Why the stories we tell and hear impact our decisions and careers.
In 2003, I did what approximately 43% of women still do. I stepped out of the workforce. It’s not that I didn’t value my burgeoning career in technology at an investment bank. I did. But I couldn’t visualize how to make it all work at the time. I was the first of my friends to have a baby. I was renting a 4th floor walk-up apartment in New York City, doing the reverse-commute to Stamford, CT by train every day. The options I had found for high quality daycare had a year-long waitlist to get in. I knew that the remaining options that looked appealing, would eat up a good chunk of my take home pay, and add an hour to my commute. My own mother and all of my friends’ moms had been stay-at-home mothers, and frankly I had appreciated my own childhood experience. So with stretched skin, and fluctuating hormones, I leapt out of a job I had worked hard to get, and to excel at. But over time I grew conflicted and I wavered in that decision.
I still look back and cherish the time I had at home with my young children, but there was a point, when I knew I needed and wanted to contribute more to my family financially. I ‘re-entered’ the workforce by starting my own business which gave me an opportunity to create my own rules. That leap back in, led to fundraising, to M&A, to an executive position in a >$1B company, and now to my current work as a Managing Director with Techstars, a board member for Lessonly, and a podcast creator and host. (My husband and I are also parenting teenagers.)
What could have happened if I had seen different images and heard different stories?
I don’t believe in looking back with regret. The reality is that I’ve had an extraordinary set of experiences, and I value both the time I had at home full time, and the new paths I’ve taken. However, I do think that people make the best choices, when they are aware of all the opportunities and possibilities available. It’s hard for people to do things that have never been done before, and it’s certainly challenging to do things when no one who looks like you has done it either.
In recent years, there have been countless posts and scholarly articles on the impact that the images of females in media have on ‘real life’. As I started writing this post I found no less than 5 articles focused on the 90’s law show drama, ‘Ally McBeal’, and commentary on whether her decisions to wear short skirts impacted feminism. It was a TV show, and yet we all bought into the idea that the images we absorb for entertainment can impact our real-life job decisions and the way in which we choose to act or be treated.
As a GenXer, the female characters I saw as a kid on TV were either scrappy achievers, (Annie, Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls Wilder), actual super heroes (Wonder Woman) or the love interests of some important men. (every other show). And of course, there was no shortage of ridiculously dramatic soap opera characters, who were ‘scheming’ or ’emotional’. Many of my friends will tell you that we all snuck in about 15 minutes of shows like General Hospital at 3:45PM after school before ‘wholesome’ shows like Little House on the Prairie came on at 4PM. (Before Netflix and the internet, we were subject to the scheduling decisions of executives at TV networks)
So my positive female role models were either stay-at-home mothers or teachers. When I thought about making a difference or getting to the bottom of a challenging problem I watched what men did. I read books about men doing amazing things. (landing on the moon, flying planes, inventing things like electricity or the computer, serving as CEOs, presidents and world leaders…) The only biographies of women we all read were of Marie Curie of X-ray fame, and Amelia Earhart, the female pilot. And of course in both cases, their curiosity and passion to explore had killed them.
I grew up wanting to be like the successful men I saw, but I also wanted to play with dolls and be a mom someday. In hindsight, I spent a good deal of mental energy wondering why I felt so conflicted about everything , but now I see that I just didn’t have an image in front of me of what I could do or be. I made my own pathway, and it was complicated. But what if I had seen something else first? What if I had seen and heard more stories of successful women, who figured out how to balance career and family?
Over the years, I’ve worked with and connected with many women who also created their own paths. So I decided to start a podcast, designed to help women and men hear more stories of women successfully navigating career and family. It’s called The 43 Percent and it’s available wherever you listen to podcasts. I think we’ve touched a nerve, as we were just featured on Apple’s New & Noteworthy lists, and I’m excited for more women to hear stories of women of thriving at home and at work, while being curious, innovative and passionate.