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I frequently hear from former students – usually bright, idealistic twentysomethings — long after they’ve exchanged their college dreams for, you know, reality.

Often, these women are more than a little shell-shocked when they come face to face with the disconnect between their high expectations and life out there in the real world of work.  Their notes, emails and phone calls speak of a certain dissatisfact  Raised to believe they could have it all, they’re suddenly undecided.  Disillusioned. Wondering about that greener grass.  One former student, channeling Betty Friedan, called it “the other problem that has no name.”  All this angst, in fact, was one of the triggers for our book.

The latest email came from a focused young woman – we’ll call her Susie — who moved several states away after she scored the job of her dreams at a big tech company right out of the gate.  Great, right?  But what she wrote was anything but.

She first relayed a story of a friend, an Ivy League grad who was now working in New York – who was so miserable at her job she was thinking of calling it quits.  Why?  Constant sexist remarks.  A sense that she was invisible to the powers that be.  The final straw?  One of the partners in her firm sent out an office-wide email, addressed “Dear Gentlemen”, even though there were several women on the chain – and left her off it completely, though a male employee with her same job was included.

Small stuff, maybe.  But when you’ve been led to believe that gender discrimination is a thing of the past, that feminist battles have been fought and won, that you, sister, have achieved equality, reality provides a nasty wake-up call.

Anyway, back to Susie, who had her own tale of invisibility to tell.   Not long ago, she flew off to run a booth at a trade show for her company.  She reveled in the responsibility – and also in the opportunity to finally have a face-to-face meeting with her brand new boss, who was headquartered in a different state.  But while Susie was busy running the show, a Playboy model who’d been hired by her company for the gig, was working the crowd.

You can guess how this story ends, right?  Susie ended up with about 20 minutes of facetime with her boss, who was far more interested in chatting up the model and taking her to dinner.

“It just leaves so much dissatisfaction in my heart because I feel like there is no way to win this game,” Susie wrote.  “As women, what makes us valuable in the office? There are enough really talented women on my team that I know climbing the ranks is a possibility…”  And yet, she wondered:  how do these women feel when they’re smart, work hard, and then they see, as she did at the tradeshow, that looks carry more currency than talent. “I just wonder,” she wrote, “that even if we reach the pinnacle of success, whatever that might be, will we ever feel like we truly have it?”

Sigh.  One of the most insidious things about this kind of sexism, I told Susie, is that the folks who perpetuate this nonsense rarely realize what they are doing or saying. White male privilege?  More than likely. But it also speaks to the fact that, while we may have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. Which is why I get so grumpy when young women refuse to call themselves feminists – or when their older sisters, the ones who are edging up toward the top of the food chain, are loathe to acknowledge the way things were – and in many cases, still are.

Of course, what rankles the most is the idea that dealing with gender discrimination, with sexism of all kinds, is seen as women’s work.  Shouldn’t it be everyone’s work?

Hillary Clinton — one of the most powerful women in the world and someone who has put up with more than her share of bad behavior solely because of her gender – might well agree.  Check what she told the Gail Collins in an interview in Sunday’s New York Times:

For a long time, Clinton said, when she talked about giving women opportunity, “I could see some eyes glazing over.” But now, she continued, people are beginning to see that empowering women leads to economic development. That you don’t espouse women’s rights because it’s a virtuous thing to do but because it leads to economic growth.

Economics? Brilliant!  Which leads us back to Susie.  Who, we might ask her boss, made more money for her company that week at that trade show?

And exactly who is it that wins when smart and talented young women are too discouraged to stick around?

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That gagging sound you heard last week, when Ann Romney bellowed in her best Oprah voice, “I love you, womennnnnn!”? That was me.

And not because I don’t love women; I do. And not because I don’t believe that Ann Romney loves women; I’m sure she does. It’s because, at best, this sentiment is utterly beside the point. And at worst, it’s a cynical, calculated, transparent attempt to chip away at the current and sizable gender gap among voters.

My thoughts crystallized this weekend, while reading an adaptation from Hanna Rosin‘s forthcoming book “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women,” which ran in Sunday’s New York Times magazine. The piece–and Rosin’s book, which grew out of a much dissected article that ran in The Atlantic two years ago–focuses on several real-life families in Alexander City, Alabama, families who now rely on mom to bring home the bacon, a circumstance which leaves everyone puzzling over the reversal of roles. This change of fortune comes thanks to a confluence of factors including the disappearance of good-paying work in the manufacturing sector (jobs traditionally held by men), and the fact that the economy has changed, as have the types of jobs that are available, and the skills that are needed in order to land them:

These days that usually requires going to college or getting some job retraining, which women are generally more willing to do. Two-thirds of the students at the local community college are women, which is fairly typical of the gender breakdown in community colleges throughout the country.

