The Wrong Idea: How Women's Careers Really Work

When my first child was two, my older sister said to me, "Your children need you more when they get older." At the time, I thought this was just another example of sibling passive aggression. Of course she, with three teenagers, was bound to imply that she had it hard while I was struggling with a relatively simple toddler.

But I was wrong and she was right: your children do need you more as they get older. When they're small, they need a lot of attention but it can come from a wide variety of people: grandparents, cousins, babysitters, nannies, the kid next door. When they're teenagers and grappling with drugs, sex, relationships, grades and college applications (never mind the future of the world) no one but a parent will do.

But this isn't the mental model with which most women consider when planning their careers. Instead, what I hear all the time is: I'll take a few years out when the kids are born and then, when life gets back to normal, I'll go back to work. That's the idea. The reality is always shockingly different. Because life never does go 'back' to 'normal'. Instead, the kids grow more and more demanding, the mothers grow less and less confident and, before you know it, 20 years have passed, the career never happened and legions of smart, highly educated women are wondering what happened.

I see this all the time when I talk to women everywhere from Harvard Business School's women alumni association to female entrepreneurs who've figured out the only way to find a role in business is to start one. The prevailing mental model of how careers work for women is just wrong. The idea that you can work for a few years, take a few years out for the family and then jump back onto a career ladder simply does not work. The off ramp, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett likes to call it, is smooth enough -- but the on ramp is steep, bumpy and an easy place to crash.

What does work?

Early Motherhood?
You can try having kids really young -- before your career starts at all. I know a few women who've done this -- usually by accident -- and when the rest of us were wrestling with toddlers, their kids were in college. It worked for them. It wouldn't have worked for me; when I was 21 I was incapable of looking after anyone besides myself. But it works for some.

Solid Achievements
It takes most women more than a few years to identify what they want to do and where. Once they've found that, they need to stay long enough to bank some solid achievements, skills and expertise. Then, when they take time out for kids, it's critical that they stay connected to work. Some companies (like IBM) make this easy, by keeping women on email, making training and networking events available and striving quite deliberately not to lose their women. Other companies don't bother, which means women themselves must make this effort.

Don't Stay Out Too Long
Business changes fast. Which means that even where company policy or country legislation allows, you shouldn't stay away too long. You won't look serious and you'll lose your sense of how things work. I once had a fabulous female CFO who, almost immediately after her baby was born, came back to work for one day a week. She said she did it for her sanity -- which I'm sure was true. But it also kept her connected and visible.

Forget Normal
The idea that, after kids, life will go back to 'normal' is a fantasy. Life changes when you have children: that's one reason to have them. And life keeps changing as they do. I think this keeps us on our toes and makes women uniquely good at change. Embrace this as a positive rather than hankering for the good old days where you could go out most nights.

Do Something You Love
Facebooks's Sheryl Sandberg, in a recent New Yorker profile, made the point that, before you have kids, you should find work that you love. If you do, you'll excel and you'll want to return to work. If you don't find that work first, kids will be the perfect excuse to give up.

Equal Partners
No serious career is possible for women without support from their partner. Glenda Roberts, who used to be a M&A lawyer for Microsoft, had the best approach to this I've ever encountered. When her husband contributed to domestic chores, she never thanked him -- because, she argued, the house work was not hers to begin with; it was theirs. He wasn't doing her a favor -- they were doing their work together. The minute women accept the idea that domestic duties are primarily their responsibility, the battle begins.

Nothing depresses me more than meeting highly intelligent, creative, energetic women who now put all their gifts into the carpool rota and planning the perfect lunchbox. I love my kids as much as anyone. But I like them more -- and myself more -- because they are part of my life and not the reason I never had one.