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The more things change

September 21, 2010

“From the minute I got there, they told me ‘You will succeed, you will be a leader,’ the Yale slogan– you could taste it in the air.” Two years after graduation she was still hunting fruitlessly for a nonsecretarial job.

No it’s not another commentary on this recession’s luckless graduates. It’s a quote from one of the first women to be admitted to Yale in 1970. It’s from the book I’ve been reading, Games Mother Never Taught You. The author, Betty Lehan Harragan, is using that quote to warn women against accepting the idea that the lack of a degree, a credential, is the only thing barring them from equal success with their male colleagues. Besides a few outdated things lacking mentions of email or calling out corporate switchboards, the nearly 40 year old book is still surprisingly accurate on the pressures of sexism in the workplace. Or more importantly, what women are not, as members of society, taught and therefore how this lack of knowledge prevents them from competing with The Boys at work.

Here’s more on how eerily accurate Harragan’s suggestions are to current economic realities.

A doctorate has become very nearly minimal to obtain a college teaching post; the BA’s and MA’s are scholarly rejects or incompletes as far as academic employers are concerned. Business employers have no alterante use for this academic overlow, so neither undergraduate nor postgraduate degrees in liberal arts categories lead to indstury jobs…Competitive companies can’t afford to take chances with such noncommercial thinkers, and the proof is strewn over the landscape in the form of unemployed PhD’s.

What this boils down to is the reverse of the statement that a college degree is a passport to a well-paying job. For women, a college degree in any of the stereotyped female teaching or teaching preparotry fields is equivalent to no degree. The effort adds up to at least four and probably seven years of wasted time and money so fars upgraded admission into the business world is concerned. Allwomen liberal arts graduates eventually come face to face with the cruel trick that was played on them but, significantly, I have never met one who recalls being told beforehand that her nonspecific college degree will have no marketable value.

Except now it’s men and women picking up on this economic reality. I suspect up until recently the well connected middle class white male could still get by on his network alone. But now this is so common the NYTimes doesn’t even have to come up with new ideas any more, just publish another whiney diatribe on the woes of wealthy young hipsters turning down $40,000 a year jobs because they thought their BA in Philosophy would get them farther. Of course these articles overlook the countless people for whom this fairlyand middle class lifestyle is a goal not a current reality. But it’s intriguing that forty years ago Harragan saw women being fed this myth that all they needed was some education and they could be treated equally and she called it out for what it is. However, she doesn’t speak too highly of engineering degrees either warning women can get stuck as specialists rather than move up at work. And here’s another bit of advice that could have been written this year;

It is au courant these days to advise women to get undergraduate degrees in special fields where men predominate, such as engineering, chemistry, mathematics, and sciences. The advice is well intentioned and based on a logical principle: that jobs will be awaiting women who have credentials in occupations that were formerly closed but must now legally seek qualified females…Hidden on the underside of the BS advisory coin is a traditional pitfall for unwary women– the downgrading of once respected professional credentials when women acquire them. I have no wish to see a young crop of women engineers and scientists replacing non-degreed men as drafters or engineering and science technicians rather than full-fledged professionals.

It is interesting that when a woman cooks, it is a hobby. But when a man cooks he is a Chef. Or when a woman sews she is a seamstress, but a man is a tailor. We’re very good at separating what a woman might be able to do equally as good as a man as “woman’s work” vs a well paying professional occupation. I’m sure some of my colleagues in the sciences have seen this happen to them. Achieve the same educational achievement and there is an effort to push them into technician or support roles. Once women start to achieve any sort of parity in any great number it seems that profession loses some of its societal recognition and certainly its pay and respect. Men who have natural aptitudes in these areas, and being from a generation that like Harragan’s was told a degree was a passport to a good job, can now feel conned that they too can’t get a decent job or decent pay because teaching or nursing is no longer something we as a society reward. And I’ve certainly seen my superiors attempt to put me into lower level positions despite having more education and experience than my male colleagues. Their being male automatically qualified them for a profession but my hard work and education readies me only for the non-degreed positions they are leaving behind. Harragan continues to have an uncanny description of how the workplace, and education, still works almost four decades later.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 22, 2010 12:14 am

    stick to the industry, do ur phd part time.this way u can have the best of both worlds. 😛

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