When I was a young woman in a man's world, my students gave me a desk plaque: "The bad news is a woman has to be twice as good as a man to get ahead. The good news is it's not that hard." It cheered us all. Many years later, I spoke to a group of about 30 Harvard Business School women graduates and found something startling. Only one was still working full time. The rest had reluctantly taken a different path, typically after having a second child. Of those, only two had channeled their careers into part-time work. The others were full-time moms—because they had no choice. Their lives had become the nexus of irreconcilable forces. As good girls and good students, they embraced their times, eagerly absorbing education and experience. But even with all that energy and skill, they had careened into a wall. Getting ahead wasn't only about how "good" you were. It also depended on surrendering to a century-old vision of the professional career.
Lately, the media has been fascinated with women who have "opted out" of careers to care for their children. These stories read like close-ups of someone dripping wet without revealing that she's standing in a hurricane—all symptoms, no cause. Let's talk hurricane: Highly trained women leaving work aren't opting out. Torn up by conflicts between motherly love, inflexible career structures, and substandard child care, they're being "squeezed out" of organizations that have quietly but determinedly resisted their presence by not adapting to their needs.
How has this happened? Career taxidermy. Taxidermy is the art of taking something dead and making it appear alive, forever. A century ago, managerial capitalism was invented along with the template for the modern career. It reflected the biology and sociology of employees then. Biologically, they were men. Sociologically, they had wives caring for home and family. Careers followed the inverted "U" curve, starting out in early adulthood and progressing to retirement, and career advancement was an exercise in moral development. The men who suppressed their individuality to conform to the organization got promoted.
This template has been stuffed and mounted. The inverted "U" is the universal gold standard. Conformity remains essential. Individuals have little say over the structure, pacing, or content of their careers. The big difference, of course, is that the way of life expressed in the old template has vanished.
In 1970, the husband was the sole wage earner in a majority of couples. By 1995, a woman's income accounted for half or more of the total income in a majority of families. Sixty percent of families had dual earners in 2000. Many couples now work much longer hours. This isn't ambition but necessity. In their new book, The Time Divide: Work, Family and Gender Equality (Harvard University Press, 2004), sociologists Jerry A. Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson show that since 1970, companies have demanded more commitment from the top end of the labor force. This increase has been most dramatic among women, professionals/managers, and the college-educated. Among college grads, one-fifth of the women and 40% of the men now work 50-plus hours a week. Ninety percent of these women and 80% of these men wish for fewer hours.
The strength of career taxidermy is also expressed in the elusiveness of meaningful part-time work or other flexible arrangements. Ninety-six percent of employees surveyed in a recent Harris poll wanted more flexibility and control over work than employers provide. A Cornell study found that only 10% of couples wanted the male-as-sole-breadwinner arrangement, but 25% had been forced into it for lack of options. Moms and dads who don't conform to the "time norms" in their organizations fall victim to ostracism, or worse, career suicide.
The typical professional college-educated mother lives in the eye of the hurricane. In fact, her whole family is under siege. They have ventured into a profoundly new kind of life, but face companies stuck in the past, still choosing to deny these seismic changes, as if they'll disappear.
The official remedies blame the victim. Women are exhorted to leave work while still fertile. Or speak up and assert their demands. Or find a better work-life balance. Or do yoga. Or buy fragrant plug-ins intended to distract from an unvacuumed house. All of these demurely ignore the elephant in the room that is career taxidermy. We need to shift from symptoms to cause. Our organizations should be held accountable, expected to change with the times, just like the rest of us. If men could invent the modern career 100 years ago, then women and men can reinvent it today. Remember the good news . . . it's not that hard.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.