Friday, March 8, 2013

More on women and work (including me)

It's International Women's Day... and I've been doing some more thinking about my previous post on women and work, and about Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In. I haven't read it yet... but neither have a lot of people who have been writing about it, lol. And from what I hear, the people who have actually read it are being much kinder to Sandberg than those who haven't. 

In my previous post I said, "Some mothers (and non-mothers) are perfectly happy with "average jobs." Not everyone is cut out for the C-suite. Not everyone WANTS a C-suite job."  (Also, there are only so many C-suite jobs to go around. Someone has to do the actual work, after all. ;)  )

And I don't want to let men, and corporations, off the hook. They have a responsibility to level the playing field in the office, and to step up their own game at home.  It's just plain common sense. (I recently saw a hockey analogy about women's equality that went something like: "A team isn't going to be playing its best if half the players are sitting on the bench.")

Apparently Sandberg does acknowledge this in her book. But her focus is on what women themselves can do to advance in the workplace. And I get what Sandberg is saying, or at least, what I think she is trying to say. Too many women sell themselves short. We don't ask... and so, often, we don't get.  We close off our options, sometimes without realizing the long-term consequences of what we're doing. As Sandbery put it in her infamous commencement address to Barnard College graduates, women too often "leave before they leave." 

I will admit it: I'm one of those women who leaned back (probably prematurely), instead of leaning in. If I had put a little more thought and effort into my career and what I wanted out of it, I probably could have advanced further than I have. I'm not genuis-smart (although I was known as a "brain" in school) -- but I think I am fairly bright. I just never had a huge ambition to manage people and budgets.


Partly, I think, because my interests lie in the work itself -- in the content, in writing. And right now (more than ever, it seems), it's all about the process. Meetings upon meetings, project plans, background briefs and (of course) round after round of  approvals. (But that's not something that's entirely within my control.)

Lack of self-confidence?  Yep, that's definitely me. ... I have never been one to shout "Look at me!" and increasingly, the people who get ahead are the ones who are good at self-promotion (if nothing else...!).

Laziness? Well, yes. ; ) I'll admit it, lol... Don't get me wrong, I do my job and there are plenty of days (particularly at certain times of the year) when I am run off my feet.  There have certainly been times when I have stayed late &/or taken work home with me.  But (thankfully) it's not a regular thing -- and that's just fine with me. I find that a standard work day -- which stretches to 11 or 12 hours most days, when commuting is factored in -- is definitely enough.

I have a friend who is a high-powered corporate lawyer for a big law firm. She routinely puts in incredibly long hours and works weekends. Yes, she gets the big bucks, but... I like being able to leave at a decent hour, and leave my work behind me. I am just lowly enough at work that I don't have a work-issued BlackBerry. I remember when my former boss got promoted to a level where they gave her a BlackBerry... I told her, "I'm not sure whether to congratulate you or offer my condolences," lol.

Part of it, I think, is that I am a product of my times. Yes, I am a proud feminist and I grew up in the age of Ms Magazine, Gloria Steinem, the fight to ratify the ERA in the U.S. (defeated) and the successful battle to ensure that women's rights were included in Canada's new constitution in 1982. 

But -- I did get my start in the 1960s. Mindsets and roles were still pretty traditional when I was growing up. I was told -- and I (mostly) believed -- that I could be anything I set my mind to be. And one of the things that I wanted to be, assumed I would be (besides being a writer) was a mom. I knew that I was going to school, and that I would have a career. But I thought (for awhile, anyway) that I would stop working when I had children. As time went on and the economy floundered, I came to realize that I would likely have to keep working once I had a family. But in the back of my mind, marriage and family still loomed large. I still saw my future primarily in terms of the family I would have.

I hoped that I might be able to afford to work part-time while my children were small. (Whether I could have actually afforded to do so is another story...) In fact, around the time that I got pregnant, I had some tentative discussions with my office best friend/coworker about job sharing -- she may have even brought the subject up. I saw part-time work as an ideal way to spend some extra time with my long-awaited baby and still keep one foot in the workforce and in the company where I had already established myself. She was in her 50s, hoping to retire at 55, and thought she could ease her way gradually into retirement with such an arrangement. Job sharing was relatively new to our company, but I had done some stories for the staff magazine about several such arrangements that were working well.  I think we could have made it work. We worked well together. We figured we could each work on our own projects, for the most part, and each put in two full days a week, and figure out how to split the fifth day. We would keep each other updated, and would be accessible at home if there were problems.

