Episode 98: Leaning Back

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, so much of the literature for professional women urges us to strive for the top job. But what if you have no interest in leaning in?

“The majority of women want to capitalize on their educations, want to do something meaningful and interesting and lucrative, but they’re not willing to sell their soul for their professional life.”

Coming up, we talk about leaning back, opting out, and asking for flexibility.

So last month I came across an article in The Atlantic – in fact it was the beginning of a series they ran on women’s ambitions over time. And you know, as with so many of these pieces about highly educated, high achieving women, about a quarter of the women they focused on had dropped out of the workforce completely to look after their kids. Something that’s fairly common in the best-educated cohort.

Reading it, I thought about Kathryn Sollmann.

Kathryn runs the website 9 Lives for Women. She’s also an executive coach. She’s done a lot of different things in her career. She started off running training programs and events in the corporate world, but switched to running her own business when she was still in her twenties. After 9/11 her business hit a major downturn and she started to ponder what she should do next. At the same time, she’d be out and about at her kids’ school or at the supermarket near her home in Connecticut and she’d get talking to other women.

“And they’d say to me, oh God, it’s so great that you work, and I really would like to work again but I’ve been out so long and I don’t know who would want me. And I would keep talking to them, and in the next few sentences I’d find out they went to Princeton, they have an MBA, they used to be senior vice president of a big Wall Street firm…and I would think wait a minute. There’s a big disconnect here. Why would these women think nobody would want them or they couldn’t get back into the workforce?”

But it really was tough. They’d lost their networks, their skills were rusty. They’d lost confidence. This gave Kathryn an idea for a new business and for the next decade or so she and a business partner ran programs for these returning professional women; eventually they morphed into a recruiting firm.

These days she’s writing, consulting and working on a book about how women can work flexibly throughout their lives – without taking damaging career breaks.

AM-T: “When I heard you talking about the women saying you’re so lucky to be working, I’ve been out so long…that’s quite common in wealthy suburbs in America and elsewhere, these are the people who can afford to quit work. I’m just a bit worried some listeners may hear this and say I can’t relate to this at all, much as I’d like to scale back I really can’t, we need our two incomes. Does this discussion only apply to the kinds of people you and I are surrounded by, fairly wealthy people in New York and its suburbs?”

“No it does not. And that is a very interesting social commentary and I feel I can really speak to this. I’ve been working with this demographic of returning professional women for 15 years. Obviously if your husband is making a big salary and can pay the mortgage and all the big bills it’s very easy to say, I am gonna leave the workforce for a few years. But what I’ve found is that there are women at much lower income levels who, you know, don’t have a lot of extra income coming into the household each month who just firmly believe that once you have children you are supposed to be home with those children. It is definitely not just something the most affluent women do.”

AM-T: “You have a beef with the current discussion around women and work. What is it?”

“Well I think there are two prominent discussions that linger. The ‘can women have it all’ will not die, and then there’s the Lean In. And I feel that both those conversations are really talking about the pros and cons of working and of getting to the top, and missing from the conversation is any discussion about the fact that working whether you’re a male or female, working is attached to long-term financial security. And rarely when I’m talking to women who are struggling about whether or not they should leave the workforce or the ones who did leave the workforce, rarely is there any big thought about the financial aspects of leaving.”

Instead, they’re focused on what they can achieve at home, and having a less stressful life. She says the women she met over the years who quit spent an average of 12 years at home. And the yearning for the off-ramp often begins when a second child is born.

“They’re saying I don’t know if I can do this any more. And then there’s the thought that if I can just go home for a couple of years and get everything in order, then I’ll come back. But the problem is most times a couple of years then turns into the average of 12. And women aren’t thinking about what the impact is of 12 years out of the workforce. Because every year they are out of the workforce they are giving up up to 4 times their potential compensation.”

Not just salary but pensions and other benefits.

Now Kathryn grew up in an affluent community herself and she lives in one now. So in a way she seems an unlikely person to push this idea of continuing to work throughout your life. But she got an early taste of instability when her father lost his job decades ago. He never fully recovered. It made her determined to keep earning money no matter what her future spouse might do. She worked in a corporate setting for several years after college but then left to start her own marketing/communications business. She was running that when she had her two children, now young adults. She says she worked early mornings and late nights, but she also got to go to school events sometimes. They were crazy hours. But they were her crazy hours. And yes, her husband earned more as an insurance executive. But she says working consistently but flexibly has allowed her to be present a lot for her kids, and to earn decently too…

“So I’m saying that you have to think about your work/life decisions not only in the context of family but also in the context of long-term financial security. That is because life has many you-never-knows, and even though you may be comfortable today and your husband may have that big job today you don’t know what’s gonna happen down the road, and it’s very foolish to be out of the workforce for twelve years and do absolutely nothing that’s professional. Because it becomes very difficult to get back in when you really need to.”

