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Posts Tagged ‘Charlotta Kratz’

I confess: I love shoes.  Especially when they’re high.  Until they wore out, my go-to faves were a pair of black leather ankle boots with dangerously high heels. They were actually pretty comfortable, but I would have worn them anyway because they looked damn good.

I’m also a feminist.

I bring this up because I often ponder the tension between feminism and fashion – the way fashion is often framed as a silly vanity, often driven by our need to please men, rather than ourselves. The trope popped into my noggin again this weekend, after I read a piece in Sunday’s New York Times that seemed to imply that women could be accomplished or fashionable, but rarely both.

The story cast a bemused eye on the new stylistas of Silicon Valley who were “bucking convention not only by being women in a male-dominated industry, but also by unabashedly embracing fashion.”  (One interviewee was the 29-year-old founder of a travel start-up who, the reporter noted, was wearing a pair of hot pink Christian Louboutains.  At which point I wondered: if you can actually afford to buy Louboutains – why wouldn’t you?)

Anyway, it got me to thinking:  Are fashion and feminism ever compatible? Can you maintain professional cred in serious stilettos?  And why, when you dress to impress is there the assumption that who you are aiming to please is the patriarchy?

For some food for thought, I turned to a couple of smart women, who are both rather stylish in their own right.  The first is an expert on gender politics, Shira Tarrant, a California State University, Long Beach women’s studies professor whose new book “Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style” uses fashion to deconstruct the politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality.  When I asked if fashionistas could be taken seriously as feminists, her answer was “absolutely”:

And feminists can be taken seriously as fashionistas. Feminists have a bad rap when it comes to fashion. We’re accused of being frumpy, unattractively braless, and inexcusably hirsute. But the fact is that feminism has always paid attention to the politics of style, and many feminists are incredibly fashionable.

Still, she says, when it comes to fashion as a lens to understanding  — and changing — gender politics, consider the context:

We live in a patriarchal, capitalist culture. We can never completely separate our fashion choices from the social structures we live in. But that doesn’t mean we’re always victims of our culture, either.  Fashion can be self-objectifying. At the same time, fashion can push back against a culture that keeps insisting that women hypersexualize ourselves. Fashion can be used to subvert the status quo, but the question is whether we can ever fully achieve this — especially without more sweeping economic and political change.

We’re always grappling with this tension between self-expression and self-objectification. The question is how do we remove the gendered penalties of self-expression. Our culture still encourages women to be attractive and pleasing to men. Fashion isn’t exempt from that. At the same time, fashion can be used to subvert these expectations. We can use fashion as a form of pop culture pushback.

Pushback?  Fantastic!  My second source, my colleague Charlotta Kratz, a lecturer in the communication department at Santa Clara University, would agree.

Through my clothes I tell people that I’m not completely what they may assume given my age or profession.  For long periods of time I challenged notions of status through how I dressed. I had a pair of denim overalls that I wore in professional settings.  As an recent immigrant, with an accent, I used to soften my being different by dressing plainly in jeans and t-shirts. I found that when I wore my Scandinavian designer clothes, mostly black, my California students found it harder to understand me.

I don’t think I dress for men. I think I dress to attract people who will “get” me.  Some of those will be men with a possible sexual interest in me. I don’t mind that. I like men and I like innocent everyday flirting. But, some of those people will be other heterosexual women, like my colleagues or students. For them my clothes will be signals of different kinds.

Kratz points out that we communicate through our fashion choices – clothes, hair, bags, cars — to become someone in social settings:

Not washing our cars is a statement. Sporting hairstyles that are carefully created to look as if we never comb our hair says something about us too. Whoever says “I don’t care about how I look” takes a lot of pride, and puts lots of effort into that particular style.

And that’s it, isn’t it? Fashion is simply the signals we send, the way we use artifacts like clothes and shoes to represent ourselves.  As Shannon wrote back when we were in the throes of writing our book (and, ironically, clad most days in scrubs) for most of us, it’s pure self-expression: Clothes, she wrote, “say something to the world about who we are. Or who we want to be perceived to be.”

