Why do women step back from their careers?

Ambition. Motherhood. Not always easy bedfellows.

When women become mothers, they often see that career progression is hampered. Sometimes because they want flexibility and are therefore seen as less suitable for promotion. Sometimes even without seeking flexibility, they are put on the mommy-track, on the assumption that they’re less interested in work. But often, the career progression is stalled because of a conscious choice to move to a role or industry that’s more family-friendly.

“Your priorities change” is a cliché regularly heard in relation to having children, but like all the best clichés, it’s true. And of course every mother prioritizes her children over her job – we don’t hear anyone saying “I love my kids but I love my job more”.

Office Mum post: photo of baby
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So for sure, kids are at the top of the pyramid in terms of what’s important. But many women take it a step further, actively seeking a career change that will be more suited to being a parent. And I say “women” rather than “parents”, because it’s mostly women who do this.

Is this a significant factor behind the glass ceiling? Sure it exists because women who are mothers are prevented from progressing, but also because some of us stop trying. And I mean that in the most positive way – this is not a criticism of or a complaint about women – I’m in this category too. Many of us reach a point where we’re not looking to be CEO or be promoted every two years, and certainly not if that means working around the clock and never seeing our kids. We want a job that’s fulfilling, where we can still work to our full potential, and that fits around our families. All the better if it’s enjoyable too. It’s not about losing ambition, it’s being realistic about what’s doable without sacrificing too much. Work-life balance and career progression shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, but they often are, and many women who have children choose the former.

My friend Elizabeth* did it – she swapped roles with the assistant manager who reported to her – he became her boss. But it was the only way to move to a three-day week. As she says herself, it killed her career, and her two days at home each week are tougher than the most stressful work days, but she doesn’t regret it for a minute.

Office Mum post: work life balance

Another friend Susan has just resigned from a job she loved, after sixteen years, because her employer wouldn’t allow her move to a four-day-week. So she has unexpectedly found herself becoming a stay-at-home-mum to her three kids; she weighed it up and couldn’t bring herself to go back full-time. Not because she doesn’t want to work, not because it will be easier being at home, but because she felt it would be too difficult for herself and her husband to juggle three small kids and two full-time jobs.

And then there’s Siobhán, who realized that she wanted to leave the small private company she worked for (before having children), to seek out a job with a more family-friendly organization. She no longer wanted to commit to long hours, a two-hour daily commute and unpaid maternity leave. She wanted to work close to home so she could do school drop offs and avail of future flexible working opportunities (reduced hours, job share, career breaks). The downside, as she says herself, was the fact that she “took a fifty percent pay cut for the luxury” But she doesn’t regret it – she has a jobshare close to home, and sees a lot more of her kids than she would have done if she had stayed in her previous role.

I spoke to Linda, who similar to Siobhán, made a decision before starting a family, to switch from the corporate world to teaching. She did so for a variety of reasons, but mostly because she knew that it would be more family-friendly. She now has a good work-life balance and has more time with her two children than she ever could have had in her previous role. She says she would make the same choice “again and again”, but does sometimes feel a little sad, wondering what might have been if she could have stayed in her original career.

So why is it mostly women who make these career decisions – why is it mothers and not fathers who decide to step back?

Some might suggest that it’s linked to salary – that women are paid less. But in fact Ireland has one of the lowest gender pay gaps in Europe, at 4%. So while in particular cases, a family might make a decision based on which parent earns more, it cannot be assumed to be the overriding factor in general.

Another factor could be that it’s still not the norm in many workplaces for men to work part-time hours. When I finally braved asking for a four-day-week while pregnant with my third child, my colleagues were not too surprised. If my husband looked for similar hours, eyebrows would certainly be raised. We’ve a bit to go there.

But is there more to it than that? Beyond the glass ceiling, beyond cultural norms – is this re-prioritization, this stepping back, something that women are more inclined to do – because we are programmed differently to men?

Do we feel the guilt more profoundly? Do we feel a stronger pull to be with our children? Do we spend more time adding up the hours we see our kids and worrying about it? Or are we so socially conditioned to expect that women should look after children that we subconsciously submit to it even if we consciously disagree? Are we tired of fighting for flexibility in our current roles, so throwing in the towel? Or do we just know that we’re better at keeping the housework ticking over on our days off with the kids …

It’s probably a mix of all of the above, and the weighting in one direction or another depends on the individual. I can only answer for myself: I’m no less interested in having a career than I was ten years ago, but if I can’t have both flexibility and progression, I will take flexibility.

