Career Advice for Women: Life Happens -- Learn From It

11/22/2011 11:53 am ET | Updated Jan 22, 2012

1. Don't choose what to do. (Choose what NOT to do -- quickly.)

My career has been propelled most by the times I started down a path, realized it was not a good fit and quickly chose NOT to do it anymore. Even when that decision was painful, risky or counter-intuitive.

Four months into a fellowship, I realized I didn't want to spend seven years getting a Ph.D. and then be a professor. I walked away from that fellowship, and walked into a K-12 teaching job that introduced me to strategic planning, education and technology -- three areas I found a passion for that would remain constant throughout my career.

A job I moved across the country for turned out to be far slower-paced than my energy level required. So I left mid-year for a position at an Internet start-up, and spent four years in the Internet boom getting an on-the-job Ph.D. in organizational change.

2. Gender doesn't matter. (Having kids matters a lot.)

Well, to be fair, gender does still matter, but having kids matters more when it comes to career paths. Through my own childhood and college years, I believed that as a woman in the modern era I could be anything I wanted to be. After I received my degrees from the University of Chicago, I got married, got a job, and still didn't see any reason to shed my belief that women had made it.

And then we had a baby.

While pregnant, my proposal to go half-time from a fifty-hours-a-week job was turned down. I found a part-time job somewhere else, but was laid off the day I came back from maternity leave. Five days after our daughter was born, my husband went back to seventy-hour work weeks at his law firm, leaving little room for him to be involved with the baby, or for me to search for, let alone take, a new job.

Before I'd gotten pregnant, I'd been gunning for an executive job. Only six months into being a mother, I despaired about getting and keeping any job. I had to confront a few realities; here are two of them.

  • Mothers don't work like everyone else. Yes "most mothers work today," but only half of mothers work over 35 hours a week while 90 percent of fathers work that much. Mothers just don't fit into the outdated 50-hours a week job model because they are still doing most of the family work.
  • Mothers experience bias in the workplace. A study from Cornell showed that mothers were far less likely to be hired than others with equal resumes and were offered lower starting salaries. Fathers, on the other hand, were not penalized for being a parent and sometimes benefitted from having children.
Understanding the unpleasant reality of how motherhood impacts my career gave me the motivation to forge my own path, start my own business and in the process find ways to do the work I loved for organizations like non-profits and public school districts that I truly cared about.

3. My career is not my problem. (It's our problem.)

After we had our daughter, I spent several years feeling angry and resentful at the hit my career took. I agonized about how to get my career back on track. It took me a while to get beyond my own pity party to notice that like most fathers today, my husband was feeling major conflicts between work and family, too. He never saw his daughter, and his wife was constantly yelling at him for not being around more, all while he was trying to succeed in a demanding job.

My career wasn't my problem. Our careers were our problem.

I couldn't go up from zero hours a week unless he could come down from seventy hours. Figuring out an employment option for me was inextricably connected to figuring out a different employment option for him. If he was going to have time with our daughter, if I was going to have time to be employed, if we were going to have more time together, his employment had to change.

So we set about the long, hard work of clearly defining our ideal family workweek (about 75 hours a week at the time) and taking the steps to get there. When life changes, which it always does, we return to talking about what our ideal is and how to get there and we adapt -- together.

What career lessons have you learned along the way?

KRISTIN MASCHKA is the best-selling author of This is Not How I Thought It Would Be: Remodeling Motherhood to Get the Lives We Want Today and a heads her own consulting firm in organization development and change leadership. Kristin brings a fresh perspective and authentic voice to the issues at the heart of family and community life today: modern motherhood and fatherhood, public education, community organizations, worklife issues, personal finance and economics, technology and business. This is cross-posted from her blog.