How Women Are Redefining Work and Success

For years, broadcasters Claire Shipman, at ABC News' Good Morning America, and Katty Kay, at BBC World News America, struggled with their decisions to turn down promotions and plum assignments so they could tend to their families. It wasn't that they weren't ambitious, they just weren't interested in the grueling climb up the corporate ladder. They yearned for a path to success based on results, not hours clocked. In their book Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success, due out June 2, the authors cite studies that show the increasing impact of professional women on companies' bottom lines, and give practical advice on how to create "a more sane" work life. This excerpt looks at the trade-offs many employees are willing to make to get a better work-life balance, and how companies are reacting.


The hot currency in office boasting sessions is quickly moving from the number of power breakfasts to the number of school plays you've managed to make. Women may be driving the workforce revolution, but men are realizing the benefits of flexibility, too.

At Capital One Financial (COF), director of human resources Judy Pahren saw flexibility was no longer just a "women's initiative" when the company did a follow-up to a survey that had gone just to women. The financial services company had initially surveyed female associates to find out what was critical in their work lives. Overwhelmingly, the answer they got was flexibility. And the demand for it increased the more senior the women became. The next survey included the whole company. "We realized that flexibility was actually a need across our entire associate base. We had thought that maybe it was gender-based, but it was actually true of the men who worked here, too," says Pahren. A few months later, The Flexible Work Arrangements program was implemented for the whole company. It allows all employees to craft their own schedules with their managers—they can take advantage of flextime, telecommuting, a compressed workweek, or they can go part-time.

And no wonder—America is changing. "We are very much a time-famished nation. People want more control over their time," says Kathleen Christensen of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funds research relating to families and work.

Look at these stats:• 78% of couples in this country are dual-income earners• 63% of us believe we don't have enough time for our spouses or partners• 74% of us say we don't have enough time for our children• 35% of adults are putting significant time toward caring for an elder relative.

Bottom line?• Half of us want fewer hours• Half of us would change our schedules• More than half would trade money for a day off• Three-quarters of us want flexible work options

More and more workers of both sexes are willing to scale back career goals, according to Families & Work Institute data. "Reduced aspirations do not mean employees are not talented or good at what they do," explains Lois Backon, a vice-president at the Institute. "Most do want to feel engaged by their jobs. But in focus groups they also say things like 'I need to make these choices because my family is a priority' or 'I need to make these choices to make my life work.' "

Why the changing priorities? Burnout is key, say experts, and the fact that companies, even though they still long to discipline us, can't really be decent father figures anymore. Benefits, pensions, other perks, and protections are almost all a thing of the past. Not to mention job security, particularly in a downturn. Americans no longer believe they will spend a career at one shop, and they are right. The average American will hold 10 different jobs over his or her lifetime.

With the insecurity of that new mobility can come an unexpected benefit—more freedom. The fact that we don't stay in one place for 40 years anymore gives us enormous latitude to move sideways, backward, in, and out—to define our own paths. We're looking for our security and fulfillment and confidence elsewhere. Our employer's definition of "straight up the ladder" success is becoming meaningless, even suspect.

But—time for a reality check. We long to embrace this new mindset, but we're worried about the consequences. Almost half of working parents believe their jobs might be in jeopardy if they work flexibly, especially now. Not so, however, for the younger revolutionaries. If we're increasingly frustrated by the 60-hour office week, the next generation has no interest in it at all. Family and personal lives are critical for them. Old-fashioned pressure-cooker work environments send them screaming.

"Generations X and Y do have a very strong work ethic, but they want more balance— a satisfying work and personal life. And that is not just the women," notes Christensen.

Remember, these alphabet-enders have grown up amid significant economic turbulence: the dot-com boom and bust, labor force shakeups, corporate greed scandals, and the credit collapse. They were raised by boomer parents who gave them self-esteem and a desire to have an impact. Consultant Bruce Tuglan, who helps companies work with younger generations, says, "They are going to be the most high-performing civic-minded workforce in the history of the world, but they are also going to be the most high-maintenance workforce in the history of the world."

"Generation Y is completely untethered. They've been utilizing technology for years, so when they get into the work environment and they're a little more chained to their desk and to desktop computers, they don't know what to do," explains Cali Ressler, one of the co-founders of a radically flexible work program at retail giant Best Buy (BBY). "So rather than try and get them to conform to rules and guidelines from the 1950s, we should listen to them, and let them lead the way for what this future will look like."


