Deconstructing careers

“Floor five: Subway muggers, aggressive panhandlers, and book critics. Floor six: Right-wing extremists, serial killers, lawyers who appear on television. Floor seven: The media. Sorry, that floor is all filled up. Floor eight: Escaped war criminals, TV evangelists, and the NRA.”

Fans of Woody Allen films will recognise Harry Block (Deconstructing Harry) on his elevator descent into the bowels of hell to reclaim his true love from The Devil (a wicked Billy Crystal). A scene that always gives me a chuckle for its accuracy; even with the glaring omission of global rawk star charity spokespeople, baby manual writers, and Lucinda Creighton.

No matter how potentially inglorious, self-serving, or inherently corrupt certain most sectors are, the status of ‘career’ confers on its membership a quietly understood respect and immunity. “Wait a second! You can’t attack me for moving virtual money around the globe! It’s a career!”

There they go. Those determined folk armed with personal goals, attempting to scale the heights of potential and self-fulfilment, as the rest of us ‘checked-out’ women ‘choose’ to watch on in a supporting role. *needle screeches across record*

Call me a party pooper, but I’m finding all this leaning out, checking in business a tad tedious. Much like the inevitable direction of this post.

Some statements of the obvious:

  • Of course certain jobs are more vital than others, and require specialist training and education. I read about it somewhere (think incubators, coffee grinding etc.)
  • It’s unlikely everyone, given the opportunity, would have the required competencies/flair compatible for training in these roles. Some require a life-time of learning. A stark truth I learned when thrown out of NASA.
  • The pursuit of personal potential, self-fulfillment, and some degree of job satisfaction is universal. Otherwise what is the point of living, or enduring school for all those years; particularly sacramental preparation.
  • Ambition and drive aren’t dirty words, unless it’s the first day of the January sales.
  • Women are under-represented in ‘traditionally’ male sectors, their absence keenly felt in the boardroom, and efforts to redress this are fair game. It’s all the rage.

I’m not talking about the priesthood here either (Floor six? OK, seven it is). Those chaps reside in the untouchable category of ‘vocation’, transcending all careers; puzzlingly overtaking saints serving curry chips to incoherent drunks at 3am, and the fairies who lovingly assemble Reese’s peanut cups. But that’s life, that’s what all the people say. Besides, women can’t sign-up unless they defect to the other side. And they must be chosen by God for that particular gig anyway.

Rumour has it he also chooses teachers, nurses, social workers, and community workers. And they’re mostly women. At least one of those groups is more flattered by the gift of poverty. The Big Man chose effective unions to come to the aid of the others. Other lesser spotted beatitudes: Blessed are the state vocations, for they shall inherent the airwaves. A few more bullet points:

  • The national obsession with third level as the only proven pathway to a ‘career’ shows no sign of losing steam.
  • Time was, careers were confined to medicine, teaching, law, some manly areas of engineering, medjia, the odd scientist, the Rose of Tralee, maybe one economist, the person who rang the Angelus bells on TV, the ESB, funeral director, minister of the eucharist, accountants, and an assortment of civil servants. It’s safe to say, they were a bit of a mixed ability group, too. And still are. Not unlike my own fellow lobotomists. Only last week, one of them removed an ear by mistake.
  • Traditional areas of vocational training and on-the-job courses continue to be brought under the sphere of university influence and learning with the knock-on effect of raising entry criteria. We’re all about the National Framework these days. Which requires a proliferation of universities, and the slide of same in league tables. Remember when nurses didn’t require a degree; and corporate finance wasn’t the global bastard it is today. And 15 to One would be on after Sons and Daughters. Ah, they were the days.
  • Credit should also be given to Benchmarking and the sterling work of unions for tripling the number of careers, and single-handedly sustaining the clip-board industry.
  • That said, it’s unlikely there will ever be enough to go around everyone.
  • Access to third level education remains inherently biased and discriminatory for reasons that don’t need to be spelled out here. Do they?

The last load:

  • Large sections of mothers comprise the paid workforce. You might’ve read about it. They generously allowed the married ones back in after 1974. Thumbs up to Europe for the wrap on the knuckles for that. Although if you were a teacher, you received a special dispensation. And if you were from the Gaeltacht, ever further dispensation with a lowering of entry level requirements to the ‘profession’. Ahem.
  • Middle class fathers and mothers are underrepresented in the paid service, retail, and caring sectors. These are propped up by low-paid women, and the least lucrative areas of work offering fewer opportunities for advancement, or fairness.
  • ‘Choice’ of job or career is not a luxury available to many of them.

The mother on maternity leave from a ‘career’, and the mother  on maternity leave from a ‘job’, share the same aspirations for their children. And, in the main, dedicate themselves to improving their family’s circumstances by whatever means possible, striving to offer them secure futures laid out with opportunities for better lives than they had.

To attempt to crudely capture their efforts at achieving this through limiting one-liners around ‘choice’ and ‘leaning in’, or ‘checking out’, is symptomatic of the rise in creepy magazine-article friendly soundbites shaping a mainstream narrative that tears the rug out from under the complexities of every mother’s hopes and visions.

Bullshit, in short.

The latest phrases to box off a diversity of mothers by their assumed ‘choice’; judge their attitude to self-fulfilment, and the parking or pursuit of their potential. It implicitly filters the assessment of their job-worth through the contribution it makes to the world of work, not the actual world (two subtly but significantly different things conflated to further distort perceptions of the value of careers versus jobs, and partly why child-rearing/caring is excluded). It homogenises women, and their psychological bandwidth; and reduces the multiple determinants of women’s progression in the workplace, and by extension – life, down to a zippy strap-line on a book cover. Is this where we’re at? Oh go on then, insert some handwringing here.

All this without regard to the right of all mothers to compete for a career, or enter pathways to better education, and release their untapped potential.

At times, it’s impossible to interpret current discussions as anything other than being primarily concerned with safeguarding the careers of women already in possession of them. Consideration of the right to a work-career continuum that serves all mothers from every socio-economic background is drowned out by the premium attached to glass ceilings and boardroom pews. A career appears to be a predetermined right hinging on pre-existing conditions to access them. The preserve of a certain section of us.


Sean forgot it was St. Patrick’s Day. He hoped this wouldn’t affect his promotional prospects.

The stench of silence around inequality of access to the labour market and higher education amid feverish talk of ceilings and boardroom imbalances, contributes to maintaining the status quo. That’s not to suggest the latter shouldn’t be fought for. It’s just that those women whose potential and aspirations never get to leave the starting blocks don’t have access to the airwaves or the argument. So they depend on those who do to acknowledge them, at best. There are enough obstacles.That’s not an unreasonable request; it’s a responsibility, and surely middle class sensibilities can stretch to it. Except yours Sandberg, obviously.

Crude self-satisfying conclusion

Career or job. Yeah, whatever. Either one is a reliable measure of hard work, a sound work ethic, and efficient results. The value and effort required for one downplayed, the other colonised and re-packaged by go-getting corporate ambassadors to sell back to us an even more crude version of it.

No thanks. I’m choosing to check out of that one. I might even make a career out of it.

Happy Mothers Day.

*presses number 9 in the elevator*

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