These shifts represent a reality that bumps with the worldview there, informed by both Southern tradition and the Evangelical church. Rosin writes of a conversation with Reuben Prater, currently out of work:

Reuben has a college degree and doesn’t seem especially preoccupied with machismo, so I asked him why, given how many different kinds of jobs he has held, he couldn’t train for one of the jobs that he knew was available: something related to schools, nursing or retail, for example. One reason was obvious–those jobs don’t pay as much as he was accustomed to making–but he said there was another. ‘We’re in the South,’ he told me. ‘A man needs a strong, macho job. He’s not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen. He’s got to be a man.’ I asked several businesswomen in Alexander City if they would hire a man to be a secretary or a receptionist or a nurse, and many of them just laughed.

All of which makes me chuckle a bit, when one considers this:

‘An important long-term issue is that men are not doing as well as women in keeping up with the demands of the local economy,’ says Michael Greenstone, an economist at M.I.T. and director of the Hamilton Project, which has done some of the most significant research on men and unemployment. ‘It’s a first-order mystery for social scientists, why women have more clearly heard the message that the economy has changed and men have such a hard time hearing it or responding.’

Why shouldn’t they have a hard time? We’re talking about nothing short of a wholesale redefinition of what it is to be a man. Or a woman. We’re talking about nothing short of a wholesale redefinition of what’s valued–and when, for centuries, to be a man was to hold power and make money, finding a woman to fill the role of “helpmate” along his ascent, I’d say it’s not mysterious at all that men are having a hard time hearing the message that things are changing.

Who wants to hear that their status is in jeopardy, their power no longer assured? Who wouldn’t find themselves at a loss?

And, as for the women, we’re taking on the challenges because we can. To earn a paycheck was not something expected of us as women; it’s something we’ve had to fight for the right to do.

And it’s not just the middle-aged men who have careers and lives to look back upon as they wonder what changed who are idling. Even young men seem resistant to what’s really going on. One family profiled in Rosin’s piece exemplifies it all: Rob Pridgen, whose job had recently been phased out; his wife Connie, a high school teacher; and her grown daughter Abby, who found Rob’s explanation of “man-as-provider” laughable:

At this point… Abby, who was then 19, piped up with her own perspective on the Southern code of chivalry, which she said sounded like nonsense to her, given how the boys she knew actually behaved–hanging out in the parking lot, doing God knows what, or going home and playing video games instead of bothering to apply for college…

[Another] afternoon, while Rob sat nearby, Connie and Abby were mulling over a passage from Proverbs that is sometimes read at church for Mother’s Day and that had come up in a Bible-study group.

The passage describes the ‘wife of noble character,’ who works with the wool and the flax, brings the food from afar, who ‘gets up while it is still dark,’ buys a field, plants a vineyard, turns a profit, and ‘her lamp does not go out at night’ because she’s still sewing clothes for the poor and generally being industrious while everyone else sleeps. Her husband, meanwhile, ‘is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.’

Traditionally the passage has been viewed as an elaboration of the proper roles of husband and wife. The husband sits in the dominant, protective role, watching his wife’s efforts on behalf of the family and taking pride. But in a town in which many men aren’t working steadily anymore, the words have taken on new meaning. There are people who have noticed that the passage never mentions what the husband is doing or what role he’s playing in providing food for his family, tilling the fields or turning a profit. And what’s dawning on Connie these last few months became obvious to Abby and Rob as she read the passage out loud. That noble wife is working from dawn to dusk. And the husband?

‘Sounds like he’s sitting around with his buddies shooting the breeze, talking about the ballgame and eating potato chips,’ Rob said.

Abby wasn’t surprised. Around Alex City, she said it seemed that it was the girls who were full of energy and eager to see the world. Her own brother, Alex, who was 17, seemed to want to stay in town forever and raise his family here. But Abby was enrolled in Southern Union State Community College, attending on a show-choir scholarship. Her plan was to go there for a year, as many girls in Alex City do, to save money, and then head to Auburn University.

Things are changing in major ways. And change is tough to deal with. But while we’re all puzzling over these seismic shifts is precisely the wrong time to accept blatant pandering with nothing of substance beneath it. And it makes such pandering even more offensive. Women are important to Republicans only in as much as a vote is a vote. But women are increasingly important to this economy, not to mention to the financial support of the typical family and household–we are, in so many ways, patently integral to the success of our society. And the outdated structures and policies we’re left with–and some are fighting fervently to preserve–are relics of a bygone era, useless as typewriters or VCRs. To refuse to recognize the changing times is the worst kind of denial–one that breeds backward-looking policies and irrelevant debate. Our society and our economy need us. To truly value women would be to prioritize policies that help working mothers, health care for everyone, reproductive rights. To patronize women by saying “we love you,” or “your job has always been harder,” is useless when it’s paired with a refusal to acknowledge who today’s women actually are, what they actually do. Because it’s not just women who depend on it.

