Is volunteering a leech to femininity? Is it just a system that is perpetuating cultural expectations and limitations? Or can it be a stepping-stone to success for women?
The evidence stacked against volunteering is no small pile of grievances. Some of the arguments against women volunteering as a path to success include: volunteers are not taken seriously, it does not fix economic vulnerability, it feeds into the stereotype that “women’s work” can be done for free while the man’s world remains unchanged, it limits the value and talents of women, it can limit a woman from receiving independent credit in the way a “real” job would not, and there are no health benefits (or any tangible benefits really) to be seen for all the work. Feminist academics like Nancy Folbre argue that women have been expected to fill volunteer positions, with no reward but a job well done, for so long that it has become a cultural norm. There are multitudes of women who have volunteered for five, ten, fifteen years – only to realize that they are no more competitive in the work place or economically self-sufficient then they were before they volunteered. While some continue to see volunteerism as a noble and fulfilling sacrifice of time and energy, many women can attest to the strangling consequences they have come to experience by choosing the volunteer route.
While this evidence blatantly shows that the system is structurally flawed, I argue that virtue can yet be salvaged from volunteer work for women. While tradition sees female volunteer work as an end, I suggest that it can serve as a means. For women who volunteer for personal reasons (as a hobby, self-fulfillment, altruistic reasons, etc.) volunteering is the “end” – they do not intend to use their volunteer work as a way to reach a higher goal. The flaws of the system become magnified if a woman, who has been volunteering for years for personal reasons, has a change of circumstances where she needs to convert volunteering from an end to a means. I do not know how that would work or what obstacles would stand in her way, but I do know it would be incredibly difficult. If it has not been the goal all along, preparations for progress beyond volunteering would most likely not have been taken. In this scenario, the intangible benefits of volunteeringwould indeed limit the woman’s opportunities and offer little direction for what to do next. For this argument, women who have found volunteering restricting and have stood at this crossroads would be far more qualified to deconstruct these injustices than myself.
However, how about women who approach volunteering from the get-go as a means instead of an end, a mere tool to step closer to a distant goal instead of a twilight zone? Can volunteer work be valuable? I offer my own experience to suggest the possibilities. All I have to offer is my meager 21 years, but thus far I have seen volunteer work as a valuable step in positioning myself to achieve my goals. For example, I volunteered one summer for the non-profit organization United Way of Utah County. The experience rewarded me with the opportunity to meet people in authority in Utah County, gain a valuable friend in the President of United Way (who has been a great recommendation source), learn programs used for networking, as well as computer programs for organization and presentation, and become the representative on the front of the United Way of Utah County pamphlet. All of these things I gained from volunteering have benefited me in my current career/academic status and continue to open doors and qualify me for possibilities in the future.
Does this make me the outlier compared to the woman who has volunteered for five years and is left with the ugly underbelly of the system? I’d argue both perspectives are credible and therefore validate the notion of two sides to volunteering. But what makes the divide? Does there need to be qualifications on volunteering? Must the qualifications specify how long a woman can volunteer, what her initial motives must be, what stage of life she is in, or what kind of volunteer work it is, to be able to draw the line between beneficial volunteering and unbeneficial volunteering? Perhaps in the answers to these questions lies some potential evidence as to whether the system is solely constraining to women, or if the mentality of the women going into the system is equally limiting.
For those who dismiss the idea that volunteering could be a significant means to meet a specific goal, I pose an observation I have made. In my religious social circle, there are three men who are volunteering at the IHC hospital in Provo. Their work ranges from interpreting, working in the ER, and working in the OR. I have overheard them discussing their workload, their school load, and their trepidation to take the GMAT, GRE, and MCAT. So on the point of being completely frazzled, why do they volunteer? To get to where they want to go. I would like to bet money – if that were an acceptable thing to do – that their volunteer work will end when they get what they want from it, because to them it is a means, not an end, no matter how self-fulfilling the work is to them now. To them, volunteer work is a rational career move free from emotion. Many argue that volunteerism is largely feminized and men do not work for free. However, in certain demographics (such as the college town of Provo), males have a substantial presence in the volunteer field to achieve their goals. As far as men not working for free, I argue that they do in matters of getting from point A to point B – only until they rationally achieve volunteering’s purpose for them. Especially in times of economic downturn when few people are hiring, volunteering becomes more competitive among men who need the experience and skills that can be gained from volunteering to be qualified for graduate school and future career plans.
This same mentality can be beneficial for women. Perhaps what I am suggesting then is that there is a difference between how men volunteer and how women volunteer (which would need sufficient studying and analyzing to argue with true assertion, but I’m throwing it out there anyway.) I advocate that there is nothing wrong with a woman navigating the “men” way of volunteering – to volunteer as a step to something else without the obligation to continue the service after the individual has achieved their purpose for the work. While society may still view the “women” way of volunteering as spending large quantities of time with no other intentions then selfless service, women should not be relegated to this view – it should be the woman’s choice to determine how/why she volunteers. Volunteering can be empowering for women if they find a volunteer position that they have previously researched and discovered it can be a necessary and acceptable step to their goal and then fulfill the volunteer work for that specific purpose.
By choosing to make a distinction in “ways” of volunteering, many questions arise. Even if women were volunteering to reach another goal, would the system still limit them? And in what ways? Can such experiences be generalized to all women, in all stages of life? Do men who volunteer for means instead of ends receive the same outcomes as women who do the same, or is there a difference – meaning, if men and women were volunteering with the same motives, would they get the same outcome? And to what degree does societal expectations on women in volunteer capacities still play a role – are women considered evil and heartless for volunteering for reasons beyond being of service?
To answer these questions it will take time, research, and women who are willing to use the volunteer route on their pathway to somewhere else instead of accepting the relegated position of perpetual “just-for-fun” volunteer work. While it cannot be denied that one way of volunteering means the the system works women, cannot there also be a way where women work the system? Is this possible? Is this realistic?
I love the idea of women creating their own path, of finding a route suited specifically to themselves that defies any structural limitations that already exist. Volunteering as a means to a desired destination is a possibility for women looking to achieve academic and career goals, despite cultural expectations. If volunteer work would be viewed more as an internship opportunity than a time-filler for women, there would be no “end” to what women can collectively achieve.
The Nancy Folbre article mentioned is “The Economy Sucks: Why Should Virtue Be Its Own Reward?”
Also a special thanks to Janille and Matt Stearmer and Professor Hudson for wonderful insight to the current condition and consequences of the female volunteer system.