For as long as I can remember, the professional career path in the developed world has accommodated a linear model. In one’s twenties, you graduate with some kind of undergraduate degree, take a job and/or pursue even more education and eventually link up with an organization (or a professional career path) to which you plan to devote much time and energy in the pursuit of getting ahead.
The thirties are a time for making your mark and sorting out the “high potentials” from the “solid” folks from the “average” players. For the former, the forties are a time to gun for advancement. Long hours, commitment, perhaps a few job changes to move forward even faster, and grabbing at the brass ring would not be uncommon in descriptions of this career prior for professionals in large organizations.
By one’s fifties, the wins have often been won, the nice offices and decent compensation packages secured, necessary political jockeying still continues, but that’s often a time for consolidation of wins and preparing for the transition that will occur in one’s sixties. Then, thoughts often turn to legacy, succession and preparing to leave behind an impact (hopefully for good) on the organization and the greater community. You’re even allowed a mid-life crisis! Then comes the handover to the next generation, and hopefully a fulfilling retirement.
This model sounds familiar, no doubt, to a generation that changed organizations relatively seldom, where a ‘career ladder’ still resonated, and where deep functional knowledge mattered most. Well, not only is that environment rapidly vanishing, but there is an entire constituency for whom this paradigm simply doesn’t work, and that is for the half of the talent pool represented by women.
Studies bear this out – in their twenties, there is very little difference between the career success of men and women at entry level and early – stage managerial jobs in professional occupations.
In their thirties, however, the paths start to branch. Even with help and support from partners, women are still, realistically, responsible for shouldering more of the day to day, organizing, and just plain old allocation of energy to caregiving and nurturing activities. So for many talented women, the hell-for-leather careerism of men in their thirties and forties is not possible, or even perhaps desirable, with sometimes extremely negative consequences for their marriages and considerable frustration all around [see Aviva Wittenberg-Cox’s fascinating research on this issue].
Essentially, as Melinda Gates has pointed out, we are still sending our daughters to work in organizations designed for our dads.
But, as Wittenberg-Cox has found, a new model is starting to emerge. Career ladders are turning into career lattices. People with experience, emotional intelligence and broad-based skills are becoming more valued. And suddenly, women in their fifties, with the decades of nurturing satisfyingly behind them, are finding that they can throw themselves into their careers with an abandon that was never possible when people were depending on them for so much non-work-related time.
And so, perhaps we are rewriting the rules for not only what success looks like, but what careers look like. Perhaps we are leaving behind the organizational design that assumes a ratchet-style movement up a static ladder and instead recognizes that people’s skills can be gained in many ways and their accomplishments promoted at different life cycle stages.
At we celebrate International Women’s Day, it’s a great thought that so much powerful, experienced talent is being welcomed – even sought after – in our workplaces.