Musings on Being a Professional Woman

dancerjpgWhen I was a girl, my mother always told me, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” Although that’s not quite true — I could never become a professional dancer, for example — it certainly set me on a path to pursue my interests. Back in the ’60’s and ’70’s, when it maybe wasn’t so common, I was a child who was over-scheduled by my own choice. I begged for piano lessons starting at age 5, was in choir, did gymnastics and swimming, joined an amateur musical-theatre group, took ballet and tap dancing, and the list goes on. I was the baby of the family and came along at a time when my parents could afford to nurture my dreams. What if I had not been born into a family where such things were possible and encouraged? How different might my life have been?

My mother herself was encouraged by her mother (a schoolteacher) to make the most of her talents, winning a place at a grammar school and doing well there. During the Second World War, she worked as a telephone operator, often transmitting military messages. She met my father at a dance and, soon enough, married him. She gave birth to my brother virtually alone in a hospital in wartime England, doing what needed to be done. Moving to my father’s small home town in Quebec, she adapted to her surroundings, including learning French over the years. When her children were a little older, she wanted to work, and became involved in a program for special needs children. My father discouraged her from this as he wanted to be the “provider”, supporting the family, as was the common way of things. My mother contented herself with being involved in our schools and at one point also volunteered her time teaching English to immigrants.

In my immediate family, though, the sisters and the brother were all treated equally and afforded any available opportunities if we so desired. My parents supported my limited attempts to pursue singing and acting, although they did encourage me to have a “career to fall back on”. Really, I did not have the drive or the industry knowledge to begin to push myself forward in “show business” and so I went to university. What if I had not been lucky enough to have had that opportunity?

In the last year of my degree, there was on-campus recruitment in my chosen field, during which I was told out of the blue by a partner in the firm, “Do you plan to have children? Because if you do, this is not the career for you.” Can you imagine anyone saying that nowadays? Do people still ask that question of young women?… although, even in the ’80’s, it was certainly not a legally permitted recruiting question in Canada.

cutting and pastingI did actually join that firm in spite of that particular partner, and I told the powers that be that they might want to reconsider their choice of on-campus recruiters. Another partner called me sweetheart one time, as he was known to do with the young women. And I remember one of the partners bypassing the young men in the open work area and giving the young women a cutting-and-pasting project because we would be so good at that! Imagine! To those of us who entered the firm at the same time, though, all of us, whether women or men, were equal — young professionals (yuppies) with the same or equivalent degrees, all subjected to the same rigourous standards. Maybe the world was changing.

80s suits

Photo credit: Pinimg.com

In my firm in the ’80’s, women were required to wear skirted business suits and pumps. Any woman who came into the office in pants would be sent home to change. No joke. Maybe that’s why I no longer wear skirts or dresses, pretty much ever. The few women I worked for in the firm were people who had by necessity devoted their entire lives to their careers. I remember, though, that there was one female partner who was a ground-breaker, having three children and somehow managing to work with the firm to balance her work life and her home life.

Nowadays, it is much more common for such workplaces to accommodate family needs. While I no longer work in that part of my profession, my organization is accommodating to family and other personal needs, not only for women but also for men. We try to be flexible, understanding that people in general need “wellness” days and flexible time, and that young children need their parents to be there when they are sick, drop them off in the morning, and/or pick them up in the evening. I suspect, though, that not all workplaces are so understanding.

I now work in the non-profit world, in an organization where the top two tiers of management are more than 50% women. Given that nearly 80% of our  employees are women, though, that percentage could certainly be higher. Don’t get me wrong… I don’t believe that there is discrimination in our hiring. I do believe that we as a society are still not at a point where a majority of women generally have the same advantages (or even encouragement) as men, to obtain the education and experience to qualify them for those top positions. And admittedly, it is very hard to balance work life and home life when you are in an upper-management position, given the demands of the job. Many women still do the bulk of the child-rearing, even while holding down a demanding position. I do see that changing, though, with some of the younger men who work in my organization.

scalesIn my organization, we have equal pay within a position group, regardless of whether the incumbent is a woman or a man. However, we continually lose people to other sectors (i.e. not non-profit) where the salaries are higher. So, even though salaries are equitable across our organization and across our sector, the fact that 75% of people who work in Canadian non-profits are women means that many women’s salaries are still lower than men’s in our society. Despite pay equity efforts in various jurisdictions over the years, we still do not have equal pay for work of equal value across all sectors. And in the non-profit sector, that is very difficult when we are often reliant on government funding, which does not always keep pace with the corporate world.

The theme of International Women’s Day 2018 is “Press for Progress”. There has certainly been progress in my lifetime. However, I am aware of the advantages I have had and I want to look for opportunities for change, to help lay the groundwork for other girls and women to achieve their goals. I want to continue to press for progress.