In other words, it’s a choice: one that I think is more than compatible with feminism. We dress to please ourselves, to show the world who we are.  Which leads back to that frame that won’t go away, that fashion is simply a tool of the patriarchy. As for me, if pleasing men were my goal, I have failed miserably, at least with one man in my life who after decades of marriage still can’t understand why I need more than three pair of shoes – sneakers, flip flops or the moral equivalent, and dress shoes – or why I never leave the house without lipstick.

Anyway, back to Tarrant.  I asked her to describe her own particular style and what she said was this: “My sartorial style skews toward earth tones, black, and grey, with a radical splash of liberation.”

Done!

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I sometimes wonder whether our uber-connection has left us more than a little disconnected.

There’s no denying the ubiquity of iComm.  Long ago, we gave up talking in favor of typing.  (My land line rarely rings.  Does yours?) More recently, email conversations -– thanks to the seductive buzz of the smart phones in our pockets – have given way to pithy texts.

This is especially pronounced among teens, especially girls. (A friend with a teen-aged daughter once told me that their monthly phone bill, which itemized the texts, came in a box, rather than an envelope.)

According to a recent Pew Research Center Report presented at an education conference this week, texting is the dominant form of communication among teenagers – who blast out on average of 60 texts a day.  Some quick numbers from the report’s summary:

·  Older girls remain the most enthusiastic texters, with a median of 100 texts a day in 2011, compared with 50 for boys the same age.

·  63% of all teens say they exchange text messages every day with people in their lives. This far surpasses the frequency with which they pick other forms of daily communication, including phone calling by cell phone (39% do that with others every day), face-to-face socializing outside of school (35%), social network site messaging (29%), instant messaging (22%), talking on landlines (19%) and emailing (6%).

We grown-ups aren’t all that different. That same Pew study reports that what we do most with our cells is text. An earlier Pew study found that adults who text send or receive an average of 41.5 messages a day. Among 18 – 24 year olds, that number soars to 109.5. That’s a lot of LOLs.

Before I go on, let me assure you that I’m as insanely Apple as the next geek. I have an iMac at work, an even newer iMac on my desk at home, and within reach: a MacBook, an iPad, and an iPad.  I’ve also got an iPod, but I’m not sure where. And yet, Apple cliché that I am, I can’t help wondering what we lose when our main form of communication is dependent upon the dexterity of our opposable thumbs.  Call it the curse of the small screen, and smaller keyboard?  Both render writing (or reading) more than a sentence or two a pain in the ass.

Can you go deep without going long?  And do our relationships suffer as a result?

MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of “Alone Together: Why We expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other”, suspects we may be sacrificing intimacy on the altar of instant connection. She agrees that texting is great for keeping in touch, but when texting becomes a replacement for conversation?  That’s where we enter the danger zone.  At a TED Talk earlier this year, she discussed ways in which our instant communication can in fact hide us from each other:

Across the generations, I see that people can’t get enough of each other, if and only if they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control. I call it the Goldilocks effect: not too close, not too far, just right. But what might feel just right for that middle-aged executive can be a problem for an adolescent who needs to develop face-to-face relationships. An 18-year-old boy who uses texting for almost everything says to me wistfully, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

When I ask people “What’s wrong with having a conversation?” people say, “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with having a conversation. It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say.” So that’s the bottom line. Texting, email, posting, all of these things let us present the self as we want to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to delete, and that means we get to retouch, the face, the voice, the flesh, the body — not too little, not too much, just right.

One more presentation of the iconic self?  Communication professor Charlotta Kratz, one of my colleagues at Santa Clara University, hears similar stuff from her students. “They prefer to text because they don’t want to talk to anyone,” she says. “Even talking on the phone is awkward.”  She recalled one student telling her that driving the 30 miles over to Santa Cruz with a group she didn’t know well for a class project was pure hell.