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Good news alert:  The Paycheck Fairness Act, which passed in the Democrat-controlled House back in 2010 but died after every single Republican in the Senate voted against it, is back on the table — or more precisely, in the ring. Over at Bloomberg News, Elizabeth Dwoskin writes:

Legislation that would make it easier for people to compare salary data with their colleagues when they suspect their employers are stiffing them is headed for a fight in Congress. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) moved to force a June 5 vote on the long-stalled bill.

And hooray for that.

As we’ve noted a number of times, census data shows that women still make on average seventy-seven cents to a man’s buck.  Which is pretty silly, when you think about it, seeing as how we make up more than half of college graduates these days and almost half of the workforce.  When you realize that the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the first bill to address any sort of paycheck disparity, was signed into law back in 1963, you really have to wonder why the fight still lingers.  And that twenty-three cents?  It’s a pretty significant wage gap, amounting to an average of well over $10,000 a year.

To conclude: if this bill is one more step toward closing the gap, who could fight against it?  According to Bloomberg’s Dwoskin, the Republicans are loaded for bear:

Now that women’s rights have taken on a central role in the presidential campaign, Reid and his fellow Democrats have revived the issue to put Republicans on the spot. The strategy may pay off, as it looks like Republicans are raring to block the bill again. Jon Kyl, the Arizona GOP senator in charge of rounding up votes, is panning the legislation, telling my colleague Kathleen Hunter of Bloomberg News, “All this does is add more ways in which trial lawyers can make money on these people. It doesn’t do anything to advance anybody’s rights.”

Oh, I think it can. Why?  Because information is power.  You can’t fight against unfair treatment unless you can proved you’ve been treated unfairly. And as Dwoskin notes, many companies have HR policies that say that employees who dare to ask what the guy in the next cube is making — or reveal the details of their own paycheck — can find themselves out on their keester.  The Paycheck Fairness Act would not only prevent folks who ask about paycheck date from being punished, but would also allow the government to build a confidential database of pay stats from a wide-array of companies, which would in turn enable the government to screen for patterns of wage inequities.

Over on Politico, Scott Wong writes that some Republicans object to the bill by invoking the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, saying that the first bill Obama signed into law renders any more legislation unnecessary.  But as Wong writes later:

Democrats counter that the Paycheck Fairness bill is much stronger than the Ledbetter Act. They say Ledbetter keeps the courthouse door open for women to sue for discrimination, while Paycheck makes it tougher to discriminate in the first place. Ledbetter does not address compensatory or punitive damages; Paycheck does. And Paycheck makes it illegal for employers to retaliate against workers for inquiring about their colleagues’ wages.

For the life of me, I can’t think of a single reason why any sentient being would want to see their daughters paid less than their sons for the same work. (Or, for that matter, any man whose wife is bringing home half the bacon or maybe even all of it.)  But what I also wonder is this:  Are the same folks who are likely to lead the fight against the paycheck bill the same ones who deny the wage gap (and, perhaps, global warming) even exists?

Oh, the irony.  But that’s another story, for another day.  Until then, I’ll be watching closely how this newest round of the war on/for women plays out.  But in the meantime: Think you could lend me my twenty-three cents?

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In a meeting last week, another editor and I got to discussing the state of the food section of our paper. (Perhaps we were hungry.) He immediately went on a tangent (okay, we were hungry), talking about how he was so interested to learn recently of the history of food criticism; how the food pages, once the provence of women and full of “lightweight” stuff like entertaining tips and easy recipes, were revolutionized when Criag Claiborne took over as  food editor at the New York Times.

“So once a man took it on it became legitimate?” I asked in a teasing voice.

“Well…?” he offered.

“So once a man took it on it became legitimate.” I said.

Now, granted: (prior to the whole $4,000 meal debacle) Claiborne did, in many ways, revolutionize what it was to be a food writer — hell, it was no longer food writing, with Claiborne, it became criticism. Whether the food pages’ newfound legitimacy had more to do with the fact that a man was now in the driver’s seat–or the chef’s hat, as it were–or that this particular man was in the driver’s seat is a question I can’t answer.

But I do think it’s worth asking. And I got to thinking about a similar question yesterday, when I saw a piece in the New York Times about men taking jobs in traditionally female-dominated fields. It features male dental assistants, nurses (paging Gaylord Focker!), teachers. Which is cool. But this part is not:

But these men can expect success. Men earn more than women even in female-dominated jobs. And white men in particular who enter those fields easily move up to supervisory positions, a phenomenon known as the glass escalator–as opposed to the glass ceiling that women encounter in male-dominated professions, said Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociologist at Georgia State University.

Must be nice. (Hell, I’d settle for stairs.)

Interestingly, many of the men featured in the article did not take their jobs because of a recessionary lack of better options, but actually swapped higher-paying, faster-track careers for the “pink collar” jobs for reasons that would fall under the headings of “career satisfaction” or better “work-life balance.” There’s a story of an ex-IT guy who left his $150,000 salary for a nursing job where he’ll make a third of that, and who got choked up talking about a little girl giving him a hug. There’s an ex-lawyer turned teacher who wanted more time with his family, even an Army vet turned nurse. From the NYT:

Several men cited the same reasons for seeking out pink-collar work that have drawn women to such careers: less stress and more time at home.