She says many women need jobs that not only fit around child-rearing, but also caring for aging parents. Daughters are often the ones who take on this role. Many baby boomers and some Gen X women are already firmly entrenched in elder care on top of their other responsibilities.

“If you have experienced it yourself and I’m certainly going through it now, you don’t have to be the caregiver for that caregiving role to take over your life.”

AMT: “Right, you just have to be the coordinator.”

“The coordinator. Right, exactly. So basically what I’m saying is there is no perfect time to work in terms of caregiving and family. The smart thing is to always work in some way from college to retirement. And it does not have to be a 60 hour a week corporate job.”

AMT: “You also say few women have the desire or family bandwidth to break the glass ceiling.” 

“Well I do think that’s true. It’s counterintuitive, counter feminist to say that but it is the reality. I mean all the talk about the fact that women are not at the top of corporations. Again yes, for the women who do want to be at the top of corporations, be in C suite, have that 24/7 responsibility, they should be able to get there and stay there. But my argument is there are very, very few women relatively who want to be in that C suite. There are very few women who want to be Hillary Clinton. There are some, absolutely, but I feel that the majority of women want to capitalize on their educations, want to do something meaningful and interesting and challenging and lucrative, but they’re not willing to sell their soul for their professional life.”

One of those women emailed me last year. She’d definitely leaned in. She has a good career, great title. But now, she wants to lean back. I read Kathryn her email. 

AM-T: “She wrote to me in the early summer, she said she’s in her early 30s, her husband’s mid-30s, they live in DC…she’s a health care executive. She said we both have demanding careers that take up most of our time both during the week and during the weekends. We'd like to have kids within the next year, and I can already tell that it will be difficult to balance my career and having a family. I would love to be able to stay at home part time especially while my children are young, and I honestly doubt I will miss my job and all the stress. And yes, I realize what a privileged position I am in to even consider this.

That said, I definitely do not want to opt out. I watched my mom do it and depend on my dad for an income for many years and would never want to be in that position. I would love to go and take a low stress, part time job for a few years. But I don't know how to do this without losing my network, being branded as a quitter, and destroying any prospects I have to get back on the fast track if I wanted to later.”

“Well I mean the first thing I would say is that you have to adjust your definition of the fast track, you know the fast track is not just being a health care executive or being an executive at a corporation. The fast track can be having your own business. It could be you know being a consultant, in my mind, there are lots of ways to skin the cat you know and it goes back to what we were talking about before. I mean how many people, how many women are so, so concerned with what their title is?”

I am one of those people who honestly doesn’t care about titles. But then I’ve never had an impressive one to lose.

“I mean I'm sure there are women who do, who do care about it but you know especially once you have a family you know your priorities shift a little bit and you're trying to fit everything in. So I still think that this woman can be a health care executive without being under the corporate umbrella. And you know what I would say to her as a career coach is OK. You're think you're starting think about having children now. So start planning now for how you're going to work when the children come.”

Now this listener who wrote to me – she indicated her company just isn’t flexible. She’s not even attempting to ask for flextime there. She is looking around for other jobs, she told me just recently. Places where she can imagine scaling back. But Kathryn says a lot of people can achieve a part-time schedule at work IF we sell it right.

“Most women at that crossroads, they would go into their boss and say you know I'd like to scale back a little bit. You know would it be OK if I if I work part time? And that is the extent of their pitch for flexible work, that's it. Because I've spoken to so many women who say well I left my job because it just was not possible to work in a flexible way.

And then I dig deeper and I say OK, so what did you say and what did you do? And it's always this simple ask. There's not a professional pitch for flexibility talking about how it's going to work for you how it's going to work for the employer. How are you going to manage people if you work at home, you know all those kinds of things. And so I mean she's now, this woman is now a subject healthcare expert and there are probably many, many companies, health care institutions, who would want her expertise.”

She’s says there’s always the consultant route…and to go that route you need to lay some groundwork. Think about clients you might approach. Plan ahead while you’re still at the current job.

“But she doesn't, she doesn't have to think of it as being a quitter. She's instead what she's doing is putting work more on her own terms and she could become a very highly sought after consultant that could be still considered very much on the fast track. It's just that you're not within the corporate confines.” 

And we’re going to come back to that thought about working on your own terms in a minute.

