27 May 2009

Mommy penalty indeed

As I ponder a fuller re-entry into the job market (after 10 years of part-time university lecturing), I 'm seeing more clearly the career risks I took in having children and curbing my employment during their early childhoods. In many ways, I feel surpassed by the economy and its labor requirements, and wonder how to match my skills with what is needed out there.

Coincidentally, just this morning on my way to a breakfast honoring the new Consul General of Finland, I read the headlines about President Obama's choice for the Supreme Court replacement to retiring Justice Souter. Judge Sonia Sotomayor has a compelling immigrant story and a brilliant legal career, and she is single (divorced), with no children. Likewise, the Finnish Consul who has just been assigned the plum consular post in Los Angeles seems to be a remarkably intelligent, personable, well-traveled woman with a long career in the Finnish Foreign Ministry, and she is married, but with no children (I asked). These are amazingly accomplished women, and their similar family statuses struck me.

Is there a mommy penalty? Have these women succeeded partly because they have not had children, left the job market, re-entered? Certainly these women are incredibly talented, well-educated and are successful on their own merits (and there many women who have succeeded as well, but with children). Still, one wonders, how does not having children help? If not having children makes it possible to stay engaged with the job market and ever-developing industries, then it does help. If it means sticking to a career path with a clear trajectory, then it helps. For women with children who've chosen to or been compelled to curtail their employment for multiple years, getting out of touch with the job market and its requirements is a real danger, and stepping of the career path means getting back on it is nearly impossible. In some countries in northern Europe, positions are protected during parental leaves, and returning to work is more seamless because of this protection, but such jobs and protections are rare in the United States. In the U.S. it may be that re-entering mommies will need to do some drastic re-inventing and re-training. That seems to be what I need to think about myself.

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