01 Feb 2002

Redefining Success: Women & Work.

Re: Denise Welsh (MBA 1981); Amy Cahners (MBA 1981); Stacey Morse (MBA 1981); Judi Allen (MBA 1983); Kate McCurdy (MBA 1981)


illustration by Cathy Gendron

When the pressure is on and the going gets messy, Swanee Hunt, former U.S. ambassador to Austria, can usually find a diplomatic way to discuss just about any situation. But for Hunt, a parent of three, and for most mothers, there's one lifestyle dilemma that can't be sugarcoated: balancing the challenges of a demanding career with motherhood.

"You've got three choices," Hunt tells her students at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where she runs the Women and Public Policy Program. "You can go work at the World Bank and not have children, and you'll do a much better job at work and probably always wonder if you aren't missing out on one of the great life experiences. You can decide to have kids and give up your career, and always wonder if you are not maximizing who you could be. You could decide to do both, and you'll do a halfassed job at both. So make your choice. There is no perfect answer."

Hunt's blunt advice, which was reported in the Boston Globe, may well resonate with the significant number of HBS alumnae who have struggled with the difficulties posed by following a traditional management career track while raising children. A recent survey of HBS alumnae from the Classes of 1981, 1986, and 1991 indicates that only 38 percent of the respondents are currently working full-time. However, other findings from the survey suggest that a growing number of these former investment bankers, venture capitalists, consultants, and line managers are making strides toward finding new career models that better suit their reality. If not the "perfect answer" to the parenting/ career dichotomy, their approach at least validates their dual desire to care for their families and use their MBA skills in ways that are personally and professionally rewarding and valuable to society.

HBS professor Myra M. Hart, who conducted the survey, met many of its respondents at Charting Your Course: Alumnae Career Choices and Transitions, a prereunion program she launched last spring. Hart reports that of the women in the survey who said they were "at home," 36 percent were actually working parttime, and another 12 percent worked on contracted projects. Of those who had left the workforce but planned to return, 61 percent said they were seeking nontraditional business careers and had far different goals and expectations than when they graduated from HBS. "These are women who know that having it all' is part of the superwoman myth," notes Hart, who designed Charting Your Course to help alumnae plan their work and family-life strategies. "It is possible, I believe, to have both family satisfaction and professional success. However, most women tend to focus their energies more intensively on one of these goals at a time."

On and Off Buttons

In Bulletin interviews with nine HBS alumnae, many of whom attended the Charting Your Course program, a variety of reasons were mentioned as contributing to the decision to leave the traditional workforce. These included expectations of how they would feel about leaving their newborns when returning to work, the difficulties of jobs requiring travel, and the logistical demands that kick in after the birth of a second child. Alumnae also cited feeling trapped in careers that could not accommodate a flexible schedule, the lack of appropriate role models in traditionally "male" industries, the impact of maternity leaves on promotion opportunities, and a realignment of ambitions after experiencing parenthood.

Barbara A. Piette (MBA '86) worked in venture capital in Boston for fourteen years, six of those as a partner at Charles River Ventures and then at Schroder Ventures, before her son Zach was born. "I thrived on making the huge deals," she notes. "Yet I had always wanted children and thought I could do both. I didn't realize how madly in love I would fall with Zach and how that would affect how I felt about work."

Initially taking it all in stride, Piette was back at work on a reduced schedule four days after delivering Zach, working from home and sometimes even taking him and his nanny with her on business trips. "I'd go to meetings and duck out to feed him under the guise of taking an important conference call," she recalls with a smile. Piette left VC when Zach was two and a half, after trying unsuccessfully to have a second child.

"Your fertility plummets after age 35, and it is a horrible problem," she emphasizes. "You don't read about it in the Wall Street Journal, but it is an excruciating reality for many women." Piette did get pregnant after she quit her job, and since the birth of her daughter in 1999, she has been working about ten hours a week, helping entrepreneurs with strategic planning. "No travel, no board meetings," she points out.

