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Archive for June, 2012

Does fashion reflect the culture, or does it sometimes shake it loose?

I bring this up because we were recently on a decadent vacation and somewhere between a tamarind smoothie and a full body massage, I picked up the latest issue of Vogue and flipped to a fashion spread entitled “Risky Business.” And what did I find within those ten glossy pages?  Shoulder pads.  Lots and lots of shoulder pads.

The caption under one photo, a power chick dressed in a bold blue big-shouldered coat with the collar flipped up and with a take-no-prisoners look in her eye, reads:

In the eighties, padded shoulders were meant to make women look more mannish (read: powerful) in the boardroom.  Today we wear a broad shoulder because we’re comfortable  (read: powerful) enough to dress creatively in the office, too.

I am old enough, and enough of an unrepentant fashionista, to remember the last time we bought into the broad-shouldered look.  (I also have a number of blazers to prove it.  My favorite: a bright yellow shawl-collared number that I wore with a prim white shirt buttoned up to my neck — paired with a black leather mini-skirt.  What was I thinking? Clearly, I wasn’t.)

Back then, when we women were trying mightily to find our niche in the workplace, many of us became men in skirts.  The idea was to blend in, to refrain from calling attention to our feminine side, to be one of the boys.  And part of that fitting in was our clothes:  Big shoulders, prissy buttoned up shirts, and silly little bow ties. All of which became the uniform of the woman on the way up, a symbol of where we stood in the world of work.

And yet, we found, that wasn’t right either. If what it took to be taken seriously was to be more like a man, well — couldn’t men do that better?  No matter how we camouflaged our femininity?

As we explored in Undecided, could in fact our differences be our strengths? We vote yes.  As we penned a while back:

But what if we could tap into our authentic, feminine selves and do what we do best:  Studies show, for example, that women negotiate in a win-win manner, we’re interactive leaders, we’re sensitive to subliminal cues; we’re multithinkers, multitaskers, and are more comfortable with ambiguity.  Not to say one gender is better than the other.  Just different.  Which brings up one of my favorite bon mots from Man Men, seasons past.  The context may have been different, but you gotta love the line: “Don’t be a man, be a woman. It’s a powerful business when done correctly.”

Which leads us back to Vogue and all those shoulder pads.  To be sure, the shoulders are structured and broader than a wooden clothes hanger.   But manly?  Not even close.

And so I got to thinking — if indeed thinking is even possible after a full body massage — about what all this “risky business” might mean.   What I think these chic chicks, with their wild ass hair and red slashes of video vixen lips, are telling us is this:  whether we plan to copy the look or not, we’ve arrived.

Or at the very least, we’re shouldering our way forward.

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I woke up this morning to a message from a former student who’d sent me a link to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story in the new Atlantic.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a brilliant piece that lays out the reasons why women still can’t have it all — and what we as a society ought to do about it.  Within a few hours, links to the story were bouncing around the internet (not to mention my Facebook page) including an excellent recap by HuffPost columnist Lisa Belkin.

Slaughter, who gave up a prestigious State Department post in DC — her dream job, in fact – when she realized her family needed her more, starts the piece by recalling a conversation with a friend where she confessed that, when her time in Washington was up, she was going to “write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All.’”  Her friend was horrified:

“You can’t write that,” she said. “You, of all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman—a role model—would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women. By the end of the evening, she had talked me out of it, but for the remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet. I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January 2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.

Something struck me when I read the piece and started parsing it out for myself.  And that’s whether there’s another question we ought to be asking here.  It’s not simply whether we can have it all (like Slaughter, I agree: we can’t, at least given current workplace inequities and societal structures) — but what the pervasiveness of that myth has done to a whole generation of women whose expectations are out of sync with what awaits them out there in the real world.

