A touch of humanity

A dear friend of mine is just about to embark on a new exciting journey. She is going to retrain as a nurse and I am so excited for her. She is following her heart and her dream.

She is doing this after having left a career in business, and what I find so interesting is that she isn’t the first person I know who has decided to become a nurse after having opted out of a corporate career. Not too long ago I interviewed a man who had done the same. And he apparently knew of a whole bunch of people who had opted out of different careers to become nurses. I quote:

“When I started [studying to become a nurse] I was 45 years old, but surprisingly I wasn’t the oldest in the group. As a matter of fact, just in my course, there was a small group of older men like me who wanted to change careers. So I’m not really a unique case.”

He’s right; he isn’t a unique case. Come to think of it, although everyone didn’t choose nursing, most of the people I have interviewed for my research – both men and women – have left corporate careers to do something that involves caring for and helping people. Two became life coaches. A few became teachers, teaching everything from preschool to college. One started working with immigrants, giving legal advice. One became a nutritionist and works with schools to make sure kids are provided with healthy food. A few started working pro bono and many are involved in charities of different kinds. I could go on.

All of a sudden I realize that I see a pattern here. A common denominator seems to be opting in to work where they can help others. And I don’t think this is a coincidence. I do, however, think it says something about the corporate environments they chose to leave.

We focus so hard on productivity and profit, and organizations are streamlined to the point where we seem to forget that they are made up of people; people with human needs. When people finally have enough, when whatever happens that pushes them to take the step and leave a career behind, they choose a road that provides them with the coherence and meaning that they didn’t get in their previous jobs. And apparently also one that provides a touch of humanity.

Not only that, all of them, every single one of my interviewees, talk about the people in their lives. They talk about family and friends, and about having a job and a lifestyle that allows them to be there for those who are important to them.

And that’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to take some well-deserved time off to spend with my loved ones. Because to be honest, as clichéd as it may sound, it really is the people in my life that make life worth living.

I’ll be back in August with more blog posts. See you then!

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Quality time is unstructured

My daughter and I got back from a long weekend in Paris a few days ago. This was a trip that we had been talking about taking together for years, and I’m pleased to say it turned out to be everything we hoped it would. My daughter is the best company and the spring weather was absolutely gorgeous. But the best thing was – and we agreed on this – that we had nothing scheduled other than our flight back home. We did what we felt like doing at the pace we felt like doing it with no pressure to move on to the next thing until we wanted to. We ate whatever we were in the mood for whenever we felt hungry. If we felt tired we went back to the hotel, but it didn’t matter if it took forever getting there. No one was expecting us to be anywhere at anytime. And I tell you, this sounds simple enough, but it was the most liberating feeling.

This is something I often hear people who opt out or want to opt out say. They wish they didn’t have to be in such a hurry all the time. And we are very much in a hurry all the time in our day-to-day lives. I at least feel like I am. I sometimes wish I could clone myself because I need to be in so many different places at the same time. And it’s not only us; it’s also our children. Their time is very structured with school and hobbies and whatnot and we raise them to fit in to this hectic world, which seems to be spinning faster and faster.

I went to a seminar the other day and heard Professor Anna Rotkirch talk about family time management. According to her, and I’m so glad because I’ve been saying this for years, when it comes to time with your children quality is quantity. Just spending time with your children – and this goes for both mothers and fathers – is so important. This time does not need to be structured, it does not need to involve actively engaging your children in activities; it just means being there. Research has shown that this has such a great impact on children and their development throughout their lives, and the positive effects even ripple down to the next generation.

One of the things Professor Rotkirch recommended was something known as the 15 minute technique. This technique has been developed for parents to use with their children, but really it works with anyone. It involves being with your child (or whoever else) for 15 minutes without an agenda, without any structured activity, and without telling or teaching in any way. Just being there.

It is hard at first. When we’re constantly on the go, constantly having to get things done, doing just nothing tends to make us antsy. But apparently, if you work through that nervousness, just being together works wonders. If we do this, the person we are with might open up to us and talk about what he or she is thinking and feeling. And how wonderful for the person on the receiving end of this 15 minute technique to be able to do that, to talk about what they want to talk about. And this is something we might never experience if we’re always on a schedule or have an agenda.