“We talked about generational differences and I told them that their tech non-savvy grandmas would make three new best friends on that car ride,” Kratz said.  “They agreed.”  Still, she says, “I’m not sure we lose anything necessarily [with texting].  I think it’s better to ask how things are different.  People are available 100 percent of the time now, for one thing.”

What’s interesting is that the 24/7 availability comes with its own rules that, SCU feminist scholar Laura Ellingson has found, often follow age-old gender scripts, at least when it comes to relationships: women are accused of being curt and mean if they send short texts, men are labeled girly if they are expressive. In a recent feminist methods class, Ellingson’s students investigated ways in which texting is gendered. “They found mostly that women send longer, more detailed messages with more emoticons and exclamation points and other ways of expressing emotion more explicitly than men did,” Ellingson said. “Both genders found that the medium is prone to misunderstandings and hurt feelings and unintended consequences.”

But what Ellingson found disconcerting about the class project was that two of the groups pursued themes around women’s over-analysis of texts for subtle meanings, essentially blaming the women for miscommunication, rather than the men who sent extremely brief texts:

“This is not a scientific study by any means, but it was illustrative of the point that in heterosexual relationships, it is still women who bear the majority of the responsibility for maintaining the health of the relationship; they are supposed to text as often as he wants to hear from them, but not too much so as not to be seen as “needy”.  They anxiously try to ferret out cryptic meanings in texts and then get labeled neurotic by the very men who expect them to competently interpret their meanings. The one thing that men are in charge of is the initial text following the exchange of cell phone numbers when first meeting or first becoming interested in each other. Women and men both said that it is up to the man to initiate first contact, and that women are seen as needy if they text first.

Whew. I have to wonder if all this angst could be eliminated by some good old fashioned facetime.  Or a multi-sentence conversation that doesn’t need emoticons. The point, I guess, is that life itself is messy, complicated. There are choices to be made and selves to find. And yet: as with all our digital diversions, we avoid actual interaction in favor of the intensity of nonstop, always-on, mass i-teraction.  And so you have to ask: what is it that we’re after? And, what is it we’re avoiding?

I could go on. And would. But I just got a text.  Gotta send a reply.

Photo credit: Sierra Smith, statepress.com

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According to a new report out of Sweden, the answer may be no.

Sigh. Can’t you just hear the backlash? The ugly comparisons to the odious Miranda Priestly of “The Devil Wears Prada” fame?  The rousing chorus of “I told you so”?

Sorry, folks, but we don’t buy it. What we think this report speaks to is not what women may be doing wrong — but to the roadblocks,  both culturally and structurally, that still stand in our way.

The study, from the Institute for Labour Market Policy Evaluation (IFAU) and the Uppsala Center for Labor Studies (UCLS) at Uppsala University, suggests that women managers are no more likely to eradicate the wage gap as their male counterparts, nor are they likely to hire more women.  According to Science Daily:

…economist Lena Hensvik found no support for the claim that female managers entail any benefit for women in connection with wage setting. The study encompassed all of the public sector workplaces and a representative selection of private sector workplaces in Sweden during the years 1996-2008.

“At the first stage, I found that women with female managers receive higher salaries,” she says. “But when I went further and considered individuals who had had both male and female managers and how salary varies with manager gender, I found no significant difference between working for a woman and working for a man. Any differences appear to be tied to the individuals, not their managers.”

… But do women employ more women? Lena Hensvik asserts that there is no evidence that they do.

Let us be the first to say that we don’t buy the conclusion that the study necessarily shows that women in high places don’t benefit the rest of us.  Or that we can’t count on women leaders to mentor us in the way that, well, Larry Summers mentored Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Or that a woman boss is no more than a man in a skirt. (or, ahem, shoulder pads)  It’s a complicated issue that has much more nuance than the numbers might show: we’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time, and the world has yet to catch up.  All of us — men included — are still stuck in a working world designed by and for men, and though women now make up close to half the workforce, structures, society, and policies have not made the shift. All of which leaves us in something of a pickle that goes beyond a series of stats.