Back when Undecided was just a twinkle in our eye (fueled, no doubt, by a frosty beer or two after a grueling hike on a hot summer day), the question that kept coming up in that initial bout of brainstorming was whether we as women had been sold a bill of goods.  And what we found in the two years of research and interviews that followed was that this idea of having it all, the mantra so many of us assumed was our birthright, had led to a world of grief.  Because when you’re led to believe that you can have it all — or worse, that you should have it all — you feel like you’ve done it wrong when things don’t measure up.  You are to blame.  Somehow, you’ve failed.  When the truth is that reality — workplace structures, public policy, the culture itself — has not kept pace with our own expectations.

One of the things that gets lost in the “you go, girl” rhetoric is what economists call opportunity cost.  As Stanford economist Myra Strober, who founded  Stanford’s  Center for Research on Women back in 1972, told us, “If you’re doing A, you can’t be doing B.  If you’re playing basketball, you can’t be reading Jane Austen.” In other words, unless and until we can clone ourselves, we’re stuck trying to balance a bunch of trade-offs.  Don’t get me wrong: This is not another salvo in the Mommy Wars or a knock on feminism. Or even a suggestion that life choices are an either/or proposition.  The point is not that we have to choose between family or career — but that we’re going to have to make peace with the fact that if we want to both raise a kid and run a company, it’s not only going to be hard but there are going to be challenges that are greater than we have been led to believe.

Despite our best intentions, very little in either realm is going to be perfect. We may have to compromise. And when we’re raised to be empowered, to believe that we can have it all, that’s one tough pill to swallow.

It’s a hard lesson, made harder by the fact that there aren’t a lot of role models out there who can show us how to navigate the trade-offs.  We were discussing this issue last year on a talk show, in fact, when the host brought up Michelle Obama and Oprah as powerful women who seemed to have it all.  And what we said was that in the traditional definition of having it all — fabulous career, fabulous marriage, parenthood — neither qualified:  Oprah has no family and Michelle, for obvious reasons, has given up her career. Likewise Hillary Clinton or, for that matter, Sheryl Sandberg.  Incredible role models, to be sure. But, in a way, scary ones, too.  Because for the for the vast majority of us, despite our own aspirations, if they are held up as the ideal, we are bound to feel that we have fallen short.

One of my senior journalism students this year wrote her capstone on the lack of women atop the corporate ladder and what younger women should do to get there.  In reporting the story, she interviewed women in leadership positions across the country, essentially digging for tips that would help her generation make it to the C-suite.  What she found, good and bad, was a lot of the stuff we write about here.  But the thing that struck me was her solid conviction that, when all was said and done, having it all was indeed a possibility.

Which is, I guess, is the right way to think from inside a college classroom: More power to her for her optimism — and her sincere conviction that her generation will be the one to make things work. But still, the question nags.  It’s not whether or not we can have it all — but why we saddle ourselves with the expectation that we should.

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I was shocked and saddened this weekend when I clicked on an email telling me that Erica Kennedy–fashion publicist turned writer turned author–had died. How I wished I could unclick it–the email, and the news. Today is no better: my head feels clouded, like I’m thinking through mud. My gut feels heavy, as though I ate a bowling ball for breakfast.

The thing is, I didn’t even know her that well. When I was working on Undecided, her second novel, Feminista, had just been published. I honestly don’t remember if I started following her on Twitter first, and that was how I found out about the book, or if someone (or Amazon) had recommended the book to me, and that was how I came to follow her. Regardless, so many of the themes in her book lined up so closely (I mean, eerily so) with the issues the real-live women I was profiling in Undecided were grappling with, I had to talk to her. And she was immediately receptive. We began chatting—or, you know, tweeting; soon enough she sent me a direct message with her email address. I was stunned and flattered by how generous she was with her time, how open she was with me about what she was going through–and had gone through–in her own life, and impressed by her sharp, decidedly un-sugar-coated take on society, pop culture, and Life As A Woman. (You can read an edited version of our interview here.)