The glass ceiling isn’t just something that’s done to women – it’s also something we do to ourselves, and as Emily Hourican very astutely points out here; so what if we do it to ourselves – it doesn’t make it right that we have to make these tough choices.

And indeed, some of us are left with no choice; if we’re not allowed to progress and at the same time to have flexibility, we often feel we have no option but to step back or even quit.   

Others do make conscious, well-thought out decisions to find a career path that suits their families – a more positive version of a change in focus.

Lean in, lean out – it doesn’t really matter which you do, as long as it’s your choice – as long as it’s not something being forced on you by financial constraints or inflexible employers or glass ceilings.

I’m somewhere in between. I don’t need to be CEO – I want a job that keeps me challenged, makes me happy, pays the mortgage, and allows me time with my kids. It’s a not a loss of ambition, it’s a new ambition.   

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9 thoughts on “Why do women step back from their careers?”

  1. Hi Office Mum,

    I love your post and totally agree with you. Combining a career and motherhood is not easy and often results in difficult choices. We feel like we have to sacrifice something and it’s not going to be our children, so we think it has to be our careers. But, as you say if more employers could see the advantages of hiring working mothers, and measure outcomes and results instead of time spent at your desk, it would go a long way to giving working mothers more flexible options.

    1. Thanks Elaine for your great comment – yes, I think many employers are terribly shortsighted. The people who make a conscious decision with which they’re happy – that’s great. Though perhaps if they didn’t have to make the decision at all, it would be even better – varies from person to person I think. But the people making the touch choices because of lack of inflexibility – that’s just very sad. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  2. Hi Office Mum

    One advantage of becoming a mother is that your employer may realise how valuable you are when you’re on maternity leave – this happened to me and i was promoted 6 months after returning to work. Also you may get a chance to rejoin your company in a different role which wouldn’t have happened otherwise and this can be invigorating. When you’re out on leave, you have to let go of your job temporarily and so you can feel more open to change when returning to work. There’s rarely time to overthink the consequences. Men rarely get that opportunity.

    I do think that having it all means doing it all unfortunately! We “lean in” a little too much in every part of our lives. I think too that when both parents work, women are trying to balance lots of roles. Men don’t feel the need to reprioritise to compensate for that and it makes it hard.

    Companies also are more ruthless in cutting out the bottom 5% of employees so you can’t cruise through a couple of years when you’re bleary eyed from a lack of sleep.

    I’m returning from maternity leave in a couple of months and am not looking forward to the stress of trying to get out the door on time with clean clothes!

    1. Thanks Thelma – I love your positive take on it, and I agree, the return from maternity leave can be a really good fresh start. I came back to a new role after my third mat leave, and despite my expectations that I wouldn’t be able to fit it into four days, I did and I loved it. I really like what you said about trying to “lean in” a little too much in every part of our lives – as I read it, Sheryl Sandberg was on the 9 o’clock news talking about leaning in, and I thought “Thelma’s right – sometimes we need a break!”

  3. Switching from a typical career to staying at home is a massive change. You really don’t know what it’s like until you do it. With maternity leave women do get a chance to try it out and see if they can cope, or just how much they will miss their job. Looking after a baby/child fulltime also forces you to rethink your priorities. It doesn’t really surprise me that it’s usually women that make the change to a better work/life balance for the family. Before going on maternity leave I assumed I would be dying to get back to work. Even though being a Mum is way tougher than I could have imagined, my priorities have definitely shifted as a result of being out of the work environment for a while. I’m not in favour of forcing parents to share maternity/paternity leave but there’s something to be said for making it the norm for fathers to take some time to experience life as the fulltime parent.
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    1. Hi Sheila,

      I think that’s a really interesting point – something that struck me when I wrote the post was that perhaps being on maternity leaves gives mothers a taste of what it’s like to have more balance. Then when something changes later – an inflexible work situation, a redundancy, a career cross-roads – we are less frightened of the idea of being at home, because we’ve tried it out already. Father often don’t get that opportunity, and are just not in the mindset of seeing being at home more as a doable option. I am guessing if more had the chance, more would be open to it… Thank you for reading and commenting!

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