I find it ironic that Liz Ryan, a woman who left the corporate world to pursue her own path, is criticizing women who leave the corporate world to follow their own path. From reading many articles she has written, I suspect the reason for her comments are that she is stuck in the mindset of a war between the sexes. I have worked at companies where some women in positions of authority will only hire and promote other women. Men that are in the organization are marginalized and/or forced out. I suspect Liz Ryan supports that style of management and believes that if a woman in power leaves her corporate position, there is one fewer warrior to fight the battle against men.
Of course, that approach is as sexist as the stereotypical "male chauvinist". I believe it actually makes the situation worse, as it builds barriers to communication and understanding.
As to the point of people following their dreams, why not? Some people who follow their dreams end up making as much money and fame as people working in large corporations. And there is more to life than making money.
One thing many people don't realize is that large corporations are a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to the industrial age (late 1800's), the only large organizations were the military and the church. It is certainly possible that we are headed back to that type of society again. If companies outsource everything that isn't essential to be done by an employee, we may evolve into a social order composed of networks of small organizations that each work in their own area of specialization. Perhaps soon we all will be pursuing our own destiny.
I believe you've got it exactly right, and I think this suggests why the trend to
"opt out" will continue. There is simply more opportunity outside the corporation today than there is within it, unless
the corporation can somehow fracture itself into smaller businesses that dispense with nonsense.
The size of corporations has rendered them both inefficient and reckless. Tom Peters has said that the optimal size of a business is 11. Later, he upped it to 25. I think that was a mistake. The dynamic that grows among people who work together begins to break down quickly when management of people requires more resources than management of the work itself. (Think of meetings, meetings, and more meetings.) I believe the healthy growth on the "business plant" is sprouting in cottage businesses.
And that's where many maverick women are going. We're seeing the beginnings of a new age of guilds. The Net makes it possible for experts to align themselves closely with one another, and to deliver the products of their work to a broader range of customers, both large and small. And I think that's good.
I could not agree with you more. It all sounds like thinly-disguised sexism to me. Once again, women are being blamed for making the
same career and lifestyle choices as men.
Wasn't this also a familiar and predominant theme not so long ago, when women opted to drop out of the corporate world to have
children and raise families? When women were passed over for much-deserved promotions because "they'll only get married and
leave to have children"? These are the same corporations that refuse to make their workplaces more family-friendly because that
would even the playing field between their male and female employees.
As you said, executives -- whether male or female -- should be treated as individuals, not as representatives of their gender or
lifestyle choices. Opportunities for women to climb the career ladder are still so limited. For the record, I've been undermined in
the workplace more times than I'd care to remember by other women, not men, who saw me as a threat. So much for women making things
easier for other women in the workplace.
Thanks for your great response to the question about women "opting out" and thereby harming other women's chances of rising up the corporate ladder. The idea makes no sense to me at all. I agree with you that saying "No" can be a success, just as saying
"Yes" to our most authentic interests is the height of personal leadership. I also believe that when we are choosing authentically, that is our chance for serving the greatest good for everyone whose path we touch.
Maybe those women saying "No" have just seen that there is no reason to keep fighting that war called "the battle between the sexes." In fact, I have never understood why some women feel they need "special rights" and even "special laws" or "special groups" to do what men do every day all day long. Just go do it, if that's what you want. It's not a war between the haves and have-nots, and gender is not an excuse for letting the glass ceiling dictate your results. Glass breaks!
Women seem to be less susceptible to believing business myths in general, I think, and that's why we're seeing so many opt out. They get there, only to realize the "executive turf" that men have been defending for so many years may just be an undesirable mole-hill.
I met a woman many years ago who was in her fifties and running her own business after working in large organizations much of her life. Marti West's attitude about "women's lib" (this was in the early 80's) and the obstacles faced by women was simple: "Get out of my way, I've got work to do." She enjoyed success after success because she was assertive -- without being abrasive -- but more important, because
she was almost always right.
The greater question which I have discerned from the article involves the consequences, which ensue from categorizing individuals into groups, based on gender, etc. -- "diversity factors" -- for evaluation purposes rather than reviewing individual performance and achievement in the workplace.
