Women making hard choices

Being a professional woman is all about making choices. Really hard choices. Choices that are gut wrenching. When I was in b-school, there were tons of talks about being a woman in the corporate world – the choices, the tradeoffs, the support systems. I didn’t go to any of them. Not one. I was a member of the Women’s Student Association, but that was for the great exam prepnotes they provided! (which was also the reason many men were members of the WSA).

I didn’t go to any of them because in my youthful naivety, I was convinced that men and women are treated equally and all you had to do is perform to be rewarded. Forget all the special treatment for women – I don’t need it. I don’t want it. I want to be measured by the same yardstick as my male counterparts. Period.

My early career validating that thought process. After a year in the wilderness of consulting, I settled into the technology world in California. I loved it. I was measured by my output. I was motivated to work for hours on end. Sixty hour weeks? Pah, that’s nothing. It was all consuming – constant adrenaline, constant craziness, meetings, product reviews, launches. I didn’t go to a doctor for years. I didn’t go to a dentist until it was a crisis. There was just no time. Ninety hour weeks? Bring it on.

And honestly, I loved it. And I patted myself on the back for not wasting time in school attending speeches where people would have taught me about the tough choices women make.

And then, it slowly started to change. The big 3-0 was looming large. The pressure to get married appeared. Got married. To someone who lived 3000 miles away in NYC. Now what? The WSA and all the speakers I spurned laughed in my face, that’s what.

My buddy, Tough Choices, appeared and would not leave. Commuting 3000 miles was no fun. Turning down opportunities in California was seriously no fun. Bringing that angst into the relationship was absolutely no fun. After several years of moving between coasts, of tear filled ruminations on priorities, of turning down offers to relocate globally, of fearing being branded as not being that interested in work, I was more than ready to admit that yes, women do have it harder.

I am not saying that they have it harder at work itself. I don’t think they are judged any more or less harshly than men. It is the added responsibilities outside work that make it hard. Being a good wife, of making sure there’s food in the fridge (when I was single, I could just eat cereal if I wanted!), investing in a relationship, living on the same coast to ensure that you have a shot at a family one day. Usually, the woman picks up those things in a relationship.

It was very hard. AND it was very hard with a supremely supportive husband (who never suggested I quit and adjusted around my crazy schedule) and a fabulously supportive company that allowed me to work from NY for large chunks of time. A company where bosses flexed for me and the CEO shared the tough choices she had to make.

After three years of wearing myself ragged, I finally sat down and prioritized what was important in my life. When trying to make a decision, I take it to the extreme – so there is only black and white, no gray. I had two options… What if I was CEO of a large successful company (assuming I could get there), but had no family and no kids. Would that be okay? Absolutely not. What if I could never, ever be the CEO of a large successful company, but I had a family and kids. Well… yes, that would be fine. Not ideal but fine. And definitely better than option one. I had my answer on what I valued more, if I absolutely had to choose.

To me, Indra Nooyi and Meg Whitman are women who actually have it all. But the reality is that they didn’t have it all at the same time. They had to prioritize. They had their kids, potentially putting their careers on hold, and then they charged ahead. I can’t imagine how much effort doing both took — I am in awe of their energy and drive and passion.

But there have to have been tradeoffs. Painful tradeoffs we don’t see. Tradeoffs that kept them in the industries they love, in roles that were moving ever upward. It is a strong woman who can make those tradeoffs in a way that works for everyone involved. These ladies have my respect – not only for their professional accomplishments, but also for the very hard personal challenges they’ve wrestled with.

My soul searching led to a redefinition of what’s important to me and clarified how I wanted to prioritize my life. It also led me rediscover my passion for the creative side of things and film – an entirely new direction. One that will hopefully let me accomplish my professional goals and my personal goals.

And I’ve come to believe this:

Women can have it all. They just can’t have it all at the same time.

Let’s hope it is true!

If you are interested, here’s a link to an interview with Indra Nooyi. She’s a great role model, and I am (very pleasantly) stunned with the honesty of her responses. The personal section starts here.

Link to Indra’s interview via Nilu.