When I was about 30, I was hired to be an editor at The Wall Street Journal. There was no good reason for this. I was a pretty good writer, and I knew the rules of grammar and was in general interested in a lot of stuff. But nothing on my résumé would have pointed in the direction of a coveted job at the No. 2 daily paper in the land; I’m guessing there were lots of people more qualified in line for (and deserving of) that job.
But the person who hired me — ten years older, tough, funny, brilliant — saw something in me. Thank God. She could see that I was smart. She probably sensed that I had (have) a tolerance, and even an appetite, for punishing amounts of work. She probably liked that I wasn’t an apple-shiner. (She wasn’t an apple-shiner.)
A good workplace is one in which you can look around and see versions of yourself five years from now, or ten. But for women, this exercise in mirroring gets harder and harder as they push toward 40, and 50, and beyond — for the simple reason that older women with ambition don’t stick around. They dial back, drop out, start their own thing. They want more control, flexibility; they find themselves trapped in one more meeting listening to one more self-serving anecdote by one more male superior who feels no urgency to head on home, and they reach their limit. For many of even the most ambitious women, the grind of a conventional, straight-up trajectory feels unworkable, especially once they’re caring for children, too. “It gets really hard,” says Anne Weisberg, vice-president and an expert in women’s leadership at the Families and Work Institute. “You’re more likely to say it’s not worth it.” Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, Anne-Marie Slaughter: The culture looks to them as role models, but actually they’re one-offs, unique exceptions of meteoric success in a work culture that is fundamentally unkind to women (okay, to people) who have other pressing things to do.
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