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Posts Tagged ‘gender roles’

I’m starting to wonder if this presidential election might hinge on apron strings.

In the wake of the last debate, we’ve all been caught up in binders and trapper-keepers and funny Facebook memes – along with some hijinks on Amazon, where a bunch of smartypants hijacked several binder pages.  I think we’re missing the point.

According to the New York Times, both Obama and Romney are in hot pursuit of the women’s vote.  Which is to say, they seem to think that Double Xers may determine the next president of the United States:

 … And on the campaign trail and on the air, the candidates and their allies argued intensely all day over who would do more to help women. At the same time, the topic of whether the heated encounter Tuesday night had alienated the very female voters they were seeking to connect with became fodder for cable TV discussions.

The level of intensity left little doubt that the election was coming down not only to a state-by-state fight for territory, but also to one for the allegiance of vital demographic groups, chief among them undecided women.

Whew.  Whether the chattering class is right or wrong, it appears we have a lot more power than we’ve had in quite the while.  Let’s think this through.

The bedrock issue in the debate over the women’s vote has had to do with reproductive rights:  abortion and contraception.  Key issues.  Agreed.  Especially because the next president will more than likely be appointing one, or maybe two, justices to the Supreme Court, who may hold the future of Roe V. Wade in their hands.

And then there’s the funding of Planned Parenthood, which not only provides family planning services, but also provides women without health insurance life-saving care for breast cancer, among other medical issues.  My friend was one of them.

But the real issue as I see it is the vision of women’s role in the workplace and the home.  I found one of Gov. Romney’s responses in the debate to be key.  The question had to do with inequalities in the workplace, including the pay gap — Go here for a state-by-state chart of gender pay inequity — which the Governor sidestepped with the unfortunate comment about binders.  What I found revealing, not to mention troubling, was the end of his response, which related to the woman he had hired as chief of staff while governor of Massachusetts:

 Now, one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort, but number two, because I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce, that sometimes they need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school. She said, I can’t be here until 7:00 or 8:00 at night. I need to be able to get home at 5:00 so I can be there for — making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said, fine, let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.

On the surface: flexible schedule.  Good.  One of the issues we’ve been writing about is the challenge faced by working women, who put in the same hours as their male counterparts, and then have to dig into the second shift when they get home.  But look again at the governor’s answer, then ask yourself this:  Where was the chief of staff’s husband and/or kids’ daddy at 5:00?

That’s it, right?

Why is it that in 2012 some folks still assume that household and childcare duties are women’s work?  And why, as one of the sources in our book fumed, do we plant work life balance smack in the middle of the “women’s issues” silo?  Shouldn’t this be a human issue?  A family issue?

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I cook dinner most nights, no matter what time I get home from work.  And I’m damn good at it.  No, scratch that.  I’m really good at it:  I inherited my culinary mojo from a long line of incredible Italian cooks (Ask me about my aunts’ gnocchi or cannoli sometime, or my mother’s ability to throw together anything fantastic without a recipe).  Plus, I like to eat good food.  But that’s my choice.  Proscribed gender roles have nothing to do with it.

The issue here, as the presidential election heads down the home stretch, has to do with perception as well as policy.  And I suspect that the nuances of the latter are often driven by the former.  And in this case, the perception in question is gender roles in the home as well as the workplace.

Cue the aprons.

The most recent time-use survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that women still own the second shift. Most telling stats?

On an average day, 19 percent of men did housework–such as cleaning or doing laundry–compared with 48 percent of women. Forty percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 66 percent of women.

All of which, presumably, is on top of a 52 hour work week.

Now, can a president do anything to change all that?  Probably not.  But given that I have been given a lot of power in this election, my vote goes to the guy who doesn’t assume my place is in an apron.

Speaking of which, my husband is wearing one right now.  I’ve got one eye on the Giants game as I write this.  He’s firing up the ‘que and throwing together a salad.

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Is it the end, or just beginning?

Ye olde End of Men is in the news again; this time, author Stephanie Coontz is weighing in on how the headlines proclaiming The End of Men might be a tad premature. It’s territory we’ve covered before, to be sure, but there’s a new turf worth tilling. Namely, when she writes:

One thing standing in the way of further progress for many men is the same obstacle that held women back for so long: overinvestment in their gender identity instead of their individual personhood.

