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Women with career aspirations: step back if you need to, not out

Marianne Harrison is president & CEO of Manulife Canada

Women too often feel they need to leave the work force to have a family and that the pressures of work and family are such that they must choose one or the other. As a mother of four running Manulife's Canadian business, I believe you can have both.

While it is possible for women to be there for their families and grow professionally, there is no question that challenges remain. Some are rooted in women's perceptions of what they can and should be doing at work or at home with a growing family, while some are rooted in outdated norms.

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I remember clearly after returning to work after my second child, a senior colleague took me aside and said that if I had any more children, it would affect my ability to progress at the company. Two months later I was pregnant with my third. In fact, I even had a fourth child.

Here are some things women can do to make it work.

Step back, not out

People ask me all the time, "With four kids and a big job, how do you do it?" My answer is usually I have no idea! Realistically, it's about balancing work and life and making some trade-offs. Today there are many options women can take advantage of to step back, rather than out, of their careers to balance the needs of their families and continue to do well at work.

If you are feeling stretched, reduce work commitments to 80 per cent to find balance. Too often, women don't pursue the option of a shorter work week, but it is ultimately much better for the company to grant shorter weeks than to lose a strong employee altogether. If possible, take advantage of workplace programs that help parents find balance, such as remote-work options or flexible work hours. At Manulife, employees have the option to work some or all their hours from home.

Stepping back often leads to benefits at home. My children and I are very close. They are in their teens and early twenties now, but the relationship doesn't necessarily get easier as they get older; their problems are actually bigger in many ways. There will be a time when your children will need you less, and when that time comes, you will be happy to have a career outside of the home.

Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize

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Identify what's important. When it comes to work, are you looking to climb the ladder? Are you looking to develop a certain skill set? Or are you looking for stability? Determine what you want out of your career and let people know what your aspirations are. If you don't, people may make decisions for you.

Manage your time wisely at home. Consider the opportunity cost of tasks such as cleaning, meal preparation or home repairs. If possible, share responsibilities with your spouse or outsource them to somebody for hire, which will allow you to focus on the personal or professional things that matter. That's not to say that if you derive joy from taking care of the home, you should not do it. But do not sacrifice the time you could spend expanding your career or nurturing your children dusting the shelves or washing the windows.

Take calculated risks

In 2003, I became Manulife's controller in Toronto. Things were going well when I was asked to consider running one of our businesses in Boston. The first things that came to mind were reasons to say no: my husband, four kids with the eldest going into his senior year of high school, and the uprooting of our lives. Yet it was everything I wanted from a career perspective: I would be running a business, which was something I'd never done before. Taking that job felt like a huge risk but also the right thing.

A supportive and understanding spouse and family make all the difference. With their blessing, I accepted the job and we moved in 2008. Then the financial crisis hit, and the business had to make drastic changes. That year proved to be pivotal in my own reinvention. Being entrenched in the many facets of a business I knew little about during a very challenging time allowed me to develop new skills. I loved it. Taking that risk paid off and helped me get where I am today.

Support other women

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Women in leadership roles attract other women to pursue leadership roles, and my executive management team at Manulife Canada is 40 per cent women. When I speak at our corporate sales conferences, Manulife's Global Women's Alliance events, or any time I get in front of employees, I tell my story in the hopes they will find a nugget of value that helps them better achieve their own career aspirations and work-life balance.

We can't always plan the perfect path for our careers, and sometimes it's better to not plan too much. Keep your options open for new adventures. In many ways, it's how we approach these challenges that determines our journey and ultimately our outcomes. Your career path doesn't need to be neat and tidy to land in the right place.

Executives and human-resources experts share their views in the ongoing Leadership Lab series. Find more stories here and follow us @Globe_Careers.

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