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Strategies for Success for Baby Boom Women — Connie Gersick on Work and Life

Contributor: Alice Liu

Work and Life is a two-hour radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School. Every Tuesday from 7 to 9 PM EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community and the private self (mind, body and spirit).

Last week on Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Dr. Connie Gersick about her research on how women can implement three key strategies to lead the life they truly want. Gersick is currently Visiting Scholar at the Yale University School of Management and was a professor of Human Resources and Organizational Behavior at UCLA’s Graduate School of Management for seventeen years. Her research for over a decade has centered on women’s lives and careers.

Following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: You carefully examined the lives of 40 women in a recent study – tell us a bit about it.

Connie Gersick: Connie GersickThe work that I did on how women manage tradeoffs throughout their adulthood is part of a larger study of women’s adult development. We’re used to thinking about child development. We’re not used to looking at the whole of adulthood as a time when people continue to grow, develop, and evolve, to arrange and rearrange their lives. How does that happen? What are some narratives that give a sense of what adult development is like? That was the context for the study as a whole. In total I talked with 40 women, but first, in the initial pilot study, we interviewed 10 women who were all top executives in a global financial services company.

SF: What really grabbed your attention in the initial pilot study?

CG: Talking to women who looked, on first meeting, so polished, so in command, so unruffled and finding the pathos of their stories – how much they did that they never thought they would do. There was a lot of adventure in their lives, and I wanted to learn more. I wanted to talk to women in very different settings so the other occupations I picked were executives in social service agencies, artists, and women who were running their own family businesses. I also wanted to include women of color so 10 of the 40 participants were women of color.

SF: What was the age range of these people?

CG: The age range was 45 to 55; they’re part of the baby boom generation. These women were at the front edge of graduating college having grown up in a culture that said, “You are going to get married, your husband should have a good career, you’ll have kids, you’ll stay home, and you’ll keep the floor clean.” Imagine standing on the brink – you’ve graduated college, you grew up thinking you’re going to get married and that was it, or maybe you thought that you were going to be a teacher and take time off when the kids were little. There were very few occupations that women ever anticipated, and then all of a sudden things were opening up, colleges that hadn’t been were becoming co-ed and people were wondering if women could do anything men could do. Would women be able to handle a career while taking care of the home and family? Because if a woman was not taking care of the home and family, something was wrong with her. There were a lot of people thinking it couldn’t be done. So it was an adventure, a challenge and a dare.

SF: Was the dare emanating from within them or from society?

CG: I think from both. The Carnegie Mellon Commission published a study in the late 60s on the status of women, and the conclusion was that we really don’t know how this is possibly going to work. There was tremendous uncertainty. We wanted to succeed and have all this excitement, but we were afraid too – afraid of what we might lose, afraid of failing, and afraid of being alone.

Imagine a map. On one side of the map there’s a highway with cars zooming along, and they’re all being driven by men. On the other side there’s a neighborhood street, and the homes are all inhabited by women. There’s a huge territory in between. You thought you were going to go on the neighborhood street and your husband was going to go on the super highway. Now, how are you going to make some kind of path through that territory in between that bridges both? The women in this generation had to invent a new kind of adulthood for women.

SF: What did you discover about how they somehow managed to find their own road to travel?

CG:  One of the important findings is that there is an incredible amount of diversity in how women organize their lives. One of the women I talked to had kids when she was in high school, got married, and was on welfare. Another woman I talked to had adopted kids when she was 40. One woman found her career when she was a child. Another woman finally found something that she loved when she was 50. That’s very different from the way men’s lives had gone. Men’s lives were linear and predictable – you knew when you were on track and when you were off track.

SF: So did you find patterns in what you observed about these life stories?

CG: Yes, I did. Initially, I made the mistake of first looking to see what everyone did in her 20s, 30s, 40, etc. and I found that that just didn’t work at all. What eventually saved the day was to look more in terms of what are the important tasks and dilemmas that the women shared even though they may have encountered these tasks and dilemmas in different ways and at different times.

SF: What were those developmental challenges? What is the quest all about?

