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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:

Women Aged 29-33: Married to My Job. This is a very busy

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

high-profile initiative.

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.

Women Aged 34-40: Branching Out. Women in this age group

are often in transition, and many face the first significant encounter

with a career obstacle. Life has a lot of uncertainty for this group

of women.

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."

Women Aged 41-45: Getting Comfortable in My Own Skin.

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

way.

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

retire.

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.

Women Aged 51-55: Making My Mark. At this age some of

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

joy.

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."


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