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Chapter 7 Don’t Leave Before You Leave
  A FEW YEARS AGO, a young woman at Facebook came to my desk and asked if she could speak to meprivately. We headed into a conference room, where she began firing off questions about how Ibalance work and family. As the questions came faster and faster, I started to wonder about herurgency. I interrupted to ask if she had a child. She said no, but she liked to plan ahead. I inquired ifshe and her partner were considering having a child. She replied that she did not have a husband, thenadded with a little laugh, “Actually, I don’t even have a boyfriend.”

It seemed to me that she was jumping the gun—big time—but I understood why. From an early age,girls get the message that they will have to choose between succeeding at work and being a goodmother. By the time they are in college, women are already thinking about the trade-offs they willmake between professional and personal goals.

When asked to choose between marriage and career,female college students are twice as likely to choose marriage as their male classmates.

And thisconcern can start even younger. Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, relatedthe story of a five-year-old girl who came home distraught from her after-school program and told hermother that both she and the boy she had a crush on wanted to be astronauts. When her mother askedwhy that was a problem, the little girl replied, “When we go into space together, who will watch ourkids?” At five, she thought the most challenging aspect of space travel would be dependable childcare.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m a big believer in thoughtful preparation. Everywhere I go, I carry a littlenotebook with my to-do list—an actual notebook that I write in with an actual pen. (In the tech world,this is like carrying a stone tablet and chisel.) But when it comes to integrating career and family,planning too far in advance can close doors rather than open them. I have seen this happen over andover. Women rarely make one big decision to leave the workforce. Instead, they make a lot of smalldecisions along the way, making accommodations and sacrifices that they believe will be required tohave a family. Of all the ways women hold themselves back, perhaps the most pervasive is that theyleave before they leave.

The classic scenario unfolds like this. An ambitious and successful woman heads down achallenging career path with the thought of having children in the back of her mind. At some point,this thought moves to the front of her mind, typically once she finds a partner. The woman considershow hard she is working and reasons that to make room for a child she will have to scale back. A lawassociate might decide not to shoot for partner because someday she hopes to have a family. A teachermight pass on leading curriculum development for her school. A sales representative might take asmaller territory or not apply for a management role. Often without even realizing it, the woman stopsreaching for new opportunities. If any are presented to her, she is likely to decline or offer the kind ofhesitant “yes” that gets the project assigned to someone else. The problem is that even if she were toget pregnant immediately, she still has nine months before she has to care for an actual child. Andsince women usually start this mental preparation well before trying to conceive, several years oftenpass between the thought and conception, let alone birth. In the case of my Facebook questioner, itmight even be a decade.

By the time the baby arrives, the woman is likely to be in a drastically different place in her careerthan she would have been had she not leaned back. Before, she was a top performer, on par with herpeers in responsibility, opportunity, and pay. By not finding ways to stretch herself in the yearsleading up to motherhood, she has fallen behind. When she returns to the workplace after her child isborn, she is likely to feel less fulfilled, underutilized, or unappreciated. She may wonder why she isworking for someone (usually a man) who has less experience than she does. Or she may wonder whyshe does not have the exciting new project or the corner office. At this point, she probably scales herambitions back even further since she no longer believes that she can get to the top. And if she has thefinancial resources to leave her job, she is more likely to do so.

The more satisfied a person is with her position, the less likely she is to leave.

So the irony—and,to me, the tragedy—is that women wind up leaving the workforce precisely because of things they didto stay in the workforce. With the best of intentions, they end up in a job that is less fulfilling and lessengaging. When they finally have a child, the choice—for those who have one—is between becominga stay-at-home mother or returning to a less-than-appealing professional situation.

Joanna Strober, co-author of Getting to 50/50, credits a compelling job for her decision to return tothe workforce after becoming a mother. “When I first started working, there were lots of scary storiesabout female executives who ignored their kids or weren’t home enough,” she told me. “Everyone inour office talked about one executive whose daughter supposedly told her that when she grew up shewanted to be a client because they got all the attention. I found these stories so depressing that I gaveup before even really starting down the partner track. However, when five years later I was in a job Ireally loved, I found myself wanting to return to work after a few weeks of maternity leave. I realizedthose executives weren’t scary at all. Like me, they loved their kids a lot. And, like me, they alsoloved their jobs.”

