Paint Schoodic

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Friday, July 3, 2020

Volunteering is a trap for professional women

The hours I’ve wasted being a ‘helper’ represent many, many paintings that will never get finished.

Drying towels, by Carol L. Douglas

I was raised in the second wave of feminism, during the so-called “women’s lib” movement. My mother succeeded in her career while still raising six kids and volunteering. Her secret? “You can have it all” meant, “you can do it all.”

She eventually stopped volunteering at a public health clinic when she learned the doctors (then male) were being paid; the nurses (then all women) were working for free. It took a lot for her to turn her back on people in desperate need. But our society trains women to be helpers and then takes advantage of that.

I have higher hopes for my daughters. Laura, age 31, counseled me against volunteering last summer. I wish I’d listened. She’s a software engineer and she regularly refuses ‘office housekeeping’ tasks at work. She’s not heartless; she’s just picky about what she’s willing to do. She volunteers, but not in her profession.

Little Giant, by Carol L. Douglas

Women don’t volunteer because they are inherently more altruistic. They do so, a recent study suggests, because they’re taught from a young age to offer to help. That long silence waiting for a hand to be raised is just quiet for men; it’s a demand and rebuke to women.

Taking on these tasks blunts women’s careers. While women dutifully serve on committees, men do critical research or paint brilliant paintings. That has far-reaching consequences. I can’t blame anyone but myself for the hours I’ve wasted being a ‘helper,’ but they represent many, many paintings that will never get finished.

A lobster pound at Tenant's Harbor, by Carol L. Douglas

Meanwhile, I fight a constant battle between work and the artist’s need for rest and solitude. It’s a delicate balance, and few artists ever get it right. Most start off working another job to be able to afford to paint. Most of my professional artist friends are childless, and for good reason.

My friend Jane Bartlett regularly points out when I’m sliding over the ‘too much work’ line. A great friend manages to make these observations while still making you feel good about yourself. If you want to give, be like Jane: give directly to your peers by being supportive, incisive and kind. I wouldn’t be where I am today without friends like her, and I hope I’m paying that forward.

Headlamps, by Carol L. Douglas

“Artists have to be super careful that they're not enriching everyone else with their work,” a fellow artist remarked about pricing paintings. I think of that every time I buy art supplies. Art supply stores are an $843.1-million-a-year industry, and they didn’t get that way by selling just necessities.

But she was talking about the pernicious practice of asking artists for donations. Every time a non-profit asks you to donate work, you’re paying other people’s salaries. Their staff doesn’t work for nothing, and neither should you. And your donation is not tax-deductible, either.

It’s unlikely that your donation will do anything to advance your career, so donate a painting only if you’d have written them a check anyway. And save your real efforts for promoting your work yourself.

6 comments:

Ann Thompson said...

Important! Thanks Carol and the older you get the more you are expected to volunteer even if you are in need of supplemental income. I once sat in a community meeting
that whined about not having the money to pay after school workers with youth development training and experience but happy to create a salary for a"volunteer coordinator". If you haven't already---read Tillie Olsen's
"Silences" and her story "I stand here ironing".

Carol Douglas said...

Thank you! I will look that up.

LCG said...

This gave me great pause as I spent a good portion of this week doing creative favors for people in my life. I don’t get asked to donate paintings but am often tapped for donations of design work and other odd artistic favors (decorative cakes, posters...you name it, I have done it all). These “little favors” leave me tapped out with no energy to get to the easel. I need to really thinking about how I am allocating my creativity and will keep this in mind for the future. Thanks for the perspective, Carol.

Karin Strong said...

A really good discussion, Carol! I have to admit to being prone to giving too much volunteer time and work, and I have gotten in trouble with getting overburdened with the volunteerism and ignoring my easel and the art work that I should be doing! Luckily, recently I was able to extricate myself out of a bad volunteer job, and now am feeling so ready to get back to work! I just have this other volunteer task to do first....! Thanks for bringing up the issue, it’s good to be reminded again!

debasree das said...

Nice paintings.

Bruce McMillan said...

Re: It's unlikely that your donation will do anything to advance your career, so donate a painting only if you’d have written them a check anyway.

Wise observation. As a children's book author, I'd get countless requests all the time to donate books. After a few personal copies for the publisher, authors have to buy their own books. So, it didn't make economic sense. As a painter it comes up sometimes. The last painting that I donated was to a small local museum. I was in a group show at that museum and they asked the group for a painting donation. I had a personal connection to this museum; my father having taught photography there many years ago. So, I was pleased to have it find a permanent home there.

Re: Every time a non-profit asks you to donate work, you're paying other people’s salaries. Their staff doesn’t work for nothing, and neither should you.

Another wise observation. Whenever I get a robo-call pollster wanting to ask me survey questions, I always reply, "Sure, I'd be pleased to. I get a hundred dollars per question." Their quizzical response is greeted by, "You're getting paid for your time. You've just interrupted me, and my time's important, too."