But then I lost my baby. :(  And the stock market tanked with the dot-com crash of the late 1990s/early 2000s, and the investments she was counting on to help fund her retirement lost value, and she wound up working until she was 59. And that was the end of our job sharing discussions.

And while I haven't got a family as my "excuse" for not climbing the corporate ladder, I can't discount the impact that pregnancy loss and infertility have had on any ambitions I might have once had. I don't think I was hugely ambitious, pre-Katie.... but I think it's safe to say that I have never felt quite the same way about work and my job in the years since then. There's nothing like death, like stillbirth, to drive home what's really important in life -- and believe me, it's ain't work. I am a firm believer that nobody lays on their deathbed wishing they had spent more time at the office.

But... we all have mortgages or rent to pay, and food to put on the table. And so we work. At least I had a good job to go back to after my loss. I heard numerous stories, as a pregnancy loss support group facilitator, and as a longtime frequenter of pregnancy loss & infertility forums, from women who made career choices based on what was best for the hypothetical family they hoped one day to have. They "left before they left." Some of them actually quit their jobs when they became pregnant. And wound up with neither job nor baby. :(  And, sadly, sometimes without the partner they had hoped to build their family with, too. So I think we need to think carefully about the choices we make at work, and why we're making them, and keep as many options open for as long as we can.

As for me -- right now, I feel like I've painted myself into a bit of a corner at work. I've been in the same department doing much the same kind of work at more or less the same level for almost 27 years now. For a long time, 15+ years, I worked with the same core group of people. There wasn't much in the way of specific job descriptions or established procedures (that has since changed), but we all knew each other well, and what we could do together. They knew me, knew what I had done, knew my capabilities. I remember one of the senior managers once told me he had such tremendous confidence in my writing, that he knew he could throw anything at me and I could quickly turn it around into something lucid.

And then, one by one, they all left. :(  

(Retired, fired, moved to another department or another company altogether.)  I can remember when I went in for a "getting to know you" chat with our new senior VP (who has since left herself) and she told me that of all the people in our department she was having the hardest time figuring out exactly what it was that I did. "I do anything and everything that anyone asks me to do," I told her, which was basically the truth. I thought I was being flexible, and I thought that was good.

But so much has changed in the past 3-5 years. The department was restructured, and many of the projects that I used to work on or assist others with are now the responsibilities of others. People keep coming and going.  I'm having to prove (and re-prove -- I will soon be on my fourth direct manager in three years!) myself over & over again. While there are still a core group of us 40 & 50-somethings, the department has gradually been overrun with bright-eyed, ambitious, energetic 20 and 30-somethings -- kids, young enough to be my own children. 

Sometimes it's hard to keep up. It's hard not to feel old and tired, and sometimes overlooked and unappreciated. It's hard not to look at the calendar and start counting the days until I might be able to retire. 

But that's still at least three years away. What to do between now & then?

I don't particularly want to take on more responsibility at this point in my career. But at the same time,  I'm not entirely sure my my talents are being well or fully used, either. :p

"What would you do if you weren't afraid?" Sandberg asks. I'm not entirely sure. It's something I need to think about.

But I'm glad she is asking these questions, and making me think about them.

I'm hoping to pick up the book soon... if/when I read it, I'll definitely let you know what I think about that!


  1. I think it is really interesting, and now I have another item on my to-read list. One of the most important things to me about my job is the flexible time. My career is important, but so is my own time--and I felt this way long before I had a baby at home. Being able to pursue my own interests on my own time is invaluable, and my ambitions are basically as high as necessary to fund the vacations and hobbies that I want to take/do on a regular basis. At the same time, I'm conscious of the sacrifices I would make without thinking (or calling them sacrifices) to spend more time at home and less time at work... And I don't want to be made to feel like I'm failing feminism should I choose such things! I'll have to check out this book.

  2. Hmm. You really made me think with this one. (in a good way).

    I think I may need to pick up that book.

  3. I grew up being taught that I could be anything - and I definitely had a different experience growing up as I was raised by my Dad. I saw sexism from the other side since no one took his parenting seriously and many mothers displayed open discomfort / contempt when he dared show up for PTA meetings and the like - especially when I was younger.