The fertility issue sounds a familiar chord for Edee Simon-Israel (MBA '81), who worked in business development in commercial banking after graduation, but decided she didn't find a "corporate lifestyle" fulfilling. She subsequently started her own successful real estate consulting firm, which required large amounts of travel. "Once I became pregnant," says Simon-Israel, now the mother of a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old in suburban Boston, "I had no intention of going back to a demanding work schedule."

After her daughter was born last year, Jennifer Lindenmayer (MBA '88) did go back to her job at Monsanto in St. Louis, albeit briefly, since her position was phased out while she was on maternity leave. She then took a short-term consulting job, followed by three months off from working. Now considering the pros and cons of rejoining the workforce, Lindenmayer recalls the internal conflicts inherent in bridging home and work life. "I felt like I needed an on' and off' button," she remembers. "It was the weirdest feeling to leave my daughter in the morning, knowing that I wanted to spend time with her, but then to get so involved in work that I felt I shouldn't leave at 5:00. The whole drive home, I knew I was doing the right thing as a mother, but I was leaving so much undone at the office."

When her first child was born in 1987, Stacey C. Morse (MBA '81) was one of the first women at her Lehman Brothers office in New York to take maternity leave. "There was no set maternity policy, no role models," she says. "In a way, that worked in my favor, because they were very flexible about my arrangement."

Morse wasn't sure she wanted to go back to investment banking after her four-month leave, but she tried it for over a year, working three days a week. Before long, however, three days crept into four, and calls from the office on her days off became routine. "I was working way more than my agreement, and I really wasn't interested in working full-time," comments Morse, now the mother of four children. "I was conflicted about leaving, but I knew that even doing it part-time, my job would never give me enough time to raise a family."

For Denise Condon Welsh (MBA '81), an interest in HBS alumnae who have taken significant time out of the workforce led her to contact her former classmate Myra Hart and help organize a series of dinners with other HBS women to discuss the phenomenon. Welsh offers another take on the downside of part-time and flexible work arrangements in the corporate world. She has two children, took her maternity leave for each, and went back full-time to her job as a managing director at Bankers Trust. "Women who work part-time are often treated differently," she notes. "When you are on a flexible schedule, you aren't considered part of the regular workforce. People can assume that you don't want a career or that you don't care as much about moving forward." Such treatment often leads women to feel that working parttime isn't worth it, Welsh says. "It makes it much easier to leave."

Mothers of Invention

With one child and a full-time job as managing director of Random House Children's Books in the U.K., Deborah J. Sandford (MBA '90) and her husband had an "action-packed schedule." When their second daughter arrived on the scene in 1999, that schedule turned into "a runaway express train."

"At least twice a week, after working all day, putting the kids to bed, and having dinner with my husband, I started working again at 9:30 or 10:00 p.m.," Sandford reports. "I was exhausted." Weekends, she and her husband negotiated with each other to take the kids for a few hours so one of them could work. "I kept thinking, I'm one of the lucky ones; I'm smart, I'm well-educated. Why is my life so hard?'"

Sandford left Random House last summer and is now writing a monthly column for Management Today and working one day a week at Oxford Business School, where she helps strengthen the school's ties to management consulting firms. Although she is enjoying her new role and feels "generally contented and at times euphoric," the decision to leave the mainstream workforce was difficult. "Work was what I was good at, what I felt the people around me valued me for. Leaving it meant abandoning the part of me that I felt most secure about," she says.

Ana Maria ("Ania") Camargo (MBA '93) had her first daughter in 1997 and kept her job with CSC Healthcare, a large health-care consulting company in New York. She cut back on travel and worked part-time at first, but eventually she went back to working forty hours a week. After more than a year of being pulled in too many directions, she made the decision to leave and start a part-time consulting practice in Boston. Although she is still working, she recalls struggling with her decision to scale back. "I remember thinking, I can't possibly leave this career track,' " says Camargo, who now has two daughters. "But when you have a child, your priorities just shift. It frees you from thinking that you have to keep going in the same direction. I was so relieved! I could invent what I wanted to do now."

