The traditional model of professional success in corporate America has been based on a "Company Man" archetype popularized in the 1950s, which mainly referred to a white, male, corporate climber with a wife at home.
Fast forward to 2010. Women now make up 51 percent of the total U.S. workforce. Last year, the number of working moms as sole family breadwinners hit a record high. As a result, many working moms are starting to think this outdated career template needs an overhaul.
Lisa Depew, 34, was an application engineer for Intel Corp. when her first son arrived in 2005. She took five months off to be with her son, thanks to family leave and an earned sabbatical, and then proposed working a part-time schedule. She later had another child, and as her kids got older, she requested a three-and-a-half-day schedule and eventually moved to a 40-hour week with Mondays working at home. She is now the technical lead for tools and technologies services in the sales and marketing group at Intel, based in Santa Clara, Calif.
“Could my career have advanced faster? Probably,” said Depew. “But would I have changed anything? No.”
A growing number of working women are defining success on their own terms. While their career trajectories seem atypical, and they’ve made job decisions based on their family — something which would have doomed most corporate climbers in the past — it works for them.
Tricia Kagerer, 45, negotiated with a Dallas-based construction company to work flexible hours so she could pick up and drop off her kids at day care and school. She is now the vice president of risk management for the firm, C.F. Jordan Construction.
“When they offered me the job, I was clear that my kids come first,” said Kagerer, whose kids are 11 and 14.
Beyond 'Leave It to Beaver'
Not all working moms are as lucky.
“There’s still a whole class of women that don’t have the luxury of thinking about redefining success. They are working to put food on table,” said Rosalind Hudnell, Intel’s director of Global Diversity & Inclusion.
But, she added, the structure of work is slowly changing because of the influx of women into the workforce and will eventually impact women and men from all socioeconomic levels.
“People are realizing that ‘Leave It to Beaver’ isn’t how everyone is going to live their lives,” she said.
Many new mothers are better educated than they were two decades ago and are increasingly having children at a later age. Today, one in seven babies is born to a mother at least 35 years old.
Marianne DelPo Kulow, a mother of two, said she had her first child at 40 and a second at 42. She decided to leave a career as a high-powered attorney for something more conducive to raising a family, so she went into academia. She is now a law professor and director of the Women’s Leadership Institute at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.
“How do you define success?” asked Kulow, 49. “Within the profession I’ve chosen, I made it. I’m respected by my peers, at the top of my salary scale and I’m able to pick my kids up at 3.”
New research suggests that the majority of women in the U.S. are satisfied with both their professional and personal accomplishments. A survey by Kenexa Research Institute looked at whether women thought their futures looked promising, and 62 percent said: “I can meet my career goals and still devote sufficient attention to my family/personal life.” That compares to 59 percent among men who feel that way.
For women in the U.S., “having a fulfilled or satisfied personal life is an aspect of achieving a promising future at an organization,” said Brenda Kowske, research manager and at Kenexa
Today, women are in a keen position to reshape the linear career ladder upward. But one big question remains:
“Are we being pioneers or simply giving in?” asked Pamela Stone, associate professor of sociology at Hunter College and author of “Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home.”
If women are just changing their idea of success because they’ve given up fighting a society that deprives working moms of opportunities to advance, then it’s not a good thing, said Stone. However, if working moms are essentially transforming the work dynamic to meet their needs, she said, then that's progress.
Clearly women have a long way to go when it comes to getting the top seats at U.S. corporations, with women holding only 13.5 percent of the executive officer positions, according to Catalyst. And women still make 77 cents on the dollar to men.
It’s been hotly debated whether this is about bias against women, or their decisions to cut back hours or opt out, or about a system that just hasn’t adapted to the needs of working parents. The U.S. is one of the only industrialized nations without mandatory paid family leave, and good child care options are few and far between.
Changes in the workplace
But the growing power of working moms may alter the landscape once and for all.
“When you get a critical mass of women in any professions, you do get changes,” said William Doherty, professor and director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program in the department of family social science at the University of Minnesota.
“Women are reshaping the workforce, and I think a cultural change is underway,” he added, pointing to the health care industry. “You have 50 percent or more of the young doctors today are women, and as a result there is much more part-time work available. You don’t have the expectation of 90-hour weeks anymore.”
Rewriting the rules, however, has not been easy.
“We have no clue what it’s going to be like when we become a working mother,” said Susan Wenner Jackson, one of the founders of the website Working Moms Against Guilt, because few women do any pre-planning. “It completely blows your mind and you have to put the pieces back together.”
Many working moms suddenly find themselves making sacrifices, whether at home or in their jobs. But such sacrifices don't equate to career failures in their eyes.
Kelly McCarthy, an attorney with Sideman & Bancroft in San Francisco and mother to a 1-year old son named Finn, believes she has a successful and fulfilling career.
“I have made it work with a perfect storm of luck, circumstance and planning,” she said.
McCarthy and her husband approach parenting as a partnership, sharing child care and household duties. She chose to work for a smaller law firm that’s more accommodating to her needs instead of a big firm. McCarthy and her husband also live in a town near family that can help out.
And take Julie Rocco, 38, and Julie Levine, 40. They were both established engineers and managers at Ford Motor Company before they became moms. Together, they broached the idea of doing a job-share arrangement even though it wasn’t common at their level.
The Julies, as they’re known at Ford, share all job tasks and share all information about their job, which is overseeing the Ford Explorer product program. They have conference calls every night to keep up to date, and both work in the office on Wednesdays so they can connect with each other and their team.
“This is not a free ride. We work very hard,” said Rocco. And Levine added, “We’re both aspiring women who want to keep moving up.”