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Women, Play the Long Game

Why working mothers need to think like chess masters.

In recent years, there has been much discussion about the outrageous cost of child care and the role it plays in mothers’ decisions to leave their full-time jobs. (Yes, we know it isn’t always mothers, but let's face it: In the vast majority of cases, fathers keep working while mothers take time off.) No wonder as many as 42 percent of women take a step back at some point in their careers, opting either to work part-time or to leave the workforce entirely. Families in the U.S. typically spend more than 30 percent of their total household budget on child care, often more than they spend on housing, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute. When a mother compares the cost of child care to her monthly pay after taxes, very often the numbers don’t make sense. Faced with earning very little and being separated from precious offspring for several hours a day, many make the choice to take a career break.

We advise women in this situation to take care. Making what appear to be financially smart short-term moves can prove damaging both financially and career-wise in the long run. Instead, imagine your future — both personal and professional — as one very important game of chess.

Why chess? We were hugely inspired by Disney’s film Queen of Katwe, which tells the true story of a girl from a Ugandan slum who became an international grand master. One quote says it all: “Chess helps us solve our problems…it teaches us to make a plan.”

It’s such a beautiful and apt analogy that we have used chess as a springboard to offer five points of advice to working mothers.

1.Think like a chess master. A chess master doesn’t resign from the game simply because she is in a tricky situation. She thinks strategically, planning three or four moves ahead. She has an eye on the end game. What moves can you make now and in the near future that will help you manage both family and work without having to sacrifice your career entirely for any amount of time?

Your decision to give up a full-time job probably makes sense today based on the emotional, financial, and practical considerations that exist right now. But will that decision enable you to play the role you want, living a life you love, in the long term?

Having young children is a temporary condition. As one working mother put it: “Seeing my daughter start [high] school made me really think about what I was going to do with the next 20 years of my working life, something I had given zero thought to when she was 6 and I resigned from a great job.”

Your children will not be young forever. Have a long-term plan.

2.  Adapt your tactics as the game progresses. Chess, much like your career, is a long game with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Imagine your future — both personal and professional — as one very important game of chess.

The first phase of chess is busy. There are lots of pieces on the board, and you need to get moving in order to position yourself tactically for the future. It’s the same when you leave college and start work. There are a lot of recent grads out there with similar qualifications, so you dig in and work long hours, establish yourself, and build your network.

As the game progresses, things change. In the middle phase, children come along who need and deserve attention. And while young children are needy, teenagers are equally demanding, but in different ways. It is during this middle phase that a grand chess master stands out from the crowd because of her ability to devise cunning strategies; to use skill and imagination; to take risks and to be creative. It must be the same at work.

Mothers who need flexibility have to be able to negotiate it without their careers paying a heavy price. Too often we see that “part-time” becomes synonymous with “unambitious,” and flexible schedules preclude women from taking on more responsibility. That doesn’t have to be the case. Be creative about defining your role and contribution, take risks, and be prepared to be measured on output — not on hours worked. The benefits to your long-term career will be immense.

And what about the later phases? There are fewer pieces on the board. Children grow up and you have fewer demands at home. There are many years of working potential ahead. If you have positioned yourself well, here is when your career can and should take off once more, and where the game is won.

Your goal from the beginning? Plan, adapt, position. Stay in the game. Play to win.

3.  Be prepared to sacrifice some pieces, but always plan a few moves ahead. As the grand master of your own life, it is inevitable that you will need to make sacrifices. Think carefully about what pieces you are willing and able to put aside along the way to maneuver yourself into a winning end-game position.

That might mean taking a different role for a while, perhaps having more (well-defined) flexible working arrangements. Sometimes this might require a sacrifice — passing up a promotion or relocation. If you do make such sacrifices, make sure you are not written off for promotions and choice assignments over the long term. Invest in learning new skills. Seek out a mentor or a sponsor who will look out for you in the future. And get ready to make your next big move a winning one by maintaining and growing your networks.

Women hate the term “networking,” associating it with warm glasses of white wine in uncomfortable rooms with a bunch of strangers. But in fact women are consummate networkers — they are good at collaborating, having conversations, and helping people out. Our research has shown that when women return to the workforce, they are much more likely to do so through friends, contacts, and personal networks than they are through formal recruitment channels.

At home, too, there will be sacrifices. Outsource the less-important tasks and make sure you do not become the family “do-it-all.” Children grow up and have their own lives. Keep an eye on you.

4.  Know that the queen is not the only piece on the board. As you plan your moves, remember that the queen is not the only piece on the board. Yes, she’s important. Powerful. A great multitasker. There is (probably) a king as well, on the same side of the board as you, wearing the same colors. You need to have a shared view about what “winning” looks like. And you need to play as a team. For every woman we meet who feels unfulfilled because she gave up her job, there is often a partner who feels stressed from the pressure of being the sole provider.

More companies are beginning to offer support to both working parents, with paid paternity leave and flexible schedules becoming more the norm. Share the joy. Share the burden. Play as a team.

5.  Be a player. Women are creating lives as working mothers that suit them — for now and with an eye toward their future. To be sure, they have to be focused and tenacious. They must take it on themselves to negotiate the role they want. If they cannot work five days a week, they make up for it with their quality and delivery. They have the confidence that comes from knowing their value as professionals, and from continuing to develop that value, even when they are at home.

Many women still see their career as a series of reactive moves, responding to circumstances as best they can. But if you think like a chess master, that begins to change. There's a bigger game to be played than achieving work–life balance. It’s the game of creating your life, one move at a time, designed to set up all the people and organizations in your sphere — your partner, children, clients, employers, and network — to give you the opportunities, support, and guidance that you need to succeed each step of the way.

She’s Back is gathering data on the experiences of women who succeed in returning to work following a career break. The ongoing survey can be accessed here.

Lisa Unwin

Lisa Unwin is cofounder of U.K.-based She’s Back, which helps women build careers with a focus on work–family balance and advises companies on how to attract and retain more women. 

Deborah Khan

Deborah Khan is cofounder of She’s Back.

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