We talked about the pressure to have it all—and what the hell that ridiculous message is supposed to mean, anyway—and its shadowy sister: grass is greener syndrome. Kennedy was honest—and enjoyably blunt—about how ambivalent she felt about her own success (as an NYT bestselling author, of a level that’s unimaginable to many of us but that meant little to her); how sometimes she was envious of friends she’d gone to school with who’d gotten married and/or had kids very young, to hell with career… even though Kennedy herself did not particularly want children. She said the happiest time in her life was when she was finishing up Feminista, living in a small rental in Miami, far away from her more-permanent digs in New York. She’d write in the mornings, then ride her bike to the beach for a swim. A relatively mellow existence for the woman who’d taken on the big city—and won. The woman who’d talked Puff Daddy (back when he was called that) into ditching the hip hop gear in favor of sleek suits.

She was just so honest, so forthcoming and so real. She spoke and wrote so many of our truths–though I don’t know to what extent she realized it. I asked her about Feminista’s main character, Sydney, about how she sabotages herself, pushes people away, has so many moments of hot-messedness… and how it is that, despite all that, she’s totally relatable. How did she manage to write such a character? And Kennedy said, while she knew she wanted to write a woman who was angry—one who could really embody all the anger women feel over the mismatch between the great expectations we’re raised to believe are our due and the pressure we feel to be amazing and have it all and what’s actually possible—she never expected the feedback she’d received. Never expected so many people would tell her how much they related to Sydney.

That’s particularly wrenching to think of now.

Kennedy disclosed some darker things too. Things she asked I keep off of the blog (although-that generosity again–she said I was welcome to include any of it in the book, as it felt more removed; while much of her story is in the book, I opted to keep many of the very personal details out), and which I intend to keep to myself here, too. Many have speculated about how she died. I immediately wondered. Just typing those words makes my heart break a little more. Again, I didn’t know her well, but I feel that I knew her.

We emailed back and forth for a while. I riffed on things she wrote. At one point, I hadn’t heard from her in months, and then I got an email with a link to a story and a short line: Hey! What do you think about this? Might be something for your book. (I wrote about it on the blog; you can read that one here.)

Apparently, she was like that with countless people. A connector. A spark. A deep thinker and a deep feeler. Which can be rough for anyone—rougher still for some.

I’m so sorry that I’ll never know her better – and so thankful that I knew her at all. As Roger Ebert tweeted upon learning the news: The world is a lesser place.

Indeed it is. Rest in peace, Erica.

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When your best intentions go south, new research suggests that it wasn’t the devil that made you do it.  It was your brain.

Will power, the study found, is a finite resource, one that can be easily depleted.  Which is why, when faced with a “do-I-or-don’t-I” kind of decision, you might find it easier to do the right thing when you haven’t already used up your reserve of self-control by forgoing that extra cocktail earlier in the night.

Oddly reassuring, right?

The study, to be published January 2013 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, suggests that self-control is not a muscle that grows stronger with exercise, but is more like a finite pool.  And when it gets drained, say, by saying no to that delightful little black dress you just tried on but don’t necessarily need, you’re more likely to lose your cool when that guy in the silver SUV cuts you off on the freeway driving home.

Or, for that matter, to have that second glass of Malbec once you get there.

The study, co-authored by William Hedgcock, assistant professor of marketing at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa, used brain imaging to scan people as they performed self-control tasks.  The fMRIs found that the brain consistently fired at full speed when tasked with recognizing a temptation, but once the part of the brain that actually manages self-control took over, it fired with less intensity the longer it continued to fight the good fight.

“Our results suggest self-control can be diminished by use,” Hedgcock tells us. “People have a hard time resisting temptation after prior acts of self-control. This can negatively affect people’s ability to maintain attention, resist tempting snacks, and resist purchasing on impulse.”