To help figure it out, we talked to communication scholar Laura Ellingson, director of Women & Gender Studies at Santa Clara University.  She says it’s all about the questions that are not asked as opposed to the ones that are.  Bingo. That’s a conclusion we will buy.

When it comes to the wage gap, Ellingson points out, it’s been well-documented that men and women negotiate differently when it comes to salary.  “That is, men tend to negotiate once they receive an offer, while women tend to accept what they are offered. Hence, even when made identical offers for the same job, men tend to begin at a somewhat higher salary, a gap which widens over time. One might say that women should simply negotiate, but this is a very problematic piece of advice, since women who do negotiate are perceived quite negatively by managers if they use the same type of tactics that men use.”

It’s a classic double bind — cue Miranda Priestly once again: Women who are assertive score low on the likability scale.  We’re seen as arrogant, or worse yet, ambitious. But if we don’t speak up, we get paid less.  All of which is infuriating, Ellingson tells us. “They tell women not to ‘toot their own horns’ from infancy on, leading us to try hard NOT to stand out, and then they ask why we don’t advocate better for ourselves.”

What’s more, Ellingson says, when it comes to hiring decisions, female managers are still operating in a workplace skewed toward masculine interests, masculine styles of communication, and masculine goals, so the idea that they would naturally hire more women per se, is a ridiculous assumption. “So I guess I just don’t grant the premise of [Lena Hensvik's report] in asking that question. Here’s what I would ask instead: what types of pressures are subtly communicated to female managers — by subordinates and supervisors — that are not communicated to male managers? Change the question, change the answer.”

Something else to consider: the cultural differences between Sweden and, certainly, the U.S.  (Not to mention the pay gap itself.  It’s on average 8 percent in Sweden; 20 percent here.) For insight, we turned to intercultural communication professor Charlotta Kratz, a native Swede who has been teaching in California universities since the 1990s. She says those differences are not to be underestimated.  According to Kratz, the experience of being a woman is of public interest in her country, which has led to a number of gender-equalizing structures throughout Swedish society. When we asked her about this particular report, she told us: “I would guess that the reason that there isn’t a bigger female ‘effect’ in Sweden is that the whole system is more female oriented. Swedish society is far more sensitive to gender issues in general compared to the U.S., meaning that Swedish men make different choices than American men.”  In other words, she says, there would be less of a difference between men and women in Sweden than there would be here in the U.S.

All of which brings us back to that issue of asking the right question.  Or, as feminist icon Gloria Steinem once said: “Don’t think about making women fit the world–think about making the world fit women.”  It’s not a question of whether our lady bosses have our backs — but whether the workplace itself is receptive to change.

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More than you might think.

Especially for us women, who are often sabotaged by words in ways most of us don’t even recognize.  Language, says Santa Clara University professor Laura Ellingson, an expert on gendered communication, can shape our thoughts and perceptions, uphold double standards, and reinforce stereotypes.

Half the time, we don’t even notice.

All this came to mind this weekend when I came across a piece in the New York Times by business writer Phyllis Korkki, who explored the reasons why women’s progress into the top tiers of the workforce had stalled. Many of those reasons related to entrenched — and often unconscious — sexism. No real surprises there. But one paragraph in particular caught my eye:

[Ilene H. Lang, president and chief executive of Catalyst] maintains that unintentional bias is built into performance review systems. Words like “aggressive” may be used to describe ideal candidates — a label that a man can wear much more comfortably than a woman.

More comfortably?  There’s an understatement for you. Which prompted me to start making a list of other ways in which words can keep us in our place.

