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Caroline Kennedy as Role Model

A story in the New York Times today really caught my eye. Entitled “Coming Up Short as a Role Model for the Mommy Track”, it compares Caroline Kennedy’s unceremonious exit from senate candidacy to the story of the first woman to attend Citadel in 1993 (she dropped out after just one week). Here’s the link, it’s a good read: 

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/23/nyregion/23bigcity.html?ref=nyregion

The piece successfully pinpoints the often giant gap between how smart, educated women who haven’t worked for years perceive themselves as potential employees and how the workplace itself actually judges them.

First of all, Kennedy’s celebrity status obviously enabled her candidacy and as the author points out, women who haven’t worked in years should not look to her as a role model for returning to work. But her sense of entitlement and, if you read between the lines, sense of distaste for the grittier parts of the job, are not at all different from that of other privileged women. The truth is: There’s a reason they call it work, and while it brings with it many positive things like an improved sense of self-worth, growth opportunities and positive modeling for our daughters, not to mention a paycheck, there are, invariably, tough days to be borne with the good.

When I talk with women who are trying to return to the workforce, I am often struck by how entitled they feel based on their socioeconomic status, personal connections and lack of touch with the “real world”. Of course it goes without saying they are not interested in the more plebian parts of work.

These qualities will not help them make friends if they do get hired, and showing inflexibility and a lack of humility will surely not get them hired in the first place.

Especially in these times.

Now point two: Caroline Kennedy’s judgment at having named her uncle’s health as a (possible) reason for having revoked her candidacy is emblematic of the poor choices women can make in bringing their personal lives to the fore at work. This kind of family reason is damaging to working women in general; it would be virtually unthinkable for a man to use the same excuse unless it was completely unavoidable.

It’s an unfortunate truth, but women tend to be judged more harshly than men in the workplace (and probably everywhere else too). And women of privilege even more so. In today’s economy, employers are hiring more slowly, carefully and cheaply than at any time since the early ’80s. And they have their pick of the litter. So if you’ve been out of the workforce and are really serious about returning, don’t think you can rest on the laurels of an outdated career and pick up where you left off. You’ll need to prove currency, relevance, understanding and humility, assuming you have the skills and smarts to begin with. Not to mention a willingness to accept a lower salary than you’d planned.

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One Response to Caroline Kennedy as Role Model

  1. cynthia king vance says:

    Having met with many highly educated women whose professional trajectories have been influenced by the responsibilities of parenting and find themselves wanting to ramp up or transition to a new role, there are many lessons from Caroline Kennedy’s recent experience.

    First of all, networks matter. Most of us don’t have one as good as Kennedy’s, but most opportunities come through former work, social and volunteer connections. We all need to think more broadly about this and trust that we can activate our unique one.

    Secondly, opportunities knock, if you are ready to see and seize them. Kennedy did this when she jumped in to campaign for Obama, which ALSO shows how strategic volunteering can lead to other, paid opportunities. By doing, rather than stewing (even if it didn’t work out) she has also learned valuable things about herself and work that will shape her next choice.

    Thirdly, we each carry a portfolio of assets that can enable success in the right role. For Kennedy, her celebrity, network and style were real assets for a job where fundraising, access and public recognition help. As we learned with Obama, the “right” experience may not be a straight line and personal qualities matter. But it doesn’t mean you can assume that if you are “smart” you can do anything – understanding the skills and attributes you bring that will enable you to a job well, if perhaps in an untraditional way, is critical.

    And lastly, unambiguously wanting it can be a big hurdle. In addition to the humiliation of potential rejection, there are tradeoffs inherent in going from a portfolio life that can include family, projects and volunteering, to a demanding full time job with a lot less flexibility. Your blog was a bit harsh on this front – there are some elements of “entitlement” but there are also some very real cost/benefit calculations. (As I recall, Kennedy gets paid well for her books).

    We agreed that it is a step forward that critics question Kirsten Gillibrand’s positions on TARP and guns, but not her ability to do, or judgment in wanting, the job with two very young children. It seems the next generation is on track to have fewer professional women feeling stranded mid-career.

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