There are many powerful reasons to exit the workforce. Being a stay-at-home parent is a wonderful,and often necessary, choice for many people. Not every parent needs, wants, or should be expected towork outside the home. In addition, we do not control all of the factors that influence us, including thehealth of our children. Plus, many people welcome the opportunity to get out of the rat race. No oneshould pass judgment on these highly personal decisions. I fully support any man or woman whodedicates his or her life to raising the next generation. It is important and demanding and joyful work.

What I am arguing is that the time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives—not before, and certainly not years in advance. The months and years leading up to having children arenot the time to lean back, but the critical time to lean in.

Several years ago, I approached an employee at Facebook to manage an important new project. Sheseemed flattered at first but then became noticeably hesitant. She told me that she wasn’t sure sheshould take on more responsibility. Obviously, something else was going on, so I quietly asked, “Areyou worried about taking this on because you’re considering having a child sometime soon?” A fewyears earlier, I would have been afraid to ask this question. Managers are not supposed to factorchildbearing plans into account in hiring or management decisions. Raising this topic in the workplacewould give most employment lawyers a heart attack. But after watching so many talented women passon opportunities for unspoken reasons, I started addressing this issue directly. I always give people theoption of not answering, but so far, every woman I have asked has appeared grateful for a chance todiscuss the subject. I also make it clear that I am only asking for one reason: to make sure they aren’tlimiting their options unnecessarily.

In 2009, we were recruiting Priti Choksi to join Facebook’s business development team. After weextended an offer, she came in to ask some follow-up questions about the role. She did not mentionlifestyle or hours, but she was the typical age when women have children. So as we were wrapping up,I went for it. “If you think you might not take this job because you want to have a child soon, I amhappy to talk about this.” I figured if she didn’t want to discuss it, she would just keep heading for thedoor. Instead, she turned around, sat back down, and said, “Let’s talk.” I explained that although itwas counterintuitive, right before having a child can actually be a great time to take a new job. If shefound her new role challenging and rewarding, she’d be more excited to return to it after giving birth.

If she stayed put, she might decide that her job was not worth the sacrifice. Priti accepted our offer. Bythe time she started at Facebook, she was already expecting. Eight months later, she had her baby,took four months off, and came back to a job she loved. She later told me that if I had not raised thetopic, she would have turned us down.

Like so many women, Caroline O’Connor believed that someday she’d have to choose betweencareer and family. That day came sooner than she expected. Caroline was finishing up at Stanford’sInstitute of Design when she was offered the chance to start a company at the same time that shelearned she was pregnant. Her knee-jerk reaction was to think that she could not do both. But then shedecided to question this assumption. “I began thinking of my dilemma as I would a design challenge,”

O’Connor wrote. “Rather than accepting that launching a successful start-up and having a baby areutterly incompatible, I framed it as a question and then set about using tools I’ve developed as adesigner to begin forming an answer.” O’Connor gathered data from dozens of mothers about theirexperiences and coping mechanisms. She did fieldwork on sleep deprivation by taking a night shiftwith foster infants. She concluded that with a team culture that drew support from her husband andfriends, it would be possible to proceed with both. O’Connor now refers to herself as “a career-lovingparent,” a nice alternative to “working mom.”

Given life’s variables, I would never recommend that every woman lean in regardless ofcircumstances. There have been times when I chose not to. In the summer of 2006, a tiny start-upcalled LinkedIn was looking for a new CEO, and Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn’s founder, reached out tome. I thought it was a great opportunity, and after five years in the same position at Google I wasready for a new challenge. But the timing was tricky. I was thirty-seven years old and wanted to havea second child. I told Reid the truth: regrettably, I had to pass because I didn’t think I could handleboth a pregnancy and a new job. His reaction was incredibly kind and supportive. He tried to talk meinto it, even volunteering to work full-time at the company to support me during that period, but it washard to see a path through.

For some women, pregnancy does not slow them down at all, but rather serves to focus them andprovides a firm deadline to work toward. My childhood friend Elise Scheck looks back fondly onbeing pregnant, saying she has never felt so productive. She not only worked her usual hours as anattorney but organized her house and put five years of photos into albums. For others, like me,pregnancy is very difficult, making it impossible to be as effective as normal. I tried writing e-mailswhile hovering over the toilet, but the situation didn’t lend itself to effective multitasking. Because Ihad already been through this with my first pregnancy, I knew what I was in for. I turned down Reid’soffer and got pregnant—and extremely nauseated—a few months later.

Any regrets I had about not taking that job evaporated when, about seven months after my daughterwas born, Mark offered me the opportunity to join Facebook. The timing was still not ideal. As manypeople had warned, and I quickly discovered to be true, having two children was more than double thework of having one. I was not looking for new challenges but simply trying to get through each day.

