Friday, March 7, 2008

Investing in your career: the "I don't want this career" edition

It's been a long week. I got back from a month-long business trip on Sunday. I've been playing catch-up for much of the week, in between long naps. (I'm an insomniac, and one of the really crap things about long business trips is that I stop sleeping.) And my favorite newspaper ever, The Washington Post, printed a piece of dreck by the less-than-charming Charlotte Allen.

I know this is supposed to be a funny, "golly, can't we gals be dumb sometimes" piece. I'm able to make fun of my own girly behaviors, when necessary. I do have a sense of humor, I swear. But this piece hit me just wrong.

Perhaps it's the house painting. I'm going to paint the exterior of my house within the next few weeks. I can do it. I'd just rather hire someone else to. Maybe it's the cost of health insurance, or the fact that I paid a $500 utilities bill. Sometimes, I look at the high cost of living (not any government index, just the high cost of me living) and sigh. Being single and having no safety net can be daunting.

Statistically, I've got it harder than a single guy.

Being the female breadwinner in the United States is pretty daunting. According to this Reuters article, dated April 23, 2007, the gender pay gap in the US is $0.80 in women's salaries to $1.00 in men's salaries in the first year of work. By year ten, women are earning $0.69 for every male wage $1.00. Even accounting for time off work to parent, hours worked per week, and job choice, women are making less than men.

Guys, please don't glaze over or click away:
  • If you're single, consider what happens when you marry. Does your fiancee have debt? Is she saving? Is her life financially sound? It's easier to live within your means when you have a little more means.
  • How about the women in your family who may be sole breadwinners? What if (heaven forbid), you died and left your wife alone to get the kids through college? The numbers are already scary enough: how could you do it on 31% less?
I don't think the wage gap is a result of nefarious male undervaluing of women's talents. There are the occasional exceptions--you find them in the PF blogosphere posting comments about how women are golddiggers and ruin a guy's financial life. But, by and large, I think men and women generally like and respect each other, despite occasional mystification about the other sex's weirder quirks.

So why? Why are women statistically lagging so far behind men in the biggest investment of all: time for wage?

[I'm about to make some provocative statements, but I'm going to start by saying that I don't know the real answer. I can speculate, based on my own experience, but we just don't know. I want to provoke discussion, but I'd appreciate it if you keep any comments on target, relatively polite, and free of ad hominem attacks. I will delete anything that crosses my arbitrary line of civil discourse. So be warned.]

A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.

The sweet young thing whose photo heads this post is my grandmother. She married at 19 and was a farm wife raising six children until my grandfather decided he'd had it with dirt farming in New Mexico. Grandad was a WWII pilot, and he always loved to fly. In the late sixties, he finally got his pilot's license and started working as a commercial pilot. Thirty-five years ago, on a cold January day, he died in a plane crash. My grandmother was left a young widow with a handful of teenagers. She'd worked for a few years as a secretary before her marriage and while my grandfather was getting his pilot's license, but had no special training or experience.

My grandmother went back to work to support her children. Two and a half years later, she retired from real estate with income-producing investments of a quarter of a million dollars.

I asked her once how she'd managed to do this. She wasn't sure, except that 1) she was blessed, and 2) she did what she needed to. I think that item 2 is a huge one for women.

Where's the love?

The last 30 years have told us that women can do anything we want to, and I'm deeply grateful for that change in social attitudes. At the same time, men aren't told they can do anything they want. (That's assumed.) They're told that their success is based on their financial savvy and their career.

I know that most of the jobs available to me are NOT 'anything I want to do.' Personally, I've found myself working an okay job without much enthusiasm as I try to break into my preferred field. I have friends who are in the same boat: corporate jobs, not much enthusiasm. (And yes, "my friends are like this too" is completely valueless as a statistical measure of reality.) I don't see this same apathy among the undirected men of our age: they seem more driven to succeed wherever they're at, although I doubt they are any more entranced by the nuts and bolts of these corporate jobs than the women are. And this isn't cool.

Is there are disconnect in ambition between the sexes? What's going on?

When women hear that we have lots of choices, do we miss the message that sometimes work sucks? That we have to spend part of our valuable lives doing something we don't much enjoy in order to have certain economic advantages? Some of the traditional lower-paid jobs requiring a college degree (teaching, for example) are filled with women. There's a job satisfaction issue here. But there's also a profound economic truth: following your dream is often lower-paying than doing what nobody else wants to.

