Monday, January 25, 2010

Why Women Work

Over the last week or so I’ve been observing women at work as I go about my usual life. Namely women of a certain age. Namely my age. Women approaching fifty. Women born into what is now known as Generation Jones.

One day last week I fell through the rabbit hole. I walked off the street in a small Oklahoma town into the county courthouse and straight into the seventies. Eight women in polyester, lined up, four by four in closely spaced desks faced the front wall. The floor was covered with thick industrial carpet of uncertain vintage, unraveling around a gaping hole where a file cabinet had been removed sometime in the last decade. The women were encased by cinder block, windowless walls, and metal shelves showcasing thick, red-bound books smelling of old paper; land deeds recording the proper and legal owner of every tract of land in the county. Only the flat screened computer monitors on each desk said yes, we are part of the new millennium.

Middle-aged women worked quietly, assisting each other without being asked. “Here, let me carry one of those books for you. Two are too heavy”, one said quietly to her neighbor. As I waited my turn I tried to imagine the life behind each face – what each woman faced at home, why she worked in this particular sisterhood, this secluded cloister.

On Saturday another middle-aged woman served me breakfast at Denny’s in another small town. She was well-groomed, cheerful and helpful, with her coiffed, teased and dyed brown hair. Where did she come from this morning? What causes her to get up each day, willing to pour coffee and serve pancakes to oil workers and travelers?

Friday night the Gen-Jones woman at the hotel desk patiently found her way around the computer program that seemed to momentarily baffle, her nicotine stained fingers displaying chipped nail polish. What had she been doing before putting on her clean, pressed blouse and applying her makeup that would leave that much dirt under her finger nails. Or was that, too, nicotine?

Is this the life these women imagined in their girlhood? As children we watched the confused and confusing world that was the sixties and early seventies. Gloria Steinem, Roe V Wade, no-fault divorce were discussions heard on the nightly news. Yet here we are, nearly 50 years later, perhaps wondering what we have gained. The majority of women work in pink color jobs like the women in the county clerk’s office – poorly-paid bookkeepers, administrative assistants, and receptionists – or in service jobs in hospitals, restaurants and hotels. Eighty-eight percent of people working in health care support positions are women. Seventy-four percent of office workers and 78 percent of personal care workers are female.

I’m going to leave these thoughts out there – blowing in the drafty place that is my mind today. I have other thoughts on the subject of women and work, but for now I have to get on the road. My desk awaits. In the mean time – out of curiosity, why do you work?

Top photo from the Wisconsin Historical Society. Gloria Steinem photo by U.S. News and World Report staff photographer. Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.


jen said...

This is an excellent piece of writing, Cari. You painted such a poignant scene of the women in the windowless office. That last paragraph about the statistics. For lack of a better response - this is crap!!! It reminds me of a piece i read the other day - Women were told they could have it all. Now, they must do it all. Of course, we've learned, we can't. It's just not possible. There isn't enough of me to go around.

Stephen said...

There's a book in here somewhere. Have you looked at Lulu or Blurb?

Cari said...

Thanks for the comment, JenX. Yes, it IS crap.

Stephen - no I hadn't and now I have!

Rhesa said...

The picture is too clear to leave me comfortable. The Shriver Report states some similar statistics as well as some reflections on them from women all over the country.

Tasha said...

Work is such a tender topic for me (on the cusp of Gen X/Gen Y). I have mixed feelings about it, to say the least.

On one hand, I remember coming home to an empty house after school. My mom worked. The one thing I wanted in life was to have a mom who was available for class picnics and to make me a homemade after-school snack. I wanted my dad to work, and I wanted my mom to be a stay-at-home mom. I think this desire, coupled with the fear that some of the things I got into after school while my mom was at work might also be too much temptation for my own child, are what keep me out of a traditional, 9-5 job. Growing from this and what I see other families our age go through trying to juggle two careers and the care of a few children, I have unpopular opinions on the role of the sexes as they relate to whose responsibilities are whose in the household. Some of them hinge on working the system as it is (for instance, men make more in the workplace, so if anyone works, it should be him) rather than attempting to change the system for more equality. I'm not proud of that, but I have to admit that it's where I am for now.