I’m not going to ask you to fit one more thing into your busy schedule, because whenever I see recommendations and lists of things to do, it just tends to overwhelm me. I am a true believe in doing what works for you. But I will say this: unstructured time really is the best thing.

 

 

It can’t be done… or can it?

One of the things I often hear when talking about sustainable career models is that in a family with children the parents cannot both have high-powered careers: if one parent pursues a career with everything that entails, then the other can’t or else no one will ever be around to raise the children. In most heterosexual families it’s the man with the career and the woman doing most of the childcare, but I have also seen families where the gender roles have been completely reversed. Instead of sharing responsibilities more evenly they have just flipped roles and the mother has the career and the father is the main caregiver of their children.

To reach the top echelons of corporate hierarchies, there is an expectation to climb the so-called career ladder in a timely fashion. Longer breaks or leaves of absence are often considered suspect. Only a few days ago this was confirmed to me once again by a corporate executive. I was told if a job applicant’s CV has gaps, or if the applicant hasn’t advanced as quickly as expected, he questions the person’s ability, ambition, and drive.

Yes, I know. Just because you choose to do something else for a while certainly doesn’t mean you aren’t able, ambitious, or driven, but that is how many still see it. And no, I don’t think that is the way it should be, and I am working on changing it, but for now that’s what we’re dealing with.

But let me tell you this. In my research, every once in a while, I see an exception to this rule. I interviewed a woman once who decided to just step off the career ladder. She was in a management position, she was exhausted, and she realized that unintentionally often took it out on her child, which she was distraught by. She decided she just couldn’t do it anymore, so after months of agonizing about what she should do, she walked into her boss’s office to hand in her resignation. As it turned out, she didn’t end up quitting. She managed to keep her job but started working part-time instead. No one in a management position had ever worked part-time in that company before, it was absolutely unheard of, and her decision was what we would generally define as a career-limiting move. She stopped caring about promotions, she was just happy that she could still work and be less stressed as a mother. Well, get this. When I met her two years later to follow up on the interview, she had been offered and had accepted a promotion in that very same company. The career limiting move turned out not to be. Yes, she was stressed again, and yes, she stepped back on the career ladder, but if you think about it, it is quite extraordinary as she originally thought her decisions would be anything but good for her career.

Then there was this man I interviewed. He had had several gaps during his career, when he had taken time off work to stay at home with all three of his kids while his wife pursued a successful career. In the interview he talks about how he and his wife thought about what the best solution for the family was, and they came to the conclusion that she should work and he should take care of the kids. His story isn’t very usual, but it’s inspirational because it also proves that interlacing a career with other things does not have to mean kissing a corporate career goodbye. He never disengaged completely; he always kept in touch with his contacts and did some consultancy work while he was away, but definitely didn’t climb the ladder in the expected way. He and his wife had decided to take turns. First she would focus or her career, and then a few years later when the kids were a bit bigger and she had achieved many of her goals, he would focus on his. And because he was never completely away he managed to do this and is now in a top corporate position pursuing the career he originally thought he would have.

His choices haven’t been completely unproblematic. Being away makes his ascent slightly slower than his peers’, but it is still possible. And if we make alternative career models the new normal it might also become possible for even more people.

But in the meantime, consider what these two stories tell us. They illustrate that what we think of as unheard of doesn’t necessarily have to be. You may think it isn’t possible where you work, but how will you know if you don’t ask? Sometimes it really can be that simple.

 

Stay-at-home dads

I got back from the US a couple of weeks ago, where I interviewed men who have opted out of successful careers. By now I have conducted interviews in Finland, the UK and the US (and I am still looking for more men, so please let me know if you are or know of anyone in these countries who I could interview: theoptingoutblog@gmail.com. Thank you!).

Luckily everything I heard about interviewing men when I set out has been proven wrong. The stories I have collected are incredibly rich in detail and so interesting. I just love interviewing, and although I haven’t started to systematically analyze my data yet, I do have some tentative impressions. One is that although it at first seemed that men who opt out pretty much follow the same pattern as women (see my post Men who opt out), the more I interview the more complicated it gets. While the stories of the women I interviewed were all very similar, I’m finding that the men’s stories are all over the place. They are actually all quite different.

