Dilemmas

This week: which of these jobs should I take? Debbi, 27, has been offered two jobs: one with an all-female centre, working long hours with women older than her; the other doing legal work in an advertising company with people her own age. It's better paid, but not as rewarding. Which would be best?
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Virginia Ironside

Prejudiced. That's what I am on this one. There's no question of my making sane arguments on either side and then coming gradually down on one of them. I can think of nothing more hellish than being a young girl trapped in an all-female legal centre helping unfortunate women battered by society. It may sound rewarding, but often these outfits are horribly unrewarding and you end up doing good just for the sake of it. There is a reward, of course, in that; but if Debbi imagines trails of grateful single parents banging at her door with boxes of chocolates and tragic little letters of thanks, she's wrong. Reward is not what she'll get. She'll get betrayed, lied to, manipulated, screamed at and only occasionally thanked.

On top of this there is the disadvantage of working with other women, all of whom are older than her. I remember working in an all-female environment on a women's magazine, and it was claustrophobic. In nunneries every nun eventually has her period at the same time as everyone else - something to do with pheromones that come out in sweat on the upper lip, I seem to remember - and it was exactly the same in the women's mag. I remember going up in lifts full of women, trying hard not to breathe, so that I could just hang on to my own cycle. Round every corner a woman was bursting into tears - about what Phyllis had said to her in the ladies, how she wasn't speaking to Althea, or how awful she felt because it was five days, four days, three days, 10 days before her "monthlies" - or it was five days, one day or eight days after her "monthlies" - or because she was just in the middle of her cycle or because her period had come at last. They seemed to spend their time dressed in immensely elegant clothes to compete with each other, clutching their tummies and dabbing their eyes with tissues because they were worried about their biological clocks running out, or because their nannies had let them down, or because they felt guilty about their children. A nightmare.

I will never forget the moment I changed my job to one at a Sunday paper and the first thing I noticed was men, glorious men. Men everywhere, making sexy remarks, being grumpy or angry, talking about politics, cars and cricket, swearing, sweating, walking about in dirty shirts and trousers, losing combs, drinking pints.

Debbi may think I'm sexist, but I've been at the rockface, and I can't advise her strongly enough to take the job with people her own age, and work in a mixed-sex environment. They may be a bunch of yuppies, but they may be fresh and fun as well, and probably it would be good for her career to work with people of her own age rather than among retired women who want something to do as a new career, or social worker types who may already have families. The all-female legal centre is a job for an older woman, and it might suit her fine at a later stage, when perhaps she'd feel more experienced about life, but now she's still young, and should make the most of her youth rather than hide it under a bushel.

If Debbi wants to do good, there's always the evenings and Saturdays and Sundays, and there are plenty of ways of helping others, even in advertising agencies - where, anyway, there must be some of the most confused and guilt-ridden people aroundn

What readers say

Take the job you'd do best

I turned down a very glamorous job working in a fascinating country with my own driver, interpreter, house etc, and more money, in order to work in a company that ultimately I thought would be more advantageous in the long run. The job was menial, badly paid and only temporary, but I am glad I made the decision I did because it led on to other things.

The questions you should be asking yourself are, which job is going to give you more opportunities? Just because the people in one office are more your age, does not mean they will necessarily turn out to be either more fun or more your scene. Do you find it difficult to work in an all- female environment? Have you ever worked in one? These are far more pressing questions than those concerning money and age. If you excel in one job the prospects of bettering your financial situation are much better than if you hate your job and miss out on promotions.

You sound as though you know you should take the first option, but you want people to dissuade you and advise you to go for the more lucrative one.

I wish you the best of luck.

Katya Hornby, London W11

Look to the future

The job you take should maybe reflect the direction you wish your career to take rather than depending on transitory stereotypical judgements about age.

It is often choices that we make early on in our careers that reverberate for the next 20 years. Perhaps you should reflect more on where you could imagine yourself being in the next five, 10 or 15 years, and what sort of person you would like to be.

Having myself worked in advertising for many years, I can only say that "glitz" isn't all it's cracked up to be. When we reflect on our lives, I believe it is more heartening to have had some value and honour, and money cannot buy these qualities.

Jane Ashton, Bexhill-on-Sea

Get real - and keep your social life

I'm the same age as you, and I would definitely advise you to take the job in the legal department at the advertising firm.

The idea of working long hours "helping people with real problems" may seem exciting and rewarding, but you'll soon find your patience and ability to deal sympathetically with your clients beginning to wane when you're tired out from overwork and your social life is a distant memory.

I worked in an environment where there was a "first one to leave's a sissy" kind of culture. Anyone who dared to arrive at 9am and leave at 6pm was considered not to be pulling their weight. Those who dared to take time out for lunch or who had a life outside the office were pretty much written off altogether. I lasted six months - just in time to save my marriage from breaking up.

Work is an important source of new friends and you'll find you have a much better time spending eight hours a day with people your own age than sitting around with a group of older women wondering how to contribute to the conversation.

You get only one life. Don't waste it by turning into a workaholic and becoming the kind of person no one wants to spend any time with.

Jane, London N22

Find a better way of helping people

As someone who is young and about to enter the legal profession, I can see the attraction of accepting what appears (from the blurb) to be a rewarding and fulfilling job. But the reality is that it will probably be hard work, tiring and possibly even harrowing and distressing. All that, for little pay and old ladies?

While you are young and lively, make the most of it. (And if you feel guilty for not giving enough back to the community, there is always a local CAB desperate for staff).

S Summers, Glasgow

Next week's problem: my mother-in-law won't be left out

Dear Virginia,

My mother-in-law, who is 75, has increasing difficulty in walking, due to arthritis, and would probably have benefited from a hip replacement years ago. She lives on the Devon coast in a large house, and we go down every six weeks and love the walking.

The problem is that she won't be left out of anything and insists on coming for walks with us even when she can't manage it. We have to walk very slowly for her to keep up with us, which is maddening, and often she is in a state of near collapse when we get back. Before a walk she often says she's not looking forward to it because of the pain she's in, but comes anyway.

We spend only one afternoon of the weekend walking, and my husband says he's not going to pace his life to suit her all the time. Why can't she behave like other elderly people, and sit in the shade with a cup of tea? This is not the first time she has pushed herself to the limits of her endurance rather than be left out.

Yours sincerely, Nell

Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, `The Independent',

1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293 2182) by Tuesday morning.

If you have any dilemma of your own that you would like to share, please let me know.

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