Sorry to interrupt, but: DING DING DING!

Men are now experiencing a set of limits–externally enforced as well as self-imposed–strikingly similar to the ones Betty Friedan set out to combat in 1963, when she identified a ‘feminine mystique’ that constrained women’s self-image and options.

Clearly, it’s no longer 1963, but Coontz hits on something there that I think is still profoundly in evidence, particularly among the women we call “Undecided.” Yes, we have options the women who clandestinely passed The Feminine Mystique around may have only dreamed about, but that’s but half the story. We write often about how, somewhere along the timeline of women’s liberation, the message that we can have it all morphed into an oppressive belief that we should be able to do it all, and, when I read those above words of Coontz’s, I thought: Yes, yes, and yes.

Because I think, to borrow her words, a certain investment in our gender identity is what keeps us so dearly invested in doing it all. When you read articles about how to take the pressure off, among the tips will invariably be something along the lines of Ditch the stuff you don’t care that much about. Which is fine advice. (Um, we’ve probably offered it ourselves.) But it’s hard advice to follow. Perhaps you don’t give two craps about baking, yet you feel a bad mother if you send your little one to the bake sale with storebought (and Crisco-frosted) cupcakes. Maybe you don’t even want kids, but feel pressure tied to the belief that “real” women are maternal (and bake their own cupcakes). Perhaps you don’t care about clothing or makeup, but you feel you must look a certain way to be accepted as a woman. Maybe you’d rather take a stick to the eye than spend a perfectly good Saturday dusting, but you have friends coming over and you just know they’ll think a little bit less of you if they see how you really live.

Interestingly, I think that the more successful we are in the not-traditionally-female aspects of our lives (read: our careers), the more intensely we feel we must make sure we measure up on the traditional Lady-o-meter. Just last week, there were a couple of headlines about very successful women–Katie Couric and Stacy London–coming out about their struggles with eating disorders; in fact, among women, eating disorders have long been associated with an overachieving personality type. And have you ever noticed how rare it is to see a successful woman who is anything less than impeccably groomed? (Not least because when said grooming–or style; see: Hillary’s pantsuits–falls just a little bit short, the backlash is lethal.) Back in the 80s, when I was in grade school, my mom was in grad school “busting my ass,” she says. And yet, “I cooked dinner every night, drove the car pool AND was your room mother.” It’s as though we’re willing to push the envelope… but not too far. So we overcompensate, wearing heels that are lethal, killing ourselves to keep a house that’ll pass the white-glove test, and whipping up organic and healthy–yet impressively epicurean–delights for dinner. On a Tuesday.

It’s too tricky to offer a simple solution–and it’s made trickier thanks to the judgment women face from other women and society at large, of course–but surely there’s some wisdom in flipping Coontz’s equation and consciously putting more investment in our “individual personhood” as opposed to our “gender identity.” In worrying less about what it means to be a woman, and more about what it means to be our self. Or maybe just thinking a little bit about why you’re killing yourself over that dinner… and, perhaps, instituting a new tradition, called Take-Out Tuesday.

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I had a serendipitous moment with Michelle Obama last week — just a few days before her transcendent speech at the DNC.  The occasion was an interview with the First Couple by Lynn Sherr and Maggie Murphy in Parade, the supplement that shows up in many local Sunday papers.

I almost tossed the magazine aside, but I was drawn in by the radiant cover photo of a smiling Michelle and Barack snuggling on a couch in the White House Map Room, and what I found in this exchange midway through the Q-and-A was an almost spooky resonance with what we’ve been writing about these past four years.  More about that below, but first, check this:

This year, there is once again a conversation about the superwoman.” Can women have it all? Is that even the right question?
MO:
I think that question limits us as women. I work with a lot of young women—we have interns coming in and out, and this is always one of the first questions they ask—and the thing I try to remind them is that we have fought so hard for choice and options with our lives, and we’re just getting to that point where we’re willing to embrace all the different facets of woman­hood. I know that when I came out of college, what I wanted and what I thought I wanted were very different things. Then I get married and have a career and, lo and behold, now I’ve got kids. And how you feel about motherhood when your children are small and when they’re teenagers, that’s going to change. I want to keep young women from thinking that there is one right answer. That answer is going to change every year, every five years.

