by Vicki Larson
When my first-born started kindergarten, a moment that I met with a mix of joy and dread, I did what a lot of my former career women-turned-SAHM peers did — I volunteered at his school.
After all, a mind is a terrible thing to waste, even a tired mommy’s mind.
I took on a few jobs that weren’t terribly taxing — publicity, newsletter editor, field trip coordinator, art room helper; it was all the energy I had with an active 5-year-old and an infant at home. But I was in awe of the powerhouse women who volunteered for the big jobs, ones that required accounting and weekly meetings and intensive planning and fundraising. They were women who had no doubt been six-figure CEOs, stockbrokers and lawyers in their former lives, and who were now using all their business savvy to help their kids’ school — for free.
But when I discovered not too long ago that many of today’s young powerhouse SAHMs are using those same hard-earned MBA and Ph.D. skills for quick, small projects for small pay — the so-called mommy SWAT teams, "smart women with available time” — I cringed a bit.
That’s because the Wall Street Journal article in which I read about the trend used what I consider an unfortunate word — cheap.
“Skilled workers taking temp projects isn't new, of course. What's different about these teams is that they're available on short notice because the women are usually at home; they tend to work cheap because their main motive is to keep their skills fresh; and they're often extraordinarily well-qualified, having left the work force voluntarily when their careers were on the ascent,” wrote Sue Shellenbarger in “How Stay-at-Home Moms are Filling an Executive Niche.”
Now, working cheap is something that comes naturally for me. When I was still in college, I made a decision that doomed me to be a card-carrying member of the working poor — choosing journalism over PR and then sticking with it even when others were becoming dot-comers.
I have never regretted it, even now, when the newspaper industry has decided to abandon me and I face an uncertain future. Working for cheap comes with the territory, and no one ever pretends it will be otherwise.
When I stayed home to raise my two boys, my limited idle time was available to others for free, as a school volunteer; “cheap,” as a freelance writer; and at the going hourly rate, as an on-call copy editor for two local newspapers. Just like today’s mommy SWATs, it wasn’t so much about the money — it was about keeping my “skills fresh.”
Now that I’m divorced and back in the workforce full-time, I can see how my years away from my career hurt me financially. And by the time I came back fully into the working world, those skills were anything but fresh; everything changes so quickly nowadays. But at least when I was working as an on-call temp, I was paid what I was worth.
The Wall Street Journal article’s “cheap” reference got a number of female bloggers and their readers upset, too.
“I have a little dream and it goes like this: A woman with talent and skills who takes on a consulting gig will not be considered ‘a stay-at-home-mom filling an executive niche.’ She'll be a considered a talented, skilled professional taking a consulting job, and she'll get paid what she's worth. No exceptions,” Dory Devlin writes on Shine .
“I think that at the exact moment the word ‘Mom’ enters into a title or label, the perceptive value goes down,” one commenter responded. “(W)e have to remember that we are women first, no matter what other responsibilities we take on. Then we need to project that into the workplace/work arena and teach others to respect that.”
It makes you wonder if former male executives, even if they became stay-at-home-dads — and there are about 150,000 of them and more all the time — would agree to consult or temp for $21 an hour. I wouldn’t bet on it.
Until, perhaps, now. The WSJ article came out in 2008, when the unemployment rate was 5.5 percent and 8.55 million people were jobless. The latest unemployment rate is 8.5 percent with 13.2 million out of work. The ever-growing recession may, indeed, become the great male-female pay equalizer. Suddenly $21 an hour sounds really good when you’re pulling in $0 an hour, whether you’re male or female.
But perhaps the mommy SWAT teams have created a new precedent, and employers, looking for “cheap” labor, will choose them over the newly unemployed professional men and women.
They better act fast, however, because a new kind of mommy SWAT team is being formed, writes Julie Bogart in Sirens magazine. Many women with too many degrees and too much time on their hands are “repurposing” their free time, “using the skills that deem them ‘over-qualified’ to start their own businesses or hone dormant talents.”
And what are some of them doing?
Using their “unfilled days to give back to the community,” Bogart writes — just like the uber-volunteer SAHMs from those elementary school days.
If only it paid the bills, too.