Still, Dave and I recognized that if I waited until the timing was exactly right, the opportunity wouldbe gone. My decision to take the job was personal, as these decisions always are. And there were daysin my first six months at Facebook when I wondered whether I’d made the right choice. By the end ofmy first year, I knew I had … for me.

The birth of a child instantly changes how we define ourselves. Women become mothers. Menbecome fathers. Couples become parents. Our priorities shift in fundamental ways. Parenting may bethe most rewarding experience, but it is also the hardest and most humbling. If there were a right wayto raise kids, everyone would do it. Clearly, that is not the case.

One of the immediate questions new parents face is who will provide primary care for a child. Thehistorical choice has been the mother. Breast-feeding alone has made this both the logical and thebiological choice. But the advent of the modern-day breast pump has changed the equation. AtGoogle, I would lock my office door and pump during conference calls. People would ask, “What’sthat sound?” I would respond, “What sound?” When they would insist that there was a loud beepingnoise that they could hear on the phone, I would say, “Oh, there’s a fire truck across the street.” Ithought I was pretty clever until I realized that others on the call were sometimes in the same buildingand knew there was no fire truck. Busted.

Despite modern methods that can minimize the impact of biological imperatives, women still do thevast majority of child care. As a result, becoming a parent decreases workforce participation forwomen but not men.

Forty-three percent of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers,or “off-ramping,” for a period of time.

Women who are the most likely to leave the workforce are concentrated at opposite ends of theearning scale, married to men who earn the least and the most. In 2006, only 20 percent of motherswhose husband’s earnings landed in the middle (between the twenty-fifth and seventy-fifthpercentiles) were out of the labor force. In contrast, a whopping 52 percent of mothers with husbandsin the bottom quarter and 40 percent of mothers with husbands in the top 5 percent were out of thelabor force.

Obviously, their reasons for staying home are vastly different. Mothers married to thelowest-earning men struggle to find jobs that pay enough to cover child care costs, which areincreasingly unaffordable. Over the past decade, child care costs have risen twice as fast as the medianincome of families with children.

The cost for two children (an infant and a four-year-old) to go to aday care center is greater than the annual median rent payment in every state in the country.

Women married to men with greater resources leave for a variety of reasons, but one importantfactor is the number of hours that their husbands work. When husbands work fifty or more hours perweek, wives with children are 44 percent more likely to quit their jobs than wives with children whosehusbands work less.

Many of these mothers are those with the highest levels of education. A 2007survey of Harvard Business School alumni found that while men’s rates of full-time employmentnever fell below 91 percent, only 81 percent of women who graduated in the early 2000s and 49percent of women who graduated in the early 1990s were working full-time.

Of Yale alumni whohad reached their forties by 2000, only 56 percent of the women remained in the workforce, comparedwith 90 percent of the men.

This exodus of highly educated women is a major contributor to theleadership gap.

While it’s hard to predict how an individual will react to becoming a parent, it’s easy to predictsociety’s reaction. When a couple announces that they are having a baby, everyone says“Congratulations!” to the man and “Congratulations! What are you planning on doing about work?” tothe woman. The broadly held assumption is that raising their child is her responsibility. In more thanthirty years, this perception has changed very little. A survey of the Princeton class of 1975 found that54 percent of the women foresaw work-family conflict compared to 26 percent of the men. The samesurvey of the Princeton class of 2006 found that 62 percent of the women anticipated work-familyconflict compared to only 33 percent of the men. Three decades separate the studies and still nearlytwice as many women as men enter the workforce anticipating this stumbling block. Even in 2006, 46percent of the men who anticipated this conflict expected their spouse to step off her career track toraise their children. Only 5 percent of the women believed their spouse would alter his career toaccommodate their child.

Personal choices are not always as personal as they appear. We are all influenced by socialconventions, peer pressure, and familial expectations. On top of these forces, women who can affordto drop out of the workplace often receive not just permission but encouragement to do so from alldirections.

Imagine that a career is like a marathon—a long, grueling, and ultimately rewarding endeavor. Nowimagine a marathon where both men and women arrive at the starting line equally fit and trained. Thegun goes off. The men and women run side by side. The male marathoners are routinely cheered on:

“Lookin’ strong! On your way!” But the female runners hear a different message. “You know youdon’t have to do this!” the crowd shouts. Or “Good start—but you probably won’t want to finish.” Thefarther the marathoners run, the louder the cries grow for the men: “Keep going! You’ve got this!” Butthe women hear more and more doubts about their efforts. External voices, and often their owninternal voice, repeatedly question their decision to keep running. The voices can even grow hostile.