Call it good-girl fatigue?  Your brain may have no trouble recognizing the naughty options, but the more you try to fight them, the harder it can be to do what’s right.  Or why, as the authors write, when we work hard to pass up a second helping of lasagna, we might end up taking two pieces of cake at dessert.  And while the study found no significant gender differences, writes the study’s co-author Kathleen Vohs, associate professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, in an email from Amsterdam, “men and women often do adopt different goals (e.g., to lose weight for women [or to] pursue financial or sexual rewards for men) but they do so in similar ways.”

What’s hugely important about the study, writes Vohs, is that “we haven’t had a good understanding of how the brain changes when people engage in self-control. Which means being able to ultimately understand self-control in new ways.”

For years, researchers have known that there’s some significant work going on upstairs when we try to make decisions (whether or not those choices involve resisting temptation) about anything from buying a new pair of jeans to figuring out what to do with our lives.  Many studies we’ve referenced in our book and our blog, in fact, have shown that any kind of mental overload can mess with our ability to make good choices — or any at all.  A pivotal study by Harvard psychologist George Miller back in the 1950s found that the rational brain can only hold about seven chunks of information in working memory at any given time. Any more, and the conscious brain often just throws up its hands in defeat. What psychologists have figured out since, is that when the cognitive brain gets too full, decision making—if it gets done at all—gets appropriated by the emotions. Because the rational brain has, in effect, logged off, there’s less control over gut impulses.

Some fifty years after Miller’s essay, Stanford marketing professor Baba Shiv put an interesting spin on this epic battle between heart and mind. In his study, he asked students to memorize either seven digits or two, then afterward offered both groups their choice of a reward: fruit salad or gooey chocolate cake. What he found was that the seven-digit group went with their gut instincts. They overwhelmingly chose cake. The two-digit folks? They made the rational decision and chose a snack that wouldn’t spoil their dinner: nice and healthful fruit salad.

A number of other studies have also shown that making choices just plain wears us out, which brings us back to some earlier work on self-control by Kathleen Vohs.  Back in 2008, she found that folks who are faced with too many choices have a tough time staying focused or exerting self-control afterward.  In one part of that study, she found that college students asked to make a number of random choices earlier in the day ended up spending more time later playing video games or reading magazines — rather than studying for a test.

But back to this particular study, Hedgcock suggests that when the well of self-control runs dry, the only way to fill it back up is with time.  In other words, give yourself a break.

Or, what the hell, pour yourself a glass of wine.

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My sister is running a marathon. I’m thrilled for her and have no doubt she will pound out those 26.2 miles in a red-headed blaze of glory. (And without crapping her pants. Seriously, it’s, like, a thing among marathoners. And I worry about this immensely.)

What’s weird is this: I’m not jealous, because I don’t really have the urge to run a marathon (it seems really hard, and really painful, and while I do run, I have a bad knee that I’d prefer not to have operated on again, and then there’s that whole maybe-you’ll-crap-your-pants thing to worry about…), but, when she and I text about all the miles she’s logging, the races she’s running in preparation, there’s this weird little twinge inside. Despite the fact that, again, I think it’s completely amazing that she’s doing it and have no desire to do it myself.

It’s interesting. In a way, it reminds me of the reaction I get whenever I go vegetarian. (Yes, whenever. I’ve been back and forth countless times on that one, even doing the vegan thing here and there.) What’s funny is, it seems to bother the people closest to me. Despite the fact I’ve never suggested they hold the bacon. Never demanded they cook something special just for me. (Okay, okay. Once I did take my mom up on her offer of making me a special batch of french onion soup, made with veggie broth instead of beef. But she offered! And it is so, so delicious.)

Another friend of mine just quit her job (which she hated) in favor of a new one. We were talking last weekend, and she was saying how surprised she was at the range of reactions she was getting from the various people in her life. She expected universal happiness–and happy-for-you-ness–but wasn’t getting it. Another, out of a bad relationship and not loving her job, has done a bunch of trips overseas, and is thinking seriously about taking the leap for real. Her enthusiasm about this idea is practically palpable, but, again, she’s not feeling the love from the people closest to her.

