We’ve been hearing a lot about women stepping back or leaving their jobs since the pandemic began. Last fall, McKinsey & Company and Lean In released a report
based on surveys and interviews with over 40,000 women at 317 companies in the United States. It found that one in four women were considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether because of the pandemic.
Much has been written about what a backslide this is for women and how the workforce will be the weaker for it. Sheryl Sandberg called this
“the most alarming report we’ve ever seen” and suggested that we were heading back to a world where women feel like they can’t talk about their kids at work. Rachel Thompson, the author of the report, noted
that when women leave at earlier stages in their careers, industries lose leaders-in-training and that if the trend continued, “All the progress we’ve seen over the past five years would be erased.”
All of this is true. Women have made tremendous strides in the workplace in recent years and companies need us in leadership positions. As a society, we cannot afford to go back to a time when men were the only people represented at the top of so many industries. We need to make sure we have the policies in place—both governmental policies such as paid family leave and human resource policies in individual companies such as allowing remote work—that support women and protect their roles when they need to focus on taking care of their families.
I fear, however, that all the despair over the future of women in the workplace might be wrongly interpreted by the very women we’re talking about — the ones who have been forced to downshift over the past year. That it might sound like they’ve failed or made the wrong decision. Or they might assume the decision they made during this painful and utterly unique year is the final word on their career. That if they left a job or took a less prestigious one, they are stuck forever.
This is just not true, and my own career is proof.
Like so many women, I was working my way up in my career and finding success at the same time that my children were young, and my parents were aging. About ten years ago, I faced the death of my mother and then my father’s life-altering health crisis within the span of three months. My children were young, I had a demanding job, and I was struggling to cope and adjust to the new set of circumstances that I found myself in. I was dealing with grief, and managing the responsibilities of finding the right care, the sale of our family home, and making financial decisions along with my brother. It was all overwhelming.
Something had to give. And, like so many women, I knew it couldn’t be my family. So, I downshifted.
I took a job that was a lateral move. I knew it was going to be routine and that I could probably do the role with my eyes closed. I also knew it would give me more time to focus on my family, which we really needed right then. So, I gave myself two years to just settle everything down in my life.
But I felt awful about it. From a financial perspective I was in a good place, but there was less room for growth and my title wasn’t great. I had worked so hard to get where I was in my career at that point, and I was so focused on getting to the next role or milestone project. To admit that I was coming off that track was humbling, and, of course, I was worried about what colleagues and friends would think. I also thought this would derail my future opportunities, especially when I saw others in my network still achieving and growing their careers. I felt small.
If I could go back and talk to my younger self, I would tell her to give herself a break. It was by no means the end of my career. Yes, there were some days, many even, that were wash, rinse, repeat. It didn’t feel exciting or groundbreaking, but it was what I needed at the time, and I didn’t have to spend those years second-guessing my decision or reviewing my “what if” scenarios. And ultimately it was a temporary move. After two years, I jumped back into my career with both feet. I was invigorated and ready for new challenges.
Here is what I would say to women considering downshifting today, based on my experience:
1. Give yourself a timeframe and be generous. Mine was two years, and it was based on when my children would be in the same school together for the full day. That eased our family schedule and it still gave me a light on the horizon to focus on.
2. Not everyone will have a negative view of your downshift. We are our own worst critics, so while I viewed it negatively, my circle of colleagues viewed it as a great opportunity to hone skills within a well-regarded organization. Flip your inner narrative and focus on what you want to accomplish instead of what you’re giving up.
3. Career progression isn’t always linear and it doesn’t have an expiration date. Gone are the days in which your CV needed to show a perfect upward trajectory from role to role, or when you couldn’t jump around from company to company early in your career because it might show instability. The world around us is changing rapidly, and those old rules no longer apply. You set your pace and it doesn’t all need to happen in a certain number of years or by a certain age.
Of course, I have the benefit of hindsight when I imagine telling my younger self to relax. I know that my story goes well. Which is why I think it’s our job as leaders of the next generation of women to normalize the downshift. It’s a hard decision but it does not have to be permanent, and it does not have to signal the end of a woman’s career progress.
The pandemic threw an unexpected curve into so many lives and careers. Some lost jobs, and many parents often had to balance their work and family responsibilities. Most caretaking fell on women. Given all this, it’s not surprising that many women felt they had to take a step back.
I want these women to know that there’s no shame in downshifting. You’re switching gears right now but that’s not forever. Your best is yet to come.