Outlasting the Moms.

by Leslie Morgan Steiner


Way back in 1990 during my first week of business school, a second-year male student I’d met at the campus pub was ruminating – obnoxiously -- on his future career. For those not familiar with b-school students, we can be obsessed – with ourselves, our careers, our future prospects. Pretty calculating, self-centered and generally nauseating overall. Of course I listened carefully – with similar self-interest, in case I might learn something that would help ME.


“The first few years are key,” he mapped out, sipping his beer. “Getting the best job in the most highly compensated industry before graduation, getting promoted within a year, establishing myself as a killer, you know, living and breathing my work. No dating, no family, no vacations, nothing. After about five years it will get easier.”


He didn’t give a reason. I went for the bait. “Why then?”


“All the women will have had kids by then. I won’t have to contend with you anymore. My competition will be cut in half.”


His world view reminded me of the joke about two business school students who go camping, only to have their tents attacked by a bear. The second year b-school student starts lacing up his sneakers.


“What are you doing?” the first year screams. “You can’t outrun a bear!”


The second year laughs. “I don’t have to outrun a bear. I just have to outrun YOU.”


But the student talking to me at the pub clearly wasn’t joking.


Within five years, I found out he was right. I had two kids myself and had voluntarily put myself on the mommy track at Johnson & Johnson so that I could breastfeed, pick my kids up from daycare, have time to feed and bathe my family and myself before midnight. Many of my Wharton female classmates – even the most ambitious ones – had stopped working completely. Like myself, Michelle Obama, and most of the highly-educated, ambitious 40-something women I know, we married men who matched our drive and ambitions. Only to discover, once we had kids, that our husbands didn’t have “stay-at-home dad” in their lexicon, and Jesus, someone had to stay home with the children. The companies who had hired us workaholic women saw no benefit to flex- or part-time jobs just because we’d popped out a baby or two. So by choice or default, a lot of b-school and law school and med school moms of my generation left fulltime work soon after having children. Maybe not for good. But to my fury, that arrogant second year student had turned out to be dead right about his competition at work being halved.


Unfortunately, about this time, my husband organized an outing at a prestigious country club for his Wall Street firm. Five hundred investment bankers came. My husband was raving about the incredible networking grandslam the event turned out to be. I asked how many women were there. He looked at me sharply – he’d clearly not asked himself the same question. He thought for a moment.


“None,” he said.


I am in a "helping profession". I love what I do but, in part, because few men opt to do this work the pay is terrible! I have a graduate degree and sometimes get INCREDIBLY frustrated that my college drop-out husband makes twice the money I do... I have both a son and a daughter and try to instill in them my ideas (some would say "propagand") about the perfect world scenario. This would be a place where brainstorming and troubleshooting (in politics, at work, medical research, etc, etc) included the ideas and thoughts of everyone. If we design our society at the top levels by only tapping into the brainpower of half our society (the male half) we will never come up with the best ideas. We all know this but I hope and pray for a better situation for my kids. My mom went from stay-at-home mother of 4 to doctoral level professional but still chose to work at a not-for-profit. How do we encourage more equitable distribution of wealth? The goal, in my opinion, is not just to encourage more women to give up everything in the pursuit of big bucks but to encourage more men to strive for other versions of success...help people in meaningful ways, contribute to a healthier/safer/more educated society, etc. I hope that the author's husband, realizing no women were at his "great" event, felt ashamed. The men who love and care about us need to be educated and pressured to step up and help us make things right. If we aren't even in the room we can't defend ourselves. We need more testosterone-pumping allies!


I experience much of what westchestermom does. I was given what could have been a very nice promotion in terms of wages/prestige. I tried it 6 months and had to decline it because it also assumed that you would be available, whenever they wanted you and I couldn't. The kicker was the evening, while making dinner, that the desk assistant called saying "why am I calling your cell? why aren't you still here?" at 7pm. Done, I had to mommy-track myself because I'm not part of the club, no stay-at-home spouse, and even if I was willing to be called, my inability to be "there" was a deal-breaker.
The only women who make it with kids have either a stay-at-home spouse or a full-time nanny and a spouse without a power career. Single parent or a spouse with a power career? 3-4 full-time nannies are a must. And since I hadn't reached the executive suite before having kids, I couldn't even attain the necessary staff even if I were willing to go that route. Stuck.

leslie morgan s...

