Women going to work in Kentucky and Syria

Korn Ferry’s Evelyn Orr explains why two very different places are experiencing a similar social impact.

In this regular column, Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, shares her thoughts on the intersection of career, relationships, and gender.

Several years ago, my husband traveled to China, and though he is ethnically Chinese, it was easy for people there to tell that he was overseas-born Chinese. During introductions, however, the questions posed to him were the same ones they asked each other: “Who is your family? Where is your family from?”

By contrast, in Western cultures, a common way of getting to know a person is to ask “What do you do?” While there are many sources that give our lives meaning, our identity and purpose is very much tied to our livelihood. For people who do not work, finding purpose and meaning can require some extra effort. This is one reason why Korn Ferry’s program for retirement coaching has coined the term “repurposement.”

Two very different places—Kentucky and Syria—are seeing an influx of women going to work, and it is changing everything from women’s sense of self to social norms. In Kentucky, communities that have been reliant on coal mines for employment have been on a roller coaster of job reductions, rehiring, and more cutbacks. During this period of instability, people have been finding temporary ways to make a living, but such short-term solutions are waking women up to the benefits of working outside the home: providing for themselves and their families, stabilizing their household income, and finding a sense of purpose—where their skills and values meet a societal need. And these benefits are making it tough to think about quitting if their husbands find work again.

In Syria, in the shadow of war, many men have died or been imprisoned, and women are left to weave frayed families and communities back together. Even in their grief, some women are finding their entrepreneurial spirit by opening up hair salons or clothing factories. Others are risking the walk to the grocery store, enduring safety hazards and stares along the way. In a place where their identity was once determined by their relationship to male family members, these women are finding meaning in their work, sometimes for the first time.

Through much of the world, we’re seeing this trend of women returning to work for a variety of reasons. (In the US, those over 55—many done with raising families—are returning at twice the percentage of all other age groups.) In the case of Kentucky and Syria, it may not be too much of a stretch to suggest that the conditions for the social change there are rooted in climate change. The war in Syria began after a prolonged and severe drought resulting in competition for resources. The closing of coal mines in Kentucky is in part due to a shift toward different energy sources that consumers are demanding.

Whatever the root cause, the positive implications are welcome ones. When people find purpose in life (which often comes through our work), scientists see an increase in the brain’s gray matter, decreased rates of depression, lower risk of stroke, longer life expectancy, and higher quality of life. We can hope that the women of Kentucky and Syria who are entering the workforce will experience the positive effects and help heal their communities from the impact of economic hardship and war.