Money & Career

The mid-career drift: Women step off the corporate ladder

After years of total devotion to our jobs, many of us are opting for open relationships with work. Here’s why.

Illustration, Anna Parini.

(Illustration, Anna Parini)

Standing before orange balloons and orange campaign signs in a beige hotel ballroom in October 2015, with cameras on her and a dismayed crowd, Megan Leslie changed careers. In her seven years as a member of Parliament for Halifax, the charismatic and well-liked Leslie had moved swiftly from being named Maclean’s best rookie MP in 2009 to being named the New Democratic Party’s deputy leader in 2012. She’d worked on climate change legislation and a national strategy for suicide prevention; she’d been a strong advocate for women’s and LGBT rights. But a Liberal wave that crashed through Atlantic Canada had cost the then-42-year-old her seat, so she thanked her supporters that night and went home.

Then spring came and brought with it the possibility of a second chance: Leslie was the near-unanimous choice to replace Tom Mulcair as leader of the NDP. The only hitch? She wasn’t interested. And when she gave her reason to the media, Leslie didn’t talk about spending more time with her family. She didn’t need to reassess her priorities or build more experience. She told them she didn’t have the energy for the job right now. She was spent.

“Politics is a vocation — it’s not just a job, it’s something you are,” she says. “You don’t go to work in the morning and leave in the afternoon. The returns are incredibly great, but you give up a lot.” Leslie had been running each day on adrenalin, darting from the House of Commons to her committees to scrums to interviews to community events. Her privacy vanished. Her partner took over the grocery shopping because Leslie would be trapped for hours in the produce aisle talking to constituents. She began to think, almost obsessively, about how much longer she could stay in the role.

“There’s this tension with some of us successful, powerful women between wanting to smash the glass ceiling and also having a life that is our own,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like my decision let down the feminist cause, but there’s no way I can be the person people want me to be unless I take care of myself.”

But the modern workplace requires total allegiance. A 2012 study out of Carleton and Western Universities reported that 60 percent of Canadian white-collar workers put in at least 45 hours a week, up 50 percent from two decades ago. If you use a smartphone, the numbers are bleaker still — you’re tethered to work for 13.5 hours a day, with another five hours spent emailing on weekends, according to a 2012 survey from the Center for Creative Leadership. All told, that’s 72.5 weekly hours of contact with your job.

This relentless work creep is enough to chisel away at anyone’s motivation. It’s why there’s a bill before the French government to ban emails out of office hours, and why Belgium now protects workers not only from discrimination and harassment but also from burnout. However, across North America, where there are no such provisions, women experience mid-career ambition slumps far more often than men do.

In 2014, Bain, a global management consulting firm, surveyed 1,000 workers in a range of ages and professions and found that both men and women start out with high expectations for their careers: 43 percent of women said they aspire to reach top management positions, compared with 34 percent of men. After two years of work, that number stayed the same for male employees — but for women, it dropped to 16 percent, regardless of whether they were married or had children. More than 80,000 Canadian women left the labour force entirely in 2014, with the biggest decline among women aged 40 to 54.

“Sometimes I feel like my decision let down the feminist cause, but there’s no way I can be the person people want me to be unless I take care of myself.”

Bain study co-author Julie Coffman found that scarce female role models in senior positions and limited support from supervisors eroded aspirations among mid-level women. They also told Coffman that they didn’t want to subscribe to the “ideal worker stereotype,” which she describes as “the person who is always on, who puts in long hours, takes on the toughest assignments and constantly self-advocates.” Add those reasons to the long, frequently cited list of why women lose confidence in their careers: They make, on average, $8,000 less per year than their male counterparts; they aren’t afforded the same opportunities for advancement; they’re penalized for having kids.

Outside the office, there has also been a fundamental shift in the way we organize our lives. Canadian women are getting married later, if at all. We wait longer to have our first child: until age 30, on average. In 1980, it took the typical Canadian aged 25 to 34 five years to save a 20 percent down payment on a house; now it’s 12 years, or 15 if you live in Toronto, and 23 if Vancouver is home. A lot of women will have been working doggedly for at least a decade before we achieve these personal milestones.

By upending the old order of things — by choosing the career before the spouse, house and kids — many of us hit 40 having already proven our professional worth. Money concerns don’t vanish, but we’re not as hungry for the prestige and promotions; we’re craving creative risk and time for the people and activities that bring us personal fulfillment. As a result, we’re no longer climbing steadily up the corporate ladder in a single job. Our professional trajectories look a little more jagged now, with more pauses and steps back before we surge forward again.

Jennifer Koh* knew she had lucked out. After graduating from Toronto’s Ryerson University in 2006, she landed a job in her field straight away, managing accounts for a large packaging firm. It was a global, publicly traded company with a comfortable pension. Two years later, the recession hit. A quarter of the staff was let go, and Koh’s boss cut her pay. “Every morning, I drove to work and thought about how much I hated my life,” she says. “My boss was in her mid-30s at the time, worked crazy hours and had decided not to have kids because she was so focused on her career. I just looked at her and thought, ‘That is not at all what I want.’ I quit my job, spent time with my dad, who’d had a stroke, and went back to school for business and environmental studies.”


