She’s a Kennedy, but She’s a Lot Like Us

Washington Post | Sunday, December 28, 2008

Amid all the recent buzz about Caroline Kennedy’s bid for a U.S. Senate seat, there has been a great deal of talk about her connections, her power, her wealth. But the way I see it, if you strip away the glamour, the name and the money, then Caroline is . . . me. And many of my friends. Maybe even you. If, that is, you happen to be a midlife woman raising kids and returning — or thinking of returning, or hoping one day to return — to the full-time workforce.

A great deal of the criticism around Kennedy’s interest in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s soon-to-be-vacated Senate seat sounds an alarm for women like me. We’ve been at home with the kids, sure, but we’ve also been busy with lots of other things. We’ve been working part-time, consulting, freelancing. Like Kennedy’s, our resumes don’t conform to the conventional, one-job-after-the-other sequence that recruiters expect. When I read a sniping post on that “Caroline has been a happy housewife since getting her law degree, published a few ghost-written books and sat on a few boards that used her celebrity to draw donations,” I thought, hmm, wait a minute. Couldn’t there be a more inventive way to look at her CV?

Yes, her portfolio is diverse, and when I first read the press accounts, I too had my doubts. Okay, I thought, she went to Harvard, then Columbia Law School. Very nice. A book on the Bill of Rights. Check. Another on the right to privacy. Check, check. The three-day-a-week fundraising job for New York schools. Triple check. But two poetry anthologies? The whole thing just didn’t quite add up.

But that’s when I caught myself, and my more out-of-the-box side spoke up: Kennedy had young children, and no matter how much child care her money could buy, she clearly wanted to be a very-much-there primary caregiver. Perhaps, like many women in her situation, she found stimulation and satisfaction in whatever tasks most easily fit her schedule and her life, and her kids’ lives. You could say her work history was spasmodic; you could say it was scattershot. But you could also say that as her children have grown up, her focus on public life has intensified, culminating in her fundraising for the public schools and her participation in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. You could say that, consciously or unconsciously, she was preparing for this moment.

Rather than a privileged aberration, I prefer to view Kennedy as a bellwether, a case study in how things could be if only the workplace were more accepting of an unconventional CV, one that may brim with great experience and skills and talent but is also peppered with gaps and one-off projects and volunteering. After all, if workers can no longer expect the security of a 50-year career with IBM or Procter & Gamble, then maybe employers should stop expecting each and every job applicant to present them with an old-fashioned sequential résumé. Maybe now’s the time to change our thinking about what constitutes the ideal CV.

When we talk about women going back into the workforce, it’s illuminating to consider the circumstances under which they left it in the first place. For many women, it was never truly a choice, never truly voluntary. As Pamela Stone, author of “Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home,” points out, many are pushed out by jobs with long hours, rigid workweeks and inflexible demands. “These women haven’t opted out,” says Stone. “They’ve been shut out, by workplaces that don’t pair well with family life.”

That’s how I came to understand my own “choice” as well. And several years ago, when I moved to France — which offers longer parental leave and better-quality child care than is the norm in the United States and which welcomes women back into the workplace after the birth of a child on a much more flexible basis — I had a chance to see another way of doing things. This only underlined my belief that rather than freely “opting” to leave full-time work, I had simply been “stopping,” faced with workplace demands that seemed incompatible with parenthood.

Still, like many of my peers, I assumed from the get-go that I’d move back to full-time work at some point. For some women, the time stretches into an interval that the novelist Meg Wolitzer calls “The Ten-Year Nap.” It starts out as a short siesta, but then poof! — a decade or more goes by, skills get rusty, the 401(k) plan hasn’t seen any infusions, and the contacts and connections are disappearing. (For me, I knew it was time to start thinking seriously about full-time work again when some of my best contacts began retiring or, gulp, dying.)

One woman I know was an early Silicon Valley success story. Hers was a very long nap: For two decades, she was happy raising her two sons and managing the household. Then her husband lost his job, and she was forced to search for work with health-care benefits that would cover her serious medical condition. She took a good hard look around and decided that the task of convincing high-tech recruiters that she could move back into her old career was just too daunting. And even if she eventually succeeded, it would take too long, given her insurance needs. So she decided to become a medical records clerk, a position that made absolutely no use of her early career experience. Of her job search, she says: “It was as if the last 25 years had been erased.”

