Time to Lose Limiting Labels

Has the moment of respect for the slow “er” lane finally arrived?  I recently read two powerfully persuasive blog posts arguing that it’s time to retire outdated, limiting labels such as, “mommy track,” and “lipstick” entrepreneur.  In other words, it’s time to add a third, valid option to a work+life fit highway.

For too long if you weren’t in the fast lane or stopped at the side of the road, your choice was labeled and judged as somehow “less than.”   And that’s not today’s reality (if it ever was).   Resisting the need to label and, thereby, normalizing all work+life fit choices, makes it easier to move between all three lanes– fast lane, pull-over lane, and a slow”er” lane—throughout a career.  That’s reality.

What’s the slow”er” lane?

I never say “slow” lane, always slow”er” lane because no self-respecting, high achiever would ever be caught in the slow lane, but the slow”er” lane…perhaps.  We need to flexibly shift between the different lanes as determined by our work and personal realities at a given point in time, and feel good about it.   This is especially true in today’s new work+life flex normal.

Sometimes we’ll be in the fast lane.  At other periods, we may pull into the slower lane or stop on the side of the road for awhile.

Historically, the personal and societal judgment that accompanied the choice to pull into the slower lane has kept us stuck physically and conceptually with only two extreme options (fast or stop).  That needs to change.

It’s hard when someone passes you in the fast lane

First, there’s our personal reaction to the slower lane.  In my seminars, we talk about what happens when we find ourselves in the slower lane either by choice or by force.  It can be fine for awhile until you look into the fast lane and see someone passing you by.  It may make you mad and doubt where you are, even though the individual in the fast lane may have a completely different set of circumstances and goals at that moment.  An important part of the work+life fit process is consciously redefining success for yourself to match the fit you are trying to achieve (here and here).

Challenging society’s need to slap a label on it

But then there’s the culture’s powerful need to label , and thereby negate, the choice to pull into the slower lane.  And according to the posts mentioned earlier, it’s time to get rid of two of the most limiting labels, especially for women:  the “mommy track,” “lipstick, or lifestyle” entrepreneurs.

“Mommy track isn’t just for mommies anymore.”

In “The Mommy Track Turns 21,” for Slate.com, Angie Kim, a mother of three and a 1989 graduate of Harvard Law School,  argues that it’s time to retire the “mommy track.”   Not only does it no longer describe the experience of many less-than-fast-lane women, but it limits the ability of men to move comfortably into the slower lane.

As Kim explains in her post, The New York Times coined the term “mommy track” to describe a two-tiered career model for women originally proposed by Felice N. Schwartz in a 1989 Harvard Business Review article, “Management Women and the New Facts of Life,”  “(Schwartz’s) solution: Divide employees in to two groups, one in which career is paramount and the other in which it’s the balancing of career and family that’s most important.”

But two decades later, that neat categorization no longer holds.  According to Kim, “The ‘mommy track’ was renounced at birth for sanctioning boring flextime jobs with low plaster ceilings.  But some of my not-fast-track classmates are using their clout and influence to create prestigious roles….At the moment, only a few, privileged women occupy such a space.  Could a larger, broader set join them?  If the answer is yes, it’s because the mommy track isn’t just for mommies anymore.  Several of my classmates who chose flextime jobs for work-life balance do not have children.  Eight others who work full-time have husbands who stay home or work part-time.  A 2005 Fortune study found that 84% of Fortune 500 male executives surveyed wanted flexible job option to give them more time for things outside of work.”

I agree, it’s time to retire the “mommy track.”  In 1989, Schwartz’s two-tiered career track and The New York Times’ label may have made sense.  But since then, the values and expectations related to work and life have evolved across all demographics, and technology and globalization have transformed the fundamental nature of careers and work, thus rendering the term an anachronism.

However, continuing vigilance of “mommy tracking” is necessary.  This involuntary limitation of the advancement of women because they are or may become mothers can disappear when the culture and employers understand that everyone has a life outside of work, not just mothers.  Losing the label will help.

“I don’t think I’d call them anything but entrepreneurs”

Adelaide Lancaster is the co-founder of In Good Company Workplaces and the co-author with her business partner, Amy Abrams, of the upcoming book, tentatively titled, Good Company: Entrepreneurship for the Rest of Us.

In a recent blog post for the Huffington Post, “Are Women Business Owners Really Second Class Entrepreneurs,” Lancaster argued that it’s time to remove the label “lipstick” or “lifestyle” entrepreneur when describing the “the strong dichotomy that exists in the mind of the general public between businesses that are fast-growing, capital-rich, and highly visible (and undeniably mostly male) and businesses that grow more organically, remain closely held, have greater longevity, have less capital and stay smaller…The first group gets deemed the legitimate ‘real’ entrepreneurs, while the latter group, especially if they are run by women, gets passed off as ‘lifestyle,’ or ‘lipstick’ entrepreneurs.  While in reality businesses in the latter group are run by both men and women, I’ve yet to see a man’s business pejoratively referred to as a ‘lifestyle’ business…I don’t think I’d call them anything but entrepreneurs.”

Lancaster directly challenges society’s definition of success in this area, “The difference between the women we work with and out society’s well-reinforced notion of ‘real’ entrepreneurs is that most of them are focused on long-term viability and sustainability of their venture instead of fast growth and quick sale.  Generally, they are looking to create something that can growth with them overtime, and meet their changing need, and remain something that they can control.”

In other words, these slower lane entrepreneurs are choosing this path for a variety of professional and personal reasons in lieu of growth in the fast lane.  It’s a valid alternative, not “less than” as the labels “lipstick,” or “lifestyle” would infer.   I also agree with Lancaster that valuing the slow growth, sustainable choice of male and female entrepreneurs is critical; however, as she notes, we must continue to expand the access of women to the funding and expertise necessary to take their businesses wherever they want them to go—fast or slow.