8 thoughts on “Musings on Being a Professional Woman

  1. It’s absolutely amazing what changes happen over a couple of generations. I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I recently started binge-watching Mad Men. The first several episodes were just incredibly jarring to me, seeing what it was like in the workplace for women during the early 60’s. The change is gradual, but it happens!

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    • It is amazing, isn’t it. Even today, one of the young fathers here has taken the day off to care for his sick baby, while his wife has gone in to work. It’s a gradual change in attitudes.

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  2. At least in academia, potentially employers regularly ask questions in job interviews that are illegal under US employment law (what is your religion? what are your political views? are you married? do you want to have children?) such that when we prepared grad students for interviews, we included “tactful answers to illegal questions” on the list of talking points. I would never ask “do you have want to have children” in an interview, but when students would come for the “I want to be a professor” talk, I always included that on the list of talking points, insofar as universities are incredibly discriminatory against female parents, married or single, and because I feel that if that’s an important thing, the student will need to strategize, both in terms of using her reproductive years wisely and in terms of figuring out how to navigate the child-care heavy years right after that while navigating the beginning of the career (which are necessarily simultaneous). At the penultimate campus I taught at, the female to male replacement rate was such that, if there were not concentrated initiatives to hire women, reaching the mere employment parity rate (the point at which women would reach the same rates of employment and rank as men) through attribtion would have taken 134 years (this was the result of a study the university did) and the annual penalty at the full professor level for being a woman was discovered to be $14k in salary (which has consequences for benefits calculations as well).

    That said, I do acknowledge that things are better than they were in the 1960s!

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    • I’m surprised that people still ask those kinds of question, from a risk point of view. At least in Canada, if you ask those questions and the person doesn’t get the job, you are taking a real chance that the candidate could file a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal. I think, though, that including such realities in a potential career discussion is very helpful. When you haven’t experienced realities of a demanding career or of child-rearing, it’s hard to grasp how difficult it is. I still really struggle with trying to balance everything. Sometimes I think I only succeed at being a “jack of all trades; master of none”. At 23, when I was asked that question, I was focused on building a career and the idea of having children anytime soon was not on my radar. And in fact it was 11 years before I actually did have children. So the question seemed really out of the blue to me, in addition to being inappropriate. On the other hand, employers don’t have it easy, not being able to collect info that could be relevant to the investment they are making in the person.

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      • They can do it because the only way to complain about it in the U.S., as far as I know, would be to initiate a civil suit or else try to get the government (EEOC) to initiate a complaint. I was involved in trying to get the EEOC to initiate a complaint once, at a campus I worked at, in a group of women who alleged a pattern of discrimination. They only take cases they know they can win, i.e., the most egregious ones, so that they can immediately negotiate a settlement and get on to the next thing. Sketchy questions in an interview wouldn’t qualify. It’s amazing how unprofessional people can be. I once participated in a hiring process in which the head of the search committee went through the applications ahead of time and sorted out all the candidates from Ivy League campuses and everyone whose dissertation topic touched upon a gender / sexuality issue. “They wouldn’t be happy here,” he explained. Then, there was discussion at the initial hiring meeting of how they could circumvent the campus guidelines in the initial interview process (at a conference interview, they were to interview in a gender ratio that corresponded to the published gender ratio in the profession). It just went on and on. They *know* they are breaking the rules but they also know that unless someone on campus interferes, no one will stop them. And there are big disincentives to people “in the know” interfering, even if they disagree with what is happening, as they will all have to work together again afterwards.

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        • Ahh. I think, then, that it is easier to file and pursue human rights complaints here. I guess depending on workplace culture in a large organization, people will try to get away with what they can. And of course it’s hard to make a stink when you have to continue working with people. We try hard not to discriminate in my organization and anyone who was found to do so would be taken to task for it. But I think that charitable organizations may operate somewhat differently from some other organizations.

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  3. I assume if you’re working for that kind of non-profit (perhaps I’m wrong), part of your compensation for the lower salary is your feeling that you’re working in concert with your values. If you didn’t have the values, that wouldn’t be an attractive work setting (I assume). One of the problems with universities is that people can be there for very different reasons and when they’re settled for a while, they perpetuate their own cultural assumptions (even if, perhaps, in growing awareness that the world is changing around them). I get that; I tend to be change-averse myself. What I’ve never understood, though, is why people with such great minds can’t be as critical of their behaviors as they are of others’.

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    • Yes, that’s right. I’ve worked for another non-profit whose purpose was not charitable, and it wasn’t the same feeling or the same cohesiveness of purpose. Change is hard and sometimes scary. We were talking at work the other day about some intelligent people we know that are just not self-aware. Change takes self-awareness as well as a willingness to potentially give up something, including feeling secure.

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