Bingo.  That line about no “one right answer”?  That’s the point, isn’t it?  Young women — all women, really — need to make peace with the fact that there is no right answer, no one-size-fits-all approach to life, whether it comes to career or family or any combination of the two.  Nor, once we’ve made one choice or another, can we rely on sure-fire steps on how to get there.  Why?  Because it’s all too new. As women in transition, we’re adjusting to rapidly changing roles within a slowly changing society, and what we’ve found is that for many of us, the insecurity of making our way without a road map has left us all just a little bit, well, undecided.

But what the First Lady reminds us is that we’re all in this together. And hooray for that.

Still, the idea that there is no grand plan, no tried-and-true blueprint that can show us how to find our place in the world, is one scary thought. It’s also the idea that sparked our book — coincidentally, four years to the day before I picked up the Parade interview.  On that hot late-summer day, Shannon had talked me into tackling the notorious Dipsea Trail, a treacherous seven mile trek that ascends some 2200 feet up Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco, and ends at Stinson Beach, a small town on the edge of the Pacific. The hike took all day, and later that night, over iced knees, a killer roast chicken and a few delightful glasses of Pinot, we began to brainstorm: Why was it that today’s women were so undecided?  What was the cause of the “analysis paralysis” that plagued so many young women?  The dissatisfaction that seemed to be so rampant in a generation of women groomed to have it all?  Shannon insisted there was a book in searching for the answers, and that we should do it together.

Together?  That’s all she had to say.  (Wondering what it’s like for a mother and daughter to write a book together?  Another story for another day.)

Anyway, in the process of reporting our book, we interviewed researchers, experts, counselors, coaches — and most importantly hundreds of undecided women, from their twenties to their sixties, who became the heart and soul of our book.  And what we found was shared experience, underlying issues in the workplace and the culture that have yet to be addressed, and a collective sense of growing pains.

What we didn’t find were any cookie-cutter answers.  Which actually, is the answer. In slightly more than a generation, our roles and our opportunities have changed dramatically.  And with all that change comes uncertainty.  Sure, we all yearn for those pieces of grand advice — once you do “A”, “B” will surely follow.  We want to know exactly what to expect behind Door No. 1 or Door No. 2.  But when you think about it, that’s pretty much the way our mothers or grandmothers lived their lives.  For us, however, life is much more complicated — and far more exciting.

What’s interesting is that when we speak in front of women’s groups or on talk shows, you can feel a strong sense of resonance in the audience. The women, they get it. They identify with the stories we tell of women whose lives are like their own. They get pissed off with the structural impediments that have held them back.  And yet:  there’s always at least one hand that shoots up, a woman pleading for some exact step-by steps.  And what we answer is that there are none — and that’s a good thing.

Back to that interview with the Obamas, the beauty of there being no one sure answer is the freedom that comes with it: The permission to engage in some trial and error, to define ourselves apart from the shoulds, to lead a life that is true to type, and to jettison once and for all the idea that we can have it all.

Sure, it’s hard.  Sometimes it’s scary.  But the good news is, we’re in it together.  Even the First Lady.

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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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Now that the chatter about Marissa Mayer has started to grow cold, let me admit that the whole conversation has pissed me off.

In case you’ve spent the past few days under a rock or — same thing — totally unplugged, Marissa Mayer is the former Google superstar who was annointed CEO of Yahoo on Monday. Her story went viral when she casually announced that she was preggers, telling Fortune Magazine: “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.”  Those 14 words ignited a shitstorm.

What made me incredibly cranky is how retro the conversation quickly became: It wasn’t about Marissa Mayer, 37-year-old brainiac tapped to become one of only 20 women at the helm of a Fortune 500 company. But Marissa Mayer, new mom:  How on earth will she manage?  When will she bond with her newborn?  How in the hell will she ever run Yahoo (which, it should be noted, is in desperate need of turnaround.)

All the backchat and the judging that came with it? Sheer lunacy.  And, yeah, more than a little bit retro:  Would we be talking about any of this if a soon-to-be-a-father had gotten the top job at a major U.S. company?  You know the answer. No effing way.

