|A picture from the LA trip, representing both balancing acts |
and the enduring power of a good story!
Anyway, I read an article I'd saved by Lisa Miller about why we need older women in the workforce, and I realized that by Miller's definition, I've left. She is looking for women to show the way forward in what I'll call a "regular job"- i.e., one where you go into an office and do your part in a larger organization. I can understand why she wants this. It is hard to navigate your way through office politics and career decisions without role models, and although men can be helpful to a certain extent, they are playing by different rules. I couldn't emulate a former boss' direct and confrontational style, for instance. That would have been career suicide for me, although it worked well for him.
There's been a lot written about why women leave the workforce. People argue about whether it is motherhood, or overwork, or sexism, or something else. I've been thinking a lot about this given my own recent exit from the corporate world. I still consider myself very much in the workforce (and so far at least, still have a paycheck to prove it), but I'll grant that I've left the corporate world. I left at the stereotypical time: mid-career, partway up the ladder but still definitely on a middle rung. I have more than one kid, too, which studies have indicated correlates with a greater likelihood of leaving.
So what made me leave? Here are the possible reasons:
- The company moved and the new commute was making it hard to get a full work week in.
- The culture in which I was working evolved into something I didn't enjoy that much.
- I'd reached my limit on the low key sexist BS that was constant background noise in my career. I have a few jaw-dropping "you have GOT to be kidding me" sexism in the workforce stories, but I honestly think it was the constant low level stuff that did more harm. As I explained to a friend recently, it was like that stuff was just silently accruing, and all of the sudden I'd hit some sort of pre-set BS limit that even I didn't know existed. The men I was working with at the time weren't particularly sexist. They were just the guys in the vicinity when I hit the limit.
- I had other interests I wanted to explore.
- The job I was in had policies that made it very hard to have any sort of side gig- including writing. That was annoying and made me feel overly constrained.
- I wanted to try being completely in charge.
There are probably more reasons that aren't obvious to me right now, but those are the big ones. So which was "the reason" I quit? None of them. All of them. It was a combination of things. Depending on what larger point someone wanted to make, my story could be spun to emphasize some of the factors more than others, but I honestly can't say that any one factor was more important than any other in my thought process the day I quit.
People want there to be a clean answer for why so many women decide to opt out of corporate life, but in my case, there isn't a clean answer. I suspect this is true of most people who decide to leave. Would decreasing the background sexism convince more to stay? I have no doubt that it would. But it would be easy to take a story like mine and argue that women like me leave the corporate world for more positive reasons. It would also probably be easy to go through my work history and find things I'd done wrong, or suboptimal decisions I'd made that led to some of my other frustrations.
In the end, I left because I wanted to explore different things, and my exhaustion with the environment in which I was working made it appealing to go do that.
Or did I leave because I was exhausted by a hostile culture and realized I had other options?
Even I don't really know.
We love narratives and personal stories. On the surface, they make it easier to understand complex issues. By personalizing them, we make the issues more accessible and harder to ignore. But there is a downside, too, because narratives are rarely clean. People's lives are messy. Decisions are made for a confusing mix of reasons. People do less than ideal things, making it easy for people who are looking for reasons not to see a particular problem to dismiss their stories.
We see this playing out in a far more horrifying context in the reaction of some people to the Black Lives Matter movement. The Black men and women who have lost their lives were "no angels." They'd "made mistakes." No one will ever be perfect enough. The protesters will never use the exact "right" tactics. For people who don't want to see the issue, there will always be a reason to dismiss the most recent story.
As much as I love stories, individual stories alone will never allow us to understand what is really happening in our society. Luckily, we have social scientists who have studied how to aggregate our stories and better understand the whole picture. We have historians who can help us see the broader meaning of our individual stories, by placing them in a historical context. Unfortunately, these viewpoints aren't always well represented in our discussions. It is hard to find people who can take an individual story and weave it into the wider context and help us understand what that story really means, but those are the voices I'm seeking out these days. After all, if I can't even understand the narrative my own story in isolation, how can I hope to understand anyone else's?