The decision to leave seems to have come about differently for men than it did for the women I interviewed. The women typically set out to have a career without any plan what-so-ever to ever leave, but finally did leave due to a crisis that pushed them to rethink their lives and their values (see for example How do you decide to opt out?). The decision for men to opt out on the other hand – not all of them but many if not most of them – seems to have been less about being pushed to make a decision and more about just doing it.

This, of course, could be because men aren’t potentially as forthcoming about talking about crises as women, but that is not the whole truth. Men are socially expected to work, to be the breadwinners, and to support their families, whereas women aren’t. If a woman pursues a career, she has to overcome social norms and expectations. In fact, we often assume that women who pursue careers do it for selfish reasons – self-actualization – while men do it for selfless reasons: to support their families. That is not true, however, both do it for both selfish and selfless reasons. Both may have families to support and both do it because they find it meaningful, but still this is how people often subconsciously see it. So a woman has more social barriers to overcome when pursuing a career than a man does, which probably means that if she has made it that far in her career, she has done so because that is what she really wants to do. And if that is true, she is not going to give it up very easily, unless something happens that makes her rethink her priorities.

Men on the other hand, are expected to work, to have a career, so all men who have risen in the corporate hierarchies might not have gotten there out of pure conviction and grit. So I’m thinking, maybe the decision to leave may therefore just be something they decide to do and not necessarily as a result of a crisis. Maybe it is just their next step, whether it is for good or for a period of time until they come back again.

Many of the men I interviewed in the US either are or have been stay-at-home dads. I suppose that is to be expected as there is no legislative parental leave and affordable high quality daycare is harder to come by in the US than it is in Europe.

For these men, it was therefore naturally often children that made them decide to leave. They saw their family as a unit and together with their wives (who also had successful careers) they decided that the best thing for the family whole was for the wife to work and for the husband to care for the children, and then that was what they did. And all of them were very happy about their decisions. Despite the hard work (because staying at home with kids really is hard work), it felt meaningful and they cherished the time they had with their children.

But, the truth is, when it comes to social standards they are the anomaly. In their respective communities, they are the only stay-at-home dads in what continues to be a predominantly woman’s world. And here are some of the frustrating things they hear from other women, often strangers:

  • “Oh you’re babysitting your kids today!” (How can a dad possibly babysit his own kids? They are his kids!)
  • “Oh you must have forgotten her jacket at home!” (No, this dad knew exactly how much his daughter needed to wear in that weather.)
  • “Oh how sweet, are you helping your wife out today?” (…)
  • “When are you going to find a job?” (Something you generally wouldn’t ask a woman in the same situation.)

And the most incredible thing I heard was something that one man told me happens on a regular basis when he takes his child to the park. Strange women will come up to his child sitting in the stroller and fix things like hats and jackets, thinking that this dad needs all the help he can get. Anyone with children will know how unsettling that is. You don’t want strangers touching your children and if a man did that – just walked up to a woman with a stroller and started touching the child – it would definitely be frowned upon, right?

It seems that although we are becoming more open to men and women breaking gendered norms, we really have a ways to go. Even in Finland, which is considered one of the most gender equal countries in the world, very few men actually take parental leave. Many men take out their legislated paternity leave and stay home with the mother and the new baby for up to three weeks right after the baby is born, but the percentage of men who actually stay at home and are the main caregivers until their children start daycare or school, is in the single digits. Last I heard it was about 3 or 4%. And a lot of it is due to organizations not supporting fathers who want to do this. Although they would never deny a Finnish mother to go on maternity and parental leave, I have heard many stories where employers have told fathers that it may be your legislative right, but here we just don’t do that.

So where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with a long way to go. But based on the stories of the men I interviewed, it is a truly valuable and cherished experience for both the father and the child. Fathers can be just as attentive and caring as mothers and if we just give them the chance to participate in childcare on equal terms, I really do think the world would be a better place.

What is success anyway?

I’m reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book Unfinished Business at the moment. You might remember Anne-Marie Slaughter; she was the one who wrote that famous article in The Atlantic titled ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’. The title of her book refers to the feminist revolution, which she argues isn’t finished yet. And I do agree, there is still work to do. Despite so much progress having been made for women, gender equality still hasn’t been achieved. I mean I come from Finland and Finland is considered to be one of the most gender equal nations in the EU (and in the world for that matter) although it is also one of the most gender segregated. However, although Finland is one of the most gender equal countries, there are about 25% women in top management positions and about 27% on corporate boards. The question is, is that gender equality?

