Vocation Rhetoric – Part 4: Men and Women in the Workplace

In closing this discussion on vocational rhetoric, I have some observations on gender equality in the workplace that I think relate to this discussion. I have argued that what is lacking in many Christian (specifically protestant) communities is a vocational paradigm. I think that more often than not Christians have identified themselves more by their occupational role in society, rather than by their vocational role as followers of Christ. I see much of the rhetoric to be occupation-centric.

This kind of paradigm has permeated Christian mindsets and rhetoric within the workplace for decades, but I don’t know that it was always obvious. Our rhetorical paradigms function subconsciously, because they become ingrained over time through ritualistic, habitual practices. I think the problematic nature of this rhetoric has only been exposed in recent decades, as gender equality has transformed the workforce and challenged paradigms of societal roles for men and women. While the terms “occupation” and “vocation” have been used synonymously for decades, it used to be that men were generally the ones in danger of mistaking the terms as interchangeable because they composed the workforce. Before the feminist movement, before women had the right to vote, before society accepted women working in the same occupations as men, women didn’t have to worry about confusing the two. They were traditionally supported (monetarily) by their husbands’ occupations. The meaningful work to which they devoted their lives — raising their children, caring for family and household needs, civic participation and volunteer work  — was all unpaid; they were considered occupation-less with the socio-economic system. Until relatively recent history, I would argue that women were in less danger than men of confusing meaningful or vocational work with monetary compensation.

As a woman, I am exceedingly glad that we have evolved as a society to recognize that women and men are equally capable within the workforce, and I hope for continued gender diversity and equality within the every sector of the workforce. However, as the workforce has continued to diversify, I am concerned that women have bought into the socially constructed  notion that occupation holds some sort of primary significance to, or is synonymous with, vocation. I had rather hoped that as more women entered the workforce they would bring with them their sense of what makes work meaningful and significant within society, which (I believe) is historically more balanced and vocation-centric than the modern perspective men have operated under in the previously male-dominated workforce.

I don’t think that it is too late for women to resist the pressure to conform and be the force that offers a deeply needed corrective to the occupation-centric narrative in American culture. We already see plenty examples of women demanding that their companies be more “family focused,” arguing that employees that do not have to sacrifice time with their families due to unfair work constraints are happier, more productive, and more loyal to their companies. We see women continuing to reject “mommy-wars” rhetoric that cycles in and out of the media and blogosphere from time to time. I think that intelligent, Christian women understand that the important discussion is not about whether a woman has a paying occupation; rather, it is about holistically approaching the work that we deem to be important in various areas of our lives from a vocational perspective. (On a side note, plenty of men operate under a vocational perspective and advocate for such a perspective; yet it is not the narrative that permeates our socio-economic culture or workforce.)

I believe that Christian men and women of this generation have an important role to play in our faith communities and secular culture. We need to recapture a deeply ingrained understanding of our vocation — for ourselves, for our children, and for the coming generations. Our children need to be approaching adulthood with a clear and vibrant understanding of their vocational call as Christ-followers. As I indicated earlier, a rhetorical paradigm shift like this takes place over time and through the purposeful construction of symbolic narratives that become second-nature. While our generation may not see the fruit of this paradigm shift, we are the ones who must construct the narratives that will birth a vocation-centric paradigm for future generations of Christ-followers.