One of the first contenders in my  double-standard category — after aggressive, of course –is “ambitious”.  An ambitious man is the type of guy most parents want their daughters to marry.  But an ambitious woman? Think Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada”.  The media tell us ambitious women are calm, cold and conniving.  They not only lose their friends, but their bedmates, too.  Which may be why, as longtime Vanity Fair contributing editor Leslie Bennetts once wrote in a piece titled “The Scarlet A” in Elle magazine, owning our ambition may be the last taboo:

Over the past three decades, I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most celebrated women: queens and princesses, senators and rock stars, moguls and movie legends, first ladies and fashion titans. Some were barracudas whose appetite for power would make Machiavelli look like a pushover, but only one ever owned up to being ambitious.

Ouch. Another double-standard for the A-list is “assertive.”  For men, that’s an admirable trait. When they step up and ask, they often receive.  For women? We often don’t bother to ask. And when we do, we run the risk of being tagged pushy.  You know, not feminine. Or, a little more charitably, “feisty”  Which itself is more than just a little demeaning.

Santa Clara University communication professor Charlotta Kratz, whose area is the portrayal of minorities in the media,  points out that performance evaluations are often based on the measurement of what are generally considered to be male traits.  Organization — think linear thinking — is one.  Another is the fact that while women process — we talk things through –  men act.  “Process is female, action is male, and the female talk gets looked down upon as unnecessary,” she says.

True, that.  And then there are words used to characterize our moods. When a male colleague goes wiggy on us, we’re likely to say “he’s lost it.”  As in, momentary aberration.  When a woman does the same, however, she’s often dismissed as “emotional” (read: bad).  Or “menstrual” (read: worse).  Or even menopausal (read: worse yet).  In any case, not to be taken seriously.

Let’s not forget the tear factor. When Speaker of the House John Boehner wept on “60 Minutes” a while back, he was “sensitive.”  When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton cried back in 2008 when she was on the campaign trail, she was portrayed as “emotional” — there’s that word again — as in not presidential.

Other double standards have to do with parenthood. As we point out in Undecided, studies show that a female employee who wears her mom-hood on her sleeve is likely to be perceived as a flight risk.  Other studies, however, show that when a man plays the dad card, his stock often rises.  He becomes a “family man”.  To wit: what a guy! What’s funny is that when that same mom stays home with the kids while dad takes a business trip, she’s, well, home with the kids.  Turn the tables, and dad is babysitting.

Language slaps our personal lives into submission as well:  A woman without a mate is either unmarried — as in, poor thing — or a spinster. Ugh.  A man in the same boat, however, is single. Or better yet, a bachelor. We all know what that means. He’s a catch.  Throw sex into the equation and we’ve got another humdinger of a double standard.  When it comes to bedroom action, as Jessica Valenti wrote in the first essay of her book of the same name: “He’s a stud, She’s a slut.”  Enough said.

The list goes on.  When a man takes charge, especially in the boardroom, he is forceful.  A good thing.  When a woman does the same, especially at home, she’s often called controlling.  Likewise, when a man pushes his staff to the limit, he’s a good leader.  His female counterpart? Excuse the term: A ball-breaker.  Even clothing carries its own weight.  As Ellingson points out, when a male prof wears an old pair of jeans to class, he’s cool.  When a woman does the same: sloppy.

Back to that piece in the New York Times, Korkki hits on another double standard that comes to kick us in the bank account: the ability — or lack of same — to self-promote.  It’s a plus for men, who are expected to “showboat a little.” But women? Not so much. We’re expected to be modest, to praise others instead of ourselves.  Or else we’ll take a dive on the likability scale. Which might, in fact, jeopardise our position. But you know what’s coming next: if there’s a promotion to be had, you can guess who’s most likely to get it.

Ahem.  Word.