Many corporations offer their employees little career guidance or support in pursuing their interests inside the corporation. If some employees have the gumption to seek external avenues for self-expression or career growth instead of waiting for some sort of corporate churn or divine intervention, their employer should support their interests and efforts without pre-supposing that their behavior has any implication for others.
I think that I have the responsibility to chart my own course towards career fulfillment. People should own themselves and their existence as well as the responsibility and accountability that come with those ownerships.
The most recent Megatrends book coined or supported the term "the age of the individual" as characterizing the 21st century. We have to make the mental and emotional transition into individual existence. We have to recognize that there is no "Corporate America". The corporation is a legal entity -- not a living organism – completely dependent upon the energy of individuals for motivation and direction.
Best wishes to you and thanks again,
<<Many corporations offer their employees little career guidance or support in pursuing their interests inside the
That is perhaps the greatest failure of the corporation. This failure results in loss of great workers, and in financial losses, too. The
corporate body too often seems to function as an engine of mediocrity. It does not serve employees on the edge of the creativity and
productivity curves very well. It tries to force them toward the middle. Many of the best people wind up leaving.
We can see startling and frightening examples today: AT&T's Bell Laboratories used to be a national treasure and perhaps the most highly regarded research operation in the world. The
corporation, however, has entirely destroyed the Labs and lost its best researchers.
Carly Fiorina -- perhaps the ultimate example of AT&T's mediocre corporate mindset -- has now taken down another national
treasure of a research laboratory -- Hewlett-Packard. It's a very dangerous trend, but perhaps a natural one that we can't really do anything
about -- except perhaps to spin individuals off to go do great new things.
<<We have to make the mental and emotional transition into individual existence.>>
I just finished a wonderful book about the role of the individual in a nation's progress: O.E. Rolvaag's 1927 masterpiece, Giants in the
Earth. I recommend it highly.
Why not interpret "opting out" as a personal choice? There might be many reasons -- poor health,
troublesome kids or husbands, for that matter, or a cruise round the world. Plus, this choice makes space for other upcoming
persons, male or female. Opting out is much healthier than becoming a liability to a company or being unhappy in a good position and
not enjoying it any more. Opting out is not a typically female reaction, it is a human reaction to too much stress or a change in
Of course, there is this sick tendency to cast all women into one mould. But isn't it the same with men? Don't
they have almost the same problems with health, family, and lifestyles at the same time in their life? Don't they opt out sometimes?
Hey, people, we are on the same boat. The differences between us (men and women) are the glue that keeps the
corporate world from coming apart -- and always, these differences give us pleasure in our private lives.
By the way, recently I used your material on mentoring for an ongoing discussion on this subject within my company. It was very helpful.
I think that sometimes the problem is not men or women. It's the structure itself. The corporation strives to protect itself, not the freedoms or choices of the
people who work in it.
When I read the remarks made by Ryan of WorldWIT, I was dismayed that women changing career objectives was considered a bad thing and I wasn't sure how these changes should impact how anyone else is treated. Isn't this the old "don't hire them, they get pregnant and quit" back again in a different guise and just as invalid?
We're hearing a lot of remarks about women executives right now because of Martha Stewart's situation. The press admits targeting her because she is a woman, so whether I like it or not, Ryan may have a point about perception.
Much more effort is needed to take a look at the root causes of "opting out", which I think affect both men and women. Alan Webber, founder of Fast Company magazine, points to "the toxic workplace". Rather than point a finger at women who opt out, I wish pundits in Information Technology (I.T.) would examine the system and the culture that provokes good people to leave. And if someone wants to do a clever article only half tongue-in-cheek, it could be about executive women's role as "the canary in the mine" that reveals impending disaster for all.
I don't think of other women when I make career choices, either. I make career choices that are right for me and I'd bet you dollars to doughnuts so did the women before me. My boss (male) and I are contract employees for a major theme park company. He and I don't subscribe to the corporate b.s., either. As outsiders we tend to see things a bit clearer. We have worked for many years with three directors in our department and the same has happened time after time. The company chews you up and spits you out without any real reward. You get salaried and then you're cooked. Lots of extra odd hours without extra pay, appreciation, or much incentive.
I don't need to subscribe to agendas of Corporate America. Thanks for letting me join in. And keep up the great work!
