From the July 2004 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF ADVICE- Women's Work

Ever since greater numbers of women started moving into the workforce over the past few decades, some changes have been made to address their unique needs and challenges in the workplace, such as adoption of sexual harassment policies, making daycare available, and instituting flextime, to name just a few. Now we are beginning to see more of the complex issues that confront these women in their prime working years or as they near retirement.

If you are female, this group may include you. But no matter which gender you are, you can expect to see more clients struggling with these problems and opportunities.

You may be able to approach some of these issues the same way you would with a male client. In other cases, the challenges are unique to women. Here are some examples, with suggested ways to handle them.

I'm in my 40s and have worked in a mid-size financial planning firm for eight years. My performance reviews have been good and I love the place, but my requests for promotion to partner seem to fall on deaf ears. Since there are no other women partners, I'm wondering if I've hit a glass ceiling. Should I make a big fuss about it, or leave? The first question I would ask is whether you've requested advancement in the most assertive, direct, and self-respecting way possible.

Many women are conditioned to be accommodating and not make waves. In a business environment, this often means they suppress their power for fear of displeasing a superior. While researching my financial guide for women, Money Shy to Money Sure, I found that in almost all cases women sought a win-win outcome when they negotiated for a raise or promotion, focusing on the boss's happiness instead of placing their own interests first.

If you feel you have been forthright and asser-tive and have clearly documented your contributions to the firm's success, you could be right that there are no further opportunities for you there. Much as you love it, you may want to start looking for another workplace that visibly supports and promotes capable women.

In all likelihood, checking out other job options will make you feel more appreciated and less desperate, even if you decide to give your current employer one more shot.

An entrepreneur client of mine is eager to have her daughter take over the business. However, the young woman has watched her mother work so hard for years that she wants no part of it. My client has asked me to help change her daughter's mind. How should I respond to this? If you're willing to serve as a mediator in this situation, be sure you understand the central issue.

For instance, if the daughter fears becoming mired in the heavy workload that has consumed her mother, how realistic is her concern? Some businesses, of course, demand a more intense focus than others (attorneys and advertising agencies come to mind). Is that the case with this company? Or is it the mother's personality that has dictated her long hours?

If your client agrees, you might get together with her daughter to explore ways of running the business in a more balanced, limit-setting way. Perhaps a short-term trial period could be arranged.

But maybe the daughter has no real aptitude for running a business or no interest in this particular field. The issue then is your client's insistence on having her child follow in her footsteps. You will need to help her let go, manage her disappointment, and find another way to pass on her work legacy. Whatever the outcome, you will have served both your client and her daughter well by helping them sort out this matter.

I'm 38 and have been working in a financial management firm for the past 15 years. My father died last year, and my mother is failing fast. I'd like to take a hiatus from work to care for her, but am worried that it could be the death knell for my career. What can I do to help protect my future marketability? There are no magic potions for this very real concern, but I encourage you to do whatever is necessary to feel at peace with caring for your mother.

If your firm will grant you a temporary leave of absence, it will no doubt help ease your return later on. However, if your only choice is to quit in order to take care of your mother, you may be able to keep a toe in the water by attending professional meetings and giving speeches or writing articles about your financial specialty.

You'll need to line up some support for your mom and for yourself in order to do this. But that's a good idea, anyway. Caring for an ailing parent can quickly deplete you if you do it 24 hours a day. Find out about respite care that can give you time off. Taking short breaks, staying in touch with supportive friends and family members, and keeping some contact with your former professional life will all be vital for your own mental health and physical stamina.

If you know other advisors who dropped out to handle a family matter and then successfully returned to a professional position, get together with them to discuss how they managed not to stray too far off the career path. The task may be challenging, but it seems eminently feasible.

Some years ago, one of my own close colleagues went home to the Midwest to be with her father in his last months. She found, as I have, that nothing is lost when we surrender fully to personal challenges that take our energy away from work. After the crisis has passed, our commitment, energy, and focus are renewed. When word gets out that we are able to see clients again, the result tends to be a slow but steady increase in business. I predict the same for you.

Ever since I passed 60, people have been asking me when I plan to retire. From a financial standpoint I could quit anytime, but having nothing to do would drive me crazy. As a divorcee with no children, the role of a golf-playing grandma isn't even an option. Although I may not work as fast or as long as I used to, I really like what I do. What should I say to people? More and more working women like you are facing the tough decision of what to do when you reach "retirement age." (I use quote marks because I think the timing of retirement is becoming more personal and often gradual.)

The first step is to assess your situation honestly. Is your slower pace affecting your work for clients? Are you able to meet their expectations as well as you used to? What really keeps you from retiring? Is it love of what you do, or fear of emptiness and loss of identity? Take time to think through your answers.

Depending on what you learn from yourself, the next step should become clear. For example, you may decide to keep on working as long as you feel up to it. Or you might consider cutting back to part-time, to see how it feels to be less consumed by your work. Finally, you could stop working entirely.

If the prospect of unlimited idleness frightens you, plan to segue into an activity that helps keep you feeling useful and fulfilled. It might involve supporting a worthy cause in the community or working part-time at something that has always interested you. What are the "roads not taken" earlier in your life, when you had many interests and passions besides planning?

Alternatively, you may want to consider the challenge of embracing this emptiness (for a short time, at least). Creative emptiness often allows new ideas to germinate beneath the void. Once you cross through that scary place where you feel absolutely nothing is happening, you may emerge on the other side into a very fertile period.

Give yourself time and space, and see what happens. You could end up with a whole new set of exciting choices.

After being out of the work force for almost seven years as a stay-at-home mom, I'd like to get back to my former position as an executive in a planning firm. However, I'm not eager to admit in job interviews that I've been off the career track for so long. Any suggestions on how to jump-start my stalled career? If you have any feelings of shame or embarrassment at the thought of being asked about the last seven years, work on a proactive, confident, and creative response. Practice saying it out loud, first in front of a mirror and then to a trusted friend who plays the part of an interviewer. Keep rehearsing your response until you feel confident that this part of an interview won't fluster you.

In crafting your answer, figure out how to describe your experience at home in a way that claims new strengths. Review the skills you learned while mastering the complex and difficult tasks of child-raising. How have these abilities added to your expertise as a financial executive?

As you embark on your job search, take every opportunity to network with your former colleagues and make new professional connections at meetings and conferences. If you have any friends in high places, you may want to ask them to write a recommendation for you. I would also suggest searching for mentors or role models who have made a successful transition back to the work force, and finding out how they got their feet wet again. Don't be shy. The more people who know of your capability, the more likely you are to uncover the kind of position you're looking for.

In an era of greater opportunity than ever, there are many working women who manage to juggle the responsibilities of a job, marriage, children, ailing parents, volunteering, and on and on. Their requirements will continue to expand the support systems of employers and society in general.

You can make a valuable contribution to this interesting evolution by encouraging your women clients to assert their needs and claim their personal power confidently. Try to help them move in and out of the work force in a way that balances their desire for personal connection and family commitment with achievement in their career.

If that woman is you, give yourself all the support you need in terms of mentoring, networking, and backup at home and at work. That's the best way to make this journey not just easier, but infinitely more satisfying.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and consultant therapist, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor's Guide to Money Psychology, available through the IA Bookstore at www.investmentadvisor.com. E-mail Olivia at om@moneyharmony.com.

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