One of the things I often hear when talking about sustainable career models is that in a family with children the parents cannot both have high-powered careers: if one parent pursues a career with everything that entails, then the other can’t or else no one will ever be around to raise the children. In most heterosexual families it’s the man with the career and the woman doing most of the childcare, but I have also seen families where the gender roles have been completely reversed. Instead of sharing responsibilities more evenly they have just flipped roles and the mother has the career and the father is the main caregiver of their children.
To reach the top echelons of corporate hierarchies, there is an expectation to climb the so-called career ladder in a timely fashion. Longer breaks or leaves of absence are often considered suspect. Only a few days ago this was confirmed to me once again by a corporate executive. I was told if a job applicant’s CV has gaps, or if the applicant hasn’t advanced as quickly as expected, he questions the person’s ability, ambition, and drive.
Yes, I know. Just because you choose to do something else for a while certainly doesn’t mean you aren’t able, ambitious, or driven, but that is how many still see it. And no, I don’t think that is the way it should be, and I am working on changing it, but for now that’s what we’re dealing with.
But let me tell you this. In my research, every once in a while, I see an exception to this rule. I interviewed a woman once who decided to just step off the career ladder. She was in a management position, she was exhausted, and she realized that unintentionally often took it out on her child, which she was distraught by. She decided she just couldn’t do it anymore, so after months of agonizing about what she should do, she walked into her boss’s office to hand in her resignation. As it turned out, she didn’t end up quitting. She managed to keep her job but started working part-time instead. No one in a management position had ever worked part-time in that company before, it was absolutely unheard of, and her decision was what we would generally define as a career-limiting move. She stopped caring about promotions, she was just happy that she could still work and be less stressed as a mother. Well, get this. When I met her two years later to follow up on the interview, she had been offered and had accepted a promotion in that very same company. The career limiting move turned out not to be. Yes, she was stressed again, and yes, she stepped back on the career ladder, but if you think about it, it is quite extraordinary as she originally thought her decisions would be anything but good for her career.
Then there was this man I interviewed. He had had several gaps during his career, when he had taken time off work to stay at home with all three of his kids while his wife pursued a successful career. In the interview he talks about how he and his wife thought about what the best solution for the family was, and they came to the conclusion that she should work and he should take care of the kids. His story isn’t very usual, but it’s inspirational because it also proves that interlacing a career with other things does not have to mean kissing a corporate career goodbye. He never disengaged completely; he always kept in touch with his contacts and did some consultancy work while he was away, but definitely didn’t climb the ladder in the expected way. He and his wife had decided to take turns. First she would focus or her career, and then a few years later when the kids were a bit bigger and she had achieved many of her goals, he would focus on his. And because he was never completely away he managed to do this and is now in a top corporate position pursuing the career he originally thought he would have.
His choices haven’t been completely unproblematic. Being away makes his ascent slightly slower than his peers’, but it is still possible. And if we make alternative career models the new normal it might also become possible for even more people.
But in the meantime, consider what these two stories tell us. They illustrate that what we think of as unheard of doesn’t necessarily have to be. You may think it isn’t possible where you work, but how will you know if you don’t ask? Sometimes it really can be that simple.