Women on Top?

What’s your position?

Women on top? A little variation and taking turns, or better yet – anything goes as long as the fit feels appropriate?

Ah, but it isn’t so straightforward if you find yourself stuck in the middle – of middle management, that is. Especially if you’re trying to wriggle your way out, then onward and upward.

Or is “stuck” in middle management exactly where you choose to be?

WSJ Conference on Women in the Economy

A recent Wall Street Journal report on women in management offers insights into the reasons that more women don’t make it to the top. They may surprise you. Then again, they may not.

According to Vikram Malhotra, chairman of the Americas at McKinsey & Co., speaking last week at the Wall Street Journal’s Women in the Economy Conference:

Our corporate talent pipeline is leaky, and it is blocked. Qualified women enter the work force in sufficient numbers, but they begin to drop off at the very first sorting of talent, when they’re eligible for their very first management positions. And it only gets worse after that.

And if you’re not part of the corporate world – does this affect you? Does it concern you?

If you’re a man and your wife is dissatisfied in her work, I daresay the answer is yes. If you’re dependent upon the corporate woman as breadwinner in your household, again – yes. If you’d like to know that there is female representation at significant decision-making levels in the companies providing you goods and services, again – yes. If you believe that equal performance ought to mean equal opportunity, wouldn’t the answer be yes?

And if you’re a parent, don’t you want your daughters to have real choices? Options based on qualifications and expertise?

Job Structures, Cultural Strictures

Some of the reasons for the continued disappointing numbers, according to Mr. Malhotra, include structural barriers (insufficient role models, fewer networks, lack of sponsorship), lifestyle issues (for example, travel requirements), and age-old prejudices that women simply won’t fit in particular positions.

Again, with the traditional (and outmoded) views that a woman’s place is… well, not on top!

While the WSJ article goes on to include Mr. Malhotra’s comments regarding how to address these issues, yet another article in the series – which I recommend – caught my eye.

The Perpetual Work-Life Juggle

According to Sue Shellenbarger’s article, “Why Women Rarely Leave Middle Management,” the odds are stacked against working mothers moving into senior positions. It’s not rocket science; no kids, fewer impediments to climbing the ladder.

Among the points cited by Shellenbarger (paraphrased):

  • 83% of mid-level women have a strong desire to move up to a higher level in their companies, with their chance of doing so only 60% that of men
  • Mothers and fathers both refuse promotions that impact work-life balance; mothers seem particularly concerned about limiting travel
  • Without role models, women continue to have difficulty visualizing themselves in senior positions, while senior managers worry that women will leave to have families, and business unit performance will suffer
  • Lower pay, according to Nancy Carter, senior vice president, research, for Catalyst, according to her group’s study of 5,000 employees worldwide, speaking of women in first jobs and an increasing compensation gap that continues over time.

Another factor? The cost of child care, which may trump the satisfaction of a job, unless you’re willing (and able) to take the financial hit. (An issue for how many millions of single or solo parents?)

Has Anything Really Changed?

Can we agree that the American business model has a long way to go in accommodating the fact that women bear the children, and most frequently – care for them? Without policies that are family friendly, pay scales that cover child care costs – or both – women remain “stuck” – unable to pass GO, unable to collect $200.

Incidentally, I was one of those enthusiastic women in the 80s, MBA in hand, believing that I could have it all and do it all. I loved the excitement of the workplace, the application of my knowledge and expertise, as well as travel to see customers overseas. But I was single at the time, and unhampered by many of the structural barriers that seem still to be in place, 25 years later.

The Parenting Profession

As my full-time parenting role winds down, I can attest to the lack of options that I experienced when I had my children in the 1990s. Well established in my career, it never occurred to me that parenting issues would intervene constantly – never impacting my spouse, mind you – but me. Does the term “mommy tracked” come to mind, even if it’s (ultimately) an intentional choice to remain in lower level mid management positions, so you can run to the pediatrician, to the Emergency Room, to the parent-teacher conference – and still hang on to a job?

As for childcare, there were options for babies and preschoolers, and they weren’t cheap. But as parental responsibilities increased, they were offset by a decrease in child care alternatives. By the time my sons hit the end of their elementary years (as my marriage was ending), there were no employer facilities, no afterschool programs, and my income as a single mother didn’t allow for expensive sitter services.

At 9, 10, or 11 years old, my kids were definitely too young to fend for themselves in getting home, and shuttling to activities was out of the question. Thus the choice for many of us – often wrenching – involving family dynamics, a desire to parent, skills and experience that get shelved or downgraded, and the harsh reality of economics – namely, the cost and availability of child care versus the importance of one’s career. And might I include the necessity of the income that comes with it?

Buying into the Superwoman Myth

My path?

For a considerable time, I was able to work from a home office – carrying two full-time roles simultaneously, combining corporate work, writing work, and parenting around the schedule of my growing children. The Superwoman Myth lives!

But with my remote location came invisibility, de facto exclusion from critical networks, and narrowed opportunities all round.

And then there’s the fatigue, not to mention the frustration of generally lower level jobs (and pay), and the constant pull in too many directions that eventually affects performance in all.

Would you quit your job? Which one?

Perhaps the numbers of women in middle management have swelled since I officially left the corporate world a decade ago, and thus the potential for moving into senior positions. But reading between the lines, the issues remain fundamentally entrenched.  So where does that leave us – as women, or as parents worried about the options for our daughters? Do we quit our (income-generating) jobs, cease parenting, or continue to dwell in the never-never land of underemployment and low-earning limbo?

