Thursday, September 6, 2007

Thoughts on "Back on the Career Track"

About a month ago, I finished Back on the Career Track: A Guide for Stay-at-Home Moms Who Want to Return to Work by Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin. I contacted Ms. Cohen for a response to my criticisms of the book because I wanted to be fair in my review. However, she did not respond, so I'm going ahead and publishing the post.

Overall, it's a good book and definitely one that's needed. There is a lot of very useful information contained within it, particularly in chapters 3-7. These go through the relaunching process step-by-step from assessing one's career options through the job search/building up one's business period through transitioning to employment both at home and at work. I especially like the focus on part-time, flexible, freelance, and other non-traditional options. The authors really "get it" when it comes to what many moms are looking for in relaunching their careers.

I also liked Part II of the book, which takes a more broad look at what the authors call "the relaunch movement". There is a very interesting policy discussion in chapters 9 about why there ought to be structural change in our economy to allow for more flexibility and "family-friendliness" in careers. Did you know that companies that offer workers flexibility have a 9% higher market value than similar firms that do not? Or that employee stress costs U.S. companies $300 billion a year in lost productivity and health care costs? As an example of this- I have a friend working for a high profile Wall Street firm whose colleague got so stressed out by job demands that the colleague wound hospitalized for a full month with pneumonia :-(

The biggest criticism I have of the book is that it suffers from a tendency to focus on the most elite women. Undoubtedly because the authors (both MBA's from Harvard) and presumably also the editor belong to this group. There is a long discussion of the benefits of attending a "ramping up" seminar, which are offered to the alumnae of exactly 3 schools: Harvard Business School, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University, and the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. HBS awards roughly 1,000 MBA's per year, Darden roughly 300, and Tuck roughly 250. About 25-35% of recent classes have been female. Therefore, only a minuscule percent of women (even of highly educated ones) looking to relaunch their careers will be eligible to attend such a seminar. Why, therefore, even bring it up?

Much of the book seems to be geared towards women with professional backgrounds in investment banking, law, or medicine. I'm sure that the "Goldman Sachs New Directions", "Lehman Brothers Encore", "Flex-Time Lawyers", and "Mom M.D." programs are great for those who qualify but again that's only a tiny fraction of relaunchers. What about the rest of us who held more pedestrian jobs prior to opting out? Most of the women I know who've "opted out" are not former i-bankers, lawyers, or physicians but former accountants, marketers, saleswomen, engineers, or assorted junior-to-mid-level business executives.

There was one specific anecdote that I feel just epitomizes how out-of-touch the authors can appear to many relaunchers. It's in the section of the book called "Starting with a job you perceive as beneath you." That in itself is pretty darn arrogant, and would have been better off softened to "Starting with a job for which you perceive you are overqualified." In it, Ms. Rabin sneers at the initial $30/hr she received for part-time work and blathers on about how it was so "hard to swallow" but within 2 years she was able to pull in "significant fees". I'm sorry, but most college-educated women earn moderate salaries; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the median earnings for female college graduates for the second quarter of 2007 is $23.58/hr and 80% earn less than $33.10. These women would almost certainly consider part-time work offering $30/hr to be pretty darn good! I certainly am willing to believe that for Ms. Rabin personally, it was much lower than what she was accustomed to. However, she could've easily gotten the point she was trying to make across without giving specific numbers. All she needed to say was that it was a quarter of her previous salary or whatever the case may have been. The way it's written in the book just plays into the negative stereotypes of Harvard graduates' arrogance.

The other issue I had with Back on the Career Track was a general denigration of being a stay-at-home-mom and glorification of selfishness. Of the 7 "pros" given for a relaunch, only 2 are non-selfish (financial necessity and avoiding the "empty nest syndrome"), one is debatable ("serving as a role model" as if SAHM's are somehow bad role models for children), and the other 3 are selfish (personal validation, leveling the marriage playing field, and ambition). What about wanting to use one's talents to make a difference in the community? Yes, there's always volunteer work but that typically has limited impact. Those with the power to really change society are generally earning a paycheck for their efforts. If I return to the workforce when my family does not absolutely need the money and/or healthcare benefits, it's going to be because I feel called by God to use the gifts He gave me to make this world a better place. It's not going to be for selfish pride, ambition, or because holding paid employment somehow "validates" me more than being a full-time mom.

I just can't relate to the stories of these Type A careerists who whine about how awful being a SAHM is:

"I feel as if life has no meaning. I have no sense of accomplishment in my life. I feel completely worthless because I don't have anything to contribute." Umm, aren't you contributing to your children's well-being by actually raising them instead of outsourcing it?

"I feel like all I do is move kids and things from one place to another. That is, when I'm not filling out forms." That's your choice to do so. Nobody is forcing you to be a glorified chauffeur by hyperscheduling your kids. You could take a more meaningful role in their upbringing by homeschooling them!

"It would kill me not to have an occupation to fill in on forms." Give me a break! One's self-worth should not be tied to some arbitrary title. As the bumper sticker on my car reads: "Motherhood is a valuable profession."

"Having had an exciting job before I decided to stay home with my children whetted my appetite for more. It gave me a kind of high I couldn't get any other way, and once I'd experienced that work-driven adrenaline rush, the desire for it never completely faded." What did you have, a job or an addiction?

"I never felt cut out for full-time motherhood....I realized I was no match for some of these perfect at-home mothers, who set up educational craft projects and other special activities for their kids. When I was working, I had an excuse for not doing these things. Now I had no excuse." Well, okay, if you're not up to the task of being a good mom, you can certainly work full-time outside the home and use that as an excuse for being a bad one. But that's pretty insulting to those of us who worked our fannies off to be both a good, involved mom *and* hold down a full-time job!

These women came off as totally self-absorbed, glory-seeking, workaholic, strivers who put their own selfish desires ahead of their family's needs. I'm sure this is not the impression Ms. Cohen and Ms. Rabin were aiming for in their depiction of relaunchers!

Despite these problems, however, I do think that Back on the Career Track is a "must-read" for women looking to relaunch their careers. I hope that the authors' elitism does not turn off readers from more humble backgrounds since the book offers a lot of very helpful advice. This is where a better editor would've come in really handy. It's easy when one has an Ivy League graduate degree living in a tony suburb like Newton, MA; Clifton, NJ; or my town near Silicon Valley to get caught in a bubble of yuppiedom and think everybody is like you, your tennis partner, the moms you know from Itsy-Bitsy Yoga, and the colleagues from your former employer & your husband's current one.

1 comment:

mom huebert said...

Thirty dollars an hour was beneath dear executive mommy's dignity? Thirty?! I must live in the boondocks. I don't know anyone who makes that much, but plenty of people who would like to. I know one family where mom and dad both work and together make $26 and call it pretty good. I don't know whether to strangle Ms. Executive or be ravingly jealous.