How men and women talk about their careers

The other week I attended an academic conference in an applied field. To my surprise, there were quite a few people from industry attending as well. One of the guys I ended up talking to told me about his educational background, and his current job. He was among the older attendees, easily in his late 50s. I found him interesting to talk to because he had managed to carve out a niche for himself and now has a very specialized job, doing essentially high-level consulting in one particular subfield of an applied science. I noticed that there was a connection between his current job and what he told me about his time in graduate school, and made the assumption that there had been a more or less straight path between the two. Thus, I asked him how he managed to launch his career back in the days, and how he got to where he is right now. His reply was rather surprising. Paraphrased, he said roughly the following:

“My career? To be honest, I don’t think my career ever really took off. After graduate school, I couldn’t find a job related to my studies, so had to take a job in a different field. I worked in that industry for about twenty years, doing more or less the same kind of work at different levels of responsibility, and different companies. A few years ago, though, I got lucky and was able to get on a project where I could revisit a topic I had worked on in grad school.”

I looked him up on LinkedIn, where he just matter-of-factly listed the positions he had throughout his career. He could just as well have waxed lyrical about his decades-long career, and the expert knowledge he built up in the various sectors he worked in, but he didn’t.

I don’t think that guy displayed false modesty. To him, he was just doing his job, and as he never got a fancy title or a really big paycheck, he didn’t think he had a good reason to bullshit about his career. I frequently notice similar modesty in people with a solid technical education. They don’t bullshit you about their “career”. Of course, in some fields, you’ll find plenty of bragging. Run-of-the-mill sales and finance guys tend to bullshit like there is no tomorrow; I also think that people working in ancillary fields bullshit a lot, often as a consequence of some companies using important-sounding job titles for mundane tasks, think “People Science” instead of “Human Resources”, or “Human Resources” instead of the earlier “Personnel”. A particular favorite of mine is “Growth Hacking” for “Marketing”, but let’s not get sidetracked.

These observations now lead me to how many women describe their work. While most men, even highly educated ones with very respectable jobs, would say that they, well, have a job. On the other hand, women have “careers”. I was often baffled about the staggering nonsense I heard in that regard. Some told me about their “educational career”, even though they just enrolled in a Master’s program. Others believed that doing a few unpaid internships in creative fields means that they are getting their career off the ground, even a few of the ditzes working in retail or the restaurant business I met were convinced that they had a “career” instead of a job.

I sometimes wonder if this is a consequence of feminist propaganda according to which women are supposed to have a “career”. Careers are rather rare. Very few people get meaningful promotions after reaching a certain level in the hierarchy in their profession. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are incompetent. Instead, it’s the expected outcome in a field that is organized like a pyramid. For each level above you, the number of people drastically shrinks. This is especially true in flat organizations where there may only be a few levels.

Telling women that they can have a career is probably quite tempting. It may even have a nice ring to it. Telling women that they can have a “job”, on the other hand, might make many of them question whether the sacrifices would be really worth it. Yet, in the end, that is what the vast majority of them will get, and often only if they are lucky. Plenty will have to survive on government handouts and project work, which, of course, allegedly constitute a career. Really, women, is that what you gave up a comfortable life as a house wife for, a shitty job at Starbucks, or decades of drudgery at BigCorp?

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below, but keep the comment policy in mind.
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