Social Work As A Career

We used to call it the suit of armor. Red blazer, matching skirt, padded shoulders, and an off-white blouse with a soft, floppy bow like two long dog ears that sat below our chins and rested safely above our breasts. The media told us this was the “power woman’s outfit” and so my friends and I donned it, or something like it, every day to our post-college jobs.

It was the 1980s. Ronald Reagan was in office; Donald Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, was on every aspiring capitalist’s bedside table; and Gordon Gekko, the tycoon from the original Wall Street movie, was extolling the message “Greed is Good.” Getting money, gaining power, and storming the gates of Corporate America was on the ambitious woman’s to-do list.

There was a path, a clear one, or so we were told. Get an entry-level job at a big company, work for two or three years, go to business school (or law school or medical school or .), then move to the next big job, progressing steadily up the ladder (no stopping!), and eventually you’ll rise to the top. Success can be yours if you follow the rules. But if you pivot or pull back or (God forbid) pause, you’ll be forever off track. No brass ring for you.

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It’s like that old board game called Life. There are many paths one can take. The wrong one and you end up with nothing; the right one and, well, you win! And we wanted to be winners, so my generation followed what we were told was the path to success. We worked and worked and worked

And then we had children.

That didn’t stop us. Well, at least not at first. We continued to work, and while we did so we missed our children’s first words, first steps, sometimes even first smiles. Many of us managed to make it through baby number two, sometimes even baby number three, but, eventually, we raised the white flag. We admitted we weren’t up to the task, and then we did something we never envisioned we would do: We stepped off the track, fell off the ladder, and went home. We were supposed to be the generation to break through that glass ceiling, but all we managed to break was our belief in ourselves and our confidence in a system that promised us so much.

Then Lisa Belkin published her iconic 2003 New York Times article, “The Opt-Out Revolution.” Thoughtful and troubling in equal measure, Lisa’s article was a sucker punch to any professional woman who had stepped away from her career.23 In it she recounted story after story of highly educated women who had “given it all up” to focus on the needs of their families. Lisa wrote,

Wander into any Starbucks in any Starbucks kind of neighborhood in the hours after the commuters are gone. See all those mothers drinking coffee and watching over toddlers at play? If you look past the Lycra gym clothes and the Internet-access cellphones, the scene could be the 50’s, but for the fact that the coffee is more expensive and the mothers have M.B.A.s.

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