Successful Women in the Workforce: Is it Really All or Nothing?

A few Sundays ago, “60 Minutes” had an interesting segment on the former CFO of now-defunct Lehman Brothers, Erin Callan, a pretty 47-year-old who took issue with the new COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg. The latter attests that women haven’t broken the glass ceiling in number because women don’t “lean in,” her parlance for “go for it at all costs,” like men tend to do, though she does acknowledge that there are simply tougher choices for women in the workforce. Callan advocates looking before leaning. Which powerful and successful woman is right?

I can identify with Ms. Callan, whose hard life lessons came to light during the interview. On a much smaller scale, I, too, got caught up in the corporate game, never thinking about what I was leaving out or behind or missing altogether. I’ve since wondered why I got sucked into the obvious game of it, until, in my case, I turned down the next assignment for unacceptable “personal reasons” (I was in the throes of marital problems) and was promptly left in the dust by those who, like me until that point, always said: Yes! Sure! Of course I want to uproot and move to London! Of course I can fix that broken department in where — Los Angeles? Not a problem. I can be ready tomorrow.(Actually, that transfer I did take.)

It’s not just women that get caught up in the corporate game. Why is it so alluring? At a distance from it now, it’s easy to answer the question: Where else in one’s life does a man or woman get regular reviews, pats on the backs, atta-boys, praise and recognition, along with the sweet sensation of winning — all backed by more and more money (though dollars, too often, are preceded by more responsibility)? Answer: Nowhere.

Add to that seduction any kind of personal problems with relationships — sick kids or parents, a husband fed up with his never-at-home spouse, estrangement — and too much distance and all the shenanigans that can lead to, plus health issues and so on. It’s no wonder Ms. Callan’s marriage ended in divorce, as did mine. There just aren’t enough guys out there willing to be what every top exec needs: a wife! Someone to handle the day-to-day of the home, the kids, a social life, other family responsibilities. Someone to provide a welcoming refuge from the daily grind at the end of those long, long days, leaving one free to focus on the job. Women need a true partner to succeed, one who equally shares all responsibilities outside the workforce, as Ms. Sandberg recommends. Well, it is possible…

Unfortunately, most men, in my opinion, are incapable of multi-tasking (sorry men, I do love you). And though this might be changing, very few are willing to be house-husbands, even part-time. My favorite interpretation of the feminist movement of the ’70s is still “people’s liberation,” not just women. Shouldn’t everyone get to choose how to spend his/her own life? I pray that idea has not been lost in the scramble.

So what did we miss, Ms. Callan and I, in our blind and direct dash up “the ladder?” The biggie — kids of our own, and that’s a lot, but still, not everything. Of course I have some regrets; I’m sure I would, regardless, but not too many.

Would either of us do it differently? I don’t know. Only after some years had passed and I’d grown older, wiser and more experienced did I realize what I know now. Perhaps wisdom came too late, too late for kids for sure, but not too late for a full and wonderful life.

I end up agreeing with both women. Ms. Callan advises women to “look before you lean.” I’d add that men should do so as well. Ms. Sandberg correctly concludes too many women get sidetracked by the tough choices of life. So whatever choices one makes, do take stock from time-to-time, take a break to step back and imagine if this job/career will always be fulfilling and what else might. Then live by your heart’s responses and truly live — go for it — with as few regrets as possible.

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