Sunday, January 8, 2017

Women, men, careers and choices

I wonder about the consequences of certain behaviors—what they lead to and how they change people. I was talking to a good friend yesterday about careers and career progression, and we were exchanging war stories from our respective workplaces. It struck me that she is experiencing now some of what I experienced about ten years ago. In my case, those experiences led to a significant change in how I viewed workplace leadership, careers in general, my career, and career progression. I have come full circle when it comes to careers; I started my work life with real gusto. I wanted a career and went after it. That’s no different than what many younger women experience these days, just that at the time I did it (the late 1970s/early 1980s), it was still considered a ‘big thing’ to want a long-term career if you were a woman. I remember Ms. magazine and how it promoted women’s value in the workplace and the importance of a career in women’s lives. Feminism promoted the idea of women having a choice; they could choose the home or the workplace, or both. The latter proved to be quite difficult when I was young, because it wasn’t easy to give your all to the workplace and then at home with a family and children. Most of the women I knew at that time (in the USA) solved that dilemma in different ways; some were wealthy enough to hire nannies to care for their children, while others placed them in private daycare. Others worked part-time and gave up the idea of having a full-time career. They had a job that helped pay the bills but which gave them the opportunity to be with their children more. All of them acknowledged that it was not possible to be a full-time employee and a full-time mother, and whether they felt guilt about that was not the issue. They acknowledged that something had to give, and sometimes it was their taking care of their own children that was sacrificed for their career. I don’t know how most of them feel about that decision at this point in their lives (most are in their early 60s). The few women I know who have truly reached the top were and still are dynamos whose children respect them for the fact that they broke through the barriers that had hindered women. But again, those women had full-time help in the form of nannies or parents who were available to help them raise their children.

Sometimes now I look at the younger women I know, who have so many more choices than we ever did, and I don’t see their lives as easier than ours. I rather see them as much more difficult. Even here in Norway, where equality between the sexes has come a long way, there is still grumbling and dissatisfaction with the way things have worked out for women. Why? Men are expected to do more at home and to contribute equally to childcare and housework. But most of the polls show that women are still doing most of the housework and taking care of many aspects of childcare that men don’t seem to or want to manage. I have no firm opinion about it; I am merely an observer and a listener. I know many younger women who live alone and have no desire to have children, while others have married later and had children later in order to give themselves the opportunity to build a career. What I hear from many younger women who work full-time is that they miss not being with their children when they are working; they wish they could spend more time with them. Their consciences bother them a lot. I think it’s an instinct in women to want to be with their children; perhaps an instinct that men have as well. When children arrive, life takes on a different character. The future of their children becomes important, more important than their own lives. That’s the way of nature, a way of ensuring the survival of future generations. There is not enough time in life to do everything wholeheartedly. We cannot have it all—the perfect job, the perfect home life, the perfect social life. None of them exist. Guilt simply makes life more stressful. I am not saying we can eradicate guilt; I don’t believe we can nor should we. But there is a happy medium. There is a way of living life that does not require a person (woman or man) to sacrifice her or his all on the altar of the workplace, only to go home completely sapped for energy and willingness to take part in family life. I think it is wrong of workplaces to expect that, and yet, that is the definition of the modern workplace—more efficient, more productive, always can be better, always can top last month’s or last year’s sales—in other words, never good enough. Striving for more—more power, more prestige, and more money--continually. That is the nature of the workplace and perhaps the nature of human beings. But it does not lead to happiness, real happiness. It does not lead to any sort of internal peace, it ignores the needs of the soul and the heart. Because in the midst of the striving, the questions come. What am I doing this for? Why am I doing this? What’s the goal? Why am I sacrificing my family life for a job that will spit me out when the time comes to cut budgets and personnel? Why do we willingly sign our lives over to a corporation that cares nothing about us in the long run? Why do we do it? We have to start asking the tough questions. If we do, there is hope for change.

My career is nearing its natural end. I never had my own children, but I think if I had had them, I would have wanted to spend time with them. I say that however from the perspective of now. I really don’t know what it would have been like to have tried to balance children and a career. Of course I would have had help from my husband, but still, I think it would have been stressful. He and I have careers that are not 9 to 5, and they still demand a level of engagement that we cannot give them anymore. I want much more free time to pursue my hobbies and other activities. I don’t regret my choice of career or the financial and intellectual independence it gave me, but I can see why women and men choose not to pursue a career. It comes down to listening to yourself, to your heart and soul. If you know you don’t want to devote your life to a career and that you would rather stay at home with your children or work part-time in order to spend more time with them, then that should be a choice that society respects and rewards both women and men for. Such a choice is no longer ridiculed, but it remains difficult for many couples to make it work. Social trends and our culture have created the need for materialistic lifestyles that require that couples work full-time in order to make them possible. Something has to give. Some couples are choosing simpler lives—making do with less, moving from cities, working for smaller companies, starting their own companies, working for companies that allow them to work at home—all those things. I hope that society moves in that direction—toward smaller rather than larger, and toward less materialistic rather than more. I hope too that the right to personal choice, to following one’s heart, and to wanting peace of soul count for more in the years to come.   

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