A Plea From A Woman Left Behind At Work By Her Mommy-Tracking Colleagues

Investment manager Karen Firestone has a plea for the 30-something women who decide to drop out of the full-time workforce to raise kids or just get off the fast track: Think of the women you leave behind.

Firestone is 56 and has raised four children who are now adults. She entered Harvard Business School in 1981, when women made up just a quarter of her class. Her first job was at Fidelity Investments, which was just beginning to hire a significant number of women, though men still outnumbered them significantly.

At the time, the gender gap didn’t bother her, and she says she still enjoys working with a mix of men and women. But over the decades, Firestone writes in an essay for the Harvard Business Review’s blog network, she has come to miss the “competence and camaraderie” of the women she worked with who eventually dropped out of the full-time job market.

By the 1990s, Firestone had more and more female colleagues. What’s more, she liked it. They had their own softball team, they shared lunch, they shared advice on how to earn respect from top fund managers. They were able to talk about “stocks or stockings” together, as she puts it.

But by the turn of the century, the numbers of women began to dwindle again. Some of the younger women were starting families, and the job’s travel requirements and long hours were a poor deal. Others wanted to spend more time with their older children, or they felt frustrated for other reasons. Whatever the reasons, Firestone missed them. She writes:

This happens in the natural evolution of all companies, but because the overall pool of women is small, each departure has more impact. As our lives include the complexity of parenting issues, I found it easier at times to talk to a woman than to a man in sharing both major experiences (getting married, delivering a baby) and minor (buying shoes, playing tennis) — even debating market trends and stock charts. As contemporaries of your own gender leave, work becomes lonely.
As women leave their jobs because of the difficulty in balancing their families and work, the loss of friends and touchstones can become unpalatable for those who remain. We lose the confidence that stems from inclusion in a group. As a former colleague of mine, a very successful fund manager, so elegantly phrased it, “Let’s face it, you spend most of your waking hours at work. It’s almost where you really live, and you can’t underestimate the impact of having at least one good friend there.”Studies imply that having friends at work extends longevity, in part because of stress reduction. Having someone with similar work and life experiences with whom to exchange stories, advice, and queries is therapeutic. If we crave female companionship that’s no longer available, we may vanish ourselves, and the cycle continues.

Professional women are often urged to think of the younger women coming up behind them when they make decisions about their careers. Be a good example! Serve as a mentor! Show them there’s hope! But Firestone’s essay is a good reminder that young’uns aren’t the only colleagues who matter. The older women who have stuck it out deserve our consideration, too.

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    • Lastango

      “Let’s face it, you spend most of your waking hours at work… you can’t underestimate the impact of having at least one good friend there.”

      ======

      Interesting perspective, apparently from a very social person. For contrast, I’d like to say something about those of us who are not like that on the job. At work, I’m working — not sharing major or minor personal experiences. If someone leaves I might miss their professional contributions, but I won’t feel like a part of me departed with them — probably because I never got entangled in the first place.

      One thing I’ll offer on behalf of us non-chatty-at-work types: we may care a lot less than the socializers do about whether you’re a man or a woman, whether you’re physically attractive, what race you are, or anything else external. All I really care about is what we can all do together professionally. If we get along well, that’s a plus.

      If someone at work asked me some form of the question “Do you like me on a personal level?”, my answer would amount to, “No, because I don’t know you on a personal level.” There’s a big upside to that: people on my teams never have to worry about ingratiating themselves with me because they realize it won’t matter. They’ll get a fair shake from me whether we happen to mesh or not. To be in my good books, all they have to do is be good at their job. No one has to worry that I’ll favor someone else just because I appear to be more comfortable with that other person.
      One other thing: all that objectivity is a big negative for anyone who hopes to trade on their gender, race, or good looks. When I’m hiring, promoting, or supporting, I don’t GAF about their demographics, pretense to victim-group entitlement, or what they look like. No one gets on or stays on my team because I need to show “balance” or because I’m trying to get my numbers right — a big disappointment to people who get ahead in life by surfing the diversity wave instead of on their personal merit.

      • Lastango

        No sooner do I post this puritan rant than I come across a piece about employers hiring people they think they can be besties with. Sheesh!

        http://lifeinc.today.com/_news/2012/11/29/15517520-employers-tend-to-hire-people-theyd-like-to-hang-out-with?lite

        One thing is obvious: anyone who hires you on those grounds will shove you aside, or outside, in favor of someone they like better. You’ll be cavorting like a poodle in a social circus to keep from being shafted.

        Once this pop-culture ethos infects the professional environment, we’re all doomed. Imagine missing out on a promotion because your boss can publicly declare that the successful candidate’s Facebook page shows they’re a better fit with the team’s sense of camaraderie.

    • Alice

      Karen needs to realize that not all mothers are going to be able to properly balance time between work and raising children. Some spouses offer more help than others, and some families are more well-off financially than others. A job that requires a lot of travel becomes an issue if there is no one available to take care of the kids. Family members that could take over might live in another state or overseas, dad might go to work just when mom gets home, etc. Child care is not always an option and honestly, at least for me personally, I don’t want to have a child in the future to just dump them on someone else to take care of day in and day out while I work. Some are fine with that (some just have to), but I personally don’t see myself having a child unless I know that I can be there actively as a parent.

      It’s unfortunately not a simple issue and it can’t be solved by just whining that women leave the workforce to raise their families – they leave for a REASON. Until the workplace makes some changes to make it easier to have both, there are always going to be women that have to choose between being a mother or advancing her career.

      As for making friends in the workplace – that is important. Studies don’t lie. There will always be someone at work who isn’t interested in bonding with their team, but in my experience, that often hurts them from advancing within company. And in any profession, it’s not generally what you know, but who you know that gets you anywhere. You include references with your resume for a reason. Someone that you’re actually friends with will go out of their way to give you a great recommendation.