What I wish I could tell the Young Women about careers

First of all: that it’s fine to have them, that they don’t just have to be a backup plan, that work and motherhood can be compatible, and that there’s nothing wrong for a teenager to dream of having it all.

(That’s a lot of things for a “first of all,” I know, but those have all been covered a million times in a million other places. Bear with me.)

Second of all: you don’t have to become a teacher or nurse just to get flexibility. My YW program growing up did an excellent job telling me I could work outside the home, which I appreciate–and which I know is unusual for a YW program–but the examples they always showed me, whether through their own jobs or career nights, were teaching, nursing, and other traditionally female jobs. Recently, wondering if that was unique to my YW program, I read through the old manuals looking for specific examples of women with jobs. The results? Teacher, nurse, babysitter, and seamstress. (I haven’t read all of the new manuals yet, but from what I’ve seen I doubt they repeat this trend, if only because they’re so much less specific.)

Let me be very clear: there is nothing wrong with those jobs. They’re incredibly valuable and I admire anyone who can do them well. If one of those jobs are truly a YW’s passion, and she’ll be good at it, she should by all means pursue it. For me as a YW, though, these examples were confusing and, ultimately, alienating; I wasn’t interested in any of those jobs, and the repetition of those examples and praise of their flexibility left me wondering whether I’d ever be able to balance family and any job other than teaching. That sort of narrowness in preaching and example is also part of what leads to the “pink collar” cycle: they’re generally female-dominated and, not coincidentally, underpaid and undervalued, and as we push women towards those jobs because we’ve stereotyped them as feminine jobs well-suited for being balanced against family needs, they become even more so.

What would I teach the YW instead? Choose something you’re really, really ridiculously good at. (And if that’s nursing, great! We need more people good at nursing.) Don’t think about flexibility and work-life balance; think about marketability, job availability, pay, passion, and, most of all, what you can excel at: in most fields, if you’re a superstar you get more negotiating leverage, more rewards, and more alternatives, and that can be true even at or near the entry level. (I manage a team of relatively junior people–average age 24–and I give far more leeway in hours and working from home to my top performers than to the others.) Some jobs may never lend themselves to real flexibility–a high-powered corporate lawyer may need to leave the firm and strike out on his or her own to get family time–but being a good enough high-powered corporate lawyer can help you find another job in your field that will bring that flexibility. (What’s more, as Ryan Hammond points out, the jobs at the top of the market right now are in some ways more likely to lend themselves to work-life balance as employers compete for talent.)

In short, girls, be ambitious! Not just “even if you want a family,” but especially if you want a family. Lean in to your education and ambition while you’re young. Don’t pick a job for its (real or imagined) flexible hours and family friendliness; look at the “whole gamut of human endeavor” and pick a job where you’ll be the best and you’ll find it might be more family-friendly than you think.


  1. Excellent, Petra!
    I absolutely agree with you that rather than picking a career track for its reputation of flexibility in general, a person should somehow become a rock star and maximize their negotiating position.

    I can’t recommend my own career path in good conscience to others, any more than I can recommend having 3 kids by age 25 (even though both are working out)

    That said, as a small business owner who is out of the startup phase, I have unspeakable flexibility in my work schedule, often leaving my office for days at a time to work from home or to travel where there is no cell signal. I got to this point through drive and education and stress and lots of risk taking and lots of luck and a splash of workaholism… but I would never be here if years ago I had to secure a “flexible” job working for somebody else.

    I think in most uses of the term “family friendly jobs”, it would be more accurate to say “jobs that are commonly done at 75% time to match school hours” or sometimes people mean “jobs without travel or tight deadlines or meetings/calls outside of work hours”

    and I think “flexible” usually simply means the worker can pick the hours, the way nurses with seniority can pick their shift, or the way a doctor or lawyer or speech therapist can work very short hours, if they are in demand and once they are free of student loan debt. But they are still paid strictly by hours worked and I bristle that the word “flexible” is ever appropriate when you are paid by the clock and the location of the work is not in your control.

  2. These are great. As you say, flexibility isn’t really field-specific. If work-life balance is the goal, you can probably find a way to do it in whatever field it is you’re interested in (and the same is probably true for workaholism, too!).

    I actually started my career as a high school chemistry teacher. I did my undergraduate degree at BYU, and I guess I bought into all the stuff about finding a “flexible” career (which, by the way, teaching isn’t. You have to be there when you have to be there, it’s really hard to take a day off, and it’s hard to avoid bringing work home). I am embarrassed to admit this now, but I vividly remember walking back to my classroom after lunch one day, only a few months after I’d started, thinking about how much I disliked my job, and wondering how much longer I’d have to stick it out before I was rescued by marrying someone who could support me financially. (Okay, so my feminist awakening came in stages.) I was so mad at myself for even thinking that, but it was a good way to realize that I did not love teaching and that if I wanted to spend my days doing something I enjoyed more, then I needed to do something about that.