What makes me crazy is what we’re not talking about: the real reason the conversation caught fire in the first place. And that’s the fact that the U.S. remains one of the least family-friendly countries in the industrialized world when it comes to public policy and workplace structures. And that, when it comes to managing the almighty juggle between home and work, the problem is seen as purely a woman’s to solve.

We never seem to question that.  Or ask why, when we talk about ambitious women like Mayer, we make what should be the political intensely personal: What will she do?

Who cares? What really matters is what we – men and women alike – need to do to make work work for all of us. Let’s start with public policy. Ours sucks. To demonstrate just how much, look at Sweden. As we reported in Undecided, Sweden subsidizes preschool and elder care—and provides thirteen months of paid parental leave that can be taken in any increments until the child turns eight—reserving at least two months of that leave for fathers. As a result, 85 percent of fathers take parental leave. And those who don’t often face the stink-eye from family, friends, and coworkers.

By contrast, here in the U.S., the Family Medical Leave Act entitles eligible employees unpaid, job-protected leave for twelve workweeks after the birth of a child.  Period. As for valuing work-life balance? In spring of 2010, Congress failed to pass the Work–Life Balance Award Act, a thoroughly benign bill that would have established an award for businesses that develop and implement work–life balance policies.  And child care? Legislation to establish early childhood education and day care programs, with tuition on a sliding scale, was passed by both houses back in 1971.  Then-president Richard Nixon vetoed it.  Some forty years later, the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies reports that only one out of six children eligible for child care assistance receives it.

Then there’s the workplace itself, which is still more reflective of the days of Don Draper, where there was always a Betty at home to take care of business, and Don could come home (or not) whenever it suited him. But how many families live like that anymore?  In this economy, how many could?  And so Betty, like Don, puts in the expected 52-hour workweek, and then comes home to do the laundry.  And sure, while many forward-thinking companies now allow employees to be flexible, what that often means is that, whether you’re at the office or at home, more than likely, you’re at work.  At two jobs.

And finally, let’s look at our social culture, by which I mean: where are the men? Despite the fact that most working women put in the same long hours as their husbands, when they come home, they still own the second shift.  To this day, we largely define work-outside-of-work in traditional gender terms: men do the yardwork and take care of the car, women do the dishes and take care of the kids. This is not to put down the male gender: I’m sure there are any number of guys out there who are more than willing to pick up the kids or fold the clothes, as a 2011 Boston College Center for Work & Family report on “The New Dad” found.  But where the conflict arises, Brad Harrington, executive director of the Center for Work & Family told Diversity Executive Magazine is within the cultural context:

Many working dads are stymied in their desire to spend more time at home because of age-old perceptions of men’s roles, both at home and at work. But it’s also partly because men want to have the best of both worlds. While many men in the Boston College study expressed an increased interest in being at home with their children, a large percentage also said they wanted to have greater responsibilities at work.

So trust me.  I am delighted that  Marissa Mayer was hired as CEO of Yahoo while being, you know, openly pregnant. She’s a great example of the fact that a woman can use her brain and her uterus at the same time.  And as such, she is sure to start chipping away at the maternal wall that holds many of us back when it comes to positions of power.  But let’s go beyond the obvious.  Rather than opining on whether Mayer will be a good mommy, what we really ought to be talking about is why the workplace remains so incompatible with motherhood in the first place – and why we assume that fixing that incompatibility is women’s work.

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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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Between “Are You Mom Enough?” (aka the extremely controversial Time Magazine breastfeeding cover) and Elisabeth Badinter’s extremely controversial book The Conflict, which cast a critical eye on the current trend (among some sets) toward attachment parenting, and the Daily Mail’s latest offense, about the “ambitious career women” who don’t want kids and “enforce childlessness” upon their partners, sometimes you have to wonder whose finger is on the trigger when it comes to the war on women.

While the media and the talking heads sling headlines and talking points, we’re all just left to slug it out. Or, more likely, to reserve the slugs and instead talk behind each other’s backs, feel guilty, worry that we’re doing whatever it is we’re doing wrong. That what we’re doing is wrong.

