working women

Maybe Older Women Are the Ones Who Can “Have it All”

If you’ve ever read or discussed the idea of women “having it all”, then you’re probably also familiar with the notion espoused by some women that “you can have it all….”but not at the same time”.

Its somewhat surprising then, that there aren’t many studies or even first-hand accounts of what happens after the intense child-rearing years when family commitments can taper off in a working woman’s life (assuming no responsibilities for elder-care).  Maybe youth-centric media is to blame, but then we saw three articles in the past couple weeks that discussed this exact topic.

The first was a moving “last article” written by a journalist, reflecting on her 27 year career.  While its not a short read, we recommend it for its authentic voice and compelling narrative.  Its the voice of an older woman reflecting back on a career of ups and downs through 1970’s feminism and beyond, while she tried to juggle her family commitments with serious reporting.  She talks about how things have changed — or more importantly, how they have not changed — since the 1960’s when she grew up.  The punchline?  In retirement, she plans on being her first grandchild’s full-time babysitter, in large part so that her own daughter can have better luck balancing her own career and family responsibilities.  She says that she “expected to fall in love with the baby” but

What I did not expect was to find myself, at this stage, with an existential crisis, debating career vs. home life.

Hilary Clinton also recently became a first-time grandmother and the Atlantic decided to pen an article called “Playing the Granny Card” about a small, elite group of women (with Clinton as archetype).  The article puts forth the theory that this group of women might be finding success later in life to be easier because some of the internal difficulties that women face disappear later in life (e.g. family commitments).  External challenges, too, might be easier to deal with as society seems to be “more comfortable” with older, successful women:

An intriguing body of psychological research hints that people of both sexes may feel more comfortable with ambitious older women than with ambitious younger ones.

Its a long article but thought-provoking about some of the realities that women might want to consider in their own careers.

But let’s get back to reality in the workplace.  Are older women good candidates for leadership by other measures, irrespective of social expectations and biases they cannot control?  As it turns out, PriceWaterhouseCooper just released a study suggesting that women “over the age of 55” might be the best leaders for companies undergoing big transformation.  This conclusion was based on a survey of 6,000 European professionals about what qualities would be desirable in a leader of a company that requires huge changes (e.g. in response to technological change, market restructuring, or other industry challenges).  The desired qualities were for:

someone who was likely to have wider experience of settings, people, and also of failure, which engenders humility of perspective and resilience, so that they know what to do when things don’t work

The type of leader these companies need are apparently CEOs who are “open to frank and honest feedback” — a quality that is apparently more associated with older women than older men!

Its intriguing and inspiring to think that maybe this is what it means to “have it all” — and that the last word on the debate really isn’t spoken until a few decades (or more) pass.


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