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How to Embrace and Intentionally Navigate the Seasons of Your Career as a Woman



When I became a mom seven years ago, I struggled with the adjustments I had to make in order to balance motherhood and my career ambitions. The personal struggles included realising that I had to adjust my work ethic - working overtime and weekends and readily putting my hand up to travel for work assignments because I was no longer as flexible as I had always been. As someone that had grown up academically competing with boys in my age-group, I remember even realising while on maternity leave, that my male peers would never have to take any such breaks in their careers - and that while I was at home caring for my son, the gap between my career and theirs was slowly expanding.


It is no wonder then that studies such as the Child Penalty Atlas, finds that the arrival of a child disproportionately affects the careers of women as compared to men. The global study which is based on 134 countries finds that women's employment rate declines by rates such as 28% in South Africa, 37% in Lesotho and 23% in Botswana.


When I speak to my female friends at different stages of their careers, I realise that we all worry about how starting families can have an impact on our careers. And this is why I wanted to initiate a conversation that I think is long overdue in the discourse of women's economic empowerment - especially in an African context - about the fact that women's careers are not as linear as men's; and that if we are to build successful careers we have to accept this - as individuals - and be intentional in how we navigate the various seasons appropriately, and at an institutional level, leaders and decision-makers have to think differently about how to support women's participation in the workforce in a way that honours the career seasons women go through.


Avivah Wittenberg-Cox writes in a Forbes article about the different phases of a woman's career. In it she describes four decades of a woman's career. Firstly, the 20's - a decade of Ambition, in which a woman - without dependents goes through "learning, exploring, growth and independence".

Secondly, she describes the 30's, a decade in which a woman experiences the Culture Shock of the potential clash between a woman's desire to build a family and the corporate cultures and systems that do not adequately support those ambitions. She describes the 40's as a decade or Re-Acceleration - in which women - having fulfilled their familial obligations can refocus of prioritising their careers based on the foundation they built in prior decades. And finally, the 50's, a decade of Self-Actualisation - when women, now empty nesters, "discover (often to their surprise) their peak career decades".


From an African perspective, the nuances of how these phases evolve may differ slightly due to factors such as women getting married and starting families much younger, and women having to take responsibility for their extended families as soon as they start working. However, we can still apply Wittenberg-Cox's model as a general framework of understanding how women's careers may differ from men's careers. In this blog I offer my perspective on what I think we can do as women to make these seasons work for us:


Embrace and accept that our careers are very different from men's careers


I believe that the first step is Acceptance. We need to accept as women that we will experience interruptions in our careers along the way, and to empower ourselves with knowledge to navigate these "interruptions" with ease. We need to accept that in pursuing career success, we are not in a race with our male peers, but that we are in a race with ourselves, obligated to make decisions that are aligned with our growth and evolution as people - and not pressuring ourselves with the proverbial "rat race".


Honour the season you are in and make the best of it

In Sheryl Sandberg's Book, Lean In, she makes the observation that women dishonour their careers by shying away from opportunities in anticipation of "What if (insert a future event) happens?". This means, for example, a woman is more likely to refuse an opportunity to work overseas (today) because she plans to settle down locally one day when she is married with children (somewhere in the unknown future). Conversely, a man will take up the opportunity and go overseas, and then come back when he is ready to start a family - a few years down the line. In that time, the woman would have remained stagnant, afraid to take any chances because "what if (insert a future event) happens?". Sandberg calls this "leaving before you leave" and advices women to instead take their careers one step at a time, making decisions as their circumstances change, and not tapping out of the game on account of future events that haven't yet occurred (and may also not occur).


At the same time, a woman in her 30's who is ready to start building a family, can succumb to the pressure of keeping up with her male peers - and end up anxious, depressed and not coping with the season meant for her to nurture and tend to her family. I have observed women in my life compare themselves even to husbands / partners' and bitterly comment on how the men's lives remain unchanged after they have children, becoming resentful as they struggle to navigate this period effectively and in an empowered way. When I think of people such as Serena Williams, who had her first child at 35 - I see her as an example of someone who embraced her seasons gracefully (not shying away from taking a brief break from tennis to start a family, and then getting back in the game in due season - while being open and vulnerable about how tough it has been to juggle her career and motherhood.

"As a new mom, this is the beginning of a new life and a new career for me. I'm going to keep going" Serena Williams after the birth of her daughter, Olympia

In being bolder and more adventurous in our early years of work by putting our hands up for opportunities, and not being afraid to take on bigger responsibilities, we position ourselves well to be able to slow down once the season for building families descends upon us. However, when we hold ourselves back in the early years of our careers, we create pressure for our future selves as we will have to catch up with building strong career foundations in the same season we should be focusing on personal priorities.


Embrace the perspective that you can have it all - but not at the same time


I'm not sure when I had my own AHA moment and realised that I cannot chase even single dream I have for my career all at once. All I know is that doing so was very empowering. One of the decisions I made in honour of this realisation, was to go back to the corporate environment in order to have the financial stability that I want to prioritise in this season of my life. This meant letting go (for what I believe is a season) of my entrepreneurial ventures and ambitions. In this season, it makes sense to learn and to grow in a corporate environment while also having the flexibility to give my son the attention he needs in these critical years of his life. If Wittenberg-Cox's framework is anything to go by, I will have an opportunity to pursue my entrepreneurial itch in my 50's again (read this article on why women in their midlife are more successful in business). I am no longer obsessed with having it all every single day, but I recognise that I will achieve different aspects of my ambitions in different seasons and that all that matters is to be able to look back one day and say "I managed to achieve all I wanted over my lifetime".I mean, who knew that Serena Williams would pivot from tennis to fashion and venture capital?

We can truly have it all!

You can have it all, just not all at the same time - Betty Friedan

In conclusion, as we continue to break ceilings as women of this generation in how we show up and participate in the work-force and in business, we have to do so with a deep awareness of the forces that affect our ability to show up, and that impact our priorities. We should have the awareness that even the women we admire such as Michelle Obama - admit to having gone through seasons where their careers were not moving as fast as they wished, and that in being patient and honouring their seasons, they were able to bounce back in due time.


Recommended readings:

Lean In - by Sheryl Sandberg

Becoming - Michelle Obama

My life in Full - Indra Nooyi


5 Comments


Guest
Feb 07

I loved and resonated with this so much!

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Guest
Feb 06

Lean In is a good read. I echo your sentiments. We can have it all, just not all at once, which also makes goal setting easier and fosters a spirit of gratitude. Keep writing, I enjoy your writing.

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Guest
Feb 05

This just reminded me of our conversation when I was doing my research… totally relate as well. Enjoyed reading this 🥰

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I totally relate to this! Delaying certain stages or experiences in your life because of the “what if moments” ; being “scared” to start a family because “what if” by the time I come back from maternity leave I would have been “replaced”


Thank you for sharing !

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I totally relate to this. The what ifs. Having to put off possible opportunities because they “might” hinder future plans of starting a family. Thank you so much for this one. One of my favorites so far!

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Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I am a passionate leader, accomplished professional and a mentor. I believe that nation-building depends on how well we build people. Therefore, my mission is to contribute to the personal, professional and leadership development of people to empower them to reach their highest potential.

I do this through a mentorship program that I founded and through this blog where I share principles I've applied and insights I've gained in the past twelve years of my career and leadership journey.

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