    I started a graduate degree in atmospheric sciences (a branch of applied physics) the next fall. I’m fortunate now to work in a field I care a lot about, and at a job that doesn’t drive me crazy. I see further career tweaks in my future, but I’m headed in a good direction.

    I’d encourage young women to think seriously about the financial possibilities of their chosen career. Not that money is everything, or even the main thing, but I do think women should be realistic about what kind of wages might be required to support themselves in whatever they define as their minimally-acceptable lifestyle. More and more LDS women are now in a position of being a breadwinner for selves and/or family, and I think it’s smart to think in advance about what kind of bread you’ll be wanting to bring home, and plan accordingly.

  3. I particularly like your suggestion that we teach YW to consider pay, passion, and ability in career planning. My experience with YW could not have been more retrograde; I was left with the impression that even to plan for a career in nursing or teaching–neither of which interested me in the least, anyway–was a sin against God and sacred motherhood. And the irony is that teaching girls that they cannot be anything other than a mother is a great way to induce hatred of motherhood.

  4. “And the irony is that teaching girls that they cannot be anything other than a mother is a great way to induce hatred of motherhood.”

    Amen. The older I got the more I pushed back against the role that was being pushed on me. I was so afraid that if I ever did become a mother, I would have to only be that and give up everything else I cared about.

    Great post, Petra. I think it is grossly irresponsible to not prepare YW for the financial realities of adulthood.

  5. Really bright people who are capable of being ridiculously good at something they’re passionate about tend to flock with birds of similar feather, and tend to assume that everybody shares those traits (or at least everybody but those incompetent service people who get our orders wrong and ship our products late and forget to bring the peppermill and get in the way while they’re sweeping up the hair trimmings). But by definition, only a few women can be at the top of a career field, and Young Women classes are filled with girls who won’t be superstars no matter their planning and educational opportunities and ambitions and ideals.

    Does your advice apply even to them, or does reality force modifications to it that will still allow such girls to support themselves and children in a family-friendly way?

  6. Ardis, I thought about privledge as I wrote, and about how not everybody can be above average. *

    I do think the advice to aim high is solid, because if everybody tries excel and keeps their eye on improving their marketability and pay and flexibility, everybody is better off than they would have been, even though not everybody will be at the top of their field. For instance, a YW on a modest career path as a hairstylist or waitress can excel at it in order to get opportunities at nicer places, maximize her pay/tips, and get preferred scheduling and other accommodations.

    * gladly, it IS possible that we all be above average in one area, “Latter-day Saint women should be the best homemakers in the world.”

  7. Petra, this is great advice. In my YW experience, I was constantly assured that I would eventually change my mind about wanting a career and come round on being a mom (it was clear that’s an either/or choice). It was obviously fine if a woman sort of stumbled into having to work, and ended up as a cashier or secretary, because her husband died or left her or was out of work, and it might be okay to get a degree that would facilitate her in finding work a step up from this, but if you go out and get a degree, and then a job related to that degree, and then continue to pursue that career, then it’s clear you’re doing that whole thing on purpose, and that’s inexcusable.

    If we talked about careers for women in terms of ability and passion, rather than just last-ditch necessity, women might be better enabled not only to balance career and family if they want to, but would be better able to take care of themselves and their families in the almost inevitable case that they have to.

    It’s weird how confident we are in telling women to manage large families balanced with demanding callings, demanding callings their husbands might have, temple attendance, visiting teaching, community service, etc. — but we lose all faith in them when it comes to balancing family and career.

  8. Petra, I love how you encourage young women to have ambition, to have passion, to dream, to go beyond the rigid and limited possibilities often presented to them at church. I hope more YW get leaders who have this vision. I think we must take every opportunity to teach our YW that what they want matters.

    I do struggle somewhat with your advice about doing something you’re really good at. While growing up, and even in my 20s and into my 30s I didn’t feel like I was really good at anything. I really lacked confidence. I agree that it is good advice to become good at something. I suppose I would have benefitted from assurances that it may take many years to develop those skills and talents.

