CNN will be showcasing two different female career arcs these next few months. As the network scrambles under new management, pulling in new talent and launching new shows, a potential paradigm shift for women's careers will be playing out on screen.
Exhibit A is Kate Bolduan. She has taken center stage in CNN's new morning show, branded "New Day" after the network's previous efforts in the highly competitive AM market have fizzled. We learn from a snappy profile in the Style section of The Washington Post that she's the youngest woman ever to host a network morning news program.
Just eight years out of college, Bolduan's background is an admirable tale of start-from-the-bottom-and-work-your-way-up. She's bounced around a bit from station to station, but less than most others in a business where mobility is very much the norm. She's married, but there's no mention of kids. She has very obviously spent the last decade or so working very hard.
But then we also have to consider Kelly Wallace, a mildly revolutionary Exhibit B. Her story is a variation on a familiar theme and she has worked very hard too: off-camera jobs, reporting for a small local affiliate, a big break at FOX News Channel and then half a dozen years or so at CNN, including stints as White House Correspondent and covering the John Kerry presidential campaign. In 2006, she went on to report for "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric."
In the middle of all that, however, Wallace did something off-script. She became a mom. In fact, I saw her recently at a shoe store in my neighborhood. We were both negotiating shoe styles with our daughters. I don't know how recognizable she is in public; I watch a lot of news and always liked her reporting and on-air presence, so I did take tacit notice. We exchanged silent, knowing glances at each other as our daughters pranced around the shoe store.
Kids are a significant counterbalance to a career that demands very long hours, relentless travel and a guaranteed unpredictability within the day-to-day schedule. In 2010, Wallace became an online journalist for iVillage, making occasional in-studio appearances on NBC and MSNBC. The schedule, I'm sure, was considerably more kid-friendly than her previous one, but I do not want to ascribe any particular motive to her job move. Many assumed my own move from a law firm to a legal publication was a "mommy track" sort of thing, but it was not entirely. I was ready for a different kind of career, and I love writing, reporting and editing. (Plus, my new job is still a ton of work, as I am sure Wallace's was at iVillage.)
So, whatever the motivation, this is a homecoming for Wallace at CNN. The release announcing her return says she'll be pioneering a position as "Digital Correspondent and Editor-at-Large for CNN Digital, focusing on family, career and life." She'll be writing for CNN.com and reporting "several original web video packages weekly and appear regularly on both CNN and HLN TV." Wallace said that CNN would provide her a more prominent and more challenging role, including as a contributor to CNN Parents, a soon-to-be-created division of cnn.com.
It's safe to say that this is a much lower profile than Bolduan, the spotlighted centerpiece of a three-hour block of airtime each weekday. The significance of Wallace's role will be interesting to watch. Can a woman who seemed to have significantly downshifted her career while her children were young create a new space for herself? Will CNN work with her to take full advantage of her capacities? Will she be allowed to do some real reporting, or just get stuck chatting on couches about "what's trending"? In short, can an alternative career-arc compete with the convention? Is it possible to have both a Bolduan and a Wallace thriving in the professional world?
This is what I'll be looking for. For many women, bending the traditional career arc is key. I know it's unfair to burden both Wallace and CNN with this kind of symbolic significance, and there are other successful newswomen with children who have taken various paths (Meredith Viera, for instance), but little by little, these things start to matter.