But the most important component driving the change is that women are finally understood to be good for business. Very good, in fact. Three studies, including one by Catalyst, a leading advocacy group for women in the workplace, found that the more senior women at a company, the more money it makes. So what do you get when you have a workforce full of talented, and now powerful, women who finally understand, and accept, that what they want is to work differently; a substantial percentage of men starting to see they'd like the same thing; a much-in-demand younger generation that won't be tied down; and a looming talent shortage? You get an explosive chain reaction. And what's remarkable about the process is that the change is coming as individual women everywhere negotiate to work the way it works best for them. And it's coming in major waves, as companies start to open up their minds and company policies.

At the top end, there are victories such as that of Brenda Barnes, CEO of Sara Lee (SLE) since 2004. Barnes quit her job as CEO of PepsiCo's (PEP) North American operation in 1998 to raise her three children. At the time she was wildly criticized for hardening the glass ceiling. Now, kids in college, she's managed to become the nation's most high-profile, high-achieving "on-ramper"—someone who rejoins the workforce after taking time off to raise kids.

"Today's business world, where work can be done anywhere at any time, calls for a flexible environment that provides the opportunity for work-life balance," Barnes explains. "This doesn't mean employees work less; instead it means empowering employees to do their work on a schedule that works for them. So if they want to work from their kitchen table at 3 a.m., as long as the work gets done, who cares when or where they are doing it? Companies need to recognize that this kind of flexibility offers employees the ability to manage and balance their own careers and lives, which improves productivity and employee morale."

And, by the way, Barnes is working hard to be sure others can have the opportunity for fulfillment that she had. Sara Lee offers a multitude of flexible work options, and Barnes has also launched a program called Returnships. It's aimed at midcareer professionals who've been out of the workforce for a number of years, and offers them the chance to retool and retrain, with an eye toward a permanent, and probably flexible, job.

Most of us, of course, aren't going to be able to quit a CEO job and then get another, but the fact that it's been done helps us all. And there are satisfying, life-changing, and winnable battles that are well within reach. Robin Ehlers, now a sales manager for General Mills (GIS), works a full-time job almost entirely out of her home, with only occasional travel. But negotiating this work life did not happen without a struggle—especially at her former job at Pillsbury. "As I moved down in status at Pillsbury, so I could travel less and have a more manageable schedule, I was still working from the office," she explains. "I was trying to get my office moved to home, and there was no way my boss was going to let me, but to me it just didn't make any sense. I can remember kind of having a breakdown and just thinking: 'I can't waste the time on my commute when I could be with my new baby.' " All of her work was by phone and computer with customers in other cities, and she felt she'd be equally, if not more, efficient at home. Her boss wanted everyone together.

Finally, thanks to Ehlers' persistence—and a director who arrived and wanted her office space—her boss changed his mind. She got her deal, and when General Mills bought Pillsbury, managers saw no reason to change it. Ehlers' negotiation, seemingly random and one-off, and the negotiations of millions of women like her, are having a collective impact by tearing down the old hierarchy brick by brick.

But the savviest companies aren't waiting for disgruntled women to do the work; they are trying to do the demolition themselves. Creative, manageable work programs are taking root all around the country. Here's a taste from the Families & Work Institute's recent award winners:• At Kaye/Bassman International, a recruiting firm in Plano, Tex., each employee simply asks for what they need—to be home with children in the afternoon, to work via laptop—and in almost every case, the request is granted. CEO Jeff Kaye says humane treatment gets productivity results back to him in spades.• The KPMG accounting firm offers its staff work-compressed workweeks, flexible hours, telecommuting, job sharing, or even reduced workloads. And workaholics beware: The firm has implemented wellness scorecards to find out whether someone is working too hard or missing vacation. If so, supervisors get in touch to urge a slowdown. Oh, and how about eight weeks fully paid maternity leave, even for adoptive parents? And two-thirds pay if you need more time.• Chapman & Cutler, a midsize law firm in Chicago, started a two-tier pay scale. Hard-chargers who bill 2,000 hours a year are paid top dollar. For those who prefer to slow down and see their families and friends, they can bill 1,800 hours and earn less. More than half chose the reduced schedule.

Companies everywhere are starting to retool. "The one-size-fits-all workplace doesn't work," says the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Christensen. "The idea that you will work full-time year in and year out, that you will be on a career trajectory that is a straight line, is vanishing. Employees increasingly feel more entitled to say: 'I need and I want to work in a certain way.' "

From the book Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay. Copyright Copyright 2009 by Claire C. Shipman and Katty Kay. To be published by Harper Business.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.