One time, at a networking event for young women, I took a quick, informal poll: “Who here has a job description?” Only one or two hands went up. I was appalled. A job description is how you mark your progress up the career ladder. It’s your basis for negotiation, the starting point for a conversation with your boss when you realize your responsibilities and workload have outpaced your salary and title. Without a job description, it’s hard to say, “Here’s what you hired me to do, here’s what I’m doing now, here’s the gap in between.” And without a clear title, it’s also hard to develop a professional narrative, to identify the rungs on your career ladder.
I was thinking about this as I read the New York Times' attempt to figure out exactly what Valerie Jarrett does for a living.
The senior White House adviser and BFF of Barack Obama is certainly important — that much comes across — but the jury seems to be out on how effective and competent she is in her nebulous, high-level role. “From the first, her official job has been somewhat vague,” according to the Times, “But nearly four years on, with Mr. Obama poised to accept his party’s renomination this week, her standing is clear, to her many admirers and detractors alike.”
Is it? Take this quote, from an anonymous senior adviser: "Valerie is effectively the chief of staff, and [Obama] knows, but he doesn’t know." Effectively? Her boss knows, but he doesn’t know? Oof. The Times points out that, “to some extent,” Jarrett is “part of a White House tradition” of West Wing powerhouses with indeterminate roles, like Bruce Lindsey, Karen Hughes, and Harriet Miers. But is she also part of an American tradition of women who, in working beyond their job descriptions and without formal titles, end up undermining themselves?
As someone who has had, at various points in my career, job responsibilities that outpaced my title and salary, Jarrett’s “effective” role hits close to home. Working beyond my job description was at times a huge opportunity and other times a curse. I appreciated the opportunity to punch above my weight class, but I grew resentful as I watched the recognition and accolades accrue to my boss — even when he did his best to privately recognize the work I was doing. In every case, I think my gender was a factor in creating that work dynamic. How many women do you know who are “effectively” doing the job of someone with more status and a higher salary and a better title? Now, for how many men can you say the same?
Women, both in stereotype and in reality, tend to wear many hats. In the workplace, we juggle, we fill the gaps that need to be filled, we strive to be everything to everyone. Whether we acknowledge it at a surface level or not, usually it’s a result of being raised to please and trying to compensate for casual sexism. And so saying a woman does everything and is important to everyone isn’t a compliment, it’s just a description of a professional coping mechanism. Jarrett submitted a single statement for the article: “My role is to ensure that a wide and diverse range of perspectives are heard to inform the president’s decision making process” and to “give the president candid advice.” Pretty vague.
Why does this matter? Consider the criticism directed at Jarrett — that she’s too influential, or that she tends to overstep her professional bounds. High-ranking officials with concrete job descriptions can use them to respond to their detractors: “Hey, I’m just doing my job.” That’s pretty tough to do without a description to point to, some backup as to your primary area of focus and responsibility. In jobs as in fashion, there is value to wearing just one hat. You can always add secondary accessories.
Most Viewed Stories
Brad Pitt Fights Back Against Angelina Jolie and Her Plot to ‘Destroy’ Him
Looks Like Kate Middleton Is Enjoying the View in Canada
Trump Campaign Manager Accidentally Refers to His ‘Abuse’ of Women on Live TV
Megyn Kelly Roasts Trump’s Campaign Manager for Claiming He Doesn’t Make Sexist Comments
What It’s Like to Be a Female Reporter Covering Donald Trump
Finally Someone Called Donald Trump a Giant Baby and It Was Michelle Obama
22 Intimate Lost Photos of Marilyn Monroe
The Best Part of Being a Royal Is Getting to Pet Bunnies
Prince Married to Commoner Still Too Good to Tweet
Democratic Women Senators Are Very Concerned About Donald Trump’s Weight
From Our Partners
powered by PubExchange
The Cut’s Latest Love and War FeaturesThe Novelist Disguised As a Housewife
Shirley Jackson wrote 17 books while raising four children — and she couldn't have had a successful career without them.Ava DuVernay on Hollywood Racism, Modern-Day Slavery, and Why She’s Still an Optimist
The director, whose new documentary The 13th chronicles America’s history of racial subjugation, talks to Rebecca Traister about Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the modern criminal-justice system.What No One Tells Couples Trying to Conceive
It helps to be rich.The Hidden Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race
A segregated unit of mathematicians born of desperation during World War II became the secret to NASA’s success.Slut-Shaming Squids Are Everywhere
The “Bermuda Square” comic strip is back.Santigold’s New Video Is the Result of a Spontaneous Run-in With Kara Walker
The collaboration that dreams are made of.Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield Spotted Together Again, Love Might Be Real
They could be back together ahh!Teen, Forced to Go on Vacation With Her Family, Calls 911
The logical decision.Report: Hearst Fired Seventeen EIC Michelle Tan During Her Maternity Leave
Tan had been at the magazine for about two years.Good Morning America Host Amy Robach Apologizes for Saying ‘Colored People’ on Air
She quickly apologized.
That’s one way to do it.Don’t Mess This Up, Mischa Barton
Marissa Cooper is poised for a comeback ... maybe.California Votes to Remove Time Limit on Prosecuting Rape Cases
In light of the Bill Cosby case.Beyoncé’s Behind-the-Scenes Lemonade Photos Belong in a Museum
She had the "Boycott Beyoncé" sign already in formation on set.The Rise of the Male Celebrity Full-Frontal
An ex-publicist explains.Gabby Douglas Will Be a Miss America Judge
The gold-medal gymnast will help choose the 2017 pageant winner.Camille Becerra’s Photo Diary of Rockaway Beach
An ideal trip to add and cross off your summer bucket list.Sorry Nerds, Ian McKellen Won’t Officiate Your Expensive Lord of the Rings–Themed Wedding
Not even for $1.5 million.Miles Teller Is Still Upset About Being Called a Dick
He wants to set the record straight.Why Parents Shouldn’t Talk About Weight With Their Teens
New guidelines seek to banish weight talk.