    The other advice we’ve been giving our kids (to no apparent effect, so far), is to follow their dreams, but also remember that there dreams might include owning a home, or being able to get paid sick leave, or working in a field where it is not hard to find a job. Of course they may dream of other things. One man I hometaught for years made his living as an actor, writer, director, producer, painter, etc. He was very good, won a Peabody, was in some major movies, and yet he lived hand to mouth. He was happy with that trade off, but some people might not be, so I encourage my kids to think of the totality of their dreams, and look for a profession that is the best balance that they can find.

  9. Great points, Petra. It makes sense that if YW are able to find work they’re really good at or passionate about, it’s more likely that they can work flexibility in later if they need or want to. And on the plus side, if they have to be primary or sole income providers, as so many of them will, they’ll be in better shape to do so.

  10. I have two girls who are 19 and 16 right now. I have told them from the time they were babies that the order in which things were done was graduate from college, get married, have babies. You would choose to not do the last two but the first was prerequisite to anything else. So far, so good. Wish me success in the long run!

  11. I have a daughter who is in the Stake Y W presidency. (secretary)

    She is also the senior bomb appraisal officer, in our state for the federal police.

    In her spare time she is a volunteer fire officer.

    She earns a good wage and has just bought her fourth house.

    No LDS male interest romantically.

    At lest some of the young women will see an unconventional example.

  12. Petra,

    Loved the post. I can see why many LDS women are attracted to fields where there are established, institutionalized patterns of flexibility that can be compatible with being the primary child rearer in the home. It is a worthy consideration to include in ones career plans. However, like you said I wouldn’t want to see our young women culturally constrained or directed into such jobs. One of the issues is that because flexibility is so attractive to so many women is that wages in such jobs tend to be lower as demand for the jobs outstrips supply. Being a teacher in Utah is a good example. They pay them peanuts precisely because they have a huge surplus of women willing to work it as low, second earner wages. Nursing has its own dynamics and it is a field I would actually recommend to many women of all different skill levels and ambitions who have a legitimate interest in health care and medicine. There are lots and lots of good jobs within nursing. See our current profile of the Medvac Flight Nurse, for example.

    That said, the spread of knowledge work that doesn’t require a person to be physically present is making many different options available. The road can still be tough and one thing that is usually required to get time and location flexibility in these jobs is an established track record with a single organization/employer/manager. This is why I kind of twitch a bit at Laura’s list (#10). Mine looks like this: college, establish career, babies with marriage coming at any point in that sequence (my wife and I loved being married in college). As I mentioned in my post, a college degree is not sufficient to be guarenteed a family sustaining job in today’s economy. You need work history and a way to keep a foot in the labor market or concrete on-ramping strategy should you decide to take an extended leave etc.

    As you said, being very, very good at what you do is the surest way. When you do this, of course, it may turn out that the women’s career ends up being worth keeping even as kids arrive and other arrangements made. At very least it opens up options and the more options women (and men) have the better.

  13. I agree with Ryan’s point about marriage coming at any point because marriage does not need to equal babies (my first came 8 years after my marriage).

    But the advice to do something where you will be “the best” makes me twitch. I’m afraid putting the conditions of being passionate about your work and being at the top of your field in order to win flexibility are conditions that would sound impossible and intimidating to many young women. I chose my “passion” (although by the time I was done with my training I was no longer passionate about it) and got a Ph.D. in biology, thinking professors have flexible lives. Ha! Biology faculty can be flexible about whichever 12 hours a day they want to work. That was not for me.

    I wish I’d had some mentoring and guidance about synthesizing my goals to have kids, earn some financial security, and do meaningful work. I’m jaded enough by life to think that going for your passions without thinking about practical considerations is a bit dangerous. Most of us will not be “the best.”

    I would tell young women (and men), if you are fortunate enough to be passionate about something – then do it! You will probably be great at it. If you don’t know what you’d like to do, or if you enjoy many things, then do lots of research, ask lots of questions, make lists of things you want from all aspects of your life. Accept the fact that you will not get all of them. Choose a partner who will be your biggest fan and encourage you. Look at people who have been in the fields you may choose for 10+ years and ask if that’s a place you’d like to be. Also, accept that your life will not always be “in balance.” It’s a good thing to strive for, but you’re not a failure if you make compromises.

  14. Nursing is one traditionally female/flexible field that pays very well, particular if one has additional credentials. A nurse anesthetist earns more on average than a primary care physician.

    A nursing degree also offers lots of options for branching out into research, administration, etc. if hospital shift work is not your thing. And of course PRN work during the child-rearing years.

  15. This is great! I never had any idea my current career existed as a thing. Luckily, I never felt boxed in to any specific career track, so I was able to use my college years to explore widely, and now I can’t imagine doing anything else!


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