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Posts Tagged ‘Mad Men’

Sure, there’s been a lot of chat about everything that’s wrong with Mad Men and why women in general and feminists in particular should hate its unrepentant misogynystic guts.  And let’s face it:  this is a show that glorifies gin, Lucky Strikes and getting laid (by anyone but one’s spouse).

What’s not to hate, right?

Not so fast. As Stephanie Coontz wrote a year or so ago in the Washington Post: “Mad Men’s writers are not sexist. The time period was.”  And so as a woman and a feminist let me unapologetically admit that I can not wait for the season five premiere on Sunday.  Sure, it’s great TV, and the attention to period detail is freakishly fantastic.  (Pause here to drool over those dresses.)  And, as nighttime soaps go, there’s one hell of a story going on.  But the real reason I love Mad Men – as opposed to, say, its short-lived period clones (read: The Playboy Club and Pan Am) — is because it resonates:

Lesson 1:  The Way We Were. Want to know what second-wave feminism was all about?  Or why we needed a focused movement?  Look no further than the women of Sterling Cooper who, with the exception of Peggy (more later), type their days away in the steno pool or, if they’re lucky, move up to the outer office, answering someone else’s phone.  What’s great is that Mad Men doesn’t pretend that these “career girls” are empowered – as Pan Am and The Playboy Club tried to do.  Instead, we get it right away:  these gals are as hemmed in by the intractability of the system as they are by their rigid underwear.  Their only defense against what we now call sexual harassment was a giggle and a shrug. And for those who wonder what The Feminine Mystique was all about, may I introduce you to the chain-smoking Betty Draper?  She left her husband (as well she should have), ignores her kids, and ran off to Vegas to marry another guy who treats her like a house pet.

 Lesson 2. Where We Need to Go. So, yeah, we’ve come a long way in terms of career. Back when I graduated from college — not that long ago.  or maybe it was —  it was still legal for an employer to list an administrative job in the “female” classifieds and a managerial one in the “male.” Most women who graduated from college were told they had three career options:  secretary, teacher or nurse. And prospective employers were allowed to ask women what their husbands did for a living. Ugh. But for all the progress we’ve made, the workplace still hasn’t caught up. Take away the ashtrays and the booze and if you look closely,  you realize that the structure of today’s workplace isn’t all that different from Sterling Cooper’s, where every Don had a Betty at home to take care of business. It’s still designed by, and for, men. But the reality is that in today’s world, Betty puts in 52 hours a week, just like Don, and then comes home to do the laundry.   Even when men step up at home in ways their fathers never did, there’s still the math: take the current workplace expectations, add in the omnipresence of technology that keeps us uber-connected 24/7, and there aren’t enough hours in the day for any of us.  Unless, of course, one has a housewife.

Lesson 3: Ask, dammit.  In a word, Peggy.  She started as a secretary. Ended up a copywriter.  Which apparently was pretty unheard of in those days.  So how did she end up with a title, an office, and a snazzy new job?  She asked. Enough said. All too often, even decades after the days of Sterling Cooper, many of us are afraid to put ourselves out there, for fear we might be labeled as ambitious and thus, less likable.  Or that we might get turned down.  And so we cross our fingers and wait to get the nod from a higher up – and then are grateful if we do.  Sometimes it’s the fear of failure that keeps us from taking those risks — the possibility that the answer might be a big fat no or that even if it’s a yes, we might fall flat on our face. But as the wise woman told us when we were reporting our book:  You’ll always get over a failure. But regret?  It’s not recoverable.

Lesson 4. Beware the personal brand.  And then there’s Don.  Okay, he’s a guy and we write about women.  But, regardless of gender, he is the embodiment of what we call the iconic self, that image we create to project who we wish we were.  Don is an illusionist, a mystery man who invented himself out of whole cloth and, as David Weigand writes in the San Francisco Chronicle, is “on the run from himself.”  Weigand, who compares Draper to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby (Fun fact: Fitzgerald got his start as an advertising copywriter), writes:

Fitzgerald, the Midwesterner who went East to reinvent himself, saw both sides of the American “dream.” On the one hand, ours has always been a culture of hope and aspiration. On the other, our abiding belief in change and the ability to reinvent ourselves can bring us perilously close to the edge of self-delusion.

In short, Don is a cautionary tale, a desperate example (cue the falling man in the opening credits) of how we can lose ourselves when we work too hard to become our brand. When it comes to Don, we wonder: is there a there there?  Who knows. But it definitely makes you ponder what Don might do with Facebook.  Scary thought.

