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Saturday, July 3, 2010

The next time someone asks...

Every so often, someone – generally some man – will ask me if I work, or even better, if I still work. In the past, this comment meant: Are you a “stay-at-home mom” (first reference), ergo, not doing “more important” work in the paid labor force; or are you retired because you’re old or don’t “need” to work (second reference)? Jeez! Most women – including those with kids – work for pay. And I’d like to think that I’m still “in my prime” in terms of my labor market participation. The truth is that, like so many Americans, I work like a maniac. Why? Because I have to; I derive pleasure and purpose from it; and hopefully I can contribute something meaningful to the world... But there’s a new interpretation to that question about whether I – or any of us – work, and it has to do with the increasing normalcy of unemployment.

Despite all the government’s attempts at jump-starting the economy, the rate of unemployment has remained stubbornly high at around 10%. A recent rise in the job rate was more related to the creation of temporary jobs. In fact, some of my friends who got hired as census workers were part of that faux decrease in the unemployment rate, and when their jobs end, the unemployment rate will likely go up. Unemployment affects people from all walks of life, but it disproportionately affects people of color. For example, the unemployment rate for white men is 8%, compared to a whopping 17.1% for African-American men and 11.1% for Latino men. The unemployment rate for white women is 7.4% versus 12.4% for African-American women and 10.3% for Latinas.

In this current recession, men initially experienced higher job losses than women, because the industries first hit – like housing, construction and manufacturing – are dominated by men. But downsizing has become an increasingly gender-neutral phenomenon. As the recession has expanded, women are losing more jobs and at a slightly faster rate than men in key sectors like retail and service work. According to Valerie Norton, a Public Policy Fellow at the National Women's Law Center, in January, 2009, women’s unemployment was at the highest rate in 16 years and had the largest single-year increase in 33 years.

In the past few weeks, I have had numerous conversations with friends and acquaintances about the difficulty they’re having finding a job, or how they’re worried about being laid off from their current job. There’s the 20-something armed with degrees who has been thinking about launching a business and meanwhile is working in unpaid internships. There’s the highly educated manager who thought her job was stable, but her organization doesn’t have the funds to cover her, so she’s scrambling to network with contacts near and far. And there’s that person I knew ten years ago and haven’t heard from in ages who suddenly asked me to “link in”. I don’t blame her; I’d be doing the same thing.

I empathize with each of their circumstances. I’ve been out-of-a-job or underemployed a few times in my life, and because I make my living as a consultant, it could happen again. The first time I was without a job, I was in my early 20s. I had worked for a year in a psychiatric hospital and saved enough money to travel in Europe for nearly a year. I came back home – job-less – to an icy, grey Syracuse, New York winter, with no prospects or plans. Poor me… (you think). I had the time of my life, being carefree, so it’s probably hard to “feel my pain.” But I discovered a very dark place emotionally that lingered for months. Although I only had me to support, I was still terrified of the abyss that seemed to lie in my future. Ultimately, I ended up in graduate school, that legitimating haven for the unemployed (that is, those who can afford it time-wise and financially). With a nice scholarship, I had returned to the familiar womb of education, which paid off when I re-entered the job market. My second experience of unemployment was equally tough and unfortunately, I didn’t seem to have learned anything from my first experience. I was quite adept at internalizing the depression of the economy, fighting an internal battle about my value to society, until I again landed back on my feet with a new job.

Like many a sociologist, I have sought to understand life’s experiences by broadening the palette of my own mind and studying the phenomenon. Over the years, I have done a number of workplace studies, and invariably, even if the study isn’t about UN-employment, it becomes about unemployment or, equally difficult, about the challenges of working in dysfunctional workplaces. From my vantage point, most workplaces have a touch of crazy, and well-adjusted employees recognize this and maintain some perspective.

In one workplace study I did in six major corporations, examining the impact of flexible work policies on bottom line issues, two of the participating companies announced lay-offs during the course of the study. In one case, managers from around the country were brought into an auditorium, where the CEO announced the downsizing plan, charging the managers with the task of executing it. As you can imagine, the waves of fear and anger rippled throughout the corporation. In another company, the two top guys in the firm released a video which all employees watched at the same time, in which they sat comfortably in their mahogany wood-paneled office and speaking directly into the camera, announcing major lay-offs, and audaciously suggesting employees now had the opportunity to spend more time with their families. Seriously?! All the people I interviewed at that company were scrambling to figure out their next move, all second-guessing who was on “the list”. They were furious and they felt betrayed.