On the other hand, I've tried to do the stay-at-home mom thing. I can't. It's not in me. Inevitably, I find myself working, whether it's for pay or not. I really enjoy what I do and I'm lucky its an occupation that's portable. So, I sort of get the best of both worlds, especially since I'm married to a man who makes enough money to keep us afloat. It's easy to forget that when I get on my soapbox about how families should eliminate the stress and risks of the double-career household.

There's this new book out, All at Once by Mika Brzezinski. It's about what Jen was saying, the things we women run into in our attempts to be all things to all people. Here's the link: I wonder what this book adds to this conversation

Another recent book that talks about this quite a bit is Ayelet Waldman's Bad Mother. It's excellent.

Does anyone else deal with this weird sort of dichotomy when they think about women and their careers?

Cari said...

Rhesa - Thanks for the tip. I'm interested to look up the Shriver Report.

Tasha - I wouldn't be surprised if all women have "this weird sort of dichotomy" about work. It's very challenging to sort out. I think we all try to find a way of managing work and home that makes the most sense for each of our families.

tessa said...

So I know I'm from a totally different generation so this might not be relevant, but one of my professor's made an interesting point the other day.

He was talking about students in our college and said that he worries about college guys. Atleast those in my major. He said that he rarely finds an ambitious young man in any of his classes, but that it's always the young women who are making the best grades and volunteering for extracurricular stuff. And that he worries about the future for the guys in our college. I'm an advertising major, which unlike PR, has mostly been a male-dominated industry in the past.

I just found his statement interesting, and pretty true for most of my classes including those outside of my major. Idk if that's how classes were when you went to college, but I'm predicting a real change in the whole dynamic of the work place in the very near future.

laura @ hollywood housewife said...

I love this post.

I'm not working, and I used to struggle with this choice. I don't anymore, at least not this morning, but it's been a long road.

I agree with every sentence of Tasha's comment, and felt like I could have written it myself. (except for the part about the book Bad Mother, I didn't care for it.)

mom said...

I think there are many issues in your post. I grew up in the city but have lived in a small town for 35 years. I know those women in the courtouse. They're glad they have those jobs. I'm not sure why. But the camaraderie has something to do with it. And the security (until an election changes the county clerk!). The waitress and hotel clerk are another matter. I've often wondered why these women stay in small towns with little opportunity for career success. Much has to do with education (or lack thereof), but more has to do with family, friends from kindergarten years, comfort and familiarity. Though each woman has a different story (maybe she married her highschool sweetheart who loves his town; maybe she has to take care of her mother or other family member), most have had other choices. They are not chained to their desks, except by bonds they've accepted willingly. It's hard to say "this is the life they've chosen to live" when you've seen so many very bright women seem to be so underemployed or otherwise not reach their "potential." Maybe they have a sad story to tell, or maybe they'd be surprised that people think they aren't happy.

Cari said...

Tessa - your comments were very relevant. Scarey! But relevant. It will be interesting to see what the world of work holds for you.

Laura - I think one of the ways we have progressed is to give respect to women who aren't working outside their home. For some reason it's hard to respect ourselves! I'm glad you've found a good place to be.

Mom? My mom? Is that you??? I LOVE it when you comment!

It's interesting that this topic resonates with women of all ages. Of those who have commented, there are about four generations represented. Hmmm.

Jean W said...

I believe most women are torn between work and family (it is why the Oklahoma Women's Coalition has an Advocacy Subcommittee on Work-Family Balance) but the vast majority of women who work have to; they must work to feed their kids and keep a roof over their head. I find Tessa's professor's comment especially disturbing. The Oklahoma Women's Coalition is starting a multi-year project to remove barriers at colleges and other educational institutions to that we can increase the number of single mothers completing college. I still hear of faculty telling mothers they don't belong in college; they should be at home mothering rather competing for a job that should go to a male. Please! It is still 1951?