I worked with Mary over 20 years ago. Mary, then 48, was a well-educated wife and mother of four and grandmother to 6. She was an executive director with my first employer, a leading multinational – the only female executive director at that time.
All her children were university graduates and working abroad. She seemed to have it all. During her tenure as the company’s Sales Director, she led sales volumes growth in double digit figures. She was celebrated in her community and was often called upon to give motivational talks to the girl-child.
I remember that day as if it was yesterday. The day we heard a loud cry coming from Mary’s office. In a panic, we all rushed to her office to find her face buried in her hands, her shoulder rhythmically rising up and down in sobs. The whole office was concerned. She was inconsolable.
After a while, she blurted out “My husband is leaving me for a twenty-four-year-old girl! A girl old enough to be my daughter!” There was a deafening silence in the room. You could hear a pin drop.
I wanted to offer her the same advice I would give any other 23-year-old age mate – that men are not 12 in number like the disciples of Jesus. If one man leaves you, you will get another. But Mary was 48 years old! That would not work. I was tongue tied like the rest of my colleagues. One by one, we filed out of the office and left her fellow directors talking to her. What could we have said? If the problem was work related, say low sales volume, then we would have said that the economy was bad and she should take heart as it would recover. If any of her family members had died, we would have consoled with her. But this….well, this was a strange situation.
Over the lunch hour, Mary’s story fed the gossip mill in the company cafeteria. Unfortunately, the very leadership skills and competencies she had honed over the years leading our company to success were blamed for her failed marriage. We all forgot the yearly bonus we enjoyed due to her unrelenting efforts. At this time and point, she had failed. It was her responsibility to hold her marriage together. From that time on, every poor judgment she made was harshly judged and linked to her failing marriage. When a lady gets married, has children but her marriage falls apart, does that make her less of a leader?
Life for a woman happens – Leadership, career, marriage, motherhood, sickness, infidelity and divorce all happen to the same woman at the same time. Isn’t it ironic that as women get to mid-level and/or senior management levels (approximately age 35 -50), it is also the same season that her husband is in a mid-life crisis?
According to the book Lean in by Sheryl Sandberg, the most important decision a woman will ever make regarding her career is the spouse she chooses to marry. Women are relational beings. If you want to destroy a woman, touch her relationships. Divorce can have a devastating effect on a woman’s career. In divorce, you lose common friends, in-laws, church and business partners. Someone once said that divorce is death without a burial, and especially so when partners have to keep seeing each other because of the children.
In death, there is a structured support for the bereaved. One gets sympathy and condolences. Workmates care about one’s feelings and will support you till you get up on your feet. This is not the case with divorce. The society holds the woman in high esteem and expects her to pull herself and soldier on. So, in addition to the loss of a marriage, she now has to contend with rejection. She mourns the death of a marriage alone. She was fearful and unsure of how to handle herself as her world is turned upside down.
Nobody goes into a marriage hoping it will end in divorce. I have watched ‘good’ women get divorced. I have also watched ‘bad’ women celebrate their 50th year anniversary. I have watched marriages heal and reconcile after an affair. I have also watched others never quite recovering. How then can a woman cope with the stress of divorce and still maintain a steady growth in her career path?
One word – Commonize your problem and face it head on. Let me remind you of Hillary Clinton. You are not the first to be cheated on. You are not the first to be dumped. You are not the first to be divorced. Can I submit to you that as you read this article, there is a woman right now being dumped? So be strong, don’t let the season define you and who you are. The Bible asks us to commonize problems (No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. 1 Corinthians 10:13). Cry if you may, scream if you need to. But moving on you must…for yourself and for women leaders coming after you.
You are probably thinking, how is this going to help me? The answer is this, Common problems have common solutions. Many ahead of you have gone through the same issue and come out victoriously. Don’t focus on what’s gone, but focus on what’s left. The beautiful kids that you had together. The good times you had together and smile. It is a common problem, and it shall pass and not define you.
See you at the top!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Beatrice is passionate about Women in Leadership. She believes that achieving an equal female leadership voice is vitally important to serving clients, community and to the growth of the company.
As a senior manager in a leading multinational OF manufacturing sector, she leads the efforts in retaining, motivating and developing women across the various sites in her company. She loves helping women make their current roles fit their unique needs – whether is transferring to a different geography, focusing on an industry or utilizing work opportunities to truly shape the career that is right for them with the flexibility to change it as their needs evolve over time.