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            10 / 02 / 16

            Why some women are stepping off the career ladder, preferring a curvier path

            • We’re starting to see a shift in attitudes in terms of what women are looking for from their careers. In the past the assumption was that you climbed up and up. Your career was a slippery, slightly, treacherous slog. If you failed to step up and didn’t show willing then you fell down or got relegated to the 'Mum Club' (never to regain respect or a meaningful role).

              But things are changing and some women (it’s important that we’re not talking about all women) are actively choosing to step sideways and pursue the curvy path.

              Self-help books will tell you that it’s important to enjoy the journey but that’s tough sometimes. Traditionally the more linear, (more masculine), career path has been the norm. The focus is all too often on a future space where you’ve ‘arrived’ (because the sacrifice will pay off in the end). Reviews, mentoring and training are based on the assumption that you’re being groomed for the top (or rejected because you’re not made of the ‘right stuff’).

              But what if leading isn’t your bag? What if you don’t want to be at the top?

              Flamingo recently conducted research as part of Omniwomen, an initiative designed to increase the influence and number of women leaders throughout the Omnicom network. We spoke to women across Omnicom agencies to see what their career aspirations were and how they felt about leadership. And some confessed that they weren’t looking to be CEO or MD; it just wasn’t part of their career plan. Instead they wanted to side step into a different role and feel stretched and inspired that way, for instance moving into a digital role or doing a temporary placement in another part of the business.

              If we look more closely we can see the appeal of this more undulating, curvy path. This path can take you to interesting places. It can help you discover skill sets that you didn’t know you had. It’s also particularly attuned to the needs of specific women.

              Let’s look at mums for example. Some will want to get straight back on the horse and gallop off at full speed. These women are fierce and we salute them. But others want to leave early and watch daytime TV in their jogging bottoms (that’s not true of course, but it can be the perception). But seriously, these women might not be up for a gallop; they may want to canter and save galloping for later on. It’s not that women with young children want to work less; it’s just that their roles need to be compatible with part-time working. There really isn’t much daytime TV watching that goes on.

              Maybe a sideways step into a different role works for them.

              Coming back from maternity leave, many women feel rusty. But they’re not ready for the junk yard either. In many ways it’s a fertile time to have an honest conversation about what you want and to try something new. The truth is that if you’re lucky enough to be working flexibly then your previous role might be impossible. But is there something valuable and unique you can bring to the table? And what would that look like?

              Obviously there are legal requirements, but there’s also a need for honesty. All too often companies have felt a bit of doom and gloom about working parents and the compromises they bring (and yes there are challenges) but it’s worthwhile thinking about the positives too. And it’s vital that these roles (side-stepping into a new business area, trying something new) are profitable for the company. Being subsidised to make kale smoothies from home is not the way forward.

              If you look at millennials (and we do spend a lot of time looking at them as they rapidly shape the professional landscape and make us all feel a bit old), they’re also seeking different things. They’re not willing to graft indefinitely with the ‘carrot of promotion’ to keep them going. They like carrots but want more exotic stuff too (like Kimchi). They’re also allergic to routine. They want to move around. They want to moonlight on different teams. Again the vertical hike might not be relevant. But it may be at a different stage. Just because you pursue a curvy path doesn’t mean you can’t climb later. Some will ask for career breaks and sabbaticals to make these shifts and some will leave. Some will return and others won’t. This isn’t about designing a role for everyone but is instead about retaining people that continue to make a valuable and meaningful contribution.

              So what are some of the things we can do to encourage the curvy path?

              Well firstly there’s a need for honesty. Women (and men too of course) should feel that a side step isn’t necessarily a symptom of not being ambitious and thrusting. Just because you don’t want to be on Dragon’s Den doesn’t mean you’re a professional flop. This side step might just be temporary — whilst I’m restless and uninspired or whilst I have a small person at home — or it might be for longer.

              We’re seeing a huge rise in freelancers. Part of this is down to the economic climate. But some of it is also because there’s a sense that the grass is greener on the other side. Freelancing is associated with freedom, independence, pursuing your own dreams, variety and creativity. Freelancers themselves will you tell you this isn’t strictly the truth of their experience. Sometimes those who want the curvy path will choose freelancing instead. And that’s valid. But why is it that agency life is associated with having less of these things?

              Okay some people may want to escape. They may want to sell alpaca beanie hats or make craft beer. But others may simply not be aware of what’s possible; they may feel that the side step is dangerous and will jeopardise their reputation.

              Cheryl Strayed, the American author of Wild, spent three months hiking solo across the Pacific Coast Highway. Her path was curvy to say the least. At the end she summarised her epic journey thus: ‘I’d finally came to understand what it had been: a yearning for a way out, when actually what I had wanted to find was a way in.’

              And that’s a nice way of looking at it. Maybe it’s not about falling off the mountain and giving up. Or having to leave to pursue the things that make you feel passionate and alive. Maybe there’s a ‘way in’. A way to be yourself and harness all your talents. A way that benefits you and the company.

              The curvy path is part of that.

              This article was written inline with Flamingo research on women and leadership recently completed for Omniwomen. We conducted interviews with a range of women in different agencies and discussed their careers and what they thought of leaders generally. A recent article of our findings has just been published on The Pool. We’ll be sharing more coverage soon, so keep you’re eyes peeled.

              Image source: From the grapevine

              • Article by Anniki Sommerville