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.