Yes, and there are several reasons for this. Men tend to prioritize money and power, which women want, too, but women are more value driven— the meaning and purpose they derive from their work is as important as the size of their paycheck. Being part of a well-functioning team and finding friendship and creative flexibility in the workplace are as important to them as job title. At the same time, as women confront the likelihood of delayed retirement, they are becoming more intentional about seeking out a journey of discovery and meaning. In other words, this is newly on the front burner for a midcareer woman. She wants all those work hours to be meaningful.
What are companies doing to help make this happen? Seems like a tall order, especially during a downturn.
A few years ago, Cisco Systems launched a Leadership Fellows Program that allows high-performing midlevel executives to follow their passions for a year and lend their skills to a nonprofit of their choice, often in another country. Fellows continue to be Cisco employees with full salary and benefits. One woman I interviewed had taken time off to work for a consortium of NGOs in Africa. She brought an amazing set of skills to this nonprofit while on Cisco’s payroll, then came back to the company with new loyalty for having been given this opportunity. And Cisco recognized that she also returned with new leadership abilities.
Another good example is Saatchi & Saatchi, which created a kind of “mini odyssey” program that lets employees swap jobs across continents and departments for six weeks. This program is very inexpensive for the company and has been shown to be a highly effective engagement and retention tool.
What advice can you give to women who are contemplating an odyssey?
There is a financial and leadership-development logic to companies supporting these programs. If you can find the sweet spot where you have something you want to pursue and your company wants to give you career opportunities, you can make it happen. If you’re looking to leave your job eventually, or your firm doesn’t offer the kinds of programs we’ve been discussing, then strategic volunteering on your own time can be an avenue.
One woman, an accountant at a big firm, knew she wanted a job with more social impact. Five or so years before she was ready to make a move, she decided to learn more about the nonprofit world. So she got involved with three nonprofits and ended up cochairing one of them for a year. Now she’s being interviewed for a board position at a national organization, which will put her in an even stronger position for the next step. And there’s another kind of odyssey that we should not forget about, the more traditional one. Did you know the Peace Corps has been actively recruiting older volunteers? In 2010, 540 women age 50 and above applied.
What’s the next step in your own odyssey?
I have gone global! My new work has taken me to Brazil, Russia—some of the most powerful economies in the developing world. I’ve released a study of college-educated women in India, and we’re launching a sister study, “The Battle for Female Talent in China.” My odyssey right now is giving myself permission to explore cultures I’m interested in, and as broadly as possible. I’m particularly fascinated by Indian sitar music. We’ll see where it takes me.