What Do Women (and Men) Want From Work?

More Magazine Great Careers 2011 Virginia Sole-Smith

Yesterday I brought you up to speed on some of my recent writings, but I saved this one for its very own post because it’s a bit more of a thinker. 10 Great Careers for Women Who Want a Life is online now and ran in the November issue of More Magazine.

As part of our research for this story, the More editors commissioned a survey of 500 professionally employed women (aged 35 to 60 with at least a college degree, and annual household incomes starting at $60,000 to $75,000) to find out what women want out of careers today —  and the results were pretty surprising. In a word: Flexibility, which 92 percent of women say is important in a job (second only to salary) — up from 73 percent in 2009. 43 percent of survey participants also said that they are less ambitious now than they were ten years ago; 73 percent said they don’t want their boss’s job.

But this isn’t yet another story about women opting out of the workforce or being unable to have it all. Because what our research showed — and what my own very unscientific surveys of friends and myself confirm — is that women are still ambitious as hell, but we’re defining ambition differently and more holistically now. For starters, I’d venture the possibility that anybody saying they’re less ambitious now than they were a decade ago has just been really efficient about getting sh*t done… she may have checked a bunch of things off her professional to do list and be feeling like she’s made the mark she wanted to make in the world. And I sure prefer on that glass-half-full interpretation over the glass-half-empty idea that women are giving up on trying to achieve their dreams because it’s all just gotten too hard.

This research says they haven’t — it’s just that the dreams have changed. A lot of women (and, I’m pretty sure, men too, if we’d asked ’em!) don’t want the corporate America definition of ambition and success — corner offices and big paychecks that come with crazy hours, pressure and politics. 65 percent of women surveyed said it’s more important to have time in their life than to make more money at their job. Women do want rewarding, challenging careers, plus time to be with their families and time to pursue their own interests and passions —  in other words, they want a life. (Hence, our headline.)

Which I think sounds pretty cool and exciting. Most of my friends are a tad younger than the women More surveyed. We’re still piecing together what ambition means to us, what we want out of life and whether those goals conflict or can possibly support each other. And we worry a lot about how to have careers and families. Because this kind of ambition is new — we don’t have a ton of role models for doing it precisely this way. Especially since the recession, we’re more used to seeing women who are stretched too thin, doing too much and not really loving any of it. Over on Eat the Damn Cake, Kate wrote about being haunted by an invisible baby last week and sparked a fascinating comment thread of women at all different stages of the game sharing their perspectives on such matters. A lot of us are hella nervous about the whole thing. To which I want to offer this reassurance, via the More women:

Household or childcare demands have prevented 16 percent of woman from trying to advance in their careers. But 53 percent say those demands have never gotten in their way.

I mean, it’s only a tiny majority — and 31 percent of women apparently didn’t advance for other reasons? — but I feel like I can deal with those odds.

But there was some bad news in the More survey, too: 33 percent of women agree that at most companies, employees with flexible schedules are promoted less often than employees who work regular hours. Yeah. It’s one thing to decide for yourself that you’re ready to boldly go into these uncharted “new ambition” waters. It’s another to convince your boss that it will all work out if you’re still in corporate America. Especially because 54 percent of the women surveyed said that other women had never helped them advance in their careers.

54 percent! That number is so depressing. Apparently I’m part of a (lucky) minority because I have other women to thank for virtually all of my career. So ladies, listen up: We need to be doing way better here. Women aren’t helping women nearly enough and unfortunately, I think this new ambition concept can actually get in the way, because it becomes one of those questions (like SlutWalks) that divide young feminists and old feminists. Women who fought really hard to get out of the kitchen and into the boardroom don’t understand why women today want to be in both rooms.

And that’s where we need to take this whole conversation past gender altogether — because workplace flexibility isn’t just a way of keeping working moms sane. (Here’s proof: The women in the More survey were even more likely to say they’d take flexibility over a bigger paycheck if they were single!) But as long as we keep making this a women’s issue, it will remain an easy to dismiss window dressing kind of concern that employers can use to divide employees into their definition of “ambitious” and “successful” or not. When the fact is, flexibility is something women and men want because it creates a more employee-friendly culture that’s better for everyone (employers, too).

So here’s the good news: There are some industries that have already gotten this memo. Which brings me back to 10 Great Careers for Women Who Want a Life — and men too (they just don’t read More). In case you’re already charting your way out of your current inflexible work existence and need some ideas.

Thoughts? Do you feel like our idea of ambition has changed? How much do you value flexibility in your career — and do you have as much of it as you want or need? 

PS. Ooh, plus the whole project has been generating some nice media buzz: Check out my editor, the incomparable Jennifer Braunschweiger (see above re: women helping women with careers!) on the CBS Early Show and MSNBC, talking through the data. Meanwhile, I got  a shout-out from this Chicago Sun Times blogger, though wow, do I think she misinterpreted the story’s takeaway message. Women naturally derive more satisfaction from their home life while men naturally care more about work? That kind of reductionist thinking is helping exactly nobody, male or female.

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8 Comments

Filed under Career Opportunities, Glossed Over., Press

8 responses to “What Do Women (and Men) Want From Work?

  1. Pingback: Eat the Damn Cake » my first Christmas

  2. Purple dog

    All of the ten “great jobs” sound like awful jobs to go after just because you want time to have a “life”. Some of them (social work) are things you should only do if you have a true passion for it because they are so taxing and so much is at stake (nurse). To (try) and go into them just because you want kids or free time is gross and stupid. You will fail or worst hurt (or kill) someone.

    • Fair point — but I’d be careful of that kind of black and white thinking. The whole point of our article is that women want work they are passionate about AND to have a life. These should not be mutually exclusive concepts, but they have been for far too long in our culture, to everyone’s detriment. The social workers and nurses I interviewed for this story all said that flexibility was essential to their ability to continue on with challenging, sometimes harrowing work. When they’re on the job, they give 200 percent — they wouldn’t be able to excel in their professions and help so many people if the profession didn’t support them back with flexible schedules, generous vacation time, etc. To equate a desire to avoid burnout with laziness or incompetence does a disservice to these truly hard-working professionals. And, I’d argue, you’re putting more people at risk by demanding an all-or-nothing attitude that encourages people to keep working past the point of exhaustion.

      • Purple dog

        “And, I’d argue, you’re putting more people at risk by demanding an all-or-nothing attitude that encourages people to keep working past the point of exhaustion.”

        I wasn’t trying to say that, at all. I have nothing but respect for the work all good nurses and social workers do, I couldn’t do what they do. And I do not think it’s lazy to not want to be worked to the bone.

        What I’m talking about are the people who go into a humanist field just because it’s pays good and has a workable schedule. Key word, “just”. Yes, people do that.

      • Ah, okay, I got you. There certainly are people like that — they just aren’t the people I was targeting with that article.

  3. As Madeleine Albright said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”.

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