Which speaks to something a tad more positive. More like progress, glass elevator notwithstanding. The piece goes on to cite Betsey Stevenson, a labor economist at the Wharton School who we also happened to interview for our book. Here’s her take:

 [Stevenson] said she was not surprised that changing gender roles at home, where studies show men are shouldering more of the domestic burden and spending more time parenting, are now showing up in career choices.

‘We tend to study these patterns of what’s going on in the family and what’s going on in the workplace as separate, but they’re very much intertwined,’ she said. ‘So as attitudes in the family change, attitudes toward the workplace have changed.’

Intertwined. Ain’t that the truth? And hey, maybe now that men are tangled up in the juggle too, maybe ideals like “work life balance” will take on the flavor of legitimacy.

Just a little food for thought.

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You know the saying:  the best defense is a good offense?  I’m thinking, instead of expending our energy on the war on women, why don’t we wage a war for women?  Right?

I sometimes wonder if we women – roughly half the population and half the workforce too – have been so busy defending ourselves from recent assaults, that we’ve become too distracted, too exhausted, to regain our forward momentum.

After all, the biggest victories for civil rights in our country have been proactive – think LBJ’s work to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or, for that matter, President Obama’s recent pronouncement of support for gay marriage.  Ours is a civil rights issue every bit as important as the fight for equality in any other realm.  But what’s baffling to me is the fact that so many Americans – many of them married to women, the children of women or the parents of women –  find things like equal pay or family-friendly workplaces a subversive idea.  Huh?

I first got to thinking about this after hearing President Obama’s talk at a Women’s Leadership Forum fundraiser back in April, when he reminded the audience, as he often does, that the first act he signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. He also reminded the audience that we, as women, still have work to do.

My second nudge was his commencement speech at Barnard, a woman’s school, where he told the new grads:

After decades of slow, steady, extraordinary progress, you are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny but the destiny of this nation and of this world.

But how far your leadership takes this country, how far it takes this world — well, that will be up to you. You’ve got to want it. It will not be handed to you. And as someone who wants that future — that better future — for you, and for Malia and Sasha, as somebody who’s had the good fortune of being the husband and the father and the son of some strong, remarkable women, allow me to offer just a few pieces of advice. That’s obligatory. Bear with me.

My first piece of advice is this: Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.

A few minutes later, he added this:

You need to do this not just for yourself but for those who don’t yet enjoy the choices that you’ve had, the choices you will have. And one reason many workplaces still have outdated policies is because women only account for 3 percent of the CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. One reason we’re actually refighting long-settled battles over women’s rights is because women occupy fewer than one in five seats in Congress.

Washington Post writer Dana Milbank calls Obama the first female president.   Like it.

Some folks suggest that when our president comes out in defense of women’s rights, he’s simply trolling for votes.  I could care less.  Because what I see is that, for whatever reason, he is putting women’s rights front and center:  He’s issuing a rallying cry, one we can get behind. With plans, actions, proposals of our own. Which is, after all, where change comes from.

When you think about where we stand when it comes to equal pay (still 77 cents to a man’s buck, thank you.  Even less, as we found when we were doing the reporting for Undecided, for women of color), our representation – or lack of same — in government or the C-suites, or our lack of public policy or workplace structures to accommodate families, well, I think it’s downright silly. No, not just silly.  Insane.  Especially when you consider that women now make up the majority of college graduates, and yet, we’re still lacking in rights and representation.

Let’s take the Equal Rights Amendment, for example.  Have you heard of it?  Probably not.  Because guess what:  it was passed in the Senate and the House back in 1972, but to this day has not been ratified because three states apparently found it too, um, radical.  It was reintroduced in 1982 and every year since.  It still has not been ratified.  But before you judge, let’s look at what it really says:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.                           
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

Back to my war for women.  Can’t you just hear what’s coming next?  We girls are just a bunch of angry feminists.  We’re out to destroy the traditional family.  And the big one:  man haters.

Even in 2012, there are still those who equate advocacy for women with hatred toward men, as if we’re all fighting for the same piece of the pie. I have had a number of female students, in fact, tell me that they are reluctant to come out as feminists for fear of the reaction — but that when they do, they feel compelled to also mention that they indeed have boyfriends. (Just as I feel compelled to tell you now that I have been married to the same man for decades and that we happily raised two daughters.)

Anyway, we could spend our energy defending ourselves — and the hundreds of thousands of other women who are openly or secretly feminist.  But that would take our time away from the work we still have to do.  Which, when you think of it, has been one of the most insidious effects of the Republicans’ so-called war on women.

Instead of keeping us busy in the kitchen, they’ve kept us busy playing defense.

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With the recent rise of Republican Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucuses, we’re sure to hear a couple of words again and again as the right-wing’s quest to rebuild America continues:

Family. Values.

