Source: Kellogg Insight | Written by: Dean Sally Blount
The second critical pivot point occurs when women move into the mid-career years where long-term relationships and caregiving roles become focal. For women who have launched well, the demands at work are growing just as the ones at home are. And while ambitious men face the same shift, research finds that in the US—whether by choice, necessity, or default—women typically pick up more of the burden for meeting their families’ growing non-work needs during this phase.
Nor do things get easier as the mid-career years progress. When aging relatives get frailer and adolescent children’s schedules get more packed, stress levels rise. At this point, many well-educated, career women—especially if paired with a well-educated, employed man—make the calculation that it’s just not worth it, economically or emotionally, to stay in the game.
The importance of this point was borne out in a 2004 study of American women who left work to have children. Although 93 percent of these women wanted to return to work, less than 75 percent managed to do so, and only 40 percent returned full time. Further, OECD data shows that US labor force participation by women aged 25–54 peaked at 74–75 percent around 2000 and now hovers at 69–70 percent, the level at which we were in the mid-1980s.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Denmark, Norway, and Sweden—nations where high quality, affordable child and elder care is the norm—all rank among the top OECD nations in female workforce participation. Part of the solution clearly lies in our ability to improve the availability, affordability, and quality of child and elder care. Part of the solution also relies on companies expanding opportunities for flexible work hours and career paths.
But part of the solution is also psychological. We need to find ways to coach high-potential women as they prepare for and navigate the Mid-career Marathon years. We need to help women know what to expect when this pivot comes. And as the mid-career years accelerate, we need resources ready and easy to find when working women hit major stressors, such as a child or parent getting very sick or a nanny situation going south. We need to help these women invest in building and sustaining professional networks and friendships among fellow career women. The Mid-career Marathon is not the time to be flying solo, but too often women in this phase feel that they have no choice.
Finally, there are critical developmental needs shared by all high-potential professionals during this phase. This is a period when both men and women can lose career focus. They make imperfect choices about what skills to build, what development opportunities to seek, and when to push on compensation. These choices can sidetrack a promising career. But for women there is always an added factor: the implicit and explicit bias so often present at work (in ways that many men still don’t see) just makes everything more tiring.
Research shows that this is the time when effective mentorship and sponsorship are critical, and a lack of good guidance increases the likelihood of a career exit for women. But research continues to find that women in this phase are less likely than male peers to ask for help and pursue new opportunities. Perhaps as a result, they are also less likely than men to find and be supported by strong sponsors.