 

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And watch us cry. But first: the laughing. Have you seen ‘Bridesmaids’ yet? (And were you aware that doing so is your feminist duty?) I did, and would heartily recommend it. It’s hilarious, well-written, and good. But people weren’t expecting much from it; Deadline Hollywood’s Nikki Finke said she’d give up writing about movies if it cracked the $20 million mark on its opening weekend. Which it did. But that it did was clearly a surprise. Here are some words from Rebecca Traister on the movement to mobilize female moviegoers:

Yes we can… buy tickets to a Kristen Wiig movie in an effort to persuade Hollywood that multidimensional women exist, spend money and deserve to be represented on film.

What’s motivating this campaign is simple: Hollywood studios do not make comedies for or about women anymore. Yes, they used to….

Those days are long gone, and we now inhabit an entertainment universe in which everything male-centered is standard, and everything female-centered is female (yes, this dynamic extends into publishing, politics and professionalism, but for now, let’s keep it to Hollywood). What that means in practical terms is that women will plonk down dollars to see a male-dominated action movie, a girl-gobbling horror flick, or a dude-centric comedy just as easily as they’ll pay for the kind of female-fueled movie that is literally made for them. Men, meanwhile, have apparently been so conditioned to find anything female emasculating (notwithstanding the expectation that their girlfriends find anything male, including ‘Thor,’ scintillating) that they cannot be moved to sit through any movie with a fully developed woman at its center. As Tad Friend recently put it in his New Yorker profile of the actress Anna Faris–in a sentence mentioned frequently by ‘Bridesmaids’ activists–’Studio executives believe that male moviegoers would rather prep for a colonoscopy than experience a woman’s point of view, particularly if that woman drinks or swears or has a great job or an orgasm.’

Traister’s piece is a fabulous read, but I’m going to leave the Bridesmaids behind for a minute, and move on to mother-of-the-bride territory. In the form of Hillary Clinton. In Anne Doyle’s Forbes piece entitled “Women Are Not ‘Guys’ and Men Are Not the ‘Norm’,” Doyle lays out a couple of examples of the same issue Traister views through the cinematic lens–the idea that, in our culture, everything male-centered is standard, and everything female-centered is female.

And, in this case, wrong, and in need of spinning. And what is this case, you ask? A shot of Obama’s Situation Room featuring the members of his inner circle watching the Bin Laden raid go down–crazy shit, all might agree–in which Hillary Clinton is shown expressing emotion (although, if you ask me, pretty subdued emotion), her hand over her mouth.

The bad news is the ridiculous angst the photo triggered over the gender differences it captured. The men were stone-faced, revealing little. It was only the expression and body language of the most powerful woman in our nation that most clearly communicated the tension, high stakes, and yes, even fears that every leader in the room was experiencing. No surprise there. We socialize men and women to express emotions very differently.

But here’s the astonishing part. After the now-iconic image was released, Clinton, whose hand was raised to her mouth in the photo, felt she needed to explain the gesture by telling media she was ‘trying not to cough’ at the instant the photo was taken. Are we still that uncomfortable with powerful women behaving like women rather than ‘men in skirts’ that even she needs to spin her actions that deviate from the male norm? And since when is the behavior of only fifty percent of the human race ‘the norm’?

It reminds me of the story Charlotta Kratz wrote about here:

Women may be equal to men professionally, but we could never talk publicly about personal female experiences the way men talk about personal, private, male experiences (like the relationship between a man and his son) in public.

The experience of being a man is of common interest. The experience of being a woman is not.

It’s an issue we dissect pretty thoroughly in the book. And it’s all yet another reason why so many women are so damn undecided: yes, we’ve been told we can do anything… but the world continues to show us that we should probably stifle certain parts of ourselves to get to the point where we can do it. That we’re the fringe, lucky to be allowed to play in the men’s world. And that’s a shame for everyone–not least because those parts of us that we stifle might actually be sources of great, beneficial value–were individuals and the culture at large encouraged to indulge them. (And, I’m sorry, let’s not forget that this grand world we’ve created has studio heads believing that one half of the population thinks seeing a movie about women will somehow cost them their balls. This is a good thing?) But maybe things are changing. Bridesmaids was brilliant and pulled in $26.2M it’s first weekend. (I hasten to add: only $8.5M less than ‘Thor.’ Ahem, Barf.)


