There’s plenty written on why women don’t get the top jobs in project leadership – but there’s an assumption there that they want those jobs.
I know many women do want to take senior jobs, and we do need to work at eradicating the reasons that cause talented, dedicated, knowledgeable women to miss out on promotions into upper management.
But there’s something else at play here: the fact that for many women, life in a senior project delivery role just isn’t that appealing.
What senior jobs look like
Senior management jobs in project roles look like high stress roles from the outside.
Project deadlines are often fixed, with huge strategic and transformation goals linked to delivery. There are punitive contract clauses for missing dates or deliverables. The hours are long. Project teams can extend to over a hundred or more people.
Juggling all those balls and managing the office politics is a challenge.
I loved it.
Until I didn’t.
I got bored of other people’s last-minute tasks becoming my problem, when they could easily have foreseen the work a week ago. I got tired – literally, physically, tired – of working long hours because although I asked for help in the form of a project coordinator, nothing ever came of it.
I got angry with emails late at night and over the weekend that pulled me away from family commitments.
I know, I know… I should turn my phone off over the weekend. But with a senior project role comes serious responsibility. You don’t switch off.
Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be my family.
I’m not alone in making the decision to step back from a senior project role. I’ve spoken to several women who have made the same choice, for differing reasons.
Google ‘take a lower paying job for less stress’ and read the many personal stories of people who have done the same thing.
We’re not off-ramping, which is a term used to mean taking a career break. That’s a valid career option, and seems to be most common for women who take time off work to bring up children on behalf of the family.
That’s not us. We are still employed, still contributing, and doing the project work we love. But we’re down-ramping. (Is that a thing? It is now.)
To down-ramp and keep your reputation, you leave the organization you are currently in, because otherwise you worry people will think you’ve been demoted on purpose and treat you differently.
We’re taking less senior roles because we have only got one life, and giving it all to a corporate entity who never says thanks just doesn’t seem worth it.
The balancing act
As a younger woman at work, I was desperate to please, keen to learn and gave 100% to my employer. As a woman fast approach middle-age, I’m still keen to do a good job and give 100% but now it has to be on my terms.
Speaking to women older than me, they confirm what I’m starting to realize: as you get older, you stop caring so much about what other people think. You double down on what is important.
And that’s often not a long commute to a stressful job with people you wouldn’t want to socialize with.
Of course, there is a payoff to not moving up the ranks. I admit to being a teeny bit jealous at a lunch with ex-colleagues recently when a couple of the men around the table talked about their foreign holidays and expensive hobbies.
When you opt out of the corporate career ladder, the door to more money is firmly closed in your face.
But if you don’t need the extra money that a senior job brings (or you can live without it), there isn’t much going for those long hours and stressful conversations with stakeholders.
It’s only temporary
The thing with taking a lower paid job for less stress is that it doesn’t have to be forever. Life has seasons. The season I’m in now is with small children and wanting to spend more time with my parents: it means I have less time for a job.
But seasons come and go. I haven’t ruled out going back into a high flying job, if I can find someone who will have me. The future of project management is bright, with PMI predicting that by 2027 employers will need nearly 88 million people in project-related roles. Someone’s going to need to fill those jobs; it may as well be me.
I think, though, that my time as a down-ramper will have permanently changed my expectations of working culture.
I’ll be looking for a senior level role in a company that embraces diversity and flexible working, and that makes it possible to operate strategically without any of the dramas I’ve seen in other organizations.
Fixing the problem
Would I have continued the upwards career path, if I could have? Possibly. But to tempt me back into a senior job will require a business that has radically considered how they deliver change, and for corporate culture to shift substantively from what I, and many of my peers and the people I mentor, see every day.
That’s not just a shift that would benefit women, but all workers. Employers benefit too, from stopping the talent drain out of their organizations.
What does that new corporate culture look like? All the usual stuff like being able to ask for remote working and flexi hours would be in there, but also a culture that respects people’s time.
I want to work in a business that’s adequately resourced for the change they want to do, so leading a team to deliver strategic transformation is a joy, not a pipedream.
I want to work for a company where ROWE really matters and is a principle people live by.
What about removing the stigma from taking a less high-powered job, with a career path back up to senior management when the time is right for you? That would benefit men and women who need to step back from all-encompassing work responsibilities to meet their family’s needs, whether that’s childcare, eldercare or anything else.
I think the decision to down-ramp was easier for me because I am a woman. The career pressure men must feel to continue to play the game, be the provider for their family and put up with all the corporate posturing must be immense.
Yes, we need to address the gender pay gap. Yes, we need to remove the barriers that stop talented people getting where they deserve to be.
But above all that, we need to fix broken corporate cultures and make it possible to work and have a life at the same time.
This article first appeared on LiquidPlanner.