Inventing things to do has not been a problem for our sample of nontraditional career track women. "I never said, Oh my gosh, I'm not working, how am I going to use my business skills for the next few years?' " laughs Edee Simon-Israel, who has been involved in a variety of volunteer activities, charitable endeavors, pro bono consulting, and projects at her children's school, in addition to two intervals when she worked part-time for pay. "As a full-time parent, you're way too busy to think that way."

Amy Cahners Hunter (MBA '81) had worked as a retail executive for four years when the first of her two daughters was born. She has never regretted her decision to be a stay-athome mom. "I really liked retailing, but once you decide that your family comes first, it makes all the other choices easier." In the aftermath of September 11, Hunter feels more strongly than ever that she has made the right decision. "I always talk to my daughters at bedtime, and that night, we had really long conversations. The time I spend with them has even more meaning now."

Hunter lives in suburban Boston and is an active volunteer in several community-based nonprofits. She has also held numerous leadership positions at her daughters' school, where she is a trustee and a past president of the Parents Association. "I haven't had a paycheck in more than a decade, but I've found volunteer work to be just as meaningful, fulfilling, and substantial," says Hunter. "I've grown as a manager but in a nontraditional way. There are numerous paths to leadership, and they don't all involve running a major corporation or being an entrepreneur."

Alternative Work Situations

The variety of paths to leadership often becomes apparent when women consider returning to the full-time workforce. In 1999, when her first daughter was eighteen months old, Ania Camargo and a former CSC Healthcare colleague founded Case Associates, a company that does short-term consulting projects. "We wanted to apply the skills we'd learned at CSC and do something that we felt really passionate about," explains Camargo, articulating a theme that many women voice when designing alternative work situations. "Since our work was going to take us away from our kids, we knew it had to be meaningful." She cites two of the founding principles of Case as an example: All clients must be nonprofit organizations, and all must be accessible by public transportation (a reaction to having traveled five days a week for years).

Since the birth of her second child, Camargo has expanded Case to help other women who are seeking part-time work. "There was no question in our minds that there is an extraordinary opportunity to employ talented women with children for short periods of time," she says. "So we've built a network of about forty people who can do part-time, nonprofit work." Camargo's ability to find a balance between work and family is not accidental. "When we founded the company," she reports, "we said we didn't want to have successful careers, we wanted to have successful lives."

In Denver, Judith G. Allen (MBA '83) also managed to parlay her career skills into a parttime consulting business after leaving the fulltime workforce. An executive in the cable television industry, Allen was offered a new job or a severance package when her company, MediaOne, was bought by AT&T Broadband. "Frankly, having worked full-time except for two short maternity leaves -including moving, traveling, and working long hours -when someone offers you a chance to take time off, it's hard to refuse," says Allen, who took the package and used her time to get involved in various volunteer and charity activities while remaining active in her industry. After teaching a course at the annual cable television marketing convention, she founded Allen Strategies, a firm that provides strategic marketing, programming, and business development advice to the industry. While she finds the part-time work satisfying, she is now considering returning to a full-time schedule in order to work with friends and colleagues she admires. She plans to negotiate flexible work hours so that she can continue her commitment to her children and her community.

New Priorities, New Skills

Forced layoffs often cause women to reevaluate their priorities, and severance pay can ease the financial burden, allowing them time to figure out what they want to do. But even without such luxuries, many women have new priorities when they consider returning to work after significant time off. Former Monsanto marketing services director Jennifer Lindenmayer, for instance, knows that as she considers her options of returning to work, her criteria have changed. "I need to find something that is exciting and interesting enough to make it worth taking time away from my daughter," she says candidly.

HBS's Myra Hart is not surprised by this. "We see a lot of women who are very highly trained and have been very competitive in the past who want to go back to work," Hart explains, "but they don't want to go back for what we would have previously seen as their typical incentives. Their motivations for working have changed dramatically." Hart notes that not-for-profit work often appeals to this group because it offers a sense of meaning, as well as greater flexibility than the corporate world.