Weird, right? If I had to put a name on it, I suppose it would be this: Hey, you. Don’t change, please.

But why should we care if someone else changes? What’s it got to do with us?

If I really think about it, here’s what I come up with: when someone close to us makes a big change, we wonder if we’ll have to change too, to keep them in our lives. We wonder about how this change they’re making will affect—read: change—our relationship (will my sister, the runner, forego meals entirely in favor of Gatorade and Goo? Does that mean we can never go out to dinner again??). Maybe we wind up looking at ourselves and our lives in a way that might be uncomfortable (just how bad is this burger I’m eating?). Maybe the change our friend is making threatens our position, our identity in some way? (I’m the impressively employed one!) Maybe something seems a little bit foreign, and we don’t quite get it. Maybe our pride manages to get in the way. Maybe we are jealous.

Who knows? But that twinge is worth putting under the microscope. Because that twinge has to do with you, not them. So listen to that twinge; surely it’s carrying some information. What’s it really about?

For my part, I think my own current twinge has to do with this: I don’t get to see my sister that often, and I still want to have fun with her when I do! But you know what, I can do that, whether she’s in training or not. I guess I could always go for a run with her… and I’m pretty sure she’ll even wait for me at the finish line.

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This being graduation season, the other day I asked the over-achieving rockstars in my senior journalism capstone class what they’d most like to hear from a commencement speaker.

Thankfully, I heard no references to roads not taken nor endings-versus-beginnings.  (Though I would have enjoyed a quick reference to that four-word piece of advice from the iconic film about post-grad angst, The Graduate:  “In a Word: Plastics”)

But anyway.

The best answer came from a young woman who said she’d like to hear from someone who has failed – and was still okay.

Now, I suspect this is a young woman who, herself, has never failed.  And yet: she may have tapped into one of the biggest fears of young women who have been raised with great expectations, high aspirations and the message that they could do it all and have it all: What happens if they can’t?

If you’ve been following this space, you probably know that one of our key messages is the need to embrace failure, to put yourself out there, to take some risks – even when said risks might end in a big fat fail.  In most cases, if you can see that failure for what it is – just one step in a life-long process of trial and error – you may well learn something that can propel you forward.  Or, as psychologist Ramani Durvasula told us back when we were reporting our book: “You’ll always get over a failure.  But regret?  It’s not recoverable.”

In other words, to borrow a quote from another movie classic, you’ll always wonder if you “coulda been a contender.”

And so, as a nod to my student, and to graduates anywhere, here’s a short list of successful women who failed famously – and still, one way or the other, ended up on top:

Emily Dickinson:  Regarded as one of America’s greatest poets, she wrote over 1700 poems.  Only a handful were published in her lifetime.

Lucille Ball: The winner of four Emmys and a Lifetime Achievement Award was told by one of her first drama teachers that she should try another profession.

Marilyn Monroe: When she was just starting out, modeling agents told her she should go be a secretary.  Why?  She wasn’t attractive enough.

Kathryn Stockett:  Her manuscript for “The Help” was rejected by 60 literary agents over a period of three and a half years, before being picked up by an agent named Susan Ramer, who sold the book to a publisher three weeks later.

Oprah Winfrey:  At 22, she scored a gig co-anchoring the evening news in Baltimore, and eight months later, was fired.  Because she still had a contract with the station, they shuffled her off to a talk show, which ultimately launched her career.

Hilary Clinton:  The Yale Law School graduate failed the D.C. bar exam – but passed the Arkansas bar and moved there to be with Bill.  The rest, as they say, is the history of one of the most influential women in the United States, if not the world.

The list goes on, or could, but the point is this: while we all fail at one time or another (be sure to ask me about some of my own personal doozies) the only real failure is letting the fear of it hold us back.  Or, as former New York Times editor Anna Quindlen once said: “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

By the way, our commencement speaker this year is Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, who has experienced a few failures of his own.

Let’s hope he doesn’t fail to mention them.

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