I'm a huge fan of following the dream. That's why I'm blogging. It's the brass ring, being able to do what I love without worrying about money. But I've come to the conclusion that the easiest way to financial independence is to focus my work time on things that will produce more income per hour.

So here's my take:
  • Except for Charlotte Allen, women aren't stupid, nor are they less capable of corporate success.
  • Widespread but unconscious sexism is a possible explanation of the gender gap in wages, but seems unlikely given the preponderance of sane, fair and decent people in the workplace. [Note: pervasive sexism does still exist in certain dysfunctional organizations; I've worked for one such company, and it's soul-sucking.]
  • A focus on being able to "do whatever we want" may predispose women to focus on jobs with a high level of satisfaction and personal reward--which often correlates with a lower level of financial reward.
  • Our male counterparts may be more geared to focus on corporate advancement, rather than personal satisfaction.
The kicker for me is that higher levels of personal satisfaction are often part of high-level jobs. There are exceptions, of course; sometimes that window office is a pit of stress. But higher-level jobs correlate with more autonomy, the ability to implement our ideas, more dynamic coworkers and the feeling of being a valued contributor. So why aren't women pursuing these opportunities?

There's a dissertation to write about the wild card of children and childcare. I suspect that few women know for sure whether they'll remain in the workforce during their children's first years, which is a further disincentive to aggressively pursue higher-level work just for the sake of advancement.

There's the partnership aspect: if you are married, and one of you goes to graduate or professional school, that investment usually means that you're tied to the advancement of one career at a potential cost to the other.

There's the expectation of supporting a family: most guys grow up thinking that they will support a family--at least their kids, even if their wife works. Do women think about the possibility of supporting a husband and children? Some of us, certainly, but the idea is less culturally entrenched.

And then there are the myriad pop-psych explanations: women don't like asking for raises, or build consensus differently. All are probably part of the problem.

Is it that men don't value women's work equally? Or are women not valuing their own time enough to go after higher pay and better positions?

Case study: hi!

Everything is personal, especially in blogging, so let me tell you why this is at the forefront of my mind. I started focusing on my financial situation in September, when I realized that I really, really didn't want to spend the next twenty years not being a writer. At the same time, I realized that I wasn't being paid as much as I wanted. This wasn't my employer's fault: I'm honest enough to recognize that I was coasting. Until I can afford writing full-time, I've got to work. The more I get paid, the less time I have to be working.

A light bulb came on in my head--much as I imagine it did for my grandmother, entering the workforce in her forties and realizing that she had only herself to depend on. I was wasting my time at work by focusing on what I'd rather be doing.

I considered getting a different job, one that I liked better. But instead, I found a way to connect with my current job. In October, I floated an idea. In January, I presented a proposal to the company and division presidents. (I work for a national company with about 6,000 employees.) The program I'm pushing can potentially recapture between 1% and 4% of our yearly earnings. As of today, I am no longer one of 3000 workers doing essentially the same job. I'm in charge of implementing my plan on a national level and justifying it in our financial plan. And I get to do it out of my home office, wearing my fuzzy slippers.

This is scary, but it's wonderful, too. Remember, I don't want this career. I have other goals. But while I'm devoting 40 hours a week to it, I might as well make them fun and profitable--for myself and my company. In two months, I'll present the savings from the pilot project, and I'll ask for a piece of that money. I'll deserve it.

So tell me:

Women, are you making what you should be? If so, are you passionate about your career? If not, are you affected by sexism in the workplace? How do you view your job? Is it a long-term gig? Are you aggressively pursuing advancement and raises? Are you invested in your workplace success? Are you following a dream or just trying to keep food on the table? How does your career compare to your husband's?

Guys, feel free to chime in. Do you see evidence of sexism in the workplace? What's your perception of the relative ambition of young male and female employees? (And, if you chime in about that, what's your field?) Have you chosen a higher-paying career path rather than following a dream because you felt you needed to provide financial stability for your family? How does your wife's career compare to yours?


A said...

>>Have you chosen a higher-paying career path rather than following a dream because you felt you needed to provide financial stability for your family?

Yes, the promise of a pension after military service has delayed my ambitions in other, more personally gratifying areas. Nevertheless, my new role is an interesting one that deserves my full attention. I am single, so I can't answer the second part. -AndyM

Susannah said...

Thanks, Andy. I'm really fascinated by this gender divide--post, people, don't be shy!