CG: One was a task having to do with authority, and the dilemma was independence versus dependency. At the time the idea was that a woman needs to find a man to take care of her. The dilemma was how am I going to make my lifestyle and survive? Am I going to take care of myself, or do I need to find someone who will take care of me? Another central task has to do with relationships. The dilemma was, especially for women, if I’m in a relationship, I’m expected to take care of that person, so how do I reconcile my responsibility to myself with my responsibility to others? A third issue was achievement and vocation. Am I going to be ambitious and pursue my work goals, or do I need to be flexible and follow a husband? Then there’s the issue of putting the pieces together in life. What pieces am I going to select, what commitments am I going to make, how am I going to put that package together?

SF: You also determined from your analysis of these women’s lives that there were different strategies that people used to resolve these questions, particularly the last question of how to make choices that are well informed and that are congruent with one’s values. Could you tell us what those three main strategies were?

CG: One was Prioritize and Limit. For people who know what their priorities are, they pick a small number and say, “I will do without the other things. I need to really devote myself for life to this vocation, this calling, this art, whatever it may be.” Another, I call Sequencing: “I can have everything, but I can’t have it all at once. There are three things that I want to do. I will let them take turns.” The third I call Add and Delegate: “I am not going to be told by someone else when I can do what I want to do. I am going to have everything that I really want, although I recognize I can’t do it all myself – I will delegate and share the overflow at work and at home.

SF: What are the pros and cons of each one?

CG: Prioritize and Limit is especially wonderful for women who know that they care very deeply about one or two things in life and that they can do without some of the other things. Being able to combine two things instead of feeling like they are competing with each other is particularly wonderful. The pitfall with Prioritize and Limit comes if, in fact, you don’t want to do without those things that you gave up.

The Sequencing approach works especially well with commitments that have a natural ebb and flow. For example, with children, you know that they are going to get older and need you less, so there could be a confined time in your life when you’re devoted to them, and then a time will come when you will be freer to do other things. It’s helpful when you have the control you think you have, and you’re able say to yourself, “I’m going to do X until I’m satisfied, then I’ll turn my attention to something else.” The risk with sequencing is not having enough time. Something that you postponed may be lost, because it was postponed. The joy is that if you are able to have the pieces that you want, you can invest as much as you want into them in turn.

The Add and Delegate approach is really the hardest for the women that I talked with. The benefits are having a very full life and a very full cup, but the pitfall is that if you add another drop, the cup will run over. It becomes too much – you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re not satisfied with the attention that you’re paying to anything, you feel guilty, you’re not enjoying all the things that you wanted.

SF: As you look at the body of your work, do you have a recommendation about which path or strategy works best?

CG: No, and the reason is that the best path is the one that suits you and is the best for the way your life is at present. You need to look at the three strategies and see what resources you have to make each one of them work. It’s not that you’re standing apart from your life and making a calculation. It’s thinking really hard about what you are okay with giving up and what matters to you at this stage in your life. A lot of times women have changed their strategy – it’s certainly not an issue of choosing one strategy for life.

SF: Which is the path that you chose?

CG: I chose Add and Delegate. My husband and I made it clear at the beginning of our marriage that we wanted an equal partnership. The partnership at home was very important for me to be able to add what I wanted when I wanted.

SF: Which of the people you interviewed to your estimation turned out to be the most gratified with their lives?

CG: Each of the three strategies had people who were thrilled, each of the strategies had a few people who weren’t thrilled, and each of these three strategies had a few people who ended up changing their strategy and making their life better. It’s a continual process of self-discovery.

Gersick is preparing a series of articles on women’s adult development, based on the life histories of 40 women leaders in business, social services, and the arts. She has also written a piece titled “Careers Outside the Narrow Path” for the Wharton Work-Life Integration Forum. To learn and read more about her research, please email BusinessRadio@siriusxm.com to be put in touch with Gersick.

Tune in to Work and Life on Tuesday, March 18 at 7 PM Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111 for conversations with Erica Dhawan (W’07), Founder and CEO of Cotential, about how to harness the power of people at work, and Allison Karl O’Kelly, Founder and CEO of Mom Corps, about women and work. Visit Work and Life for a schedule of future guests.

About the Author

Alice LiuAlice Liu is an undergraduate senior studying Management at The Wharton School and English (Creative Writing) at the College of Arts & Sciences. 

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