I’m actually working on a paper at the moment with a set of interviews of gender equality workers in Finnish organizations. These workers have lead projects in their organizations to make them more gender equal. What I’m finding is that there is a lot of gender fatigue in Finnish organizations today. People don’t really want to talk about gender equality anymore; they think it’s a non-issue. The result is complete disinterest in whatever it is these gender equality workers have to say. No outright resistance; they’re not rude and people generally know what’s politically correct. No, it’s just total indifference, which is worse in a way. I mean if resistance comes in the form of indifference, it’s really hard to fight. You don’t really know what you’re up against. And not only that; it kind of makes the gender equality workers and what they do invisible and that’s just awful.

One of the reasons behind the gender fatigue we see in Finland is that people think that since things are so much better for women in Finland than in many other countries in the world, we need to just give it up and be happy for what we have. Well, I find it hard to argue with people who say that, it’s hard to make them see. But the fact of the matter is that if we say we shouldn’t keep striving for gender equality because we have it so much better compared to others, it’s like saying that we shouldn’t bother about high quality education in schools because in our country children at least get to go to school. Ok, so I’m not sure that was a very good comparison, but you catch my drift.

But back to Unfinished Business. One of Slaughter’s main arguments in her book is that we will never achieve complete gender equality until we start valuing care work. It is women who continue to do the brunt of care work in society – both in countries like Finland and elsewhere. And as long as women continue to be the main carers in society, this will come in the way of having a career on the same terms as men who don’t have as difficult a time juggling work with having a family. As long as this is the case, women will just not be able to have it all.

But if we start to value care work, Slaughter argues, if we start to value also other things than paid work and objective and traditional definitions of success, only then will men also take on other responsibilities and roles in greater numbers. This, in turn, will make it possible for all – both men and women – to care for a family (which is important!) and to have a career without feeling like they’re on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

When Slaughter had her crisis and quit her high status, sought-after, dream job in foreign policy to go back to her university position, she says “I was forced to confront what was important to me, rather than what I was conditioned to want, or perhaps what I had conditioned myself to want.” And that’s the thing. That’s what women who opt out do. They start questioning the objective definitions of success, and they create their own subjective definitions instead. They realize that maybe the high status, high salary, corner office and company car really aren’t what will make them happy. Like one woman in Lisa Belkin’s column ‘The Opt-Out Revolution’ said, the raises and promotions may have meant a successful career, but they didn’t necessarily mean a successful life.

So maybe that’s what we should all do. Maybe we need to think about what success is for us. I mean what it really is, not what we think it should be or what others say it is. What exactly is it that makes your life successful?

Don’t sweat the small stuff

My father passed away a few weeks ago. We were close and I miss him terribly. This is the first time I’ve lost someone this close to me and although I’ve lost beloved grandparents and other people from my extended family, it’s just different when it’s your parent. The grief is acute and physical and it just feels hard to comprehend.

But it really puts things into perspective.

I think about all the people I’ve met during my journey from the business world to academia. The people I’ve talked to about opting out, whether casual discussions at parties or conferences or interviews I’ve conducted for my research. A common denominator for all opting out stories is that something has happened in these people’s lives – a crisis of some sort – that has helped or pushed them to take the step and make a real change instead of just talking or dreaming about it.

And it’s true, a crisis or traumatic event may propel a person to make a change as well as trigger some serious soul searching. If everything goes well (and this is important because let’s not romanticize crisis here; we have to remember that a crisis is no walk in the park and some people don’t recover) it may trigger personal growth and create a feeling of authenticity. As a woman I’ve interviewed said, “ You just don’t waste time on anything that doesn’t matter anymore.”

I’m finding that I can really relate to that right now. I just can’t be bothered sweating the small stuff. Intrigue at work? Not interested. Disagreements and misunderstandings? Can’t be bothered. Students who complain? I refuse to let it get to me. Really though, I’m dealing with more important stuff in my life right now.

