Friday, April 11, 2003

This is not a stand-alone post, but a long "comment" (too long to go in the site's comment box) to a post from today at


“Overqualified” is either an outright canard, or a sexist presumption that applies only to men’s careers (take your pick). For that matter, “underqualified” (or not experienced enough; not having the right kind of experience; etc) is too. In fact, the two supposed extremes of qualification have an identical meaning in practice, IMHO.

Warning: I’m going to have to resort to some deeply unfashionable gender-casting to make my point.

My starting place is the maxim (one my Dad loves, BTW) that it is always easier to get a job by moving from another job. In other words, the mere fact of unemployment at the time of application is contra-indicative of one’s chances of obtaining any given job. I don’t doubt that this is the case, and that there is a body of theory, and stats to back it up – at least inasmuch as it applies to men.

For women, on the other hand, there appears to be abundant evidence that this contra-indication does not apply. I have never come across anything that suggests that a woman’s temporarily (but usually for a significant period, definitely more likely to be years than months) giving up paid work – usually for family reasons – contra-indicates employability per se. Of course, leaving the workforce for an extended period does undoubtedly flatten a woman’s career/earning-prospects, but this is precisely my point.

Women’s careers usually work horizontally, while men’s work careers vertically. Coming back to the concept of being over- or under-qualified, then – this has little application to women. If being formally underqualified – that is, lacking current or recent experience – was an objective criterion applied to hiring females, then logically the most chronic, long-term unemployed of all would be women seeking to return to the workforce, after an extended period away from it. (I am assuming here that daily family-raising etc, involves no greater skill-maintenance than the daily schedule of a typical long-term unemployed man. I can’t see why it would, other than for some obvious exceptions like a female child-care worker’s career. Further, given the “mutual obligation” requirements of the dole, there is considerable reason for deeming an unemployed male who has been out of the workforce for, say, ten years, to be objectively more “work-ready” (and so, “experienced”) than a female seeking to re-enter the workforce after ten years of family-raising.)

The verticality, on the other hand, of most men’s careers tends to preclude lateral – and most especially, downwards – re-entry into the workforce after time out of it. I think that this is deeply-ingrained sexism, that has negative impacts for both genders (for ambitious women, the punch comes as the “glass-ceiling syndrome”).

For men, though, this syndrome is hardly identified, much less given a wide currency in pop psychology. Male unemployment rates are higher than female ones among all age groups, again reinforcing what I would term the “glass-ladder” and the “glass-snake” syndrome. For men fortunate enough to be on the “glass-ladder” escalator, there is, of course, not really a “syndrome” at all. For those out of the workforce, however, the concepts of being over- or under-qualified are used to mask the reality of the “glass-snake”.

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