As the women struggle to endure the rigors of the race, spectators shout, “Why are you running whenyour children need you at home?”

Back in 1997, Debi Hemmeter was a rising executive at Sara Lee who aspired to someday lead amajor corporation like her role model, Pepsi-Cola North America CEO Brenda Barnes. Even afterstarting a family, Debi continued to pursue her career at full speed. Then one day when Debi was on abusiness trip, she opened her hotel door to find USA Today with the startling headline “Pepsi ChiefTrades Work for Family.” The subhead elaborated: “22-Year Veteran Got Burned Out.” In thatmoment, Debi said she felt her own ambitions shift. As Debi told me, “It seemed like if thisextraordinary woman couldn’t make it work, who could? Soon after, I was offered a big job at a bankand I turned it down because my daughter was just a year old and I didn’t think I could do it. Almost adecade later, I took a similar job and did it well, but I lost a decade. I actually saved that clipping andstill have it today. It’s a reminder of what I don’t want another generation to go through.”

If a female marathoner can ignore the shouts of the crowd and get past the tough middle of the race,she will often hit her stride. Years ago, I met an investment banker in New York whose husbandworked in public service. She told me that over the years all of her female friends in banking quit, butbecause she was her family’s primary breadwinner, she had to stick it out. There were days when shewas jealous and wished she could leave, days when there was just too much to do or too much crap toput up with. But she did not have that option. Eventually, she landed in a position that had less crapand more impact. Now when she looks back, she is glad that even in the hard times, she continued inher career. Today, she has a close relationship with her children and now that they have grown up andmoved away, she’s especially grateful to have a fulfilling job.

Although pundits and politicians, usually male, often claim that motherhood is the most importantand difficult work of all, women who take time out of the workforce pay a big career penalty. Only 74percent of professional women will rejoin the workforce in any capacity, and only 40 percent willreturn to full-time jobs.

Those who do rejoin will often see their earnings decrease dramatically.

Controlling for education and hours worked, women’s average annual earnings decrease by 20 percentif they are out of the workforce for just one year.

Average annual earnings decline by 30 percent aftertwo to three years,which is the average amount of time that professional women off-ramp from theworkforce.

If society truly valued the work of caring for children, companies and institutions wouldfind ways to reduce these steep penalties and help parents combine career and family responsibilities.

All too often rigid work schedules, lack of paid family leave, and expensive or undependable childcare derail women’s best efforts. Governmental and company policies such as paid personal time off,affordable high-quality child care, and flexible work practices would serve families, and society, well.

One miscalculation that some women make is to drop out early in their careers because their salarybarely covers the cost of child care. Child care is a huge expense, and it’s frustrating to work hard justto break even. But professional women need to measure the cost of child care against their futuresalary rather than their current salary. Anna Fieler describes becoming a mom at thirty-two as “thetime when the rubber hit the road.” A rising star in marketing, Anna was concerned that her after-taxsalary barely covered her child care expenses. “With husbands often making more than wives, itseems like higher ROI to just invest in his career,” she told me. But she thought about all the time andmoney she had already invested in her career and didn’t see how walking away made economic senseeither. So she made what she called “a leap of blind faith” and stayed in the workforce. Years later,her income is many times greater than when she almost withdrew. Wisely, Anna and other womenhave started to think of paying for child care as a way of investing in their families’ future. As theyears go by, compensation often increases. Flexibility typically increases, too, as senior leaders oftenhave more control over their hours and schedules.

And what about men who want to leave the workforce? If we make it too easy for women to dropout of the career marathon, we also make it too hard for men. Just as women feel that they bear theprimary responsibility of caring for their children, many men feel that they bear the primaryresponsibility of supporting their families financially. Their self-worth is tied mainly to theirprofessional success, and they frequently believe that they have no choice but to finish that marathon.

Choosing to leave a child in someone else’s care and return to work is a difficult decision. Anyparent who has done this, myself included, knows how heart wrenching it can be. Only a compelling,challenging, and rewarding job will begin to make that choice a fair contest. And even after a choice ismade, parents have every right to reassess along the way.

Anyone lucky enough to have options should keep them open. Don’t enter the workforce alreadylooking for the exit. Don’t put on the brakes. Accelerate. Keep a foot on the gas pedal until a decisionmust be made. That’s the only way to ensure that when that day comes, there will be a real decision tomake.


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