THE BLOG
01/15/2013 12:44 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2013

Labyrinths, Not Ladders: How Women are Redefining Work

Career success for women is now less about climbing the corporate ladder and more dependent on forging a path through a labyrinth. According to the new book Women Lead by Apollo Research Institute, 58% of women professionals describe their career path as nonlinear. This model seems especially appropriate for many workers in today's knowledge economy, in which intellectual productivity (not manual labor) can extend workforce participation by an additional 10 years or more.

Among the more than 200 women leaders across multiple industries interviewed for Women Lead, many characterized their career tracks as a series of "zigzags," defined by personal values, customization and work-life balance. Career development theories call this the "boundaryless" career model, and women are embracing it. Across the country, women are deliberately choosing to switch industries, take time off, work part-time or flexible schedules, seek additional education or credentials or start their own business. Consider that:

  • Eighty-seven percent of women executives and managers at midlife either made or were planning to make a career change, according to a Fortune/Yankelovich study.
  • Between 1997 and 2007, women-owned businesses rose from 5.4 million to 7.8 million, an increase of 44%, according to a Department of Labor report.

Of course, women are not alone in adopting this approach; men are joining them, largely because this model is tailor-made for today's work environments characterized by rapid technological advancements, shifting demographics and globalization. "The age in which one could expect to have a long-term job in one organization is over," according to a report by Institute for the Future for Apollo Research Institute. The workplace evolving today requires "adaptation, flexibility, lifelong learning, and the ability to work on an ad hoc basis whether in an organization or independently," the report says, a reality that reflects a career labyrinth, not a ladder.

Fluid Gender Roles = More Career Choices

Changing gender roles since the 1950s are another powerful factor in this new approach to career paths. According to the Families and Work Institute's 2009 report, attitudes have shifted toward favoring women's and mothers' participation in the workforce, and "for the first time... younger men and women feel the same about job advancement and.. there is no statistically significant difference between men and women in their views of proper gender roles."

Instead, couples make career decisions based on practical matters such as salary, benefits, lifestyle and personal satisfaction -- all of which are allowing women to design their own career tracks. Two-thirds of women are breadwinners or co-breadwinners in their families, and in the last 40 years, women have moved from comprising one-third the workforce to one-half. Currently, about 70% of moms with children under age 18 work outside the home.

Other young parents may turn to freelancing or entrepreneurial endeavors as a way to balance work and family responsibilities. "'Virtual gigging,' which is essentially online short-term project work, allows for both flexibility and variety," says Michael "Dr. Woody" Woodward, an organizational psychologist and author of The YOU Plan. Woodward predicts that the number of parents "pursuing small business start-ups and entrepreneurial endeavors will continue to grow in 2013 as unemployment remains high." Online employment sites like Elance, ODesk, and Freelancer are increasing in popularity among small business employers who turn to these sites for a wide variety of short-term assignments. According to a survey that Elance conducted among 1,500 customers, these small businesses said they expect over half of their workforces will consist of online temps in the next five years.

Value-Aligned Work and Retirement

Family matters are not the only reason women may follow twisting career paths. Many of those interviewed by Apollo Research Institute for Women Lead cited the desire to align their work with their values. When their jobs did not fulfill their need for balance, integrity, fair treatment, or challenge and achievement, these women sought a change.

One study cited in the book found that 46% of women equated success with "personal fulfillment or happiness," a definition that was preferred over "recognition" or "financial considerations." In other research, women said they preferred to work with people they respected (82%), to have freedom to be themselves (79%), to collaborate with others (61%) and to give back to the community (56%) rather than have a powerful position, according to Women Lead.

The male model of career development as a rising trajectory that peaks before retirement at age 65 never really fit many women, and is outdated for almost everyone in 21st-century workplace. As Americans' longevity continues to increase, older workers are delaying retirement both for economic reasons and because they find work fulfilling. Anywhere from 25% to 33% of seniors will return to work at least part time after formally retiring, according to labor experts. For many older women, "retirement" signals the opportunity to launch a new career, re-invent themselves or pursue a new business.

But in all this creative freedom lies a caveat: A career path that resembles a labyrinth rather than a ladder does not mean workers can leave their career development up to chance. In fact, in this new environment, career planning is more essential than ever because the next steps are not clearly marked. To navigate the labyrinth successfully, women--and men--must deliberately map the direction toward their goals, and make continuous learning a lifelong value.