Having spent the last fifteen years raising her four children, Stacey Morse is now considering what sort of career she will have when her kids leave home. She has no interest in returning to investment banking. "I want to do something very different," says Morse, who has turned down offers from her previous employer for project work. "I also want to be able to take vacations with the kids." While Morse is conflicted about her next move, she does feel that her background -a Harvard MBA and a very successful career at Lehman -gives her an advantage. "I am confident that I could go back to the workforce and sell myself. I'm grateful for that," she says, noting that some of her friends who didn't go to grad school or had kids before starting their careers aren't so fortunate.

Edee Simon-Israel has returned to part-time work twice in the twelve years since her two children were born. While she was not actively looking for work, Simon-Israel was approached with offers that met her needs. Now that her kids are nearing adolescence, she is ready to return again. She sees her maturity and experience as an advantage. "If the term multitasking wasn't invented by a woman, it should have been," she says with a laugh. "If I can't cook dinner, talk on the phone, watch the news, and look after my children at the same time, then I'm not doing enough." From an employer's point of view, she adds, "you want to get the maximum amount of output from a minimum number of hours. Who better to do that than a professional multitasker?"

Having it All

One theme that emerged from the conversations with this sampling of women is the idea that also came up at the Charting Your Course seminar last spring: Approaching life in phases -or as "chapters," as Kate McCurdy (MBA '81) puts it -can help ease the burden that many women feel when they are torn between family and career. "You can have it all," Myra Hart remarks, "it is simply extraordinarily difficult to have it all at the same time." Many women have used this wisdom to cope with their choices and to help redefine their vision of success.

Judi Allen, for instance, says that when she was younger, she thought of titles and money as being barometers of success, but today she is more aware of "the personal cost of professional success." Now that Allen has two children in elementary school, she reflects, "my definition of success, frankly, is a lot more about meeting needs on a host of fronts and having a more diverse and balanced life."

In London, Debbie Sandford says that her view of success has changed since she graduated in 1990. "It is much more closely linked in my mind to happiness and balance and less to achievement than it used to be."

Perhaps Barbara Piette sums it up best. While granting that she still defines success by the typical benchmarks of money and responsibility, the former VC partner also recounts a recent conference she and her husband had with her son's teacher. "She said he was very smart, and he's doing really well with language and math," Piette says proudly. "Then we asked if there was anything else she wanted to tell us, and she said that he was one of the nicest, kindest, most empathetic little boys she'd ever known. If you try to compare that with the biggest deal I ever did, you just can't. What would I want as my epitaph? That my kid was empathetic, hands down."

A Place for Women

The Charting Your Course program is one of several HBS initiatives designed specifically to address the unique issues and challenges women face in the workforce. "The School is committed to learning for a lifetime of leadership," comments Dean Kim B. Clark. "Many of our women graduates experience nontraditional career paths. We want to find meaningful and perhaps novel ways to better serve these alumnae, as well as women executives and potential and current students." In addition to plans to expand the Charting Your Course program to offer sessions in New York City and San Francisco, the School has a number of other efforts related to women and work.

Women Leading Business: An Executive Forum -an Executive Education program designed for influential business executives that gives participants a chance to explore a wide range of contemporary business issues, address top-management concerns, and share best practices and insights.

Women Building Business -an MBA elective field study seminar led by HBS professors Myra Hart and Lynda M. Applegate intended for students who plan to design and launch start-ups or ventures within established firms.

Cases featuring women protagonists -with initial support from retired Kmart executive Marjorie Alfus and the Committee of 200 (a national organization of women business executives), the School has developed over three hundred cases that feature women as key decision-makers. The cases are taught at HBS as well as at hundreds of other business schools throughout the world.

Women's alumnae networks
-Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C., now have alumnae clubs that offer events of interest to the School's female graduates. For more information about existing networks or to find out how to start one in your region, visit the Network of Women Alumnae Web site at www.hbsnwa.org.


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