In another corporation, I was hired to conduct research on why people were leaving their jobs, and then the corporation announced it was downsizing thousands of employees. What were they thinking?! My work partner and I spent three years conducting phone interviews with 350 people about “why they were leaving” and invariably, the interview became a phone therapy session about how they felt betrayed by the company. In one unit, contract workers were brought in before the long-term employees left. Most (yes most) of the workers we interviewed in this unit confided in us that they were seeing a psychiatrist and taking Prozac. We just wanted to say to them, ‘Talk to your co-workers! You’re not alone!’ But confidentiality didn’t allow that…

One of the hardest hit groups is unmarried women, many of whom are mothers or caregivers. According to Liz Weiss and Heather Boushey, economists from the Center for American Progress, “The high unemployment of unmarried women, and particularly the 1.3 million unemployed female heads of household who are primary breadwinners for their families, is devastating to their financial circumstances and standard of living.” Unmarried women have much higher unemployment than married women. In October, 2009, 10.3% of unmarried women age 20 and over and 5.7% of married women were unemployed.

Losing a job usually means losing employer-supported health insurance, which is one reason why national health care reform is so critical. Weiss and Boushey report that there are an additional 276,000 children of unemployed single mothers who no longer have access to health insurance. Poverty rates for unmarried women are usually much higher than for married women (20.8 percent versus 6.2 percent of women 18 and over in 2008, the most recent data available), and poverty rates are probably higher because of growing unemployment.

At the policy level, we need an infusion of funds into job creation and job training programs, and better family policies to support women and men when they are “inbetween” jobs. Universal early childhood education, paid family leave and universal non-stigmatized family allowances would go a long way. At the personal level, it looks like those with more education experience less job loss, so this is another area that requires government policy and support.

Meanwhile, the next time some one – probably some man – asks me if I’m working or still working, I will ask for clarification. Are you asking if I’m unemployed? Do I look like I have a sugar daddy or momma? Do you really think I look old enough to have retired? Or maybe I’ll just smile and say “yes”.

From child care to early care and education: it's still a struggle...

In the early 1980s, I was radicalized by a small band of smart and committed child care workers who lobbied me when I was working for Jack Backman, a progressive state Senator in Massachusetts. First of all, as a new Bostonian who was just starting on the job, I was totally flattered that anyone would lobby me! But moreover, these incredible child care teachers were activists who loved children and understood firsthand the wage inequities for teachers caring for young children. The governor at the time called child care a “Cadillac service”, in other words, something superfluous - because women were expected to be primary caregivers for their children. But even then, 30 years ago, this view was way out of sync with the reality of women in the labor force, and especially the rise of mothers – about ½ of all mothers with infants and around ¾ of mothers with children under 5 – who continued to work for pay after their babies were born.

My child care activist buddies did their work well, and I came to believe that childcare– or early care and education as it is now called - was one of the most important issues for working parents and their children. It wasn't a hard sell for Senator Backman, who sponsored a bill to create universal child care for all. At the time, this bill seemed outrageous, the kind of outrageous that inspired behind-his-back twitters (the old-fashioned, non-techy kind). But I have learned that in the world of policy, we NEED outrageous to push the debate towards the possible...

Suffice it to say, the bill never went anywhere. Over these past 30 years, the child care movement has matured into the early childhood education movement, fueled in part by the push for educational achievement of young children, as well as by the economic reality that two-parent families need/require stable child care services to maintain economic stability. The movement throughout the country around early care and education continues to grow. There has been progress, and Massachusetts has had some notable victories. A few decades after Senator Backman’s failed legislation, a Massachusetts-based group called the Early Education for All Campaign, mobilized support among legislators and advocates around a universal pre-kindergarten bill. The bill passed, creating access to public education for all Massachusetts 4-year-olds.

