Profile: Stien van der Ploeg Rethinks Work

Women are leaving the workplace in record numbers... but is the problem really semantics?

Women leaving the workforce in record numbers is a national emergency, Vice President Kamala Harris told a group virtually this week. And however true, it was always going to be this way. Right? Women making gains at work has been like a tower growing taller while grounded in the sand. It was never going to withstand an earthquake.

The labor figures are shocking, and yet we know that the reason is not. On a good day, women own the lion’s share of responsibility at home and in our communities. A rigid definition of ‘work’, or ‘workforce’, or ‘workplace’, could never, and would never, survive, say, a pandemic.

A few months ago we talked to Stien van de Ploeg (incidentally my sister-in-law) about a LinkedIn post she wrote extolling the virtues of working without pay. Now, press pause. This is not to suggest we just throw in the towel on paying women. But we do need to rethink how we look at economic contribution overall. In Stien’s case, she is passionate about nonprofits and in a position to donate her time. But that’s not the bigger point here…

Meet Stien…

The conversation I subsequently had with Stien was about what work ‘really is’ in the end. How should women consider, and hone, their skills and talents. Below is a excerpt (full article here).

SE: Why did you write the piece for LinkedIn?

A year or two back I started to question two beliefs: could I do more to abate suffering in the world and did I personally need to make money. The first question was easily answered: yes. Compared to most individuals in the world — especially if you include sentient animals — I am absurdly fortunate and saving lives is easier than you might think.

The answer to the second question was technically no. My partner is fortunate enough to be bright and successful in the tech industry. He makes enough for us both to eat, live in a comfortable apartment, save for a rainy day and go on vacation. But internalizing that belief was a lot harder. I felt I had to do my part and contribute to the household income. My parents raised me to be an independent woman, my mother has always worked. And for many being a productive member of society is judged by the money you make.

But I began to realize that my husband and I are a team. Our combined worth should be determined by what we contribute to making the world a better place. That led me to use my career capital, my work experience and knowledge, to help make charities do more good. Now my husband and I both take care of each other and do good, we just contribute in different ways. Rethinking work for us as a team was a win-win approach.

SE: How can pro-bono work for women help keep skills sharp and engender a sense of greater contribution?

These are definitely challenging times and I recognize most people do not have the privileges I enjoy. Not everyone can just go work without pay and no one should be expected to. The pandemic has highlighted and amplified how undervalued essential workers are. Many of those jobs are disproportionately occupied by women. From nursing, to home care and most of the work in the nonprofit sector. So, I feel conflicted advocating working for free when I believe nonprofit work should actually be paid more.

But when you can, working pro bono can be an incredibly fulfilling way to do your part and expand your professional experience. Nonprofits and the people they are supporting are going through hard times. And you and your expertise can make a difference.

Besides volunteering skills directly with nonprofits, you can consider mentoring young workers who are underrepresented in the professional world. Access to practical leadership advice can give you a leg up in your career but these opportunities are often less available for women and People of Color. Mentoring is often more flexible to incorporate into your hectic schedule than pro bono work – a sure benefit these days.

What do you think?

While Stien focused on how she wanted to work with nonprofits and what that meant to her, the pandemic has shifted the universe of work for everyone…a bit. It has given life to more ‘creator’ based paid content opportunities (obviously Substack being one). It’s clearly changed the idea of how we make remote employment work (…it’s about time).

But the biggest nut to crack is still how we compensate for work done to care for kids, the elderly, and at home. What are your thoughts? Is it Universal Basic Income (UBI)? Something else? Would love to start a conversation…

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