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Women and Transition: Reinventing Work and Life

November 09, 2015

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Linda Rossetti furthers the conversation of women in transition in the work and life by keeping the focus on women.

We have been looking at books that tackle the issues of family women in the workplace, and how they are evolving, since at least 2007, when Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success came on the scene. I think it was the first time any of us here had heard the debate defined from a talent retention standpoint. Of course, the women in the company were well aware of the challenges addressed in the book, even if they were unaccustomed to the manner in which they were addressed there—as being not only inherently unfair to women in the workforce, but inefficient, unproductive, and a waste of some of our best talent, as well. I had always thought I was aware of these challenges, but I came away from that book realizing exactly how ignorant I had been of their full magnitude. I had previously believed it simply took a full commitment to one's career to make change happen. I didn't realize the traditional workplace had quite so many "off-ramps" to women, how hard it might be to re-enter the workplace from them, or how many more difficult choices were required of women in their work and family life. And of course, those challenges continue.

Linda Rossetti's new book, Women and Transition: Reinventing Work and Life, has echoes of Anne Marie Slaughter's wonderful book on the evolving issues of women and men and work and family, Unfinished Business, which we gave away here just over a month ago. And the impetus behind the books are similar, if not the exact circumstances that led to them or the books that resulted. Ms. Rossetti explains her path to the topic:


I did not start out by sitting down to write a book about transition. I began by trying to reconcile a disconnect I experienced between society's characterization of women's progress and what I felt and experienced on the ground. There was a gap, an undeniable gap, between the narrative of women's progress and what I saw all around me.

As alluded to already, one of the tragedies in this regard is not just for women, but for society:


Women are underemployed or unemployed in great numbers thanks to a host of issues—many addressable. Continuing to ignore these issues represents a significant long-term cost to our society.

But while many of those issues have to do with transitions, and there should be a broader effort to address these difficulties systematically and systemically at the organizational and societal level (perhaps efforts that have begun in places), it is for now largely up to individual women to navigate these transitions on their own. For that purpose, Linda Rossetti has written a "reference manual and a straightforward how-to guide for those interested in making a transition."

The first distinction to be made is the difference between changes and transitions. Here she leans on William Bridges' Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes:


In the book he argued that "changes are driven to reach a goal, but transitions start with letting go of what no longer fits or is adequate to the life stage you are in. Bridges, writing for a nongendered audience, noted that many of us "use change to avoid transition." For Bridges, transition can be confused with change or deferred by change.

That defined Rossetti perfectly. In a short amount of time near the dawning of a new decade in her life—her forties—she became an executive in the Texas-based company that acquired her Boston-based tech start-up, had two children 16 months apart, and lost her father. At the same time, her husband was launching an entrepreneurial venture of his own that he had been deferring for almost a decade. As the travel and tumult of her new position began to take its toll, she decided quite simply, "I need a new job." And she found one just eight miles from her home. It was a job that required a jump into HR, but she was an entrepreneur used to wearing different hats, and was still in a demanding executive and administrative role she coveted. The tricky part was just how demanding it was.


It came to a breaking point while she was in London, with a five-year-old daughter waiting to be picked up from school on the other side of the ocean, and no one there to get her. The situation was remedied within ten minutes by her husband and nanny, but it was when she decided "I am done." She sets the scene beautifully at the beginning of Chapter One, detailing a scene on a beautiful London day overlooking the River Thames and Tower Bridge when she ducked away to take the phone call alerting her of the situation. "She is fine," is how the conversation began. But it ultimately pointed to realities and logistics that were no longer "fine," as she describes later in the chapter:


In spite of the job's demands, I worked very well with my boss, the CEO, a forward-looking leader. At the time, I appreciated what I perceived as the flexibility his leadership style afforded me. His favorite saying was, "You can work any 60 hours you want." Two in the morning. Eleven at night. You choose. The only element of the environment that concerned me was that I was the only person in the C-Suite and in the 12-member leadership team with a working spouse. Yes, I was the only female. I expected that. But the lack of other working spouses really bothered me.

And that was, in many ways, what doomed the change. Her husband, as mentioned above, arranged for their forgotten daughter to be picked up withing ten minutes of receiving the call. But her "Mary Poppins" nanny had left her family six months prior to that afternoon in London, and without her mix of "partnership and professionalism" which they were unable to find in a new caretaker, the two career-minded, driven, and hard-working parents' work/life demands were impossible to reconcile. Anne Marie Slaughter describes a similar stress in her book, which comes down to the fact that, though many men no longer believe it's their partner's duty to act as the main caregiver to children, they're also not stepping into those roles with great enthusiasm themselves.

This is where I would usually tell you that this book is not just for women, maybe even describing how I relate to the book personally. I am the partner of a hard-working and career-minded spouse, with two children exactly 16 months apart—just as Ms. Rossetti was. But this is a book very much meant for women. That is not to say you won't learn a lot as a man reading the book; I think all men who read it will learn a lot from it, and that it's especially instructive for business leaders, administrators, and policy makers to make clear just how much more challenging it is for women—still—and consider changes that could make it more equitable. But the book is very much written for women.

And it is not about women's development, as the conversation often condescendingly digresses into, but women's transitions. Because even though all of us do transition in work and life from time to time, it is quite different for women. What is it that makes it different? I am unqualified to answer, and will defer to Ms. Rossetti:


I have come to believe that transition is a highly gendered experience, but not for the reasons you may think. The obvious reason lies with a woman's reproductive capacity. Let us face it. Our physiology itself can generate events that could trigger a transition. Childbirth. Menopause. Infertility. Miscarriage. While each of these can be a valid transition trigger, none satisfied my curiosity.

My hypothesis was that transition is gendered because of women's response to it, a response that is guided by how women are socialized. Our socialization impacts who we are. ... Women's socialization contributes three important factors that have an influence on transition. These are the presence and authenticity of our voices; our access to reliable sources of recognition; and our belief structure about what we could or should do and how we define success.

This is not a comfortable position for her to take, because she has spent her "entire life proving that gender differences do not exist" with regards to "one's capacity or one's ability to contribute." But it is a reality she felt she had to confront as she interviewed and studied the lives of the many other women she talked to for this book—women whose stories she relates with great empathy and effectiveness to bring her points home.

So yes, Women and Transition is written for women, and deserves to be taken on it's own as a book of women's issues, a book documenting the challenges women in transition face—not the challenges that businesses or or business leaders or societies face, or of men's role in the process. This makes it a little different than Anne Marie Slaughter's and other books we've covered over the years. But just because it's written for women does not mean it should only be read by women. It deserves to be read by all.

We have 20 copies available.

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