Friday, January 9, 2009

The career...lattice?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I wrote a post earlier this week about the interesting proposition that Michelle Obama (and all future first ladies) should be paid. I was a little skeptical of that idea, simply because one doesn't necessarily have to be qualified to serve in the role of First Lady (if we even knew what those qualifications were), but I think that behind the paycheck issue lies the very real fear that Michelle Obama is being forced to put her career on hold because of her husband's political success. I was talking to my mom earlier today and she expressed her disgust for the role that Obama is suddenly filling. My mom asked, reasonably, whether Bill Clinton would be picking the curtains for the White House if Hillary had been elected. But she wasn't just upset with the system that makes the role of First Lady amorphous and domestic; she was disappointed in Obama, who she thought shouldn't just be accepting the demeaning, upholstery-choosing role that seems to be reserved for presidents' wives.

I was thinking about all of this when I encountered an article from last Sunday's NYT Mag about Caroline Kennedy's Senate bid, and the way that we think about career experience. The author, Lisa Belkin, suggested that the "career ladder" simply doesn't work for women who want to take time off, as Kennedy did, to raise their children. These women don't just sit home and eat chocolates, Belkin argues, they perform a wide range of activities that enrich their experience but are difficult to articulate on a resume. She writes,

"Women changed the culture of the workplace, not least when highly visible women began to leave it. The rhythm of office work — its hours, its demands, its life cycle — is designed for a man, ideally a man with a wife back home with the kids. Ever since the industrial age, career tracks have been built on the assumption that you can work around the clock in your 20s, shoulder increasing responsibility in your 30s and 40s and begin to ratchet down and move over for the next generation in your 50s and 60s.That doesn’t work for many women, who are apt to want to pause, physically and emotionally, for children, maybe slow down in their 30s, when men are charging ahead, and come back with a new energy in their 50s, when men are slowing down."

Courtney Martin at Feministing correctly points out that this is a very middle class way of looking at career paths. But Belkin's idea of the "career lattice" instead of the "career ladder" is intriguing, and it seems friendlier not just to women who want to take time off to raise their children, but to men who want to have families as well. And I wonder if we thought about careers this way, as flexible rather than linear, based on adaptation rather than a specified climb to success, we would be less willing to see Michelle Obama pigeonholed into the role of "mom-in-chief". In other words, if the idea of the "job sabbatical" was socially accepted, both for men and women, would we be taking Obama more seriously? And would she feel that she could accept the power of her position more readily? What do you think? Is the idea of a "career lattice" crazy, or brilliant, and is it even possible?


At January 9, 2009 at 6:13 PM , Blogger Roscoe said...

As if all this stuff was socially imposed!

Hate to tell you, this is all economic in nature. It's absrud to think a woman in her 50's (or anyone for that matter) is as valuable to a company than a recent college graduate, and if you think it's all social stigma, then I can't tell you more than to study economics a bit more. The rhythm of the work office has nothing to do with some assumption about lifestyles, it is just the opposite: The rhythm is just a natural progression from mortality and experience and what not.

The "career ladder" also doesn't work for men who want to take time off. The career ladder is just the most efficient. I'll grant you that there is sexism in the workplace, no doubt and that it should be dealt with because there is no evidence that men are naturally more productive than women. But I'm not going to grant you anything about this ladder business until you can prove to me that it is not going against the company's best interests, in which case it's not sexist, only efficient.

Moreover, if Michelle had as successful a political career as Bill, then it would obviously make no sense for her to be picking curtains. But she's just another person like everyone else. She's the spouse of the president and that's it, sorry.


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