Corrections or additions?
This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the November 13, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Working Women Through the Ages
Mountains of books have been written about the external
forces that shape our lives: marriage, child rearing, health problems,
death of a loved one, unemployment, etc. But social scientists Marian
N. Ruderman and Patricia J. Ohlott have taken a look at a
universal force that also shapes our lives — the simple act of
aging and maturing.
Their new book, "Standing at the Crossroads: Next Steps for High-Achieving
Women" (Jossey-Bass), explores the virgin territory into which
female executives have trooped in the past several decades. After
speaking with women at all stages of their careers, the authors find
patterns, ways in which successful women refine the way they relate
to work at different stages of their lives.
Ohlott, a research associate with the Center for Creative Leadership
in Greensboro, North Carolina, speaks at a half-day workshop on women’s
leadership issues on Monday, November 18, at 7:45 a.m. at the Holiday
Inn Select in Clinton. The workshop is sponsored by the Hunterdon
Chamber and costs $65. Call 908-735-5955.
This excerpt from the book talks about how successful women shift
focus as they advance in their careers:
and exciting time of life for managerial women. Agency — taking
control of your own destiny — was the dominant theme in the lives
of these women. Virtually all were very intense in the pursuit of
their careers. Women in this group are establishing the groundwork
for an executive life, teaming to take risks and have an impact on
an organization. The majority of time in all three interviews was
spent talking about their current major projects — their struggles,
their accomplishments, and the visibility resulting from leading a
They work extremely hard — long hours and weekends. They see their
current assignment as a stepping-stone to an executive career. They
scan the environment for future tasks, projects, and assignments that
could help them achieve their goals. They have a life plan that revolves
around their career. Women aged 29-33 seek out developmental opportunities
to enhance their capabilities.
These women are working to show they can succeed in a career so that
if they later decide to have children no one can say they are not
career-oriented. Even those who already have children are working
endless hours because they want to prove themselves relatively early
in their career.
Wholeness manifests itself in terms of concerns about spending too
much time at work and not having enough time for themselves or family
members and friends. However, they don’t seem as distressed by the
issue as some of the older women are because they don’t focus on what
they are missing. Even when they say they want to be more balanced,
they tend to avoid making the changes that would let them work less
and attend to other things. They have a lot of self-discipline and
are willing to sacrifice life outside work to create the foundation
for a high-level career. They seem to trust that there will be a time
when they will get around to other things.
are often in transition, and many face the first significant encounter
with a career obstacle. Life has a lot of uncertainty for this group
They keep working on career goals and contemplate what it will take
to reach them, seeking to move from junior positions to more senior
ones. Some see that their career isn’t blooming as they dreamed. Reorganizations
may have removed a target position, disagreements with senior managers
may have slowed progress, or they may simply have come close enough
to the glass ceiling to feel its effects personally. In response,
many add to their career goals by taking on a new role or a new job.
However, in the process they adjust their lives so as to be both more
authentic and realistic. They focus on how they fit with the job not
just in terms of skills but also in terms of personality and lifestyle.
Connection is more important to these women than to the younger ones.
Life has expanded beyond career and their involvements focus on other
people as well as on work. They tend to set goals that include friends
and family, and they vow to spend more time with their loved ones
and friends. Single women are intent on adding intimacy to their lives.
One manager said, "I have become totally rootless, in other words,
I have no roots anywhere." She had moved so many times for her
career that she felt all alone, and her new goal was to be more settled.
The focus on connection carries over at work as well. These women
try to be more personable with their staffs and work on networking
specifically with women in their own and other organizations. Some
of them have reached levels with few female peers and they seek to
develop supportive relationships with managers facing similar issues.
Wholeness is the dominant developmental theme for this
age cohort, and usually involves substantial pain. As their family
life becomes more demanding, these women often describe themselves
as "fragmented." They try to reevaluate their priorities so
as to feel more whole. They’ve begun to see that having it all has
a price tag, and they long to feel better integrated. But if they
do cut back at work, they feel insecure. Meanwhile, single women question
what else there is besides work. One said, "I have a great career
but nothing else going on in my life."
Self-clarity still seems secondary. However, women in this age group
are starting to talk about the different ways men and women are treated
in their organizations. They start to consider this context in relation
to their own experience. They also begin to see their lives in totality
and develop long-term visions as to how they would like to grow. Self-descriptions
demonstrate a relatively longterm perspective: "Maybe I can’t
have it all at the same time but I can have it all at different times."
Agency is still a developmental theme, but the focus is less on career
and more on other life goals. These women restructure their lives
to focus on what is most important. They exert control over their
lives and start shaping their environments so they can have as great
a sense of well-being as possible. Instead of leaving difficult situations,
they are more inclined to fight back and set boundaries and conditions
that are more satisfying. One said, "Even if I lost my job and
income, it’s okay …. I am being a proactive advocate for myself
versus being a victim or reactor to circumstance."
