I have not read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, but I’ve read about it–there are lots of opinions out there. Yesterday, I read a reactive post at Salon that really struck a chord with me–Can Women Over 50 “Lean in”?
The post describes the plight of over-50 women who are either attempting to re-enter the workforce or ramp up their current careers. The post suggests that “leaning in” isn’t even a viable option because often these women are invisible and therefore ignored. I’ve written about age before, both from the perspective of age not mattering and from the perspective of age making a difference when it shouldn’t. (Age has actually made its way into a lot of my posts, but these are the two that stand out.)
I re-entered the work force at the age of 42 after a 13-year hiatus from active employment while fulfilling my chosen role as a stay-at-home mom. Make no mistake–I am grateful beyond measure that I had the option to make this choice knowing that many parents do not. Please also make no mistake by believing that these were “vacation years” as I can assure you they were not. I tell everyone that these 13 years were the best, most rewarding, most challenging, most difficult, most gratifying years of my life. I make no apologies, nor do I expect praise, for my choice. If I had it to do over again, I would take the same path.
That choice did not come without sacrifice. Although we were able to live comfortably (not luxuriously) on one income for a while, my husband and I both knew when it was time for me to start receiving a paycheck, and we both knew that that time would come eventually. So when my youngest started first grade; I started a new job. I made no attempt, really, to resume my former career as a paralegal deciding that I had been away too long. I was also not particularly interested in the very specific kind of stress that comes with working in a law firm.
Eventually, I made my way into the world of libraries–part time at first–gradually making inroads into getting a full-time position and getting an advanced degree along the way. I did everything that I was supposed to do–I got my MSLS; I was published (both at Web Junction and in Current Studies in Librarianship ; I created a Web presence (with this blog and on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn); I followed blogs and social media and trends and developments. I attended conferences and workshops and Webinars. I joined organizations and committees. I talked to others in the profession and even had a formal mentor for a time. I’ve become comfortable with technology. In fact, when I read the recent (updated) article at Library Journal, How to Become a 21st Century Librarian, I thought, okay, been there, done that (Yes. I realize that phrase is dated, too, like me, which makes it particularly applicable).
So although I am an “older” librarian, I am also a “new” librarian, and although I have lots of chronological years under my belt, my mileage is low (I’d like to think that Mr. Manley derived his post from our exchange in the comments section of my blog post cited above). And yet as a new, older librarian I have had limited success in “ramping up” my career.
Because in the last six years, while I have been gainfully and successfully employed as a cataloger at the Library System of Lancaster County, I have been looking elsewhere from time to time because I am not content to remain a cataloger forever. My forever is somewhat limited, though, by my age. I’d estimate that I’ve applied to approximately 6 positions in the last six years, and I have received exactly zero interest from other, prospective employers. No calls for interviews–none. I have been told by many that my résumé is outstanding; my cover letter is one of the best ever; and I am doing all the right things.
So why not one interview? I can’t say for sure, but there are dates on my résumé and perhaps those numbers speak louder than words. There’s also the problem of having re-entered the work force in a new career after a long hiatus. While I now have some experience under my belt, I don’t have the right kind of experience, that being supervisory or managerial responsibilities. As a new, older librarian, I don’t have a history of the same kind of leadership positions that my contemporaries, who have worked continuously without hiatus, might have. I am at a disadvantage any way you look at it.
Or am I? I’m still not sure, and I don’t want to lay blame where it doesn’t belong. If I am simply the problem–if what I have to offer isn’t enough–then I have to face that. However, there is one more piece of evidence-
At the end of last year, I contacted a career consultant, whom I had met previously on several occasions, in order to discuss my prospects in the job market. We were having a telephone conversation, and she said–“Well, you’re young, so that’s in your favor.” I hesitated and said, “Well, I wouldn’t say I’m young–I’m 51.” There was a discernible pause at the other end until finally she said, “Wow. I never would have put you at 50.” As I said before, we had met in person on several occasions. I have been told before that I look younger than my 50 plus years. Apparently, she thought so, too. But even having met me and having been part of meetings during which she could hear what I had to say and assign value to that, once she heard the number, there was an unmistakable shift in her perspective. It was impossible to deny–my age mattered.
I wonder how many people, particularly women, over 50 are even reading this blog? How many non-veteran women librarian bloggers over 50 are there? How many veteran women librarian bloggers over 50 for that matter? Does anyone want to hear what we have to say? Does anyone believe we can make a contribution?
Even though librarianship is often thought of as a second career and is a profession dominated by women, I’m beginning to think that unless you have “paid your dues” along the way after years and years of service to libraries, or unless you are young and just getting started with years ahead of you, then there is really no clear cut way for a woman of a certain age to get ahead because the perception is that you are too old to barge in and contribute in a meaningful way, especially when there are younger people waiting in line, too. I fear the perception is that our shelf life is limited.
I’m writing about my experience with two hopes in mind. First, I hope that other women who are experiencing this same feeling of invisibility will speak out, too. Second, I’m hoping that someone out there will prove me wrong. Tell me it is possible to start again later in life and achieve the same level of success as someone who has never left the workforce. Why should women–or men–be penalized for a life choice? Or for their age? Or their gender?
I struggled over whether to write this post. I am not a complainer, and I don’t particularly care for people who complain, whine, and make excuses. But it’s hard to ignore a pattern that suggests I am being summarily dismissed.
In many ways, I believe my best years are ahead of me. I don’t feel old, disengaged, or ready to slow down. I’m energized by ideas and possibilities and the uncertainty of the future, because where there’s uncertainty there’s also potential. I want to contribute, make a difference, and help lead the way.
I will continue to believe in myself since I can’t control what others believe. I hope other women like me out there will continue to believe in themselves, too. It’s easy to become discouraged and wonder if everyone else is right. But the thing about reaching a certain age is that you have a history of life experiences behind you to bolster your confidence and to help you distinguish between what matters and what does not.
Unfortunately, though, sometimes what matters to others affects how far you can go. It does not, however, affect how far you can see. And if you can see it, then I guess it’s up to you to figure out a way to get there. No one else is going to pave the way.