You know the scene. You’re at a party or networking event when someone turns to you and asks, “So, what do you do?”.
This seemingly friendly, curious, innocuous question is one that many women, especially women who have paused their careers, have a mixed relationship with; yet the ability to answer it with ease, substance and brevity is an important networking, personal branding, and career reentry skill. Why does this question cause us discomfort? How can we reshape our mindset and our answer to better represent our whole selves, no matter where in our work cycle we may be?
First, let’s evaluate what’s going on. During my pause, when I was asked, ‘What do you do?’, rightly or wrongly, I assumed that the questioner was most interested in hearing about something substantive for which I was paid. I felt that ‘What do you do?’ did not invite an answer regarding the many “unpaid” facets of my life; so this simple question left me, a highly engaged parent and volunteer, feeling a bit ‘less than’.
Upon some self-reflection, I came to recognize the bias my own assumed reaction revealed. Did I really value what I was currently doing? And if I did, why couldn’t I effectively communicate it in an authentic and compelling way?
When I asked other women about this question, I found I was not alone:
- “I hate this question. I always feel I get defensive – as if I’m not doing anything important or of value!
- “I feel like I’m being judged if I don’t answer the question with a work related response.”
- “Given that I have a masters degree and had a strong career before pausing, I feel as though people are questioning why I even bothered with all that if I’m not working now.”
- “I’ve been at social events where, when a person asks me what I do and I answer that I don’t currently work outside the home it’s an immediate shutdown of conversation.”
A pause from the paid workforce does not mean that a woman is not working nor doing.
Rather, she has temporarily transitioned to primary caregiver for children, elder care coordinator, and pet wrangler; household manager, financial juggler, and school and civic leader. But these activities are not what she thinks the person posing the “What do you do?” question necessarily wants to hear about. And most women I’ve met, who have paused their professional careers, don’t want to say they spend their time driving carpools and preparing 21 meals a week. Plus snacks.
Women need to OWN what they are doing with their lives and craft and deliver a “What do you do” response that conveys that message with pride and conviction.
So back to the scene at the party. You are introduced to someone new who casually asks, “So what do you do?” What are you going to say?
“Oh, I’m just at home taking care of the kids right now. And I do a lot of volunteering at their schools, which I enjoy”, with a smile and a shrug of your shoulders?
OR are you going to seize the opportunity with confidence and enthusiasm and say…
“I paused my marketing career a few years ago to focus on raising our young kids and support my aging parents. I feel fortunate to be able to do that; and I’m deeply involved with a project I initiated in their school where I’m actually growing my marketing skills. I love learning new things and keeping current, so I’m always taking online tech classes too.”
These answers could have come from the same woman. The first response is apologetic. Never say ‘just’ in your answer when asked what you do. It signals that you feel that what you’re doing is not enough. The second response trumpets that the woman is proud of her choice and is living the life she is creatively curating without a hint of defensiveness or apology. The first tells us nothing about the woman herself, outside of the fact that she’s a mother. The second lets us get to know about the woman’s past career, current interests, ability to take initiative, and her growth mindset; as well as her kids. The second answer also lends itself to follow up questions – about her kids, her school project work and what types of classes she takes.
So how do we shift our own “What do you do?” response to take charge of the answer and of the conversation?
Set aside time to craft a response which portrays who you are and what you do that demonstrates pride in how you are choosing to live your life. Communicate your answer with confidence and authority, ease and enthusiasm.
And don’t just wing it. Write your response down. Edit it. Practice it out loud. Edit it. Test it on friends.
Whether you are working, have paused your career, or are looking to get back into the workforce; how you present yourself when asked, “What do you do?” impacts how others view you. And can reveal how you feel about yourself. You DO a lot. It’s time to own our life choices without apology and to keep the conversation going.
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