Rethinking labels in a “time of no longer and a time of not yet”

As leadership expert Katherine Tyler Scott recently observed in The Washington Post, that “Most of us are experiencing a time of no longer and a time of not yet.”  The limiting extremes of the fast lane or a stop at the side of the road no longer encompass the countless flexible combinations of work and life we will experience today either by choice or involuntarily.

We need to value the third option of the slower lane.  And as Kim and Lancaster point out, this means removing the judgment of outdated labels such as “mommy track,” and “lipstick” entrepreneur that may have applied in a time that’s no longer, but they definitely don’t work today and won’t work in the time yet to come.

What do you think?  What other labels do we need to retire that that too rigidly categorize work+life fit choices in a way that no longer reflects reality?   Maybe even the labels “fast lane,” “slower lane” and “stop at the side of the road” no longer apply!

9 thoughts on “Time to Lose Limiting Labels

  1. Cali, reading this flooded me with memories and lessons learned. I recall the 1989 HBR article by Felice Schwartz because it was my first full year working in the corporate office of a pharmaceutical company. The mommy track was alive and well and I bristled as I read the article; why was I being forced to choose between my child and my career – would I be pigeon-holed? As the only senior management female (with a 6 year old daughter) it was an unwritten law that family needs were never to “get in the way” of work.I was competing with men who had the luxury of stay-at-home wives and my attorney husband worked in another city. The promotions, accolades and worldly success that followed were at the expense of my daughter often being the last to be picked up from activities, etc. Although flex-time, summer hours and paternity leave were official, the unwritten rule that accompanied them was that they were for “the little people” or hourly employees.

    I became an entrepreneur when my daughter was 14 – a mindful choice after my brother’s sudden death created a new definition of success. For more than 13 years I have had a thriving closely held boutique training business. I now have a grown daughter whose memories of being the last kid to be picked up have been replaced by a clear sense of values and respect developed by witnessing the pros and cons of her mother’s many roles. Yes, it’s time to lose the limiting labels or create our own. They can call mine the choice of a lifestyle entrepreneur…. I call it success beyond my wildest dreams!

    1. Jeanne,

      You are an amazing woman and an amazing inspiration. I am so glad you are using your experiences and insights to help others.


  2. Cali-
    I’m definitely a fan of moving beyond labels, if for no other reason than I worry that women hear “mommy-track” and think that’s the track good mommies should be on. Especially if you have some control over your hours, working full-time can be a great work-life fit — I’ve been interviewing a lot of women lately who say moving from part-time to full-time was a great choice for their family. They can afford better and more stable childcare, and as they earn more money and advance, they become less stressed and have more energy for their kids during the time they’re with them. Also, an increasing number of high-income, high-powered jobs just simply do not involve being in one place during working hours. My husband and one of my brothers have, for instance, worked at home fairly frequently without anyone invoking the word flexibility, balance, etc.

    1. Laura,

      Thanks for sharing what you are learning in your research, and I am very much looking forward to your new book. As the moms you’ve interviewed, your husband and your brothers have seen there is no right “answer” only the flexible work+life fit that works for you and your job day-to-day and at major career and life transitions. As a result, there are no valid labels. And I agree with you that the danger of labels is that they place limits on what we see as being possible or “good.” Your example of women hearing “mommy-track” and thinking that’s what good mommies do is a perfect example. I had a similar problems with the “on ramps/off ramps” craze–many, many young women would ask me to share tips for helping them develop their “on ramps/off ramps” strategy. In my head I would be thinking “What?!” Most of these young women weren’t even married much less had children. But the “label” made them think this was the answer.


  3. Cali,
    I love the concept of the “slow”er lane. Sometimes as entrepreneurs we feel guilty for having to take a different path. Everyone’s lives and values change depending on their circumstances. It would be impossible to keep the same pace throughout your entire life. That is true whether you are currently aggressively moving through your professional life or taking a “slow”er approach.

    Being a new mom and an entrepreneur, I had a few people comment that they thought I would be taking the mommy track after I had the baby. While I am proud to be a mom, something about that term just made me angry. It made it sound like it was “less than” or not as worthy as being a full entrepreneur. I’m proud to be able to run a business and raise my child. The other interesting thing is that no one made a comment about my husband being on the daddy track even though we own the business together. There is still that double standard as if women are just running a business until the next family crisis or need comes along.

    Thanks for the insight,

    1. Leila,

      Congrats on your baby and your business! Another great example of the boxes these labels try to put us in. You are obviously strong enough to reject the mommy track label others try to put on you and your choices. But I fear not everyone is so strong, and I wonder how many big dreams became much smaller when someone said, “Oh are you going on the mommy track now?”


  4. Hi Cali,

    I completely agree that it’s time to lose the limiting labels. They just get attached to concepts of “good” and “bad” and I suspect that serves no one positively.

    The whole concept of “The mommy track” has been an interesting one for me, and I agree that it limits the ability of men to move into the slow -er lane. What I’d add is that it also limits the ability of women without children to do so. Children, it seems, give legitimacy to time away from work in a way that nothing else does. And yet, there are other things in life that give it meaning.

    Both by choice and circumstance, I don’t have children. Yet I have my “babies” in my interests in creative writing and therapeutic pursuits. I think this kind of thing needs to be okay too. Frankly, without them, my mainline business career (which, by the way, I’ve now carved outside of the corporation) would by two dimensional.

    1. Christine,

      Excellent point. These labels just limit everyone. Time for them to go!


  5. How about a new concept and catch phrase – “The Sane Lane”…!

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