1 percent of the time she spends or would have spent with that employer. I am not making a moral statement or offering a justification; I am saying that this is a reality.

        Finally, YES, I think anti-discrimination laws play a perverse role in this. It is not that they are poorly intentioned or never do any good. But ask any employer, male or female, and he or she will tell you that the litigious nature of American society, as well as the ever-pervasive sense of “entitlement” and “victimhood” in groups who have real or perceived grievances, makes them inherently wary and mistrustful about anyone they recruit.

        I would guess a number of things about you and your work life/ethic based on your screed, but they would be purely speculative since you have chosen to hide behind anonymity. But what I will say is this: if you are faced with adversity, you have to change your strategy to overcome it. If you think you shouldn’t have to face adversity, you need to consider how it got there in order to understand how to remove it, and above all, do NOT hold your adversary in contempt. Concretely, in this case, this means don’t assume that the challenges women face in the work force are the fault of bigoted pig-ignorant frat boy culture.

        Last thoughts: at the time my mother quit, she was making more money than my father, also a chemical engineer. Rational? It doesn’t matter. It was what they decided they needed and wanted for our family and that was that. What goes on in someone’s home is no outsider’s business. And yes, by extension, it is highly improprietous to be discussing whether a female colleague “ought” to be working if she has children. Who is she to you, after all, outside of work?

        The flip side is that people should not “expect” to be protected from gossip. Against slander or libel, sure. But short of that, your reputation is your own and you need to be careful in whom you confide intimate details. People talk. Someone like Josef Stalin might be able to stop people talking to some extent (mostly by causing them not to trust ANYONE), but who wants to go there?

      2. I forgot to ask you a question, “Anonymous.” You propose “either let’s have a serious conversation about sexism in the workplace or let’s not have the conversation at all.” Are you saying that this has NOT been a serious conversation?

        Or that this conversation is not worth having unless it more specifically and directly tackles the issue of “sexism,” in which case, I’m curious to know what if any subjects do you consider worth conversing about apart from sexism?

        OR… do you simply reject the possibility that anyone who dares to disagree with you on a subject could engage in a serious conversation on said subject?

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