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.
- 18 July 2013