Reva Busby worked in a client facing role at the consulting firm West Monroe Partners for seven years before she took her first maternity leave. She was a road warrior. Ambitious and hard-working, she enjoyed the fast pace and competitive environment and never doubted her ability to become a partner in the firm.
Busby took a 12 week leave then returned to work as a full time mom, but after about five months she realized that it was all too much. “I tried it. I made the best of the situation and tried everything I could to make it work,” she says. Ultimately, Busby felt she wasn’t getting enough time with her daughter. She had a choice at that time. She could put her career aside temporarily or even permanently, or she could cut back on her work hours. She decided to reduce her time, taking Fridays off. Her reasoning was that Fridays are typically quieter with clients.Says Busby: “It was challenging because in this job you’re supposed to be on call all the time. I ended up taking Fridays off, but…it came with its consequences and trade-offs. I wasn’t around to continue to do the level of networking that I had been doing for years. I wasn’t involved in a lot of internal initiatives. And I wasn’t at our quarterly meetings. I just didn’t get the face time with people. That lack of face time did impact my ability to move up quickly. At the end of the day, I was ranked really well for my client delivery and my team loved working with me, but there were a bunch of pieces missing that I wasn’t able to do, that were part of my job responsibility.”
Unfortunately, this situation is very familiar to new mothers with career ambition. In this type of position where the demands are extraordinary, maintaining one’s status and attempting to manage family requirements, puts a high level of stress on working mothers. And if women cut back their hours or take advantage of extended parental leave, they are often marginalized. They are not perceived as having the same potential and they are taken off the leadership track even if they still want to reach their full potential with their company. Many of them opt-out altogether because their workplace doesn’t offer them the flexibility and support they need.
Lisa Mainiero, co-author of The Opt-Out Revolt and my co-author in the new report, Lost Leaders in the Pipeline: Capitalizing on Women’s Ambition to Offset the Future Leadership Shortage, suggests “the structure of society and especially the structure of corporations, forces women and men to make impossible choices between work and family”. She states that “organizations need to reconsider how to design work and create a culture that encourages loyalty, retains talent, and perhaps even increases profitability.” Companies need to recognize that they are losing top talent by not providing flexibility and that “with today’s technological focus, more work can be done flexibly and remotely so that performance becomes the new standard of achievement rather than hours spent on the job. If a woman needs to take a break or cut back, there should be support in place for her to accomplish project based work that doesn’t require face time in the office. When she is ready to return full time, that woman can be fast tracked again as her leadership potential has not changed.”