But there's still a long way to go, and we could learn a lot from family policies in Europe that include paid parental leave, universal child care (that serves very young children), and non-stigmatized financial support for family caregiving…

Short of more radical change, we need to unravel some of the systemic glitches…
In a recent NY Times article (5/23: Cuts to Child Care Subsidy Thwarts More Job Seekers) - we learn that the Arizona state budget has cut funding for subsidized child care, forcing some low-income mothers to quit their jobs and instead receive state welfare benefits. These are single women who depend on their salaries to support their families. They will look for another job, but they need to keep their salaries below a certain limit to access subsidized child care.,

What's wrong with this picture? Once again - or should I say still - we see that early care and education services are critical to family survival, and our social welfare policies in this nation undermine family economic stability.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Finding the right match...

As a devoted and slightly over-the-top ice cream addict, I approach summer with unbridled glee as I visit my favorite outdoor ice cream haunts.  (Hint: I reveal my favorite ice cream parlour at the end of this blog post.)

While I could - and do with friends - wax eloquent about the virtues of the ice cream cone, I will re-direct my focus to the topic of finding and working with an evaluation researcher. Wait!  There is one key similarity!  If you're running a program and you are required to - or choose to - work with an evaluator, it's all about finding the right match... Just like with most people and their ice cream; you have to find the right flavor for you.  If you don't eat nuts, you wouldn't be happy with pecan ice cream, right?  If you adore ice cream, you may be less thrilled about frozen yoghurt. OK, so maybe the analogy ends there...

But in the midst of this hot, steamy summer, when I am not satiating my ice cream cravings, I've been having some interesting conversations with colleagues about the important things organizations should consider when selecting and working with an evaluator. To that end, thank you to my colleagues at Arbor Consulting Partners and my virtual evaluator colleagues (see below for names).

For me, the bottom line for selecting and working successfully with an evaluator is that it's really about developing a working relationship between two parties. An evaluator brings a set of skills and a "third eye" to this venture with the purpose of helping an organization grow and thrive, and the client brings organizational knowledge and insights, as well as access to information and people that can further the evaluation process. Finding the right match is key...

There are a few things to think about:

- How do organizations find an evaluator?
- What skills should organizations look for in an evaluator?
- What should organizations tell potential evaluators about their needs?

Where to find an evaluator?  There are a number of sources out there, beginning with friends and colleagues who may have worked with an evaluator. But there are other great resources (thanks to Belle Brett) such as vendor lists kept by state departments; the American Evaluation Association's (AEA) "find an evaluator" function on its website (; statewide evaluation associations; department chairs of evaluation programs at various colleges and universities; and resource databases kept by private foundations (W. K. Kellogg Foundation,

What skills should organizations look for in an evaluation?  Organizational leaders should look for someone they could trust, someone who listens well and can think intelligently about the program's goals and the extent to which it's designed to achieve those goals. Cultural sensitivity and competency may be an important factor in the potential evaluator. Organizational leaders should ask potential evaluators about their approach to working with clients and the kinds of evaluation they have done. They should get references and writing samples from a range of clients whose work is similar or relevant.

What should organizations tell potential evaluators about their needs?  Organizational leaders should tell potential evaluators what their budget is and when the project will begin. If organizations are in the process of developing a proposal, they can invite the evaluator to get involved right at the beginning. The relationship can begin right away, and evaluators can help conceptualize a new program, ensuring that the program and evaluation research designs fit the needs of the organization and are acceptable to funders.

I welcome your comments and other ideas about finding the right match!

THANKS:  Thank you to my colleagues whose ideas are reflected in this blog:  Madeleine Taylor at Arbor Consulting Partners, Belle Brett of Brett Consulting Group, Steve Gill from Consultant for Human Performance Improvement, Marty Henry at Henry Consulting, LLC, Marilyn Hwalik of SPEC Associates, Geri Lynn Peak, Dr.PH of Two Gems Consulting Services, Sheri Scott of Scott Consulting Partners, LLC, Jan Upton from Institutional Research Consultants, Ltd., and Susan Wolfe of Susan Wolfe and Associates, LLC.

And finally:  What's my favorite ice cream parlour?  How about 3?

Boston:  Kimball Farms in Carlisle Massachusetts
Pittsburgh: Bruster's 
Los Angeles:  Lake Street Creamery

Any others you want to suggest?