The trend toward using contract employees has implications for the corporate ladder
-- and it provides a career track for those who aren't interested in climbing. Could it be that the defects in
corporate culture are revealed in the need for contractors like you? You don't feel the pressure employees do. Does being an outsider
make it easier for you to tell the truth and to do what's right? It seems that for many women who opt out, the contracting (or Soloing)
option solves the need to contribute without the compromise required by being an employee.
One of the things I have noticed in my career as a woman in business is the constant "raising of the bar" used as a means of keeping women in the workplace from advancing.
For example: A woman employee is told after completing a major project with little or no support and little money from the company,
"Okay, you got that done, but you need to do blah-blah (something not relevant to your job), but you didn't do it so we can't support your efforts to
advance." Been there, done that.
All of the business books I have read lately stress what you can do for the corporation. Make yourself valuable, show that you can do the job, go above and beyond others to advance, live the corporate way. Hogwash! Nowhere is anything said about what the corporation will do for you after you have sacrificed your time, health, sanity, family, etc. for the corporation.
Silly me, of course they will do something for you. Send your job overseas or lay you off with little or nothing in the way of help. Or keep you on after others have been laid off and shift their workload to you with no acknowledgement that you have taken on additional
duties. No increase in pay, or even a thank you.
My thought after reading the article was, here we go again. Another excuse why women are not promotable.
Ask The Headhunter is about advancing one's career by delivering profit.
It's important to realize that the beneficiary of that profitable work need not be a corporation. It can be your
own business, or your customer or client, or the company you work for. Indeed, it's important to consider just where the profit is
going and what portion of it is flowing back to you. And that's where corporations get greedy -- and that's where a person must make
Right now employers are in the catbird seat, and they will demand ever more from employees who fear losing their jobs. And there's the challenge that some women are accepting: make your own job. It ain't for everyone.
Oh, Big Wow... I've been a professional in the corporate structure for over thirty years. This attitude (expressed in the newspaper article referenced) was held since the 60's and began to change in the 80's when more professional women began to stay on the promotional track even after marriage and family. Then, men and women began to co-opt corporate Big Brother's power to dictate their lives in the 90's, only to back down when the recession
strengthened the "my way or the highway" working conditions demanded as jobs became scarce after 2000.
It seems to me that if the 65-hour work week were not currently the norm, women would not feel the "either-or" of corporate employment vs. family. For whatever reason, women seem to be more invested in the well-being of their offspring (another Big Wow), so it is their careers which are dumped in favor of a household which can no longer function with the demands of two 150% work commitments.
When men begin resigning to take up full-time parenting, we may see this attitude changing. Then either sexed worker with a dependent family will be viewed with suspicion when promotional decisions are made. Until then, since much of middle management and the overwhelming majority of senior management is male, that gender is the gatekeeper to promotion in the workplace. And if a woman feels that the deck is stacked against her for promotional possibilities because of these attitudes, why should she keep butting her head against the glass ceiling while becoming psychotic from sleep deprivation?
Perhaps the women who have opted to drop out and mother the children they gave birth to are the more enlightened. I think it is entirely true that promotional possibilities for all women are threatened by the attitude that their contributions may be temporary. But to urge women or men to buy into the demands made of the American Salaryman and stay the course, no matter the cost to their marriage and children, so that their gender will not be discriminated against, is missing the issue.
If an Hispanic, an Afro-American, an American Indian, or a Far Easterner were to leave to seek a new course in their life, would the argument (that "maverick" women are hurting the future of all women in the corporate world) hold true for them as well? Nope! So why does the argument have any validity for women? It doesn't. Unfortunately, however, it does sell as "news." No malice intended, of course.
Ok, that is a bunch of balderdash. I was one of those women who left the work force at the top of my game because I was made to feel that I had to because I had had a child. Now, six years later, trying to get back into the game, I am getting that same static about how it's better to stay home with my children even if I am miserable, even though I can't pay the bills.
Socialism is very alive within the "stay at home mom" faction, and capitalism is a very dirty word. This "maverick" static is the same type of social pressure put on women, but from the opposite viewpoint. These are the women who say that self-esteem counts most and you need to stay working despite family pressures of children or caring for parents. It's interesting that those who are so self-oriented are the ones stating that it is hurting the chances of others.
