13 December 2012

Reentering the Workforce in the 21st Century

I often have the radio on while I am working around the house, and the station I listen to most often is NPR (National Public Radio). This morning, I folded a few loads of laundry while I listened to the Brian Lehrer Show on NPR. One of Lehrer's guests today was the writer Judith Shulevitz from the New Republic, discussing her article "How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society." Shulevitz spoke generally about the current trend among parents to start their families later in life than the prior generation did, and what she calls the "scary consequences of the grayest generation." She took calls from listeners who both applauded and took issue with her concerns. It was actually a very interesting program, and I paused over the laundry to listen closely.

There was a time when women were advised to have their children at as young an age as possible, to lessen the possibility of age-related birth defects (which, for a long time, were considered the "responsibility" or "fault" of a mother who waited too long to conceive). My mother, a product of that  time, still thinks that anyone who has children over the age of thirty is an "older" parent. Much of that advice has been left in the rearview mirror, what with the advent of sophisticated prenatal testing and the knowledge that men's age too plays a role in the health of a baby.

But the women who were advised to complete their families in their twenties were part of a generation in which they were not expected, and did not need, to work outside of the home. The education of women and attitudes toward us in the workplace have changed. Most working- and middle-class American women are now expected to enter the workforce and to have a career other than - or in addition to - motherhood.

Shulevitz spoke a little bit about the effect on children, and on society generally, of women who become mothers after they have established careers. She spoke about older grandparents, and difficulty with conception into one's forties, and the now-familiar juggling act women are expected to perform when they have small children at home but nevertheless work full-time in an office, alongside male and childless counterparts.

But the thing she mentioned that really caught my attention was that most women who leave the workforce after a period of being home with their children find it difficult - or impossible - to reenter the workforce after their children are grown. She suggested that employers should provide, as a basic benefit of employment, the opportunity for stay-at-home parents to reenter the workforce at the level at which they left.

This idea struck me as revolutionary (and, to be honest, extremely unlikely). The working world, like it or not, penalizes women for leaving to care for their kids.

I practiced law for ten years before stopping to be a stay-at-home mother to my three. The job I left was a wonderful one in a big firm in Manhattan, and my bosses - the partners at the firm - were kind and accommodating of my needs. But my children had issues that required them to have a parent at home, and, frankly, I wanted to be that parent.

I was home full-time for seven years, and I would have stayed home longer if finances had allowed. But the difficulty of living on one income became overwhelming. I had to go back.

I called my old firm and was told that the job I left had been filled by a man. I sent resum├ęs to dozens of places, only to be told that the seven-year gap in my working history was a major problem. I asked friends and professional associates for help, but I came up empty-handed. I eventually settled on a less-than-entry-level position at another big firm, at a fraction of the pay I had earned before leaving. I worked at that job for two years, while hunting for something better.

I was eventually offered a job that seemed promising: an in-house position at a German-owned company that would allow me to use my language skills and my legal training. The pay wasn't good, but the work as it was described to me seemed challenging, and the benefits would be a great help to my family of five. Unfortunately, when I started there, I discovered that, despite my title of "Attorney," I was actually a secretary to the general counsel. My job responsibilities included taking dictation (which I was terrible at, having had no experience or training), typing and filing, and serving coffee at meetings.

My protests - that I was every bit as educated (and more) than the male boss whose office I dusted and whose plants I watered - fell on deaf ears. I stayed for a year. When I explained to the CEO, on my last day, why I was leaving, he said, "We did bring you in with the promise of being a lawyer again, but we thought that, as a woman with young children, you'd actually prefer the less demanding secretarial work."

I'm home again now, working part-time doing writing projects for my husband's busy criminal law practice. The work is sporadic, and the pay is nonexistent. Our financial issues persist, and now we have college tuition in the short-term future. I don't know what the answer is. As a lawyer, I am virtually unemployable because of a choice I made in 2001 - one that seemed correct at the time.

Ms. Shulevitz's idea of employers offering parents the option to return to the work force after a period of staying at home is a tantalizing one. Imagine if I could have had my old job - or a similar one - back after my hiatus! The seven years I spent at home were hardly wasted time. I served on the board of the local library, approving budgets and drafting resolutions; I led a Girl Scout troop where the lessons and activities were heavy on civics and fund-raising; and I raised three bright, happy, well-adjusted children into their teens, while my husband was able to focus on building his business and his professional reputation.

Surely someone who's done things like that would be a desirable employee and should be welcomed back?

Society talks a lot about the value of women in the workforce, and about jumping through all kinds of hoops to keep them from dropping out. At the same time, we are sent the conflicting message that a woman's highest calling is to be a wife and a mother. Can we raise our own children while still earning a living? Can we take the breaks we need from our professional lives without dooming ourselves to underemployment or lifelong financial struggles? If delaying parenthood to a more financially secure period in our lives is a trend with numerous negative consequences (as Ms. Shulevitz seems to think it is), what are our alternatives?


jhl said...

Well-put and thought-provoking post. I am starting to worry that I've doomed myself to "re-entering" at below entry level because of the choice I made, too. And I haven't even been out of the workforce for too long. I had a stellar career, won accolades from previous employers ... and just yesterday got a note from a former boss asking if I might be interested in a job three grades below where I was before. It was infuriating; they knew exactly what kind of high-quality work they'd be getting from me, at a ridiculous bargain price. If they truly valued me, wouldn't they treat me as if I were a valuable human resource?

There are so many other countries that do this better. And yet ... the cultural stigma is pervasive.

Rev. K.T. said...

I like the idea, especially if the woman (or man for that matter) is keeping up with continuing ed units, etc. It seems that teachers get to go in (assuming there is a job) right where they left off, but I'm guessing that is union-based. Very interesting thoughts!