How to Thwart a Midlife Derailment

Cute business woman with colleagues in the backgroundBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

One of the latest studies to echo the point that women are falling off the management ladder is DDI’s Women Work: The Business Benefits of Closing the Gender Gap, which incorporates responses from 74 countries. The 2011 study found that the number of women in leadership positions declines greatly as you move up the ladder, and that fewer women are reaching even mid-level positions today compared with two years ago. What’s more, a gender gap that starts off relatively nominal (59 percent men versus 41 percent women) increases greatly at mid- and senior-level positions.

Clearly the problem isn’t getting women into a good position for advancement—it’s actually advancing them. While many women start off with a bang in fields like finance and law, by mid-career many veer off the upward trajectory, often by choice. Whether that choice is due to a loss of passion or a shift in priorities, there are steps you can take to stay on track.

Make Your Own Plan, Early

Career coach Jennifer Gresham, CEO of Everyday Bright, LLC, has experienced such a gearshift firsthand, having walked away from an enviable position as assistant chief scientist. “I found I enjoyed my days off much more than the ones spent in the office,” says Gresham. “I just wasn’t passionate about science.” She has also witnessed the same trend with countless clients. “Nearly all the women who come to me have what’s considered to be a ‘great job,’” says Gresham. “They do everything that’s expected of them, and it’s killing them.”

Gresham believes that one of the biggest issues facing career advancement for women today is a dangerous combination of parental and societal expectations for women to be high-achieving, combined with a lack of focused career guidance for young women. This pushes driven, talented women to successfully jump through years of educational hoops and up the first rungs of the ladder. But because these early decisions may have been made without the vote of their own interests and passions, something happens along the way.

“Somewhere in their mid- to late-30s, they realize they’ve been living up to someone else’s definition of success,” says Gresham. “They look successful, but they don’t feel like it. And if they find the courage to switch, many of them start over in new careers, which makes it look like there’s a career advancement problem.”

The solution, suggests Gresham, is for women to begin exploring while still in college how to choose a career they love and can succeed at. Instead of settling for opportunities that happen to come their way and being led by the prevailing winds, they should chart their own path.

“Early on, a parent or a teacher will say, ‘You’d be good at _______,’ and off they go in that direction,” says Gresham. “Sometimes the women knew early on they weren’t heading in the right direction, but figured they’d turn it into a stepping stone. In the meantime, another ‘great opportunity’ comes along they feel they can’t turn down.”

Gresham says many women worry that what they really want to do with their lives is frivolous, believing that pursuit of a prestigious career is the only option. Instead, they must learn not to devalue their own happiness in exchange for impressing everyone around them.

Take a Multi-faceted Approach to “Balance”

We’ve all heard stories of the ubiquitous “women who do it all”—somehow spinning the plates of career and family life in harmony without ever having them hit the ground. What we don’t know from these stories is whether these “superwomen” keep the juggling act going for their whole careers, or if we’re just seeing a smooth-running moment in time.

Women have tried to approach the idea of balance from many angles over the decades, and many high-performing women no longer feel that it’s a realistic or necessary ideal to achieve. (See “Voice of Experience: Elle Kaplan, CEO & Founding Partner, Lexion Capital Management.”) Yet balance is still an expectation and problem to solve for many women who are trying to reach top levels of career success while also managing their personal lives.

Stacy L. Fode, partner at Brown Law Group, says that her colleagues continually tell her that the primary challenge women still face is figuring out how to raise families while successfully practicing law. “There is so much angst and struggle by women attorneys that have children to fit it all in—to have time for their families but also time for their cases, clients, and colleagues,” says Fode. “Unfortunately, the struggle is too much for many women and they leave the profession.”

This observation is reflected in current industry data, which show that almost half of graduating law students are women, yet women comprise less than 20 percent of partners of major law firms nationwide, less than 19 percent of general counsel of Fortune 500 corporations, and only 26 percent of the bench (Commission on Women in the Profession—A Current Glance at Women in the Law 2011).

Fode points out that this personal decision has much larger implications, as it impacts the advancement of women in the legal profession as a whole. “Many of my peers who would have one day become managing partners of firms, judges, or general counsel of corporations have now left the practice of law, leaving a vacuum of powerful female role models,” says Fode.

This reality traces back to balance, which is a multi-faceted problem with no simple solutions for women in any industry. Fode suggests attacking the problem from several different angles—rather than expecting to use a one-size-fits-all approach—by doing the following:

  • Design your own program. Start by taking time for self-reflection to determine what “balance” means to you personally. It might mean taking a half-day on Fridays to pick up the kids from school and have family movie night, or taking your daughter to school twice a week and attending a school activity once a month, or pledging to turn off your Blackberry and be fully present with your children when you come home from work.
  • Put it into action. Once you decide what balance means to you, make a concrete plan to put your approach into action. Deep reflection can help you determine what you need to be happy, but you might also consider hiring a personal coach to help you with this process.  If you’re not happy with your current situation, take the steps necessary to change it, which will lead to your best and most happy self.
  • Become a rainmaker. If you are a rainmaker who brings business into your organization, then you may gain more power to make requests that will support your own work-life balance. Work on developing the skills necessary to become a rainmaker. A coach can often assist in this arena, or find a mentor (within or outside of your organization) who will show you how to develop business. If those options are not available, then attending seminars or reading books on rainmaking can be helpful.
  • Stay connected even if you disconnect. If you decide to leave your job but you think you may want to return to the industry in the future, take steps to keep abreast of changes in your industry and to remain a viable candidate. For example, do some contract work, stay active in your local industry association, and take continuing education courses.