And although I’m sad, I’m also finding that I quite like not getting fazed by what’s not important. I feel like I see things more clearly. I just hope it lasts and that I continue being able to put things into perspective. Although I suspect as time passes I will gradually slip back into getting stressed over work and deadlines like I usually do. Because that’s life, nothing is constant and opting out isn’t forever, it’s cyclical.

I wish I could put perspective in a jar and then in the future, when I need to, breathe some in and not sweat the small stuff again.

Julia and me, Part 2 (and some thoughts on being a (bad) feminist)

The other day I was having lunch with a colleague and we were talking about how torn we both sometimes feel between having to be a good feminist and just wanting to be there for our children, without having to overthink whether or not we’re setting a good example. In many ways I do think I am a good role model for my children. I work with something I am passionately interested in and I regularly lose myself in this work, which admittedly often frustrates them. I hope I’m teaching them by example to dream big and work hard.

Like many women who have opted out and in, I also organize my work so that I can be there for my children when they need me, which feels both important and meaningful. For example, I work out of my home office several days a week and I have a lot to say about when and where I work, so I really am around when important things happen in their lives. One thing that I am especially proud of and that makes me very happy is that my children tell me that they can really talk to me about anything, and I believe one reason they feel that way is that I am actually around when they need to talk.

But also like many women who opt out and in, one of the results and perhaps downsides of organizing my life to better accommodate my care responsibilities, is that, as a result, I can take even more responsibility for childcare and household chores than I would if I had a job that kept me out of the house all day every day. So while women like me are able to better combine different areas of life, it really doesn’t do much for gender equality in the home sphere, nor in the work place to be honest. At least not in the short run. And being the gender scholar that I am, this bugs me a little.

Well, as my colleague and I were talking about this, we came to the conclusion that yes, it’s good to be a good feminist and set a good example, but we (women) also just need to give ourselves a break sometimes. Strange as it may sound, we are actually only human.

So I felt especially comforted when I stumbled across a book by Roxanne Gay called Bad Feminist. Gay is an academic and a feminist, but she calls herself a bad feminist because she just can’t seem to live up to the somewhat unrealistic expectations she argues many feminists place on women. She writes, “For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choice.” So in order to be a good feminist and a good example to other feminists, we have to always make the right decisions, always have the right opinions, and never slip up and God forbid do or say anything unfeminist. Well, we do. We slip up all the time. According to Gay, feminism should be about supporting equality in whatever way we can and do, and it is better to be a bad feminist than no feminist at all. And to be honest, like many other women I am often too hard on myself, so I feel pretty grateful towards anyone who gives me a break and permission to be human.

One feminist who I really admire is Julia Kristeva. As I’ve mentioned before, I became acquainted with her work while working on my doctoral thesis, and there was something about her take on issues like feminism and feminine identity that really appealed to me. Her approach to womanhood differs from that of many other feminist theorists, who, in turn, have accused her of being an essentialist (believing in traditional concepts and ideals) and just unfeminist in general. And she is neither. One reason she is seen as something of a threat to the feminist movement is that she has introduced the body to the feminist debate, and argues that motherhood is, in fact, “at the crossroads of biology and meaning”. The reason this doesn’t appeal to many other feminists is that they worry that bringing the body and motherhood into the debate could easily be misconstrued and used to argue that a woman’s calling is to have and care for children and that her rightful place is in the home. I want to be perfectly clear here and say that neither Kristeva nor I believe that. On the contrary, Kristeva recognizes that not all women even want to be mothers. But to be fair, I can also understand what it is feminists are afraid of.

But being a mother and having given birth to two children, I can certainly appreciate Kristeva’s thoughts. Although I am a strong believer in that we are shaped and conditioned by socially constructed societal norms and expectations (i.e. we are taught to believe that women are the ones who are best equipped physically and emotionally to care for children, which really isn’t true, men are just as good given half the chance), social construction still doesn’t seem to quite adequately explain the entire mothering experience. Giving birth and becoming a mother is a powerful physical and biological experience. And there is a bond between mother and child that goes beyond gendered expectations and norms.

So maybe, like Roxanne Gay, I am also a bad feminist. Or maybe, just maybe, being a bad (read: human) feminist is what makes me a good one?