Which is bad enough. But what kills me is this: When was the last time you saw a magazine cover asking “Are You Dad Enough?” or a piece worrying for the women married to “career-driven” men who deprive them of parenthood? (Then again, men rarely “enforce childlessness” because they generally don’t have to choose between career and parenthood… because mom–whether she’s career-oriented or not–will be there to do the lion’s share. Not to mention the gestating, the birthing, and the breastfeeding. As a friend once observed, for men, parenthood is an addition to everything else in their lives; for women, it’s a choice. The trade-offs are more stark.) Would a man’s choice to embrace his traditional breadwinning role with gusto be marked as an end to progress, or to opt out of parenthood as a harbinger of the downfall of society as we know it?

Men’s roles haven’t changed much. Yes, the dads of today are likely more involved in their children’s lives than their own dads were in theirs. Yes, they probably do more of the chores than their dads did, but these are incremental moves we’re talking about. And precious few worry that a dad picking up the dry cleaning or making dinner somehow constitutes an attack on “family values”—or that a man who doesn’t want to have kids is somehow defective or unnatural. A man’s minor deviations beyond the confines of his traditional gender role are rarely seen as cause for alarm.

Women are the ones who have changed – and who have fought, every step of the way, for those changes… changes that have, in turn (and slowly) affected the incremental changes in men and (slower still) in the structures of society. Perhaps it’s because our rights remain under attack, because our position still feels tenuous, because we still have such a ways to go, that our reflexive response to trend stories about opting out or real-life trends toward attachment parenting or aprons as fashion statement is that it will undermine feminism. We’re still on shaky ground.

And because it’s shaky, we cling to our positions ferociously. With our newfound freedom to do things any which way, it’s harder to feel that what we’re doing is right. Or even just good enough. And because women today have been raised on the message that we can do anything, we do whatever it is we do with a certain amount of ferocity. The same ambition some might turn on in the boardroom, some will focus onto their children.

And because it’s shaky, there will be those who will insist that the old way was the right way.

The thing is, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. The parameters of women’s lives have changed. We have our reproductive rights—and will fight for them no matter what right-winged extremist boogieman appears claiming God and the Founding Fathers wanted women beholden to our uteri. We have access and opportunity and can do all kinds of things with our lives. We can parent—or not parent—as we see fit. And that is a good thing.

The “enough” I worry about is this: when will there be enough change–enough change to the structures, attitudes, finger-pointing, and self-doubt–that “choices,” in all their forms, will be available, realistic, safe, and workable for all women?

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I came across an interesting study the other day that found that, when it comes to independent work – freelancing, consulting, you name it – those indie workers are more likely to be women. According to MBO Partners’ Independent Workforce Index, some 8.5 million women are choosing to fly solo when it comes to work, making up 53 percent of all independent workers.

It’s all about work life balance and career satisfaction, the study found, adding that many of the women they surveyed are finding their choice to go it alone more rewarding than traditional work.

Sounds quite dreamy, doesn’t it?

But when you look beyond the numbers, you realize there’s more involved here than the entrepreneurial spirit or the freedom to go to work in your jammies — which, when you come right down to it, really isn’t all that dreamy. One reason for the growing number of women saying “oh, phooey” to the land of nine-to-five may speak to something beyond career satisfaction, and that’s the workplace itself, which still skews a little Mad Men, where, for every Don behind the desk, there’s a Betty at home to take care of business. (Okay, Betty’s been replaced, but you get my point.)

This especially hits women with kids. Back when we were reporting our book, we came across a relevant study by Joan Williams, who’s a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and director of the Hastings Center for WorkLife Law. Her report, The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict, authored with the Center for American Progress, found that women with families were often marginalized or even pushed out when their jobs demanded 24/7 availability or when “full time” meant fifty hours a week or more.

In today’s workplace culture, that’s just about every job, right?

And then there’s this: while women make up close to half the workforce, they have yet to make their mark at the top of the ladder. According to the Catalyst 2011 Census:

women have made no significant gains in the last year and are no further along the corporate ladder than they were six years ago:
• Women held 16.1% of board seats in 2011, compared to 15.7% in 2010.
• Less than one-fifth of companies had 25% or more women board directors.
• About one in ten companies had no women serving on their boards.
• Women of color still held only 3% of corporate board seats.
• Women held 14.1% of Executive Officer positions in 2011, compared to 14.4% in 2010.
• Women held only 7.5% of Executive Officer top-earner positions in 2011, while men accounted for 92.5% of top earners.
• Less than one in five companies had 25% or more women Executive Officers and more than one-quarter had zero.

