Advance Your Career Or Raise A Family: American Women Can Only Pick One

Businesswoman holding baby at desk

U.S. women’s workforce participation has been on the decline since 1999.

According to a recent New York Times story “Why U.S. Women are Leaving Jobs Behind,” Europeans countries—which have expanded family-friendly benefits such as paid parental leaves and protection for part-time workers—have witnessed an increase of mothers with children under 18 in the workforce. Alternately in the U.S., which remains anathema to such protections, the trend has gone the other way with women’s workforce participation declining since 1999.

But there’s an exception. The women in the U.S. who have mimicked the male career model have had greater professional success than their European counterparts. Career advancement or the ability to balance your career with caring for your family—it seems to boil down to pick only one.

The article suggests the possibility of college-educated women finding new solutions by stepping out of the workforce and later reentering. Based on the experience of several women in my life, this has been a lousy alternative.

My sister-in-law was a highly successful assistant art director for a major business magazine early in her career. When the magazine’s headquarters relocated, she decided not to follow and began taking on freelance projects while simultaneously caring for my niece and nephew who were infants and toddlers at the time. The recession hit, the freelance projects dried up, and she spent a few years searching for positions with little luck. Not only did a position not materialize, she found that placing her candidacy into the electronic abyss of job postings felt completely futile. Often she was not afforded even the most basic consideration of a response.

She eventually started working part-time for a local church and designing kitchen layouts one day per week on a commission basis. When I saw her recently, she shared how much she loved having the structure in her life, the good feeling of being appreciated for making a contribution at work, and the opportunity to make a financial contribution at home. But it clearly isn’t where she thought she would land thinking back to those heady days in her 20s and early 30s.

My sister, a wellness consultant with a master’s degree, delivered programs to employers of major companies. After struggling mightily to work and simultaneously care for her special needs daughter, she stepped out of the workforce more than a decade ago and has in recent years been trying to reenter. She would love to find a good job—one with benefits and flexibility—that utilizes her sales and marketing and health promotion background. It feels like a pipe dream. As a single mother, she’s found little uptake even applying for retail jobs to bring in some money while she sorts out next career steps. .

I wonder how underutilizing such talented women—like my sister and sister-in-law—can possibly be good for our economy. Research shows it’s not. Several studies capture links between women in leadership roles and better financial results for organizations. Last spring I heard a presentation from an economics professor at Cornell University who framed women’s employment as an economic competitiveness issue. She reported 40% of the GDP growth over the last 40 years has come from women entering the workforce.

The frustration of watching this play out is heightened for me not only because it involves women I care about but because I’ve spent the better part of my career working to create opportunities for women. Working in investment management in my early career, I found the work cultures greatly lacking. I subsequently made a major career shift and have spent more than 15 years as an organizational consultant advising companies and firms on women’s professional development and advancement and creating more flexible, family-supportive work cultures.

Reading the New York Times story was disheartening on so many levels. I deeply believed when I began this work in the 1990s that we could evolve work cultures to enable women (and men) to flourish in their careers and be the parents they wanted to be. I still want to believe that work cultures can change and that we’ll continue to move toward gender equality in the workplace.

I’ll continue fighting the good fight, doing what I can to change the status quo. But watching the challenges of women all around me, in addition to the ongoing stream of articles like the recent New York Times piece, makes it harder and harder to believe that career advancement and work-life balance can coexist for women—or men—in corporate America.

Lisa D’Annolfo Levey is a consultant, speaker, and writer on work-life and diversity management. She spent many years as a Senior Director of Advisory Services at Catalyst. She is the author of The Libra Solution: Shedding Excess and Redefining Success at Work and at Home, focused on a gender-flexible approach to career and family management.

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