Here are my tips for women thinking of leaving work/changing careers based on research I did for More Magazine two years ago. Hope this helps! Good luck!

DO Invest in yourself before you leave the workforce. The better your education and the more impressive your career achievements, the more options you will have when you return to work.

DO Be realistic and determined; don’t expect the job market to respect, validate or reward your decision to stay home with children.

DO Stay in the same city. Returning to work is simpler if you remain in the same geographic area or in the same field and can leverage your prior contacts and professional reputation.

DO Be decisive about returning to work. No one wants to hire someone who projects ambivalence.

Do Go back full time: part-time and flex-time jobs remain elusive for anyone at any stage in their careers.

DO Keep up your network! This jaded advice holds true -- but it doesn’t mean an awkward call to your old HR manager every January. Keep up with your FRIENDS from work and your industry. Maintain professional connections in ways that feel comfortable to you.

DO Stay (somewhat) current on major new technology trends. Lawyers need to read up on Sarbanes-Oxley. Marketers need to keep tabs on Internet marketing. Certified professionals keep your accreditations current.

Do go back within 10 years. “There’s probably a curve that slopes negatively with more time,” says one recruiter. “A three to five year absence is now relatively easy to explain. Ten-plus years is a lot harder.”

leslie morgan s...

Leslie Morgan Steiner

Wow Westchester Mom, I feel for you. Exactly my experience. You speak the truth. Whether it feels like it or not, by working 20+ years in this field you have made the path wider for the next generation of ambitious women. You did your time. Good luck with the next phase!

doctor dirt

Thank you for such a decisive, sharp (and devastating) critique of women in the workforce. I usually come to this website for comic relief (which it totally provides!!) but it's pretty neat to see something like this. Well done. I agree that the discussion needs to fundamentally change: we need to be discussing the role of men and how they need to mentor and recruit women (IN ADDITION TO sharing some of the professional hits that their female partners take when BOTH PARTNERS become parents). Pardon my caps. It's just maddening that we're still stuck where we are - all of us!


If we all did like the men do, the human population would end, and those left would all have some type of health issue (ulcers, migraines, cancer, etc.) There comes a time in life when one realizes that excessive money, bogus position and perceived prestige really doesn't mean much. If it does, you would stick in the game and make it in that arena. If you value family, you would high tail it out of the stress factory.


Poor examples of those that have done it....


As a 48 year old with two engineering degrees and two small kids, this article could be specifically about me. I went from managing a huge group of engineers, living as an ex-pat with my husband while we bootstrapped a new European subsidiary of our start-up, and enjoying huge annual bonuses to a quiet, undemanding program management job for a medium sized company that doesn't notice when I sneak out to run soccer practice. Some days I feel bad that I've wasted my MIT degree and early power career. Other days I convince myself that the payoff from all of that should be the ability to have the kind of life I want and what I want right now is to spend some time with my kids.


I find this article to be very timely for me because I am thinking about leaving finance after 20+ years in banking because I am really tired of fighting the old boys network.

I actually re-read chapters of Mommy Wars to find some of the answers I was looking for about "opting out"; to make a change that might not be permanent. Even though many of the women in your book had more flexibility since they were in more creative fields...many of their stories gave me the courage I needed to let my management know that excluding me from meetings, lack of response to emails etc, etc, creates an uncomfortable work environment. I am not going to call it hostile, but it is impossible to succeeed in my group because they don't want me to be part of the club.

They want people like them with wives that stay at home, and everyone they've hired in the last four years to be a part of this team is male.

I just don't want to deal with it any more. I know there are other teams within my bank that would be different, but I am exhausted from trying to juggle work and family in the field of banking.

Yes, these work life, family friendly policies are typically amazing in these banks, but the real atmosphere is different.

Your article sums it up perfectly because it is true for the generation of 40ish - 50ish women that are reaching this peak in finance and law. I definitely know some people that made it - even in my old bank, but many are like Oprah, Kagan and Sotomayer - no kids.