Phooey, indeed.

And don’t forget the “mommy track”—a term coined by the New York Times and based on an idea that Catalyst founder Felice Schwartz proposed in a Harvard Business Review article back in 1989. The term still stings. Schwartz’ article suggested that businesses could accommodate the growing number of working mothers by offering them alternative career paths. Good perhaps in theory, but in practice, what it meant was that women who bought into such arrangements were stereotyped as less serious about their careers. The upshot? Rather than corporate America changing structures to accommodate those who wanted/needed a life outside of work (um, all of us?), many women had the choice made for them and found themselves sidelined.

Still do. Which is why, I suspect many women, as as several sources told us and as MBO found, are thumbing their nose at the mommy track entirely and carving their own paths, often from their own homes. (One such “mompreneuer” is the quintessential Gen-Xer, Soleil Moon Frye—a.k.a. Punky Brewster—who cofounded an ecofriendly baby-products business called The Little Seed.) But what those women often find – whether or not they have kids – is that they’re always “on” – working longer, harder, faster –- often juggling several things at once.

We found other women who tried to make work work by cutting back to part-time. A report from the U.S. Joint Economic Committee showed that in 2009, some 17 million American women worked part-time— approximately one-fourth of all working women. And while part-time arrangements can be a good compromise, the bad news is that they not only present their own glass ceilings, but they pay less too. The report found that part-timers (nearly two-thirds of them are women) make less per hour than full-timers—even for the same work. And, as one bright thirty-something found, even the best part-time arrangement can have its own set of hazards.

A media liason who cut back when her first child was born, she thought she’d hit the jackpot when she negotiated a job-sharing gig: Two days in the office, one day working from home. But what she realized is that the flexibility had bought her a whole new set of hazards:

“My own expectations were too high,” she told us. “News seemed to hit on days I wasn’t in the office. I had only co-ownership over my position and therefore less power. And I seemed to disappoint my boss regularly, just by virtue of the schedule. It’s a tough adjustment to go from being a valuable team player to a part-timer who has to be out the door at five and won’t be in tomorrow. Also, there was no hope for advancement…”

And finally, there’s this: when you work at home, what you gain in flexibility, you sometimes lose in sanity. Trust me on this one. Back when my kids were young, I worked from home as a freelance magazine writer, and more often than not, I’d get a callback from a source right around five o’clock, known to parents everywhere as the witching hour. Once I flipped open my notebook, it was a cue to my kids for all hell to break loose. It often did. You can ask me about that sometime.

Then again — if you’re about to declare your independence — don’t.

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I’ll bet you do.  That’s right: you, over there.  The one who just fished a shirt to wear to work out of the pile of dirty clothes on your bedroom floor.  Trust me, I do not judge, having worn the same running clothes for three days straight.  (Right.  Ew.)

Seems to me, if we’re in the workforce, we could all use a housewife at home to pick up the groceries and fold the clothes.  But whether we’re married or not, with or without kids, said housewife is likely to be you. No matter where you work, or how hard, when it comes to the second shift, ladies, we own it.

Which is something, says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, that needs to change if we ever want to cut into the so-called ambition gap.   Sandberg has emerged as a leading voice in the quest to make life more doable — and the ladder more accessible — for those of us (read: most of us) who want the space to pursue both a career and a life.  And what she suggests is that if we ever want to get to fifty-fifty in the c-suites, we need to get to fifty-fifty back at home.

Unless, of course, we can hire a housewife.

In an interview for the Makers series from PBS and AOL, Sandberg spoke on a number of issues related to the difficulties women face in the workplace, from work-life balance (no such thing, she says) and the division of household labor.  The interview is broken up into mini-soundbites for quick hits of inspiration whenever you might need one, and at approximately 1:57 in this particular cut (scroll to the video at the bottom of the page) what she says is be careful who you marry (Cogent advice: we heard the same from Stanford economist Myra Strober, in an interview for our book):

The most important thing, I’ve said this a hundred times, if you marry a man, marry the right one.  If you can marry a woman, that’s better because the split between two women in the home is pretty even, data shows.

 But find someone to marry who’s going to do half.  Not just support your career by saying things – oh, of course you should work –  but actually get up and change half the diapers, because that’s what it takes.

