“What choice did I have?” I've muttered this phrase more times than I can count as I spent most of my days and nights grading papers, writing manuscripts, organizing conferences, or any number of seemingly endless tasks of a pre-tenure academic. I often didn’t feel I had a choice between sleeping or spending time with friends and keeping up with my demanding job. Pulling long hours is what it takes to receive tenure, get that paper published, or win that big grant, I’d tell myself. I did “choose” this life after all, right?

It seems women are constantly making choices about their careers. The latest era of women’s career choice has been described as the Great Breakup. Like all relationships, there comes a time when we must renegotiate the terms to align with our personal goals and work is no exception. Typically, women make compromises and negotiations with their partners and children to make work work for them. But the record-breaking number of women exiting full-time work suggests that this isn’t an issue with the women, but an issue with corporate America. For some women, this breakup may have felt abrupt and unplanned, but for others it was a slow burn(out).

Regardless of how it may have felt, the question remains: How much of this decision was a fair choice? Women are often presented with difficult choices when it comes to their bodies, the professions they’re able to (successfully) enter, and we are becoming more aware of the pervasive challenges when it comes to choosing how and even whether we work.

Is it possible to “choose” between remote work or returning to the office when children are sick with viral infections? Can women really choose between taking a career break or powering through at the expense of their health? And how are women choosing when to retire when our lifetime earnings are so much lower than men’s?

Women's career paths are seen as their “choice,” but the reality paints a much more complicated picture. As the return to office wave continues, we are likely to see fewer women reenter the workforce as the only choice without sufficient childcare options.

Twenty years ago, women who were seen as “not having what it takes'' to reach the executive level were described as “opting out” of the fast track to the C-Suite. Instead, high potential women chose to step away from work to raise their children or care for a loved one. One decade into the opt-out revolution, women expressed interests in continuing their careers where they left off, but were not seeing many “on-ramps” to return to full-time work.

Career interruptions are common for women who have children, and for many families, it is more affordable for one earner to stay home instead of paying high childcare costs. Women systemically make less than men, making their departure from work a rational decision.

Reframing career breaks as an “individual choice” further hinders women’s advancement at work. Despite the rise of workplace flexibility in the past decade, U.S. workers are reluctant to ask for time off for fear of derailing their career trajectory and falling behind the eight ball. Women who seek accommodations face pay and career penalties compared to men. These penalties are exacerbated for women with disabilities or those seeking time away for rest and recovery.

And now, companies have begun to roll back some of their flexible policies, forcing women, yet again, to face Sophie’s Choice: Opt for a dead-end job with remote options and accept the pay gap penalties as a result, or start over in a new company, which can further derail and erode career progression.

If companies want to retain and promote women, they have to consider how their expectations for in-person work and long hours put women on an unequal playing field. Rather than focusing on women’s individual career choices in isolation, what would work look like for women if they did not have to choose between work and their life?

For one, companies can implement flexible work — for everyone. LinkedIn closed for a week to give employees an opportunity to recharge and prevent burnout. Equity Meets Design, a design services firm seeking to reimagine interaction and institutions to promote equity, hosted a workshop describing how they strategically create an organizational wide break for all of their employees. Company-wide approaches make taking breaks a normative part of their culture so women do not feel singled out for having no choice (due to societal expectations and systemic pay inequity) but to choose leave or remote options.

At the team level, managers could create job sharing for multiple employees. Job sharing allows employees to take on high profile work without overcommitting to the position. Women may find that job sharing allows them more flexibility. Handoff is one tech company that enables job sharing at scale through employer partnerships. Over 98% of Handoff users are caregivers who find the flexible work arrangement and job sharing beneficial to their career and life goals.

Now, if you’re in the position of having to reassess the trade-off between your work and all the other demands of life, let’s first embrace the ambivalence that can come with making this decision. It is possible to feel both uncertain and excited about what you can do with your newfound time away from work. You also will need to embrace the unknown. Release any previous, longstanding ideas for what “success” looked like so that you can try to imagine alternative paths that better fit your life.

And remember, the great thing about choices is you can always make another one.

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