working women

How People Deal with “Life Events” at Work

I first started hearing the term “life event” when I began interviewing professional women about how they might use Fairygodboss.

The phrase isn’t particularly exotic or obscure slang, but it was new to me.  In the context of my conversations, it wasn’t hard to understand what these women were talking about.  The “life events” these women referred to included:

  • Getting engaged
  • Getting married
  • Getting pregnant
  • Having children
  • Having to take care of a child who had educational or health issues
  • Having to take care of another member of their family (e.g. a parent or spouse)

What struck me about every person using the phrase was they fell into 1 of 2 categories. I’m calling them the “hindsight” and “foresight” groups without meaning to attribute judgment to either label (i.e. they just happen to be convenient).

1.  The Hindsight Group: These women only looked at their job/company in a new light when a life event actually occurred.  I guess Sheryl Sandberg would say they were “keeping their foot on the gas pedal” all the way down until there was a good reason to change things.  These women typically didn’t plan to make any changes to their professional life, and only realized after a “life event” that they wanted or needed to change something about their career/company.

2.  The Foresight Group: These women anticipated that they might want or need to consider changing their career/company when and if a “life event” occurred.  This life event wasn’t a certainty or even on the near-horizon, but it was at least a possibility they’d considered with the accompanying realization they might end up changing something in their career.

For what its worth, I personally fell into the Hindsight group.  For me, the life event that caused me to consider change was having a child.  Up until the moment I had my son, through the last day of my pregnancy, I had not particularly tried to anticipate what would change (which is not to say I naively thought it wouldn’t change anything).  I simply just didn’t focus on it.  Why?  What made me fall into the Hindsight group?  Professional ambition that blinded me, lack of good information, denial, stupidity, other life-circumstances?

It turned out there was no rule for predicting why some women fell into the “Foresight” or “Hindsight” groups.  Initially I was tempted to attach easy explanations, e.g. “The more ambitious women fell into the Hindsight group” or “The more thoughtful, planning-types fell into the Foresight group”.  But as the number of conversations with women grew, it became obvious there wasn’t going to be a facile, one-size-fit-all explanation.  One single, unmarried woman said she got tired of being a road-warrior traveler for her job as it became less glamorous over time.   Another said her first child didn’t change much but when her second child started having difficulties at school, she had to think about a different path.  There was the woman who said she just didn’t have time to think about making changes in advance because her job was so demanding.  One lady said that getting engaged changed everything because now she had an important reason to go home earlier (but if her fiancee also had similarly long hours, she might not have considered change at that point).  There are also women who told me they planned from the outset to only work “while they had to.”  Finally, one told me that being the main breadwinner caused her to think about everything differently than other women who were not financially responsible for their household.

What do you make of all of this?  Anecdotally, we hear that there is a drop-out period for women who are of marriage-and-child bearing age, and this is backed up by research showing the attrition rates for mid-level female employees in a wide range of industries.  We may assume that this is caused only by motherhood.  However, my take-away from the stories I heard is that there’s a wide range of individual reasons — and age-ranges/demographics — as to why, who and when women start thinking and making changes in their careers (or even going into them in the first place).  Maybe, in hindsight (again, I’m in this category!), this is not surprising.  After all, there are as many different flavors of work-and-personal-life balance as there are individuals.



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