Authenticity is the dominant theme for this cohort, which is part
of the reason their agency is active in multiple life domains. These
women work actively to ensure that their lives and their values are
aligned as closely as possible. They rarely sit back and accept the
status quo. They make career decisions without seriously compromising
personal goals. In contrast to the younger women, they place greater
value on internal measures of success than on the organization’s yardstick.
When dual-career issues come up, these women can create solutions
that help both spouses achieve their goals — sometimes with some
friction — but they know how to work things through with their
husbands. Women in this group also excel at using boundaries to ensure
that they live life according to their priorities. They keep the promises
they make to themselves.
They want to become mentors, making it a goal to give back to the
community of women some of the lessons they have learned. They find
themselves attracting others to them and derive great pleasure from
the mentoring experience. Furthermore, by coaching others these women
reinforce their own strengths and their philosophy of life. They take
responsibility for socializing other women to the organization.
In their own work, they are good at seeking out others to act as sounding
boards and help them deal with difficult issues. They have peers they
can share concerns and hopes with. They rely on others in a sophisticated
This is the first cohort with a relatively high level of self-clarity.
The other groups were aware of their own strengths and weaknesses,
but rarely saw themselves in the context of life experiences and the
larger world. This group seemed to have teamed what worked for them
and what didn’t. They saw things more clearly than the younger women
did. They also valued personal growth and development. They were open
to teaming more about themselves through therapy, self-help books,
and other methods. They had the confidence to review their lives and
try to improve them. They clearly identified and surfaced gender differences
in the ways their organizations treated people.
Wholeness begins to move to the front seat. One said, "This job
is very important, but I’m not going to sacrifice everything else
for it." She followed through on this and kept her job from crowding
out other activities and roles. Primarily she strengthened her boundaries
and actively said no to many tasks she thought would unnecessarily
expand her time at work. Another told us how she’d refused to fly
across country for a meeting that would cut into a planned vacation,
offering to join via videoconference instead.
The women in this cohort have become better problem solvers. They
can see different paths to a goal and pick the one that allows for
the greatest feelings of wholeness. Those in the next younger group
had the same desire for wholeness but were not so effective in taking
action to limit the encroachment of work on personal time-perhaps
because they didn’t see alternatives, perhaps because they didn’t
feel they had enough organizational capital to suggest alternative
approaches. Women in their early 40s have realized that you can’t
have it all at the same time and also have developed the initiative
to carry out alternative strategies.
Women Aged 46-50: Growing in Wisdom. These women
have achieved a significant management level and seek to make their
mark on their organizations. They also want to exercise influence
in a way that is truly beneficial to others, and to act as a model
of leadership. They are focused on fine tuning their lives to build
a structure that will allow them to have a major impact before they
Agency and authenticity seem to interact for women in this cohort.
They fine-tune their lives to make life on and off the job more authentic.
They actively work to obtain and preserve authenticity by either leaving
unauthentic situations or trying to change their situations so they
can act authentically within them.
Connection goals matter to this cohort but seem less intense than
for some of the younger groups. These women tend to take a very matter-of-fact
approach to connection, as if the possibility of not valuing it highly
doesn’t exist. Several mentioned expanding their circle of intimate
relationships. They have strong connections with a handful of people
and they want to expand their personal networks by renewing old relationships
or creating new ones. Those with elderly parents strive to spend more
time with them.
This group also values self-clarity and focuses on learning more and
growing. They are attuned to gender dynamics and struggle to understand
how gender issues play out in their work environments. Some of them
openly discussed their experiences of sexism and discrimination. They
have seen people enter, advance, and leave executive careers and have
noticed women facing greater obstacles than men do.
the chief concerns of connection are how to develop younger women
and how to use a sense of connection to be supportive of others. These
women see themselves as senior in their organizations and they feel
responsible for nurturing the next generation of women managers. More
generally, connections in their personal life are a great source of
Authenticity is a major issue, with many talking of honoring themselves.
They decide to start or resume hobbies and actually carry through
on these goals. They are very clear on their priorities and structure
their lives in accordance with them, with no waffling. They seem comfortable
with their own definitions of success and no longer care about the
differences between traditionally male external measures of success
and their own yardsticks.
As they approach retirement, they seek a deeper meaning in life apart
from work. One said, "As I grow older and I reflect on what is
really success, it seems to me that what’s really success is to be
able to raise a child that will contribute to society in a meaningful
way and that should really be my goal. And yes, I can have professional
success based on how much I get paid and how much recognition, but
what I really contribute to a greater scheme of civilization or whatever
you want to call it — is what values I leave with this child."
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.