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While young women learn in school that their female experiences matter, the differences between college and the real world can lead to a new form of uncertainty, suggests contributor Charlotta Kratz, a lecturer in the communication department at Santa Clara University, who writes that the skills they have developed in the classroom aren’t always appreciated on the job.

TAKING IT PUBLIC

by Charlotta Kratz

Once at a dinner party I met a woman who had been one of the first women to graduate with a business degree from University of California, Berkeley. It was in the early 1960s. When she graduated people had expected her to become a secretary, but, she said, “I didn’t go to business school to be a secretary.” Instead she had had a long and successful career with an insurance company. She didn’t marry until she was retired, and she never had children.

Someone asked her if she had felt discriminated against as a woman.
Never in my professional life, she said. Everyone knew I was good at
my job. But after retirement she had started feeling judged. In the
eyes of the world around her, she had gone from being a leader to
being a little old lady. There wasn’t room in people’s imagination for
‘retired business woman.’

I was watching the coverage of Ted Kennedy’s funeral over the weekend.
There was a wake on Friday, and a Funeral Mass and burial on Saturday.
Many friends, family members, and colleagues spoke. There were funny
stories, heartfelt memories, poignant moments, and lots of warmth.

On MSNBC (my default channel) two male political commentators chatted
away. They talked about Ted Kennedy and politics, Ted Kennedy and
sports, Ted Kennedy and relationships, Ted Kennedy and life. Guy talk.
Insightful and interesting, but definitely guy talk.

Women may be equal to men professionally, but we could never talk
publicly about personal female experiences the way men talk about
personal, private, male experiences (like the relationship between a
man and his son) in public.

The experience of being a man is of common interest. The experience of
being a woman is not.

Obviously there are shades of gray here. There are areas in society
where female experiences, voices, have been increasingly valued. One
such area is, I think, education. Educators are often women. Many
students are women. At the university where I teach more than 50% of
the undergraduates are women. In our department, communication, it’s
not uncommon to find classes with 20 young women, and 4 young men. And
add to that the fact that higher learning, at least in the humanities
and in social science, is collaborative – female – in attitude.

What happens is, I think, that besides doing well academically young
women
also learn in school that their experiences matter. They learn
that authority figures think like them. In a crisis they can ask a
teacher for a tampon. There are gender studies classes, and the
implicit message there is that female experiences actually have value
for the larger group.

Maybe this learning environment has made the young women who graduate
today unprepared for what faces them outside of the university: Same
old world, where women can be professionals, but only if they check
their female-ness at the door.

It’s that lack of preparedness that is interesting. I think schools
are ahead of the rest of American society when it comes to gender
equality, but I think young women end up suffering for it. I think
young women walk out into the world expecting to be heard, and I think
they feel disconnected and depressed when they are not. I think this
leads to a new form of uncertainty. The skills they have developed
don’t work, and quite literally, they don’t know what to do.

In Scandinavian countries (I am Swedish, so this comparison comes
naturally to me) the situation is a little bit different. There are
gender equalizing structures in place: affordable child care, 12+
months of paid parental leave, and 5-7 weeks of paid vacation per year.
Just to mention a few. It’s easier for two spouses to have careers,
and an overwhelming majority of families do have two careers.

My point is this: These programs have been put in place after public
discussions. That means that unlike in the US, child care, just to
take one example, is an issue that gets public attention.

That is a huge difference. It doesn’t mean that Swedish families have
it all figured out, or that the tension between career and family
doesn’t exist. It does. Swedish women are tired and frustrated too.
But they talk about it. Society talks about it. Politicians consider
it.

In 2009, in Sweden, the experience of being a woman is of public
interest. Swedish women in their 70s, my mother’s generation, say that
“we’ve come far”. And they are proud.

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