© D A Wolf



  1. says

    Terrific post, BLW. As a working mom these are questions I face every day. And they aren’t easy.

    Your post reminded me a lot of the TED talk given by Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO) last December. She discussed how women are inclined to sideline themselves in their jobs well before they have families in anticipation of the inevitable juggling act. The net result is that by the time they have kids they’ve worked themselves into undemanding, and thereby unrewarding, positions and quickly leave the workforce after their pregnancies.

    When I returned to work in early 2009 after my son was born I wanted to work from home two days/week. I had been with my company six years and through a series of management changes become disenchanted with my position. When I my telecommuting request was denied (despite a broad precedent of remote employees across the company, and the fact that I’d proven my reliability by spending two years of my six working remotely as a sales rep) my thought process was this: “If I’m going to work full-time in an office, I need to love it. I don’t love this, so it’s not worth being away from my baby 40+ hours/week.”

    I think a lot of women would have had the same response. Of the women with that response I also think a lot of them would have said, “Well, then I’ll just stay home.” For reasons that are too long and nuanced to get into here, I knew that wasn’t the right option for me. My response was, “If I don’t love this enough to justify being away from my son, then I need to find something I do love enough.” So I went on a job search and through some good luck and strong network connections was able to find a better, more challenging, and more rewarding position within a couple of months. And I’m much happier.

    That isn’t to say there aren’t days when I’d rather stay home and work floor puzzles with my son. It’s still hard sometimes when he tugs on my pant leg as I walk out the door. But 99 days out of 100 our arrangement works just fine. I’d be derelict not to say, though, that I have a lot of help. My husband is a team player who supports my career and personal interests. And we have a wonderful nanny who has stayed home with our son since he was 12 weeks old. So even though I’ve made it work, I’m not facing near the battle that lots of parents face every day.

    And that’s where corporate America really falls short. You don’t have to look much farther than the boom of mom bloggers to see that there is a huge population of educated and intelligent women who have something to say; who want to produce something; who could be enterprising members of dynamic companies. But so many companies see young mothers in management positions as a liability, rather than an asset. It doesn’t take women long to realize it if they are undervalued compared to male counterparts. And I, for one, have little interest in giving my time and energy to something that doesn’t value me in return.

    Long-winded response here, but this is such a rich topic. There’s no easy answer. But that shouldn’t ever stop us from having a difficult conversation.

  2. BigLittleWolf says

    @Gale – thank you so much for sharing your experience here in such a comprehensive manner. It remains shocking to me that some organizations continue to waste talent by being inflexible with remote arrangements.

    Much food for thought here.

  3. says

    I have repeatedly had to sideline my career aspirations because I am not the primary breadwinner. Time and time again, I’m forced to stay at an unrewarding position simply because it’s convenient. I haven’t had a hard time finding jobs that support a good work/life balance but, the fact is, unless you can put in much more than the standard 40, not have to pick up sick kids, deal with flaky babysitters who never show, these jobs are just that – jobs. Over the years I’ve been making incremental advances but at 41 am nothing more than a project manager. It’s disappointing because I know I can do so much more.

  4. says

    Such a thoughtful exploration of a fascinating and thorny topic, BLW. I have strong views here but won’t bore you with them. I’ll just say I agree with Gale and of what she quotes from Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk, that in my view a lot of what happens is women opt out before they even hit the wall. I sure did. I went into a job with more potential for flexibility when I graduated from business school, even before I had children. This has had many benefits for me – 11 years later I work in a flexible role where I am more than adequately compensated and work with people I like. But there have also been downsides – by never even trying to “make it” in the big leagues (as I so tellingly think of it) I will never know if I could have made a more traditional – and possibly more impactful – role work for me. I’ll never know if I’d have enjoyed such a role.
    I can’t spend my life second guessing my choice, but I do think there’s a lot to be addressed because I think the issues are so daunting that many women choose to duck them altogether. And we all lose because of that.

  5. says

    Gosh – my comment seems bitter, but I am not. I’ve been doing this for so many years now that (to me and my perspective) I feel that you cannot have one foot in both worlds and excel at both too. Something has to give. Resources, either financial or familial will ease the burden but if you want to maintain friendships and personal interests as well as your relationship with your significant other, there is a limit to how much one (woman) can do.

  6. says

    Some of my best managers and mentors have been women. I do find it interesting though that so many of them retire so early or sooner than their peers here at Microsoft.

    This is especially true with women VPs. They are uniformly awesome, but they leave after a few years. This happens time and time again. There doesn’t appear to be in reason for them to be leaving, but of course I don’t have the inside story.

    I do have a theory though. I suspect that women are always looking at their next learning experience whereas men, by nature, seem to be fine with sitting the same job for years. Take me for example, it took me a long time to get to where I am in this company and I’m not necessarily interested in starting over again.

    My current manager is retiring this month. I’m so depressed. She is five years older than me and set for life. She leaves behind a very tight and diverse team of overachievers, low maintenance types, self starters, with the ability to deliver way beyond expectations year after year. Wonder what will happen with whomever they choose to replace her?

  7. says

    BLW, I am taking a comp day after working nine straight ten-hour days. Thus my responses are a little more detailed. In your last two posts, I am not seeing much in the way of crazy. You are crazy like a fox, er wolf me thinks.

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