    Dad was C-suite at his company so I got an inside look at that career track. Then again, there's nothing that can really prepare you for management work. ;)

    I've been many things over the years - musician, soldier, senior manager, IT. The last is what I do now. I don't think I'll ever go back to management. To corrupt a saying: "Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt. It doesn't fit." ;)

  4. I really loved this.

    About 10 years ago, I got out of corporate life. Leaning away, rather than leaning in. I did it for a number of reasons, only one of which was because I was hoping to have children. I did it because I was more afraid of ending up like the disgruntled, even bitter, men in their 50s, than I was of not succeeding. (At the time, a number of my smart, capable female friends were also quitting their jobs and becoming self-employed. My teenage niece asked me if that didn't just mean that all the women were "copping out"? (The answer is a whole separate post from me!)

    Now, though, I need to think about "What would I do if I weren't afraid?" This question is also timely. My husband's job has been restructured out of existence (we're just waiting to hear formally), and tonight I am going to ask him "what would you do if you weren't afraid?" Because it's not only women who are afraid. It's only natural.

  5. A couple of years before leaving my native country and the job I had there, I was promoted. Those were two years I quite hated going to work, because I was no longer doing what I liked, but spent days after days in meetings, talking budgets, negotiation non-negotiable items with every collaborator who thought it was his or her duty to pest me with stuff I had no control over, and resented me when I sent them to talk to someone who could help them. I wasted weeks and months of my life conceiving procedurs, implementing them, trying to make office life easier, just to have my each and every move commented and judged. And you know, after I left, those procedures were so loved, respected, protected, fought for by everyone, yet no one ever thanked me for the bloody job. It was not something I chose to do, it was thrusted upon me, it took time out of my needed me-time, I spent more time in the office than with friends and family, and all for what? Quite a disenchanting experience.
    I spent all the money that I earned those years on travels, the only motivation I had to go to work.
    I love GeekChic's last sentence. It sums up my second to last work experience quite well.

  6. Two relevant articles in today's (Sunday) New York Times:

    Review of the book by Ann-Marie Slaughter:

    "Is There Life After Work?" by a former Lehman Brothers employee (who -- ALI alert! -- is childless and going through IVF at age 47):

  7. As always, thanks for a post that really touches on so much of what matters to me and has me nodding my head along at so many points! Like many other women of my generation, I pursued a fairly high powered career trajectory - in international development, which was obviously totally incompatible with building a family. So as soon as my husband and I decided we wanted to try for a baby, I scaled back, but the baby never arrived. I too feel I've painted myself into a corner and limited my job prospects (I'm currently unemployed), and there were a few factors to that. The further I rose in my high octane job, the less opportunity I had to pursue the aspects of the work that really mattered to me, and then when I lost my son, and have not been successful with ttc since, I just kind of lost interest (in work), and to some extent, still continue to drift. I have to keep hoping that one or both of these situations (the unemployment and the childlessness) may yet change for me, but the focus has shifted, and right now anyway, I kind of feel like I don't 'fit' anywhere. But I wish society would find more ways to recognise those of us for whom the conventional trajectory just doesn't work out. I'm still trying to find a way to be a voice for that.

  8. I don't know how I missed these two posts ... I have to make sure my reader is working for your blog! Because YES, this is such a great discussion!

    What you say in your previous post is applicable here, too. Maybe you *would* have "leaned in" or been more ambitious if the price for doing so had not been so high ... if the expectations (company Blackberry etc.) had not been so unreasonable. We are not slaves to our employers. We are people. And we're better employees when we are allowed to develop ourselves as the people we are.

    I know many women who "left before they left," too ... some, as you describe, who made plans to be a stay at home parent, and then had no baby to parent, and no job to return to, either. That's both a problem with work culture AND non-work culture ... wouldn't it be great to figure out a "sabbatical" system for the non-faculty work force?

    I don't know that I've been prevented from doing things because I've been afraid. Though since I agreed to take this job, I've been worried that perhaps I made the wrong choice, that really what I want to do is write. I don't think that's financially feasible for us right now. I'm hoping that this job will, paradoxically, let me think about that by giving me professional structure again, away from being a parent.