So talking to Kathryn I kept thinking about an earlier show I’d done with the author Laura Vanderkam…some of you may remember this one, Laura is a well known author on time management and show 67 was called How to Make the Most of Your Time. Her contention is that if we just managed our time better…we could achieve a lot more and be a lot less stressed. She says going part-time isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

 “We think that going part time will allow us to officially set boundaries right, we've paid the price. Now we can set artificial boundaries but the problem is just because you have a boundary doesn't mean that people will automatically respect it. And so you're going to have to constantly be negotiating this, you know if you have Tuesday as your day off. People are still going to schedule meetings on Tuesday. Your team is still going to have a conference call they're going to wonder why you're not there. They're going to e-mail you and wonder why you haven't responded and so you can not respond but many people are trying to be accommodating and so they wind up working basically full time hours they're just getting paid less for it. So in particular if people are thinking about taking an eighty percent schedule I would caution against that because it is quite possible to slack for twenty percent of the time and still get paid for it. I am not sure how many people who are working aren't slacking twenty percent of the time at the office. So why officially cut your pay just to go through, you know we all go through ups and downs in our productivity and this may be a particular low point for you but probably there will be a higher point at another point.”

 “Laura's work is terrific because she's really showing everyone that you know, we waste a lot of time and we can be more choosy about how we spend our time. I don't know that I would say though that you should not try to go the part time route because I mean that's the old model. You know, you go part time and you have to work full time. I mean there are ways around that too. I mean we're certainly moving to a freelance economy which is you know not full time work every day 52 weeks a year. I think people are much more, employers are much more open to less than full time work and you know and again it's back to how do you propose it? And you know what are the what are the guidelines that you're proposing. For example I know a woman who works for one of the big recruiting firms. She was very high flying and she decided that she wanted to go part time and she saw that it was starting to be you know, the hours were expanding beyond the twenty hours or whatever she had had agreed upon. And so then she basically had a conversation with her employer and said look, I understand that you know life and work is going to go beyond the 20 hours but that's what I'm being paid for. So would you agree to pay me by the hour? And then sometimes I will be working 35 hours and sometimes I might work 15. So a lot of it is that we need creative thinking and much more work at the front end, of what the parameters will be of whatever the flexible work is.”

Which prompts me to ask if any of you have tried an ask like this – like a strategic ask, something you planned carefully ahead of time. And has it worked? I think other people could really learn from this so please post a comment under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

Back to the topic of financial security, which is close to Kathryn’s heart. She did a survey of her readership, and she found the majority of women – 70% plus had experienced some kind of unexpected life event that had hit their finances hard. There were the big things like the death of a spouse, or a divorce, but other things as well.

“Parents are footing the bill for their adult children and supplementing their income or you know maybe they don't have a job at all. And then you know, this one I've mentioned before, this aging parent situation where it's becoming more and more common that your parents are going to run out of money and that can happen even if the parents were at one time affluent. Once they get to the point where they need $25 an hour care around the clock which is $4,000 a week, you run through even a big bank account very quickly. And if you have four parents who are living, if you're married and you have you know two sets of parents, I'm hearing more and more from people that they're having to pitch in and help their parents.”

And I’m not sure how many of us are thinking of this kind of thing when we’re in our thirties. But I said to Kathryn, what about the argument I’ve heard women make against returning to work, which is, I’ve been out so long, I’d only get a low-paying job, 25,000 dollars a year really wouldn’t make much of a difference. But Kathryn says, hang on a minute – say that is all you can command initially…

“If you are able to just sock that away because somebody else is paying all the bills, I go into all the numbers in my book but I give an example where a woman who does that from age 45 to age 65 – she would have an additional 500,000 dollars at age 65 for retirement. 500,000 dollars is a lot to turn your nose up at.”

Especially given so many people are living a long, long time after retirement these days.

“You just can’t count on anything. You’ve got to have the insurance policy of always being able to generate of a paycheck – you can dial it up or dial it down, but it’s really very scary to leave the workforce for long periods of time. And you also don’t have to suffer in a big corporate job that’s stressing you out…you know if you are really hard driving you can be hard driving in something that is on your own terms.”

Kathryn Sollmann. Her site is 9 Lives for Women.

I’d be really interested to hear stories from any of you who have deliberately scaled back your career in some way and how that’s turning out. You can leave a comment under this episode at The Broad experience dot com or post on the Facebook page – or email me if you prefer.

And you may have noticed we have some new theme music today. It’s been something I’ve been thinking about for ages – I wanted something punchier, more confident sounding. And I’m really happy with the result. The composer is Nick Bullock, who pitched me after listening to some of my shows.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.