(Illustration, Anna Parini)

Teresa Blake* struggled with a similar decision. In 2012, she returned from maternity leave to a marketing job with what she characterizes as a chip on her shoulder. “I just had this feeling that I was behind,” she says. “I had my MBA, I was working hard, and I needed to become a director.” A year later, when Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In came out, Blake bought into the philosophy wholeheartedly, upping her hours and organizing lunch-and-learn circles with female colleagues. A challenging new job at a new organization became available, and she leaped at it. “It was going to be this really entrepreneurial environment, and I believed I could become a director in six months — it was everything I wanted,” Blake says. “My son was in daycare, and it was getting harder to rush home to pick him up, but I just thought, ‘I’ll figure this out.’ ”

Instead, juggling the demands of a toddler and an exacting workplace took its toll on Blake’s health. She put on considerable weight and developed problems with her hips that caused her constant pain. “I was trying to work like my dad and be this huge success, but also be a stay-at-home mom,” she says. Then her father fell ill during a stressful time for Blake’s organization, and her son became sick after that. She stopped sleeping, but the emails from her bosses kept coming.

“I was full of fear and emotionally exhausted,” she says. “I let myself get in that situation — I wasn’t communicating my needs or setting enough boundaries.” She started thinking about running her own consulting business, which would mean trading security for more flexibility. As soon as her son felt better, Blake took him with her into the office and resigned on the spot.

We can be overreliant on a certain vocabulary to describe women who get off the corporate ladder: Having failed to lean in, they’ve chosen to opt out. But that language doesn’t account for the women who want to open up their careers, to better integrate their personal and professional identities, to find work that engages them without cannibalizing the other elements of a rich, meaningful life.

Blake knew that moving to freelance consulting would cut her paycheque significantly ,  and she concedes she’s had to let go of the more conventional notions of career advancement. “Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like there are those big goals of achievement that I’m striving for,” she says. “I still struggle with explaining what I’m doing, for example, to my father. But he sees I’m better off emotionally, mentally, physically.”

Blake doesn’t view her career switch as opting out: She has taken an entrepreneurial risk. And by pitching her own projects, she’s gained the time and space to be creative and curious. “I wake up and I’m brimming with ideas,” she says. “I feel like things are falling into line with what I want my life to look like. I have freedom now, and to me, that really is the definition of success.”

That’s something that Coffman, who co-authored the Bain study, is hearing more and more from employees. “The days of working 60-hour weeks for 30 years at the same company are long gone,” she says. “There’s a wider array of professional models to get real fulfillment and real, tangible results.”

Leslie didn’t lose her appetite for hard work along with her parliamentary seat. Late in 2015, she accepted a job as a senior consultant on ocean governance for World Wildlife Fund Canada, which provides her with new mentors, new skills and the chance to go home at the end of the day. “I really like spending time with my boyfriend. After the election, he said, ‘Okay, I’m introducing you to the concept of the weekend,’ because I hadn’t had one in so long.”

She suspects she won’t stay at this more laid-back pace forever — that the lure of politics will prove too tempting, and she’ll return to office. “I wouldn’t even rule out running for leader in the future,” Leslie says. She knows, though, that her candour poses its own kind of risk: There can be tremendous skepticism about what a woman in a position of power can handle, which was on her mind when she told the media she didn’t currently have the capacity for politics. “I bet they’ll come at me like, ‘Oh, maybe she’ll be too tired,’ ” she says. “But I am in a period of really powerful restoration, and it has made me realize I need more breaks. I’m so tapped out, and I really don’t want to be in a position where it takes me this long to recover again.”

The quest for that kind of flexibility is what led Koh to her position at a packaging and sustainability not-for-profit. As long as she meets her deadlines and is available on email, she can work wherever she likes and manage her own hours. “I miss Toronto’s diversity, but I just bought a house in Wasaga Beach [Ont.], which would’ve been impossible as a single person in the city,” she says. She punctuates concentrated bouts of work with breaks for yoga or paddleboarding. “I feel self-conscious when I say that I love flexibility, because there’s an underlying perception that you’re lazy,” Koh says. “I work really hard. I’m just not bogged down by the 9 to 5.”

She remains a highly sought-after employee: Last December, a big corporation offered her a position that would pay a full third more than her current job. It would have allowed her to take care of her mortgage and score a fancier car, a cushier pension and a title built for bragging. “It wasn’t just the money that would’ve been cool — it was this idea of traditional success,” Koh says. “But I would have felt like I was going backwards, to those years when I was miserable. I want to do what fulfills me, because if I’m happy with myself, I can make other people happy.” So she refused the job. She kept the Mazda. And then she made the most of the snowboarding season, taking afternoons off when the conditions were right and checking her emails from the ski lift.

*Names have been changed at the subjects’ requests. This article was originally published in 2016, and updated in 2017.

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