3 (Unconventional) Career Lessons Learned

group of women in business attire

1. Don’t choose what to do. (Choose what NOT to do – quickly.)
My career has been propelled most by the times I started down a path, realized it was not a good fit, and quickly chose NOT to do it anymore. Even when that decision was painful, risky or counter-intuitive.
Four months in, I realized I didn’t want to spend seven years getting a Ph.D. and then be a professor. I walked away from a fellowship, and walked into a K12 teaching job that introduced me to strategic planning, education and technology – three areas I found passion and would become constant throughout my career.

A job I moved across country for turned out to be far slower paced than my energy level required. So I left mid-year for a position at an Internet start-up, and spent four years in the Internet boom getting an on-the-job Ph.D. in organizational change.
2. Gender doesn’t matter. (Having kids matters a lot.)
Well, to be fair, gender does still matter, but having kids matters more when it comes to career paths. Through my own childhood and college years, I believed that as a woman in the modern era I could be anything I wanted to be. After I received my degrees from the University of Chicago, I got married, got a job, and still didn’t see any reason to shed my belief that women had made it.

And then we had a baby.

While pregnant, my proposal to go half-time from a fifty-hours-a-week job had been turned down. I found a part-time job somewhere else but was laid off the day I came back from maternity leave. Five days after our daughter was born my husband went back to seventy-hour workweeks at his law firm leaving little room for him to be involved with the baby, or for me to search for, let alone take, a new job.

Before I’d gotten pregnant, I’d been gunning for an executive job. Only six months into being a mother, I despaired about getting and keeping any job. I had to confront a few realities; here are two of them.

  • Mothers don’t work like everyone else. Yes “most mothers work today,” but only half of mothers work over 35 hours a week while 90% of fathers work that much. Mothers just don’t fit into the outdated 50-hours a week job model because they are still doing most of the family work.
  • Mothers experience bias in the workplace. A study from Cornell showed that mothers were far less likely to be hired than others with equal resumes and were offered lower starting salaries. Fathers, on the other hand, were not penalized for being a parent and sometimes benefited from having children.

Understanding the unpleasant reality of how motherhood impacts my career gave me the motivation   to forge my own path, start my own business, and in the process find ways to do the work I loved for organizations like non-profits and public school districts that I truly cared about.

3. My career is not my problem. (It’s our problem.)
After we had our daughter, I spent several years feeling angry and resentful at the hit my career took. I agonized about how to get my career back on track. It took me awhile to get beyond my own pity-party to notice that like most fathers today, my husband was feeling major conflicts between work and family too. He never saw his daughter, and his wife was constantly yelling at him for not being around more, all while he was trying to succeed in a demanding job.

My career wasn’t my problem. Our careers were our problem.

I couldn’t go up from zero hours a week unless he could come down from seventy hours. Figuring out an employment option for me was inextricably connected to figuring out a different employment option for him. If he was going to have time with our daughter, if I was going to have time to be employed, if we were going to have more time together, his employment had to change.

So we set about the long, hard work of clearly defining our ideal family workweek (about 75 hours a week at the time) and taking the steps to get there. When life changes, which it always does, we return to talking about what our ideal is and how to get there and we adapt – together.

What career lessons have you learned along the way?

Kristin Maschka 

This post was written for the University of Chicago Alumni Career Month Series on Facebook. Kristin has a BA and MA in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Chicago and in 2005 was inducted into the University Chicago Hall of Fame for women’s basketball.

4 thoughts on “3 (Unconventional) Career Lessons Learned

  1. Thanks, Kristen, for this thoughtful post. One lesson I can add to your list is: All my experience counts.
    When I was looking around for a career change, I found that my experience as a volunteer board member sparked my passion more than any of my professional experience had to that point. So, I added it to my resume and started looking for work that drew on that experience. My current employer took a chance on me, and though I’ve learned a lot on the job, the volunteer experience I had coming in formed the foundation for what I am doing (and loving!) now.

    1. That is so true Franci! Volunteer experience is important on a resume and a great way to explore new interests. I love the tips iRelaunch gives on this topic in this interview I did with them, including the tip not to use the word “volunteer.”
      My path included a significant amount of time volunteering my professional skills in ways that allowed me to transition fields seamlessly.
      Thanks for sharing!

  2. I now work 25 hours a week at a job I love, that combines all my gifts and talents. Of course, it happens that it is an all volunteer job, but I am blessed not to “have” to work for money.
    The no-profit is called Hope Reins of Raleigh, http://www.hopereinsraleigh.org. When I want to go back to paid work, I now have lots of connections and s great reference. Plus, I am doing meaningful work.
    Don’t be afraid to jump into non-paid work. You will be surprised at the rewards. PJ

    1. Thanks for pointing out the rewards of unpaid work – both tangible and intangible.

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