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Pink ghetto unfabulous

December 6, 2005 -- Today career columnist Carol Kleiman had a piece in the Chicago Tribune headlined "Pink-collar workers have own barriers to break." The piece examines how women can escape the "low wages" and "lack of a career path" in the "pink ghetto" of traditionally female jobs, including nursing and teaching, and move into "demanding" "professional" careers like law and accounting. We agree, of course, that women should not be excluded from careers on the basis of gender. But the column assumes that traditionally female jobs are menial and insignificant, and defines success solely in terms of the money, prestige and obvious power available in some traditionally male jobs. The author and the consultant who is her main source seem unaware that some of the jobs they hold in such contempt are vital, autonomous professions, many of whose members hold graduate degrees, nor that a world without nurses and teachers would also lack the lawyers and accountants they value so highly. Nurses use their years of college-level science training to save lives and improve patient outcomes every day, many as clinical leaders. Many nurses are underpaid, but the average annual US nursing salary was recently reported to be well over $50,000. As nurses confront a deadly shortage rooted in part in a lack of understanding of their work, press pieces like this one are very damaging. And use of the phrase "pink ghetto" will be especially unhelpful for attracting men to nursing.

Kleiman begins by explaining that "pink-collar" workers are those in traditionally female-dominated fields "such as teaching, nursing, public relations, human resources, administration, child care and in clerical and secretarial work." The term "pink ghetto" was reportedly first applied to this category in a 1983 study in order to "describe the limits on women's career advancement in these traditional, often low-paying jobs," according to Jonamay Lambert, described in the piece as "president and founder of Lambert & Associates Inc., a diversity and consulting firm." Lambert is quoted as saying that an estimated 55% of women now working outside the home are "trapped in the pink ghetto," though this number has declined in the last decade "mainly because women themselves have made the effort to make the change." Kleiman, obviously replying on Lambert, explains that the "pink-collar ghetto" is "characterized not only by low wages, in most cases, but also by a lack of a career path." Lambert is quoted as saying that moving "up" in most pink-collar jobs can take a long time and that even the top jobs in such fields are "often not the highest paying ones."

Kleiman says women are often "relegated" to the pink ghetto because of social preconceptions and male discomfort in "dealing with women in a professional level," as well as a lack of role models and mentors. Lambert reportedly notes that many women are actually "in the pink ghetto by choice," one that is often motivated by the need to balance family and career, even though they "pay a price" for making that choice. Of course, Lambert notes, the pink ghetto jobs usually have a little more "flexibility in terms of work hours, especially when compared to such fields as law or accounting, which are very demanding, particularly if you want to be on a partner track." Kleiman asks the critical question: "How do you get out of the ghetto?" Lambert advises staying current with training and technology, networking, and finding mentors. She would like to see "women having more opportunities where they feel valued and are valued," where they need not pay "such a high price for choices that are so important not only for women, but for society." Kleiman notes that Lambert herself has an undergraduate degree in education and a "master's degree in counseling," and the final paragraph mentions that the consultant "started out in a pink-collar job in 1978 but became a white-collar professional in 1981 when she started her present firm." Mention of just what pink-collar job Ms. Lambert suffered with is pointedly missing, as it is from her consulting firm biography. But we wonder if she herself may briefly have been "trapped" as a lowly teacher before "making the effort" to become a real "professional."

We recognize that in some jobs, including nursing, "advancement" in terms of increasing responsibility and salary has often been difficult. Our problem is with the overriding assumption in Kleiman's piece that the jobs consigned to the "pink ghetto" are automatically hopeless and insignificant, and that the only thing for women to do is escape them as soon as possible. It evidently never occurred to the two women responsible for this piece that sexism might take the form not only of excluding women from male-dominated fields, but of undervaluing the work women have traditionally done to the point where it has entered a long-term crisis that is taking thousands of lives worldwide. Have these employment experts considered what would happen to a society with no nurses or teachers? Are money and status really all that matters?

Parts of the piece are misleading at best. Contrary to implications in the piece, nursing is an autonomous, self-governing profession and a distinct scientific discipline. Nurses have a unique scope of practice and body of knowledge, including special expertise in areas such as patient education, wound care and pain management. Nurses are cutting-edge health researchers, hospital executives, health care non-profit leaders, and government health policy makers. Many nurses would be interested to know that office jobs like law and accounting are "more demanding" than theirs, which is very often both mentally and physically exhausting. Of course some of the jobs listed do not pay much, but nurses can now make good salaries, especially those with more formal education. And if bedside nurses are viewed as having too little money or power, is the solution really to urge them all to flee, or to call for improvements in wages and conditions so that our health systems do not collapse?

Obviously, many bedside nurses have fled in the last decade. And it seems pretty clear that those responsible for this piece will be thrilled if they can help even more women to escape the "ghetto" of nursing. Of course, fewer nurses means more death. But as the noted employment consultant Ebenezer Scrooge once observed, death is a good way to "decrease the surplus population."

Please email your views of the "pink ghetto" to Ms. Kleiman and Ms. Lambert by clicking here.

See the article by Carol Kleiman "Pink-collar workers have own barriers to break" in the December 6, 2005 of the Chicago Tribune.

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