Twenty years ago I worked with a group of impressive, ambitious, talented women on a high-profile project at a highly regarded network.
It was among our first jobs, early in our careers. We were production assistants and support personnel. We cared about our work and about each other.
It was also an assignment with an end date. And we wondered then, in that young and ambitious way, what might happen when it was done? How far would we go in our careers and how could we pull each other along?
We’ve stayed in touch, cheering each other on. We did well. We were TV producers and talent bookers and marketing directors. We oversaw content and told important stories and gave back by mentoring younger women.
Though we would go on to work in different places and live in different cities, we tried to get together once a year to catch up.
It’s 20 years later. So, where are we now?
Not where we thought we’d be, back then.
One left a senior producing role to have more control of her time and creative pursuits. She freelances and teaches yoga. One launched her own business after walking away from the stress of 24/7 TV life and the disappointment of failing to get herself promoted. Another was downsized and is getting rejected for jobs well beneath her level of experience. One is still in the same job she has loved for many years but admits she’s bothered that there isn’t, at this point in her career, a VP title in front of her name for the value she brings.
We talked about the rest of the office staff – the guys – from those 20 years ago. How have they fared?
And across the board, the titles came in. Executive VP. Senior VP. One is running a cable network and another a sports network’s digital operation. The intern from way back when is now a highly touted TV director who is granted a massive budget for creative projects.
Not to take anything away from these guys – they are talented and hard working – but… WTF?
What happened? How had we, as equally talented and hard-working women, stalled out or departed careers while the guys had soared to the highest levels?
I know what you’re thinking. It must be because we took ourselves out of the workforce or downgraded our careers to start families. This is a typical conclusion, as if giving birth should also mean the death of a career in some awful circle of life scenario.
And that’s unfortunate, but in this case, it’s not the reason.
Only half of our group had kids and those that did took the briefest of maternity leaves before returning, fully committed, to full-time to work. Raising children did not impact career ambition. Others married but did not have children and one never married.
So that’s not it.
Were we less talented?
I don’t think so. Credit to the guys – they are absolutely deserving of the success they achieved. But so were we.
Why, then, had the men fared so well when the women were trying to figure out why they had done well, but, you know… not quite as well as they had hoped?
In my informal research, I tried to get at the answer. And by informal research, I mean I conducted it over a few rounds of margaritas during our annual dinner.
As we talked about our careers, I came to my conclusion.
With the exception of one of us who stayed at that same company, we’ve all left jobs, some of us more than once or multiple times.
Not finding or getting what we wanted, we bounced from job to job.
For reasons both necessary and personal, we departed jobs when it was clear they weren’t working for us. Because we had never learned to effectively toot our horn and we were doing all the work but not getting the credit. Because we stalled out in middle-management, we were encouraged to make a move elsewhere – even a lateral one – for more experience and opportunity. Because we felt we were missing out on the rest of our lives while we worked all the time for someone else. Because we were disappointed to see bad behavior rewarded, like someone who Bro-Propriated our ideas and then got the opportunity that should have been ours.
So many reasons because.
As we bounced from role to role and job to job, the guys rose from role to role and job to job.
This led me to declare, via several rounds of my margarita-fueled research (which should be taken with a grain of salt), what has become the title of this blog thesis:
Men Rise, Women Bounce
The guys largely stayed the course. And in doing so, they rose. But the women, it seems, didn’t bounce just because. They left because of that “because” – they weren’t rising. The game wasn’t working for them.
In nearly every case, the stall preceded the departure.
Hearing my conclusion, a female colleague at a different company had this to say: “Women bounce because they are in a room with shorter ceilings and nowhere to go but sideways. Men stay because their room is inherently different. It has taller ceilings and it’s wider at the top so they have room to move not only up, but up and sideways.”
She added, “Bouncers don’t rise and risers don’t bounce.”
So why do men bounce less? Possibly because someone else gives them a boost? A rope to pull them up? A ladder to make the climb easier?
A few years back, I congratulated a guy at work on his promotion and new assignment. He was already a VP overseeing a department and was being given more responsibility and oversight and an SVP title. How had it come about, I wanted to know. Was it something he pushed for?
“To be honest,” he told me, “I didn’t even really want more on my plate. They came to me and asked me to lead it. I mean, I’m not going to turn it down but I wasn’t even looking for it.”
He wasn’t even seeking it and he was given it.
I know any number of women at that company who would have loved to have been selected for more responsibility and the opportunity to rise with a promotion. (As opposed to more responsibility with no promotion… or worse, a “development opportunity,” requiring an inordinate amount of time but no clear benefit… what, exactly, are we being “developed” for?)
When ambitious women can’t rise, we bounce.
“We have to bounce because we can’t afford to sit still, going nowhere,” says another former (female) colleague.
I’ve bounced numerous times in my career, so often that I wrote about how to make the most of a bounce in Being a Quitter.
What would have happened if I hadn’t bounced but had a stayed put? Would I have risen to the C-suite? Or stayed in the exact same position, watching others move past me, wishing for movement over inertia?
If this all reeks of unhappiness, let me correct that it should not. We are proud of our accomplishments and have loved our work. We are proud of these guys who were and still are colleagues and friends.
We’ve also had a few rounds of margaritas. We are happy.
We’ve done well for ourselves. But we could have done even better.
Men rise, women bounce.
I don’t think we should resign ourselves to accepting that’s just the way it is. I’d like to believe it will be possible to bounce to the top. But we may need a little help to get there.
How about that ladder?
Valerie Gordon spent 24 years putting stories on network television. Now the founder of career and communications strategy firm Commander-in-She, she helps women with the storytelling techniques they’ll need to have more career success and a satisfying next chapter.