Beware Career Guidance that Doesn’t Suit You

I was talking with ranting to my husband last night about this recent report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce: Women Can’t Win: Despite Making Educational Gains and Pursuing High-Wage Majors, Women Still Earn Less than Men.

It is absolutely maddening that women with advanced degrees continue to earn less than men with only a Bachelor’s degree, particularly since women outnumber men in many fields. The report points out a number of factors at play, most of which I’m betting you can guess. Women are concentrated in lower-paying fields, such as teaching. But women who pursue higher-paying professions (e.g., engineering) are more likely than men to go into lower-paying areas within those professions (e.g., environmental engineering as opposed to petroleum engineering).

There’s this incredibly depressing finding from the report:

“Even when they do everything ‘right’ — choose a high-paying field of study, pursue a high-paying major within that field, and get a job in a high-paying occupation — women still get paid less than their male peers.” (Source)

How Would I Advise My Daughter?

Putting my own gender, work, and financial needs aside, we turned our conversation to our daughter. Undoubtedly, she will work one day. Obviously, only time will tell (she’s only 6) but as of this moment, and depending on the day, she wants to be a teacher. So playing out that scenario, I asked him where’s the silver lining?

Let’s say we coach her to select a higher-paying field. She’d get paid more, and therefore face fewer financial hardships. But that means she’d be working among fewer women and possibly be in a work culture that is unfriendly to or unaccustomed to women.

So while she’d be breaking new ground and making it easier for future women who come behind her, she’d be paid less than her male colleagues for doing additional work!  (And never reaping the rewards herself. According to the American Association of University Women, the wage gap will not be closed until 2119.) Other than making a noble contribution to future generations, can someone please tell me what is the incentive here for women to endure gender segregation, potential discrimination and break ground in higher-paying fields?

I’ll take a cleansing breath here while I clamber down off my soap box.

I realized something once I was done ranting. Yes, all of that is still utterly maddening. But here’s the thing: I would hope that I would coach my daughter the same way I coach graduate students. To choose a career deliberately, one that will suit her.

What is Career Choice?

Choosing to pursue a field or profession that is aligned with your interests, your innate skills and talents, and your needs.

I’m not minimizing financial needs; I strongly advocate that women need to be compensated fairly for their skills, intellect, and abilities. But your day-to-day relationship with your work matters. And so when you select careers based solely on one thing (like earnings potential), you are overlooking other factors that are just as, if not more, important. So what I would tell my daughter is:

Choose a Career that Suits You.

Sure, that’s easier said than done. You have to do a lot of work to get there. It’s a process.

Work is only One Facet of Your Life

First, you have to get to know yourself. Then you have to identify what you value when it comes to work. You have to think about the role that work plays in your life. You have to prioritize your needs. And sometimes all of that results in choosing a career because it pays more. But you can’t base decisions solely on pay. Yes, it is a very important factor – as work is, well, just that. Given the choice, I know I’d be spending my time doing something other than my job if I could support my family. Wouldn’t you?  And when your pay is so low that you can’t support yourself or couldn’t do what you love without the continuous support of others (your partner or parents), well, that’s something you need to examine as part of this process.

Going through this process of self-exploration and career research is well worth the time and effort. Not only are you more likely to know yourself and clarify your relationship with work, you’re also more informed about what you are getting yourself into.

Let’s say my daughter does this process and comes out on the other side

  • trusting herself that she is deeply passionate about teaching,
  • and that doing something that matters – like teaching –  is what matters to her
  • and enters the profession understanding some of the financial challenges that lie ahead

Then I’m all for it! She will have a profession that brings meaning to her work, keeping her engaged and intellectually challenged.

And Work Needs to Make Your Priorities Possible

On the other hand, she could go through this process and conclude that she is more passionate about world travel than her job, and select a more lucrative field like finance. She would make her selection knowing that she could face gender discrimination and less of an emotional connection with the work she does, but choosing it nevertheless because it gets her closer to achieving her primary goal of traveling the globe. Then by all means, I’m all for it!

It’s important to approach your career holistically – as only one facet of your life. You have to take into account whether your chosen field will get you closer to achieving your desired lifestyle, how much stress you can handle, and what you need and want out of your work. So while alot of people avoid this process because it is hard work itself to get to know yourself and what you need out of work, you need to do it anyway. You’re going to be working most of your adult life, so don’t you want to spend the time to make sure you’re making choices that work for you?

So while I was momentarily caught up in my rage about the wage gap, which is a real problem we must overcome, I would caution you from having studies and reports like this color your career choices or make you feel bad about the choices you have made.

Shame on employers for continuing the wage gap, but do not shame yourself if you find yourself in a low-paying profession or one of only a handful of women. Instead, congratulate yourself because you chose work that suits you. It’s so easy to get sidetracked when you hear something like this report and feel angry, pissed off, resentful, and jealousy. But even when you do (ahem, raises hand), when you have gone through the process of thinking through your work values and your self, you can rest assured that you made a choice that was right for you.

And for those of us who still struggle with how to find work that suits you? I’ll start tackling that in another post.

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