It's not easy to quit your job for the reason "I need me time." It's even harder as a woman to pull that initial trigger, and to internalize society's reactions to an unemployed woman versus an unemployed man.
Preface: It's really hard to talk about women's issues
Because talking about women's equality, women's differences, women's feelings, is awkward, when it shouldn't be. Because talking about it makes it seem like you're weak or whining. Because it's not overt or black-and-white, but hard to put a finger on. Because there's women who have it so much worse than you, who are single working moms or are physically abused, and you don't feel right complaining. Because phrases like "you're so sensitive" and "you take things so personally" are too common.
Ironically, with the current attention to diversity and equality, it's a subject that's tip-toed around for fear of being misinterpreted and sued. That makes it harder to address fully head-on.
It's my strong belief that in order to change society in favor of true gender equality, we need to fix subtle biases. Our next generation is soaking up these biases and the best gift we can give them is leading by example.
1. I wasn't prepared for society's reaction to my unemployment
A man who doesn't work is successful.
A woman who doesn't work, who has kids, is a stay-at-home mom.
A woman who doesn't work, who doesn't have kids, is being supported.
When Jeremy and I were buying a car, the dealer asked what our occupations were for the credit application. I said I wasn't working right now. His response was "I'll put down Housewife." Me: "No, I'm unemployed." And so I made sure that the application said Unemployed, because whatever unemployed implied, even if that was fired or "let go," that was better than being labeled Housewife. It was a knife to the stomach, diminishing all my years of hard work.
When Jeremy and I were on our 3 month roadtrip, people would be curious how we managed to travel for so long. I'd say I'm not working, and often their next question was "What does your husband do?" Not, "cool" or "what did you do?" Turn the situation around: if someone asks a man what he does for work, and he responds that he's not working, what's the probability that the very next words to him will be "what does your wife do?"
Society doesn't yet know where to place a woman who doesn't work. This led to:
2. I'm always on defense when asked what I do
My answer to "what do you do for work?" morphed into a lengthy "I'm taking a year off, but I worked at Google for 8 years as an Engineering Program Manager, most of those years on Android."
I'm taking a year off --> A lie. I've known it'd be at least a year, but it warded off further questions about my plans.
I worked at Google for 8 years --> To prove I actually hecked it out, rather than working at Google like a short-lived candle flame.
as an Engineering Program Manager --> Just in case you didn't understand, I'm an Engineer, not working in a more common female role like Marketing or HR (noting that I have respect for those roles, but others don't.)
most of those years on Android --> I'm not BS-ing you and I worked on a legitimate and successful project.
There's a part of me that shrivels in guilt when I say it: a quality that I value about myself is confident humbleness, and I've let someone else (or society) change that.
One of the biggest differences studied between genders, and a large factor of the professional gender gap, is that women don't self-promote nearly as much as men. I can attest that it's really hard to brag. It's the same story with other women I've talked to about career: we have an innate drive to take self-pride in work, and are fulfilled by knowing that internally, without drive to publicly announce accomplishments.
3. I shied away from talking about anything "domestic," even if it was my hobby
I sew and quilt. Yes, that's using a sewing machine to make the thing on your bed or couch that you curl under. I had 2 people (men, and friends, nonetheless) react to conversations about my sewing with "that's so domestic."
But society views arts like sewing and cooking as very domestic female jobs when in the context of the home, and we have different views in the professional context--we don't think twice about a male tailor or male chef.
4. I'm still stunned by how much workplace psychology traps you
It's fascinating how workplace culture warps your motivation and emotions. There's a camaraderie, especially on fast-paced and difficult projects, spawning from stressful and/or long hours. The ones who've worked the longest on a team are the "old ones," embodiments of statues in a Hall of the Gods, the revered ones who've made it.
Leaving that culture rips a piece of you out with it.
At first I felt like I was dodging with a much-needed escape, failing to "make it" with the rest, toppling off a pedestal that I worked so hard to earn. When you're one of the few women on a team, that feeling is multiplied. Before I quit, I moved off one of these teams to a more normal one, and I actually had people gibe, "So you're going to semi-retirement on XX team?"
Years later, a coworker told me that I was the one female he knew to survive that team the longest. Ironic accomplishment?
5. I feel like I'm failing to be a strong female role model
With all the attention to women's rights, to girls in STEM, I want to be a shining example of how a woman has "made it" in Silicon Valley. To be perfectly fair, I AM one of those examples: I'm very successful in my career, I have the means to take time off, I have self-awareness and motivation to know when I need to recharge.
If you're a woman in tech, it's very difficult to push this aside after being the minority who made it--10% of my Electrical Engineering class was female, and 19% of Google's tech staff is female. You've always been the one to make it, and the one to be successful. To put that aside in favor of other priorities is very difficult.
But, there's power in choice. I earned the choice to not work in a professional setting.
6. I fear the ease of re-entry into the workplace, with the question of stay-at-home mom looming
How long is too long to be out of work without damaging your chances to re-enter (especially tech, which changes so quickly), or to re-enter with the same earning potential?
I know that I'm not ready to go back to work yet. Jeremy and I want to start a family soon. I haven't worked with a single mom who has a full-time tech job who has an enviable work-life balance. I also think there's a fallacy of part-time tech work--tech just moves too fast and demands too much at all hours.
Does that mean I'll be a stay-at-home mom? If so, how many consecutive years will that be without professional work? Will I then be able to get back into an equivalent-paying career as before? Will I instead then end up being dependent on someone financially? That possible loss of independence, when you've worked so hard to buck the trend and have been successful, is scary.
7. Corporate culture doesn't reward women's innate strengths as equally
Being out of the workplace has given me the time and ability to evaluate my strengths. Many of my greater strengths, and those which I believe are more innate to women, like collaboration, empathy, intuition, and taking quiet pride in completing excellent work, aren't as widely valued in today's workplace. Is there overt gender bias? No. But the skills society values and promotes in the professional context tend toward certain personas.
When I get back to work, I'll be much more conscious of my innate strengths and push to be rewarded for those rather than falling into the typical white male mold of a "successful" leader.
8. The number of women in vanlife, traveling and exploring, is drastically increasing
The greener pasture: In just the couple years that we've been roadtripping, I've seen a sharp increase in single women who acquire or build their own travelmobile like ours and are fully living on the road. It's not uncommon to find a group of girls at a climbing crag.
These women are financially independent, traveling for extended periods of time, often more than a year. Some are making their living on the road, working remotely by consulting, often in tech. It's really incredible to talk to them--I don't think I would've been ready to do that solo in my 20s. It's truly inspiring.
My Words of Wisdom
To not need work is an achievement.
To have self-awareness that you need space from your career, to make a plan for it and to act on it, is empowering.
Women are magnets for guilt. The ability to quit your job is an achievement. If you can do it, go for it.