I can’t help but cringe every time I hear that catchphrase.  Not because I dislike families – I have a terrific one of my own, thank you very much – but because I have to wonder WHOSE families those wingnuts are talking about.  Why did they get to appropriate the phrase?

What I also wonder is this: Why is the word “family” code for a lot of social conservative dogma that is not only irrelevant to what raising a real family is all about, but more importantly, leaves women – who do the bulk of that raising – out in the cold?

In the interests of real family values, I vote that we reclaim the term for ourselves.

But back to Santorum, whose message apparently resonated so well in Iowa:  Let’s start with reproductive rights, wherein Mr. Santorum goes way beyond the pro-life position by suggesting that contraception itself is a dangerous practice — whether you’re married or, God forbid, single.  As reported on ThinkProgress, Santorum told CaffeinatedThoughts editor Shane Vander Hart,“[contraception] is not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”  How things are supposed to be, he said, is for the purpose of procreation.  Here’s the video.

An extreme position?  Not completely.  You may recall that many conservatives in Congress recently voted to defund Planned Parenthood even though abortions only make up 10 percent of the services it provides to women without other means of health care, and that abortion services receive no federal funding.  And here’s the irony:  As the Guttmacher Institute points out:

Publicly funded family planning services help women to avoid pregnancies they do not want and to plan pregnancies they do. In 2006, these services helped women avoid 1.94 million unintended pregnancies, which would likely have resulted in about 860,000 unintended births and 810,000 abortions

Access to contraception is also an issue of women’s health. Here in the U.S., the Institute of Medicine recently came out with guidelines that urge health insurance under President Obama’s health care overhaul to include FDA approved contraception as preventative care.  Why? Proper spacing of pregnancies can prevent a host of serious health risks for both mother and child.

And while we’re at it, here’s another case in point: the Affordable Care Act, which Santorum and the rest of those family values folks want to repeal. Let’s review. Who suffered most under our health care system of old? Women. And when women suffer, it’s often the kids who pay the price. So much for those family values.  Lest you forget how our old health care system affected women: pregnancy was a pre-existing condition.  Women, especially when they have kids, are statistically more likely to work part time jobs that do not provide health benefits — which is fine so long as they can depend on a well-employed husband for job-related health insurance.  But what if he loses his job?  Or what happens to the kids if mom happens to be single?  (Oh, that’s right.  Family values don’t apply to single mothers.)

There’s even something more basic when it comes to so-called family values: putting food on the table, and for the majority of the 99 percenters, this has become an ever-more difficult proposition. While it would be ever so Norman Rockwell for every family to have a mom (or, hello, a dad) at home with the kids, where in this economy is that even feasible (that is, if mom and dad are lucky enough to have jobs)?  As HuffPost blogger Dan Bimrose notes over there on the politics page:

A Rick Santorum candidacy would be a family values candidacy. The family unit is extremely important to working class America. It is to these working class voters he was addressing and referring to when he said:

“They share our values about faith and family. They understand that when the family breaks down, the economy struggles. They understand when families aren’t there to instill values into their children and into their neighbors as Little League coaches, as good neighbors, of fathers and mothers being part of a community, that the neighborhood is not safe and they are not free…”

The implication is that the Democrats are responsible for broken families. If the breaking up of American families is truly the cause of our economic failures, which is an incredibly weak argument, he may want to point his finger at Republicans like himself.

What he fails to mention is that the reason that the parents are not there to instill values into their children and coach their baseball teams is because those mothers and fathers are working their ass off. While Republican governors such as the likely former candidate for President Rick Perry seek praise for their ability to create minimum wage jobs, the people working those jobs realize they simply do not pay the bills. They need two of these jobs and their wives need one and none of them provide adequate health care.

And how about the fact that women still make 77 cents to a man’s buck? Or the fact that for many women — the ones working to help put that food on the table — affordable child care is nothing but a pipe dream because as a society, we’ve never made it a priority? And what happens to the kids when neither mom nor dad can find a job, or if they do find one, it only pays minimum wage?  And yet: the same folks who hold up the sanctity of the family are often the ones who vote to dismantle social welfare programs like Medicaid or food stamps.  Or vote against extending unemployment benefits.

The so-called family values folks would also have us believe that gay marriage threatens not only the social fabric of our nation, but our own marriages as well. Really? Exactly how does that work?

The list goes on, mainly arguments of privilege. But then, if you’ve ever been part of a family, you probably get it.  Maybe prayer in school, opposition to gay marriage, and blowing up the safety net are the kinds of values that made your family strong.  But I seriously doubt it.  If the health of the American family is what we’re after, the values that matter most are more along the lines of equal opportunity, access to good health care and quality education, and above all, an abiding sense of compassion.

On the other hand, I do agree with Santorum et al. on one thing.  The American family is indeed under attack.  The question is: by whom?

