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)Topics:
illustration by Cathy
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.
On and Off Buttons
"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
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."
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
Mothers of Invention
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."
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."
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."
Alternative Work Situations
"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
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."
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).
New Priorities, New
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
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.
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.
Having it All
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
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
Place for Women
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."
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.
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.