Do women derail their own careers?

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Commentary:

(MoneyWatch) Why aren't there more women in high places? The Economist is asking if women derail their own careers. (You can vote in the survey.) Right now, the poll is running at 64 percent who say "yes" and 36 percent saying "no."

The impetus for the poll is the new Sheryl Sandberg book that claims that women need to do more for their own careers by, among other things, applying for jobs they are unqualified for, as men do. I'm not disagreeing that men and women operate differently in the workplace. As a general rule, we're different. But does this difference as it expresses itself in the workplace a problem?

Before we address that question, let's note the inherent bias in the question of whether women "derail" their own careers. When a train derails, it falls off the track. It's not derailment if the train switches tracks. So the wording of that question implies that women want to be on the track to the corner office and that they somehow fell or were pushed off the track. When a train derails, it doesn't just leisurely or purposely wander off the track. It's generally a violent and scary thing. Last year a tram (smaller and not as fast as a train) derailed close to our house. It jumped off the track and smashed into a nearby house. It was loud and disruptive and downright dangerous. While no one was killed, several had to be treated for injuries. Tram service was stopped for more than a week and because of the derailment those of us who relied on that tram were thrown into travel turmoil.

That, my friends, is a derailment.

And does that happen to careers? Yes. Sometimes there are spectacular derailments. I received an email last week from a woman questioning if she'd been fired properly because all she'd done is use her work email to send nude photos of herself. (Answer: Yes.) Other derailments are forced on people -- men and women both. Public firings. Major projects that go belly up in a bad, bad way. And then there are those mean managers who do everything in their power to destroy careers.

Those are derailments.

When a woman decides that she'd rather work fewer hours in exchange for more time with her children, that's not a derailment -- it's a track change. When a woman decides that flexibility is more important than a bonus check, that's not a derailment.

Now, we can moan that if only the U.S. had more maternity leave and better protections for working women, life would be just lovely. Sure, longer maternity leaves are nice, but even with job protections they come at a cost. If you take three, six or 12 months off work, you may not be as knowledgeable or sharp as the people who worked during that time. I'm not saying that employees suddenly lose their value when they take extended time off, only that there is a real consequence to it.

Yahoo's Melissa Mayer took two weeks off with her baby. Former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift's maternity leave was counted in hours (chairing a meeting over the phone from her hospital bed) rather than months. Swift, in fact said about Mayer:

Marissa Mayer (like me) is not likely to emerge as a role model for everyday working parenthood. Her experience will in no way mirror the vast majority of mothers and fathers struggling to make ends meet and raise healthy, responsible kids.

Swift is right. These books and public hand wringing about women in the workforce reflect only a very small percentage of women. Most women don't want to be CEO, or governor or work 80 hour weeks. And when you want something different, you're very likely to choose another track. It's a deliberate track change, not a derailment. So, do I think women derail their own careers? Not most of us. We just change tracks.