The rise of the “highlancer”: Working moms eschew the C-suite for flexibility

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It’s often said glass ceilings and the old boys’ club keep successful women from reaching the corner office as the pinnacle of their careers.  But do today’s working moms want to be a CEO?

For many women, the grueling years that are most critical to reach the corner office overlap with the years to start and raise a family.  Frequently, trying to accomplish both leads to feeling stress and lack of fulfillment in both arenas.  Choose your career and compromise on your family time; choose your family, and you’re likely to be passed over for executive growth.

A subset of today’s working moms – who had previously chosen the C-suite path toward the executive chair – are creating a new conversation about what it means to have it all.  A recent Harvard Business Review article reported today’s working women want more meaningful work, more challenging assignments and more opportunities for career growth, but cited job titles and similar status concerns – such as being in the C-suite – as less relevant.

When it comes to statistics and even anecdotes about women’s careers, work-life balance and the existing gender gap in corporate leadership (only 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women; women hold only 14 percent of executive officer positions), so many of us have experienced a bifurcated drive, both motivated to break the mold and make a difference, yet deflated and searching for fulfillment elsewhere.  Many of today’s moms have graduated from top schools, honed their skills in some of the nation’s most premier professional firms and, now, have chosen a different path.  For them, statistics and anecdotes aren’t answers.

Enter the “Highlancer.”

The term refers to a new breed of freelancer and often a new option for working moms. Highlancers are highly qualified individuals, having typically attended prestigious undergraduate and graduate schools. They have also been big-firm trained, but, experience in the corporate world has left them feeling disillusioned and dissatisfied.

Acting as independent consultants, highlancers have ownership over their careers.  This particular aspect is appealing to high-achieving women who crave challenging assignments, meaningful work, as well as flexibility and freedom to balance family life and personal interests.  By removing concerns or previous desires to feel valued at the office and replacing them with a self-driven career path, for women highlancers, the glass ceiling has disappeared.

“It’s all or nothing.”  Is this really an unacceptable choice?  Many women roll their eyes at this notion that you either need to lean in or opt out.  Highlancing offers working moms a true “third-way, ” allowing them to contribute a second income and meaningful work without giving up the freedom to devote time to family and personal investment.

And, the business community has taken notice.  With flourishing startup communities and a growing need for project-based work, hiring highlancers has increasingly become a profitable relationship and a formidable business strategy.  A massive 76 percent of respondents told oDesk that their use of contractors was a long-term strategy.  More than 80 percent of those surveyed either agreed or strongly agreed that remote hiring increases competitiveness and that the practice will soon be common.

Businesses are popping up around the nation to support this freelance workforce.  Brick-and-mortar buildings, such as the fast-growing $10 billion WeWork network with several Denver locations, provide collaborative work spaces to “make a life, not just a living.”

Other new innovative firms are also emerging, such as Canopy Advisory Group (a *tiny* plug), which support highlancers by connecting them with clients, thereby alleviating the stress of doing business development and slugging through mundane back office tasks such as invoicing and client contracts.

Clients who seek on-demand resources may need extra hands, but they’re looking for the right ones.  For Brian Abrams, the board chair for the Presidential Scholars Foundation, bringing on a high-level consultant to do mission-critical work without the FTE status was a godsend.

“Not only has she changed the organization, she has changed my life – now I only have to spend one hour a week meeting with her instead of the treadmill that I had been on,” Abrams said.

Are highlancers only women?  Only moms?  Of course not.  Highlancing is a choice, not a demographic, that certainly provides margin for raising your own children, but also, in our experience, caring for an elderly or ill parent, nurturing relationships, pursuing hobbies and interests that make you a more complete person (and even a more passionate professional), and any number of deficient areas.

This community of highlancers is a meaningful addition to the workforce who predominantly still believe this country needs to continue making changes to achieve gender equality in the workplace.  But, this is not a generation that sits idly waiting for change.  Highlancers are already carving their own paths to success and not looking back, a path that doesn’t end in the corner office.

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