Saturday, May 26, 2007

No Free Ride

Clark, Morgan Steiner, and others are telling women on the playground that they won't get trapped staying home and can always go back to work. Such good news -- if only it were true. In the only actual quantitative study (meaning the kind of data collected according to generally accepted scientific methods from a statistically meaningful set of subjects), Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Center for Work-Life Policy found recently that just a little more than half of women who wanted to return to full-time work ever found full time work at all. And these weren't just any potential re-employees. The women in the center's study were "highly qualified," meaning they had earned nothing less than bachelors' degrees with honors or professional or graduate degrees...Not only do highly qualified, eager women not always get full time work, other studies have shown that the women never get back full time jobs comparable to the ones they left. Hewlett's data shows that you lose 37 percent of your earning power if you're off more than three years. Morgan Steiner's article places the point of no return at ten years.

I figured that out when I was 17--why is it so hard? Working as a clerk-typist at a bus company it was pretty obvious that the only alternative to a career was a job. My co-workers were young women, trying desperately to get pregnant so that they could quit and middle-aged women, forced back to work when their kids were grown. I went to college, and grad school, and made a career for myself, to avoid ever, ever having to to a job again.

How can any woman smart enough to get a good BA or graduate degree imagine, in the teeth of all empirical evidence, that after ten years off she will be able to hop back onto the fast track, into an interesting, well-paid career? It's hard enough to get interesting work even if you're right out of school pushing full steam ahead. After ten years out, the luckiest women, who've managed to snag high-yielding husbands (and avoided divorce), will spend the rest of their lives assing around, selling real estate part time. Most though will end up doing boring, dead-end, pink-collar drudge jobs for the rest of their working lives. Most people, women and men, spend their lives doing rotten, boring drudge work--and the only way to avoid that is to fight like a demon for a career.

Maybe what bothers me even more than the idiocy of this fantasy is the sense of entitlement that of women who imagine that they can pick up where they left off--the implicit assumption that the rules are different, and should be different for women. No one imagines that a man who dropped out to bum around at 30 should be able to take up where he left off ten years later. There aren't enough good jobs or good lives to go around, and if you want one of those very few good jobs you have to fight for all you're worth and sacrifice. If you choose to take ten years off, you pay for it--and that is as it should be, whether you're male or female, whether you spend those ten years traveling around the world, chaffeuring the kiddies to soccer practice, or lying on the street in a drunken stupor.

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