Her overarching point? If women ran half the institutions, and men ran half the homes, the world would be a better place.  Hard to argue with that one, especially when you consider that, for most of us, the economy doesn’t allow for many single income families.  (And then, of course, there’s  the structure of today’s workplace that demands a 52 hour workweek.  But we’ve covered that.)

Anyway, I thought of all this housewife business the other day, after a class in which a student pitched a story on the lack of women in leadership positions in corporate America.  While we were brainstorming a fresh angle for the piece, one student brought up the issue of stay-at-home dads as one way to close the gap.  Good idea, right?  Especially in a classroom of forward-thinking millennial kids.  And so I turned to the men in the class and said, “Okay, how many of you would consider being a stay at home dad?”  Answers ranged from a reluctant “well, maybe” to “no way” to clearly the most honest answer of the bunch:  “I hate children.”  Which if nothing else was good for a laugh.  Then that student who had brought up the issue in the first place asked how many students had had stay-at-home dads.  Not quite radio silence, but close to it.

What struck me was the fact that here in 2012, a conversation about shifting gender roles seemed, to a classful of kick-ass college seniors, so, you know, quaint.  And so I brought up the topic again today, and one female student voiced a collective worry: I want a career and a family. But when and how do I make it  fit?  From the men, again, radio silence. What was interesting, but not entirely surprising, was that this was something none of the guys had ever considered.  Or, probably, would ever have to. You can be sure I pointed that out.

But then it struck me.  Is the issue the fact that we still define work outside of work in traditional gender terms? The most recent American Time Use Survey found that 20 percent of men did housework on a given day compared with 49 percent of women. Forty-one percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 68 percent of women.  And then there’s this: back in 2008, the Gallup Lifestyle poll (the most recent one) found that married couples still maintain a traditional division of labor:  men did the yardwork and took care of the car, women did the dishes and took care of the kids.  (Which often makes me wonder how the division of labor breaks down in, say, Manhattan, where folks don’t have a lot of cars, and even fewer yards.  But, anyway.)

So maybe that’s our first step:  letting go of traditional gender expectations, especially at home.  I myself just dragged myself home from work.  My husband, who was watching a hockey game, greeted me at the door with a glass of Pinot. Much appreciated. We’re having leftovers for dinner.  And everyday, he packs my lunch.

My students think that’s cute.

As for my running clothes?  Sigh.  Don’t ask.

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Oy. You’ve surely seen the headlines by now: Women in charge have less sexToo bossy to make love: Women who make all the decisions at home pay the price in passion!

The message is clear: The stronger the lady, the less likely she is to get laid.

The thing is, though, that’s not exactly the case. The flurry of salacious news items all refer to a recent study out of John Hopkins University, which found that, of the women surveyed–women from six African countries–the more decisions they were responsible for, the less often they had sex. But the bit that gets left out of the headlines is, according to study co-author Carrie Muntifering, in places such as the countries where the study was conducted, this is likely a good thing, indicating more control over their sex lives.

What grates is the way such results are parlayed in our neck of the woods — where, in fact, more equality has been shown to be associated with more nookie, not less — as though women had better absolve themselves of any decision-making power, lest those decisions become the only form of action they can count on getting. And look at the judgment in some of that language: Bossy? Seriously? (And when you click on that one, the top of your browser will read: Desperate Housewives. Nope, not kidding.) Even leaving the (admittedly obnoxious) semantics aside, you gotta wonder: why is our first instinct to take a study like this–one that, for all intents and purposes, has precious little to do with us–and spin it in such a way as to strike the greatest amount of fear possible into our collective hearts? It’s all yet another way in which women are led to question the way we’re living, to worry over being too fill-in-the-blank and not fill-in-the-other-blank enough, and yet another way in which we’re faced with the false dichotomy that refuses to die: successful or sexy, ladies, not both.

Interestingly, the same day my inbox was assaulted with these headlines, I came across a couple more, about Iris Krasnow’s new book, “The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes To Stay Married.” For her book, Krasnow interviewed 200 women, and found that

The happiest wives have a sense of purpose and passion in work and causes outside of the home. Wives who counted on a spouse for fulfillment and sustenance were often angry and lonely.

Huh. What do you know? Independent women have happier relationships? There’s a headline I’d love to see.

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