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With Herman Cain’s candidacy on suspension and Occupy Wall Street protests being shut down (though not silenced), I got to thinking about some things. Things like inequality, male privilege, and the circumstances that allow them to continue–and which are the forces that tie such seemingly disparate things as political sexual scandal and outrageous economic inequality together.

Let’s start with the sex. (This ain’t my first time to the rodeo: I know how to keep a reader engaged.) What do you think it is that allows a man to pull a woman’s face to his crotch with the smooth line, “You want a job, don’t you?”, cheat on his wife for 13 years–in a relationship that sounds to amount to little more than a cool exchange of goods for services–and then to run for the highest office in the land–basically offering himself up for scrutiny under the most intense microscope in the land–with nary a worry that he’ll be caught?

Some might say arrogance. I’d tend to agree. And I’d go further: when it comes to arrogance, the corporate world as it currently exists may be the greatest enabler around. In the context of the workplace, arrogance–and its close cousins: aggressiveness, ambition, and risk-taking–is rewarded. Power is a great big ego-stroke: people treat you differently when you’ve got it; you believe you’ve earned that special treatment. And that sense of entitlement leads to behavior of epically bad proportions.

The same could be said on the macro level: power (and money) is viewed as an end unto itself–what an organization might actually do with this wealth and influence is viewed as beside the point. He who dies with the most toys wins, right? And if that’s the paradigm, is the inequity encapsulated in Occupy’s rallying cry–we are the 99%–any wonder?

How did that happen? A case can be made that this inequity is a result of a totally lopsided definition of power and a completely unbalanced way in which it is valued and exerted. In a world where, for centuries, men have held the bulk of the power and built the very structures of this society unchecked, it’s not difficult to see how we’ve arrived at this point: What we’re seeing is the result of an overvaluation of the masculine strengths — machismo — run a-freaking-mok.

How can we be anything but completely out of balance when a man thinks it’s somehow appropriate to suggest a blow job in exchange for a job-job? When the top 1% of the people in the country control over 40% of the wealth?

When the woman who dares to speak out about her experience with the man in power is subjected to a complete autopsy of her “character,” while the man is allowed to deny–no matter that his accusers outnumber him by a factor of–well, what is it now? 6?

When women continue to be paid unequally for the same work (in DC, a woman makes 89 cents to the man’s dollar; in Wyoming, only 65 cents)? When

After the worst economic downturn in nearly a century, men continue to earn more than women in 361 metropolitan areas in the country, an annual survey by the Census Bureau found. If current trends continue, it will take 45 years for women’s salaries to equal that of men’s, research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows.

So what would it take to bring things into balance? To redefine what it means to have–and wield–power in the world? To value compassion and equality as much as status and market share? To realize that a properly functioning human being has some measure of all of these opposing qualities–both the feminine and the masculine–and that a properly functioning society should, as well?

To quote Gloria Steinem:

‘Sometimes people say to me, at my age, well aren’t you interested in something other than women’s issues?’ she said. ‘And I say ‘show me one. Show me one that isn’t transformed by including both halves of the population.’

Indeed.

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You might say we’ve come a long way, Baby, when even a(n older) man recognizes that it’s most often women who make the career sacrifices.  This isn’t just any man we’re talking about here — but none other than Francis Ford Coppola who, I will be the first to admit, is a genius.

Back in September, Coppola was interviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival by its director, Cameron Bailey, in front of a packed audience.  Last week, excerpts of the interview aired on Fresh Air, providing some good food for thought in a week devoted to, well, food.  Coppola revealed that he had always wanted to make small art films, and that he originally envisioned the films that turned him into a big shot director as the way to finance what he really wanted to do.  (The fact that those paycheck films were The Godfather and The Godfather Part II and, ultimately, Apocalypse Now — my top three all-time favorites, in no particular order — is beside the point.)

Toward the end of his gig, Coppola took questions from the audience, and the one that closed out the interview — and prompted this post — was from a young woman, an aspiring filmmaker, who asked in a quavering voice what advice he had to offer to young filmmakers.  And here’s what he said, without skipping a beat:

Well, if it’s a guy, I say get married ….  I was married at 22, and I was desperate to have kids. I had so much fun with my kids. The fact that I was married and had this family of little kids, I was very responsible, I wanted to have a house they could live in, so I worked very hard.  I didn’t go out and waste time as young men are known to do, I was diligent writing my script and what have you.  Marriage had a very good effect on me.  When I was married I was broke. Eight weeks later, I had a job as a screenwriter. I attribute a lot of it to the sense of togetherness, a little team I wanted to provide for.

If you’re a young woman, I would say, don’t get married, because then you have this guy who’s trying to get you to do everything for his career.  And you’re not going to have any time for your own career ….

His answer drew a big laugh from the audience — the guy can deliver a line, after all — but I have to believe it was one of those hoots that come from recognition. Because of course he said what no one says out loud. For decades now, it’s been the DoubleX of the marriage team that has often negotiated the trade-offs, often to the detriment of her own career. And we rarely question why we play second fiddle.

