Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a great thinker who I admire, posted an HBR Blog on “Why Running a Family Doesn't Help You Run a Business”. I must admit I found the piece confusing. It seems to imply that women who take a career break count heavily on time spent parenting to develop their business skills. I haven’t yet met a working woman professional who felt that dealing with a two-year-old’s tantrums gave her skills that qualified her to be CEO (though you do have to admit these skills do, on occasion, end up being helpful at work.)
That issue aside, there are some very important points to emphasize. First, women—and men for that matter as this is a growing trend—who take career breaks for family or for fun need a smart re-entry strategy. Anne Weisberg, co-author of Mass Career Customization and a former colleague of mine, recommends the three C’s: stay “c”onnected (keep your network vibrant), stay “c”urrent (keep your skills up), and stay “c”onfident. My husband dialed his career down for a couple of years when I dialed up to co-author The Corporate Lattice, and he has used this advice to help him stay marketable.
Second, let’s remember that when women do decide to take a career break, it is a tough decision and it too often comes down to a “career or family” choice. This “either/or” structure is the real problem.
Consider the lackluster value proposition that business offers to women. Few women make it to the top so there is little chance hard work will pay-off. Work cultures are rooted in masculine norms creating a pervasive sense of “I don’t really belong here” or “I don’t really like it here.” And, unconscious biases make it more strenuous for women to grow their careers than it is for men. Is it any wonder that when it comes to “either/or” decisions, parenting often looks better?
Add to this that men often cannot take career breaks or exercise workplace flexibility options without being severely stigmatized, and it is easy to see how “either/or” choices often result in women stepping out of work rather than their spouses doing so.
The real issue, then, isn’t women making faulty decisions to step away from work because they erroneously believe full time parenting is a career builder. The real issue is that we need to create viable “both/and” choices for being a parent and working—for men as well as women. Cultural and structural change is what is really needed.