The exhaustion of the mid-career marathon and the consequences for workplaces | Women's Agenda

The exhaustion of the mid-career marathon and the consequences for workplaces

A woman’s career has three major ‘pivot points’ and we need support through each of then if we’re going to work out way up to the very top of organisations.

That’s according to Sally Blount, the Dean of the Kellogg School of Management, who outlines the challenges that occur during such pivots, and why women ‘opt out’ during these transitions.

The first pivot point happens at ‘the launch’, where young women (in their twenties and early thirties) are opting out of businesses, largely due the stereotypes associated with their industries and work. The second point is the ‘mid-career marathon’, where caring responsibilities and relationships become a significant focus. The third is the ‘Executive Transition’, a pivot reserved only for those who’ve made it through the launch and the marathon, and now face the risk of being overlooked, or possibly questioning whether moving into the c-suite is actually ‘worth it’.

Blount’s piece is written from a US perspective, but it appears to have plenty of relevance in Australia also, where the female pipeline continues to leak so much that women make up less than 16% of CEOs in Australian organisations, and less than 30% of key management personnel.

Making it unscathed through all three of these pivots is challenging for women, but it’s that mid-career level that is particularly difficult, and where we see so many women dropping out of their industries, their jobs, or simply off the leadership ladder.

Indeed, the word ‘marathon’ highlights just how much of a slog this period can be. It’s exhausting. It’s relentless. And it takes a very long time. It’s also a time when plenty of women drop out of the race.

Leadership coach Gillian Fox often meets and works with women who’re fatigued at this point in their careers, particularly those feeling the pressure to perform at a high level at work while also caring for their families.

“Too many are still choosing to opt out,” she tells me. “These women, based on their experience, talent and their incredible dedication should be primed for the next crucial step up.”

She believes the high level of attrition across this demographic is worse than many companies realise. “It’s not only the loss of women in the leadership pipeline, it’s also the loss of institutional knowledge, the disruption to client relationships, the costs of recruitment and re-training and the loss of good role models for up and coming women. The sad part is that many women want to stay in and reach their full potential but it feels like a goal too far and they drop off, or worse are overlooked on their way up.”

So what can be done? More support is needed, especially in terms of flexibility. Gillian believes coaching and development is also needed (particularly at the emerging leadership level, before they hit the ‘marathon’ stage), as well as a great network and influential sponsors.

The problem is that finding those sponsors, as well as that influential network, is particularly challenging when you’re already pressed for time. Outside of home and work commitments, there can be little space and energy left for the ‘entertaining’ required to seriously bond with contacts.

On the other hand, men have excelled at this and therefore secure their positions in power, according to Gillian. “Women lack the years of exposure – I’m talking centuries – because they’ve traditionally been denied access to not only external, paid employment, but to building their contact base,” she says.

“Men have wined and dined, swung clubs and gone ‘clubbing’, they know the elite of business, education, politics, and finance – and they ensure they mix in those circles outside of the work environment.”

When it comes to the ‘mid career marathon’ support may ease the exhaustion, but it can’t change the overall race women find themselves competing in – especially when that race is tipped in favour of those who have the time to better participate in activities that build their networks. Only large scale cultural and organisational change can shift the balance.

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