Not that we are less smart.  Or less talented.  Or less strong.  Or even less driven.  But because that’s the way society thinks, and it’s been slow to change.  Why don’t we ever question this?

Case in historical point. I did a story many years ago on Navy wives, whose husbands were stationed at a nearby base. Many of them were extremely smart, well-educated and very accomplished.  But most of them had put their careers on the back burner, not necessarily by choice.  Why?  Because they could never assure an employer they’d be around for more than 18 months.  And, you know, whose career came first? (Fun fact: at that time, the grocery bags at the PX were emblazoned with a patronizing little slogan: “Navy wives: Toughest job in the Navy”.  Whew.)

Okay, I agree. The military might be an extreme example. But more recently, we were on a national radio talk show when the host started talking about all the kids he sees in his upscale New York neighborhood who were ferried around solely by their nannies.  Clearly these folks have plenty of money, he said.  Why don’t they just scale back a little so that the mom can stay home.  Not dad, not parent.  Mom.  You can bet we set him straight.  Oh, and did we mention this guy was a very liberal sort?

Frequently, it’s money that’s the issue.  The biggest paycheck tends to call the shots, and since we’ve noted time and again, it’s men who score the biggest ones, we girls lose again.  Is Dick likely to take a chance so Jane can follow her dreams to another locale?  To be fair,  it’s often a practical decision, especially in this economy.  But always?

Or maybe it’s all about the time crunch.  When both members of the team are working night and day, and traveling to boot, who’s going to stick around to hold down the fort?  As we heard from one of the sources for our book, an economist who teaches in a prestigious business school, when there are two partners with killer jobs, the kinds of jobs her students, regardless of gender, train for, aspire to, and usually land right out of grad school — something has to give, especially when kids enter in.  Could this be why we see so few women at the top of the ladder?  As she told us, it’s the women who often bow out, rather than settle for a nine-to-fiver that kills the dreams they’ve had in their sights since grade school.

To be sure, for many women, this is a trade-off they are willing to make.  But that’s not our point.  Going back to the master’s comment in Toronto, after the laugh, let’s stop and think.  And wonder why.

Like I said.  Food for thought.

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Remember Hanna Rosin?  She’s the author of last year’s controversial “End of Men” cover story in The Atlantic that suggested that because women do better in school, earn over half the college degrees, and are soaring into the professions, a matriarchy is precious minutes away.

Wednesday, she was interviewed over at Slate where, in anticipation of a Slate/Intelligence Squared U.S. debate on Sept. 20 — and possibly to pimp the publication of her upcoming book on men’s demise — she held fast to her premise that women indeed are poised to dominate.

We’ve done a bit of kvetching about her theory, which is to say: we disagree.  Sure, women may be doing better in school, but we’re still up against the pay gap and glass ceiling at work and the second shift at home.  And that’s only half the story.

What left us scratching our heads on Wednesday was the mental juxtaposition of Rosin’s end-of-men business with the national poverty stats, just released by the Census Bureau. In case you missed the memo, the numbers showed that, as of 2010, 15.1 percent of all Americans are living in poverty (defined as an income of $22,314 or less for a family of four), the highest rate since 1993.  That’s a staggering — and embarrassing — 46.2 million people, the largest number of poor Americans since estimates were first published 52 years ago.

In addition, the data showed that the poverty rate for children under 18 was 22 percent – over one-fifth of all kids in America.

Horrifying, right? But what you had to search hard to find – and probably didn’t, at least in the mainstream media — was an even more horrifying breakdown of those stats by gender. According to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center, for households headed by a single woman, the poverty rate was 31.6 percent.  For those headed by a single male, the rate was about half that: 15.8 percent. And among women who head families, 4 in 10 (40.7 percent) lived in poverty (up from 38.5 percent in 2009).

There’s more. The Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund drilled down the data a little further and found the raw numbers – not to mention the way the gender gap has been ignored —  even more unsettling:

In 2010, adult woman were 29 percent more likely to be poor than adult men, with a poverty rate of 14.5% compared to a 11.2% rate for adult men. There were 17.2 million poor adult women compared to 12.6 million poor adult men.

In their analysis, they found that Census stats revealed “a deep gender gap in poverty rates, even when factors such as work experience, education, or family structure are taken into account.” For example:

* women who worked outside the home in 2010 were 22 percent more likely to be poor than men who worked outside the home, with a poverty rate of 7.7% compared to 6.3% for men.

* While education reduces the likelihood of being poor for both men and women, women are more likely to be poor than men with the same level of education. In 2010, at every education level women were again more likely to be poor than men.

* The 37.1% poverty rate for single parents in 2010 was 4.2 times the 8.8% poverty rate for married parents. However, comparing married parents with all solo parents gives a misleading impression of the significance of family structure by concealing the sharp difference in poverty rates between solo fathers and solo mothers. The 40.7% poverty rate for solo mother families was 68 percent greater than the 24.2% rate for solo father families.

