In Her Words: What I Was Allowed To Do
I stayed home with children for the better part of 22 years. During that time, I volunteered at a very intense level. I live in an affluent town and my service league, filled with Harvard MBAs, overachieved on a different level. Though I have no fancy advanced degrees, I carried a huge weight, stood out as a leader, and always got things done. I led the establishment of a sorority at a local university (this was a huge undertaking), sat on multiple boards, developed and executed multiple strategic plans, and ran huge events… all unpaid. I felt confident that, someday, all the skills I had gained and kept fresh – from managing huge teams to maintaining up-to-date technical skills and developing my network – would serve me well when I wanted to return to the workforce. I was incredibly naïve. Apparently, developing a database only counts if you are paid. The same goes for hiring and managing vendors, managing teams of 80 people, growing revenue, and developing and executing a budget. Regardless of my numerous accomplishments, the assumption was that I had spent the past 22 years sitting around reading magazines and baking cookies.
In 2019 I began a job search in earnest. It was humiliating, to say the least. “The things I am allowed to do,” a phrase I’ve heard from others, kept hammering at me. A woman like me is allowed to be a realtor, a yoga or spin instructor, an interior decorator, preschool teacher, or nanny. That’s basically it. Those were the choices. And, none of them appealed to me. I have an incredible network and some friends did try to help me. Others proved to be a grave disappointment. Some of the highest-powered women were the most disappointing of all. They all encouraged me, stating very clearly that they had never worked with anyone more competent than me and that I was selling myself short as my goals were reduced to hoping I could find work as a receptionist.
Everyone loves their mom. Everyone says staying home with kids is the hardest job there is. Then, why aren’t the women (and, in a few cases, men) who do it allowed to shift careers back to paid work when their work at home is done?
My journey brought me to a placement agency where I met with a young woman who was about 26 years old. I was 48 at the time. Have you seen the TV show Younger? You need to see it. I loved the scene where the main character, a 40-year-old Duke grad who tries to return to the workforce following her divorce, was interviewed by two young women. The woman I spoke with tipped her head and asked in a very nasally voice, “Would you be able to use Outlook for calendaring?” I nearly fell over. I told her that, in fact, I had been using Outlook since before she was born. What I heard was that my resumé was too accomplishment-based for her.
I had subsequent conversations with people who were better able to understand my value but still completely unable to do anything to help me get my foot through any door. I was willing to answer phones. If the first job was at a company I particularly wanted to work for, I was willing to accept minimum wage. I was not too big for my britches. But after 11 months of searching, I still had nothing.
In the end, I applied for a job at a small company near my house through indeed.com, and miraculously the company saw me. I mean, they really saw ME. They were excited by me. From their perspective, they were able to have a mature, polished employee sit at the front desk to welcome clients. They were able to hire, in an entry-level position, someone who would show up for work every day and who knew how to prioritize tasks, get things done, suggest improvements, and work with a team. I’ve done extremely well. I’ve been working for less than a year and many new opportunities have come my way. I am lucky to work for an incredible woman who inspires me to reach my full potential. I love my job and feel very fortunate.
But the path it took for me to get here still bothers me. Here’s something I know now: Women aren’t as good to each other as we need to be. Women who stayed home weren’t always nice to the working women who didn’t volunteer as much or who phoned it in on the bake sale. Women who kept working aren’t interested in opening the door for us. They have worked hard to stay on the highway, no matter how tempting the offramp looked at times. They have fought battles to climb the ladder. Why should they use what they’ve gained to help me? I can tell you why.
When there are more women, it’s always better for all women. You can resent me for staying at home to raise my kids. You can resent me because you wish you had that option or the temperament for the job (for what it’s worth, I did not have the temperament for the job — my husband insisted, which is why I did such a crazy amount of high-level volunteer work). But, at the end of the day, when you look around the conference table, wouldn’t it be better to see more female faces?
As women, we need to break down the door and leave it open behind us. We need to invite other women through the door. We need to be a club. All women. We all make different life choices along the way and we need to stop making each other pay a price for those choices. Men have already made us pay enough.
Because this is my soapbox and I’m not quite ready to get off, I’d like to tell you one more story. It’s about my sister. She’s two years older than me, worked many more years than I did, and has been home for about 11 years. She is apparently totally unemployable, which is absurd. My sister, who has been known to drive me crazy, is absolutely the number one most effective person I have ever known. If you need to get something done and have no idea how to do it, my sister is the person to call. Seriously. She can get anything done on any deadline. She is a force of nature. She is also a woman who has been considered difficult at times. And, it’s true. She can be difficult because, when has been given a task and a deadline, she will do whatever it takes to make it happen. It’s her superpower. She should not be micromanaged — she should be given something to do. Then, everyone needs to do exactly what she tells them and everything will work out. I swear. There are so many applications of her skillset that I am flummoxed by the barriers she has faced in looking for new opportunities.
I could tell many more stories of all-star women with all-star capabilities and no way to open the door. If we aren’t willing to actually open the door, let’s, at minimum, make sure there’s a knob on the door so that a woman can reach out and open it for herself.
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