Everyone needs to do what is right for them. Only one person decides that issue and it is that individual person. As for hurting my chances of climbing up the corporate ladder, write me back in five years... life experiences of not working have prepared me well for the road ahead.
Corporate America is wasting huge stores of talent by orienting its recruiting toward the wrong goals. It's become apparent that long-term employment is not a reality for employers or workers; so why are companies so focused on "where you see yourself in five years" when they're not going to keep you that long? The focus needs to be on the work that people can do, not on whether they might have a baby, or on whether they might decide to skip town and start their own business. Companies would do better to develop methods to ensure the continuity of job
functions -- whether a worker departs the company, or transfers to another department that keeps her challenged and happy. How lame is the edict from a boss that prevents an employee from transferring to another department, because "I can't afford to lose you"? There's the challenge. Perhaps the sudden loss of talented executive women will precipitate a shift in corporate strategy in the area of work management. But don't count on it.
Pretending that a corporation can distinguish between a capable worker and a devoted worker is a joke -- when workers are first and foremost devoted parents. When all a corporation can really offer is a job, then all it should expect is that the employee will do the work. While companies refuse to hire you, work is left undone.
Meanwhile, where's the board of directors, while management is pretending there's no hurry?
Two points I think are important: (1) Holding one individual responsible for the success of the group is an old technique used by "insiders" to control "outsiders". When a major brokerage company hired me as its first female stockbroker in Connecticut, it was perfectly clear to me that how I performed would have a major impact on its future hiring practices
vis-à-vis women in that position. Heck of a burden for a twenty-five year old and it sure made me tiptoe a lot. (Control.) I rather imagine the lone African American male in our office felt much the same way.
(2) Americans who lament others leaving the corporate world to forge their own way are simply being blind to the future. Why should a person stay? Corporations are doing their best to "disappear" as many positions as possible. The end result will be a fragmented economy from which the corporations will be hiring temps, consultants, and other out-sources, with no one around to hold the corporate memory. So mistakes will be repeated and poor decision-making will happen because there is no long-term experience or view.
Many of the best workers in America will profit from this by going off on their own. I
see a trend in the making. Talented women will leave a company to pursue another goal for a while (raising kids, tending to aging
parents, traveling, and so on), and eventually start earning money again -- without turning back to the corporate teat. To me,
that's the story. The question is, what's the outcome?
Good day, Nick,
I read your article on Maverick Women and I feel Ryan's comments on the subject are totally misconceived. Women today have much more courage and drive
any time in our history. Women executives have been through the carnage created by a severe downturn in the economy. They have seen first-hand thousands of careers wrecked by corporate downsizing and have the courage to take control of their own working lives, depending on themselves to earn a living rather
than to play the corporate advancement game. Admiration is the order of the day, not admonishment.
We live in a world where women have proven themselves in business and should no longer live under the antiquated paradigms of yesteryear. Liz Ryan needs to re-think her position on this matter for she is totally off base in her comments. I admire anyone having the courage to step out on their own, cutting off all the safeguards the corporate world provides.
After reading dozens of notes from readers, I'm starting to come to the conclusion that
the corporate mindset -- exemplified by Ms. Ryan -- conspires to stop the brain-drain from the corporate world. Ironically, that
same system seems incapable of supporting its smartest denizens. That's why they leave. Men and women.
Eight months ago, I left my full-time job as a television producer and moved to a new city (without a job). To tell you the truth, I never once thought about other women who would see me as crazy for giving up a job in such a competitive field as television to pursue my dreams of writing full-time and working with children. I'm still on my way to that dream, but even though I'm still a long way from where I want to be, I still consider myself a success. That lady was wrong to think the actions of one woman are indicative of what other women will do in the corporate world.
Kudos to you. Success happens one person at a time. Thanks so much for taking time to write and share your story.
Thanks to all who contributed letters on this topic. Please tell
me what you think of this Special Edition.
For more insight on what it means to "opt out", I heartily recommend Linda Tischler's excellent article, Where
are the women?, in Fast Company magazine.
Don't miss the The Women's Edge, a special Ask The Headhunter
collection of articles about women and work.