We’re baffled.  How exactly does one reconcile the fact that women are more likely than men to be poor with this so called “end of men” nonsense? Rosin herself, back on Slate, concedes that the dominance of the alpha-gals she writes about is not quite all it’s cracked up to be:

The dominance of women is a good and a bad thing. If you take the non-college-educated class, for example, the women are really, really struggling. They’re holding down the jobs, they’re going to school, they’re raising the kids. One economist calls that situation “the last one holding the bag” theory. In other words, the reason that women are doing better than men is because the children are with them, and so they have to make ends meet. So they hustle in order to make ends meet, but their lives are really, really hard, and it’s terrible for the children. And the fact that about one-fifth of American men are not working—we’re almost at Great Depression levels—that’s really terrible. And it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. So, no, this isn’t like, “yay, we won! yay, we triumphed!” It’s actually really bad. 

And so we wonder. Isn’t all this chat about the “End of Men” just more backlash?  A smokescreen that keeps us from tackling deeper and more serious issues that won’t go away?  We vote yes.  Especially given the fact that the only place, outside of the classroom, where women appear to be dominating is in the poverty stats.

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The new buzzword is “He-covery”. That’s the term the New York Times’ Catherine Rampell  and others use to characterize the new numbers on our so-called economic recovery. Cute the way we use gender terms to nickname serious issues, isn’t it?

In case you’ve forgotten, the recession was dubbed the “mancession,” because the menfolk had lost the majority of the jobs, leading to a workplace that was finally gender-equal.  But, as a new report from the Pew Center has shown, since the recovery started, men have picked up some three-quarters of a million jobs.  Their sisters have lost close to a quarter of a million. Welcome back to the gender gap: Pew found that men “have fared better than women in all but one of 16 major sectors of the economy identified in this report.” Here’s a taste:

The recovery from the Great Recession is not off to a good start for women. From June 2009, when the recession ended, to May 2011, women have lost 218,000 jobs, with their employment level falling from 65.1 million to 64.9 million. Men, however, are finding new jobs in the recovery. Their employment level increased from 65.4 million in June 2009 to 66.1 million in May 2011, a gain of 768,000 jobs. Since 1970, this is the first two-year period into an economic recovery in which women have lost jobs even as men have gained them.

Now, the easy explanation would be to assume that job growth is occurring in the, you know, manly sector: construction, mining, manufacturing, the heavy-lifting kinds of jobs.  But what’s curious here is that men are also outscoring women in retail, professional and business services, education and health services (traditionally a female domain), hospitality and the federal government.  And when it comes to jobs lost, men have also won the jackpot, losing fewer jobs than women in utilities, information services and finance.

What gives? Pew can’t figure out the explanation for the gender discrepancy, and neither can anyone else. But what I wonder is whether we’re simply unwilling to suggest that the emperor has no clothes.  If women are losing ground even in traditionally female sectors, isn’t it possible there’s a little bit of gender discrimination at play? There I’ve said it. Mea culpa.

As one quick example, let’s look at the maternal wall:  studies have shown that women are penalized and considered less promotable because of family committments.   As University of Illinois management professor Jenny Hoobler found, this holds true even when women have no kids — and don’t plan on having any.  We interviewed Hoobler for our book, and here’s what she told us:

[Her study showed] “this lingering stereotype that women aren’t as dedicated to their careers because they are or will at some point take the primary responsibility for caregiving in the family.  What we found was that even when women did not have did not have children, did not have an elderly parent to care for, didn’t have a sick spouse, their bosses still felt  that they had higher conflict between the family and work than their male counterparts did.

“People think that this is something that has gone away. I think there is a misconception when you are talking about workers with kids that male and female parents share equally the responsibilities for the home but many research studies have shown recently that that is not the case.  While men are doing a lot more that their fathers did a generation ago, in dual career families, women are bearing the lion’s share of the caring of people in the home.  But what our study showed was that even when women DID NOT have those responsibilities, their bosses felt that they still did.”

We also found a study on fathers showing that, conversely, having a baby enhanced their self-image at work, in terms of reputation, credibility and even career options. He became a family man, as in “What a guy”!

Now I would be the last to suggest that the reason for the so-called He-covery is the fact that, all things being equal, empl0yers prefer men over women and hire accordingly. Nor would any boss cop to that. But it makes you think, right?  And the irony is that, at 77 cents on the dollar, women are good for the bottom line.

And even when we women made up half of the workforce, we were hardly taking home half of the pay. As The Nation’s Katha Pollitt wrote, back in 2009, when women first achieved workplace parity:

It is indeed remarkable that women are half the workforce, but there’d be more to cheer about if they also earned an equal share of the pay. It may be easier to find a job as a home health aide than a welder, but male jobs tend to pay a lot more than female ones (and, one might add, do not involve a lot of deferential smiling).

Deferential smiling. Wonder if the guys are good at that?

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