In A Career in Your Suitcase, Jo Parfitt and Colleen Reichrath-Smith state that the key to a successful career lies in “finding our passions, which we can also think of as our vocation or the work we were uniquely designed to do... [but that] converting these passions into a career requires ingenuity and persistence.” Adding some more practical advice, Parfitt goes on to say that “Once more I looked inside myself, and decided I had to calculate which among my many careers had the most earning potential. I had to think hard about which of my skills would earn me the most money per hour and for which there was also a market.”
While this is all good advice, and should be heeded, the reality of the situation for women who have been out of the workforce for 15 years or more is a bit more complex. These women are in competition for jobs with professionals 20 years their junior, job-seekers who are armed with MBAs, PhDs, JDs, MDs; diplomas highly valued in today’s job-market. Unfortunately, the life experiences and volunteer work that stay-at-home (SAH) moms may have had are not afforded the same value by prospective employers. And, to make matters worse the demonstrated managerial skills of these women are often seen as threats to the job security of their future managers and colleagues rather than assets to the company.
These job-seeking SAH moms must also contend with age discrimination in the work force. While gender discrimination, racial discrimination, and the advantages of cultural diversity has received a lot of attention in the past few decades, age discrimination has been almost totally left out of the discussion. Women 40 years-old and up are faced with the antiquated notion that they are ‘over the hill’ and ‘all washed up’ further reducing their job prospects. All too often their age and experience are seen as liability rather than assets, particularly within the narrowly-structured, bureaucratic hierarchies found in the corporate world.
This was the reality I was faced with in 2005, when after 17 years and 6 international relocations as a trailing spouse I decided to re-enter the work force. So instead of looking for a job in the corporate world (something which I did not really relish) I decided to utilize my unique work-life experiences and start a business, Global Expats.
Unfortunately, while the feminist movement of the past 50 years has done much to challenge gender bias in the work-force, gender bias in the courts has not been challenged with the same zeal and dedication. The difficulties and challenges I found in my efforts to create Global Expats were not so much in applying the advice of Parfitt and Reichrath-Smith – that was the easy part. The true challenges came from the elevated levels of discrimination I encountered along the way, as a foreigner, woman, an above all homemaker. This is central to an issue highlighted in the 17th Session of the Human Rights Council – “unless women can achieve economic independence or be empowered socially and politically, the human rights they hear about will remain an abstract concept.”
As Pamela Stone, author of best-seller Opting Out? – Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home points out, homemakers have been “removed from the public domain… and rendered relatively invisible and silent [as a political force]… learning what they have to say is thus important… What women themselves tell us is that their decision [to opt out] represents… a formidable obstacle to leading a life that integrates, not segregates, work and family. When these high-achieving women [leave] they take with them a voice for valuing family, as well as for the values of care and connectivity that can leaven and offset the prevailing workplace culture that is hostile to families and by extension to women. These high-achieving women aren’t voting against work or careers, they’re voting against an outdated male model of work that ignores their reality, and voting for family. Work-life lawyer, activist and author Joan Williams argues, “In this day and age, when 70% of mothers are in the work force, to define the ideal worker as someone without family responsibilities borders on the irrational.”
So as I continue to tilt at windmills – a female, modern day version of Don Quijote – challenging gender-bias and antiquated ideas of motherhood and work-family balance, as well as the discriminatory norms that have encumbered my entrepreneurial efforts in the past years, I keeping ‘plugging’ along with the “ingenuity and persistence” – and then some – that Parfitt and Reichrath-Smith advise.