Clearly, the classic “mother’s CV” poses problems, for Kennedy and for those of us in a similar boat. (I know, I know: Her vessel’s a yacht, mine’s a canoe.) As Kennedy attempts to transform her résumé into a narrative that will win her the Senate seat, I see echoes of several friends who have sought my help in refurbishing their own résumés in recent months. They may have done some income-producing work in the last years; they’ve certainly done a lot of volunteer work. They seem a bit tentative, lacking in confidence. As I’ve tried to help each one fashion a convincing document — neither hiding the gaps nor trying to cute them up with terms like “household engineer” — I’ve realized that although I had a good sense of what each woman’s strengths and weaknesses were, they simply weren’t represented on the piece of paper I was staring at.

No wonder these women seem tentative: They know that most employers won’t think they merit the jobs they have their eyes on. In fact, one friend who’d gone in to an organization to talk about a mid-level communications job ended up being offered a part-time assistant’s position. “The lowest rung on the ladder, and not even full-time!” she said.

This woman, like Kennedy, is running smack into what social psychologists call the potential vs. performance split. It works this way, according to Kathie Lingle of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress: “The guys in charge say, ‘Oh, John can do it, we know he can.’ They’re assessing his potential.” Whereas, when looking at a female job candidate, they’re likely to say: ” ‘Oh, Sue can’t do it; she’s never done it before.’ ” They’re basing their evaluation on her past performance.

Even though the job Kennedy is trying to nab is a far cry from the account executive or publicist positions that my friends might go after, the phenomenon at work is the same. The reaction seems to be: If she hasn’t followed a straight-and-narrow, logical path, we simply can’t imagine her in the role under discussion.

Confronted with employers’ traditional expectations, many job-hunting women back down and settle for less, taking cuts in salary, seniority or both. One friend of mine had been a highly paid health-care executive before she had kids. She continued to work full-time when her children were young, until the work-family tango got to be too much. After taking a few years off, she decided to reenter the job market. But several interviews later, she realized that the very same inhospitable conditions that had driven her out remained: long hours that didn’t mesh with the kind of family life she wanted. So she changed careers, took a whopping pay cut and became a teacher.

Indeed, many women end up with positions that pay a lot less than their old jobs. Although the figure usually bandied about in pay-equity discussions is that women make 77 cents to every dollar men earn, a recent study by Stephen J. Rose and Heidi Hartmann of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research puts the number at a shocking 38 cents. While the 77-cent figure compares full-time women with full-time men, the IWPR study looked at real women’s real work histories over 15 years — in and out of the labor force, sometimes working more hours, sometimes less, sometimes not at all.

For me, whenever I’ve been in talks in recent years about a full-time job that offers less in salary and seniority than I believe I deserve, I’ve thought of the intangible benefits that come with my less lucrative and less-recognized-by-the-world freelance/consulting career. Take school vacations. The number of holidays in the French school calendar truly boggles the American mind, but when they roll around, I don’t necessarily have to engage in a mad hunt for camps or day-care centers to fill up the days. When my son is sick, he has a parent there to rub his forehead (and, okay, if I have a deadline, he also gets to watch a truly astonishing amount of television).

These are benefits, just two among many. On the downside: Statistics show that if I don’t return to full-time work in the next five or six minutes, my chances of poverty in retirement are staggering, and the liberal Center for American Progress puts my lifetime earnings losses at about $700,000. And, heaven forfend, should my husband die or we split up, my chances of plummeting down the economic ladder are far greater and would come about way before retirement.

Caroline Kennedy, of course, doesn’t share my concerns about lifetime earnings losses or 401(k) plans. But she does have to worry about being unfairly penalized for her unconventional résumé, about being nastily pigeonholed as a mere “happy housewife.” For her sake, and that of all us in-and-out, stopping, opting, part-time, full-time working mothers, I hope she gets a fair shake.