Lesson 5. Embrace our differences as our strengths.  It’s a revolutionary thought, the idea that men and women bring different strengths and talents to the table. After all, we came up thinking that to be successful, we had to fit in — to be “a man in a skirt,” as one of our sources dubbed it.  But what if we could tap into our authentic, feminine selves and do what we do best:  Studies show, for example, that women negotiate in a win-win manner, we’re interactive leaders, we’re sensitive to subliminal cues; we’re multithinkers, multitaskers, and are more comfortable with ambiguity.  Not to say one gender is better than the other.  Just different.  Which brings up one of my favorite bon mots from Man Men, seasons past.  The context may have been different, but you gotta love the line: “Don’t be a man, be a woman. It’s a powerful business when done correctly.”

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Fast in the wake of the success of “Mad Men”, TV’s retro series on the advertising industry circa 1965, come two new period series for the fall season:  “The Playboy Club” on NBC and “Pan Am” on ABC.

What these two new series have in common is the insistence by their producers that when you eliminate the girdles, the cleavage and the bunny dips, the shows are really about women’s empowerment. That sound you hear is the two of us choking on our morning Starbucks. Let’s review: Women called Bunnies, wearing rabbit ears and cotton tails, and stewardesses subjected to regular weigh-ins and tight undergarments? Both the subjects of drooling men? This is Hollywood’s vision of empowered women?

Don’t get us wrong.  We like Mad Men as much as the next sixties geeks.  And we are the first to admit that the men of Sterling Cooper are hideously misogynistic. But the women — Peggy, who pushed her way to become the firm’s first woman copywriter, and Joan, often the brains of the outfit — make their way with their smarts rather than their sexuality.

Back to these new shows:  we see a difference between a period piece that portrays the way things were for women — versus the proclamation that what looks like heavy-duty sexism is really female empowerment.

What it really is is backlash.

“The Playboy Club” (Tagline: Where men hold the key but women run the show) revolves around a bunny who becomes involved with a high-powered attorney who gets her out of a jam. “Pan Am” (Tagline: They do it all and they do it at 30,000 feet) is about the glory days of air travel, when pilots were Men-with-a-capital-M and stewardesses were every businessman’s, um, fantasy.

Both shows have come up against intense criticism (Making for an unusual alliance between feminists and conservatives, an NBC affiliate in Utah has refused to air “The Playboy Club” and feminist icon Gloria Steinem has called for a boycott of the show.), which has led to ridiculous statements by the two shows’ producers.  Here’s one, via the Contra Costa Times, from “The Playboy Club” producer, Chad Hodge.

“The show is all about empowerment and who these women can be, and how they can use the club to be anyone they want,” Chad Hodge told critics.

Enough said.  And from the producers of “Pan Am”, via TV/Line:

Exec producer Nancy Holt Ganis — who herself was a Pan Am stewardess during the era depicted in the show — explains that this is what life was actually like for these women, who were admirably regarded as “hostesses at a dinner party… a movable feast.”

“Part of the irony of the profession [is] these are college-educated women who [often] spoke multiple languages,” says [creator/producer Jack] Orman, and yet they we still subjected to physical scrutiny to land the job. Says EP Thomas Schlamme, “For me, the show could be called The Best Years of Our Lives, because for those people, at that moment, that what this is. And that’s what the show’s about.”

Really? We’d prefer to give the last words to Gloria Steinem, who might heartily disagree.  Steinem, who went undercover as a Playboy Bunny during the 1960s for a magazine expose, is the subject of an upcoming HBO documentary entitled “Gloria: In Her Own Words” and at the Summer TV Press Tour, she was asked her thoughts about these two new shows.  Here’s what she said, according to the Washington Post:

“Are they aggrandizing the past in a nostalgic way, or are they really showing the problems of the past in order to show we have come forward? Somehow I think the shows are not doing that,” Steinem said, noting wryly that when times get tough, the “white male response” tends to swing to either sadomasochism — or nostalgia.

Recently, she told Reuters that the Playboy Club was “the tackiest place on earth”:

When I was working there and writing the expose, one of the things they had to change because of my expose was that they required all the Bunnies, who were just waitresses, to have an internal exam and a test for venereal disease,” she said.

Earlier, in an interview for the current issue of Interview Magazine, Maria Shriver asked Steinem whether she was glad she had done the playboy expose in the first place.  She said that at first she wasn’t, and in fact returned an advance she’d received for turning the magazine piece into a book.  But ultimately, she said:

.. feminism did make me realize that I was glad I did it–because I identified with all the women who ended up an underpaid waitress in too-high heels and  a costume that was too tight to breathe in. Most were just trying to make a living and had no other way of doing it. I’d made up a background as a secretary, and the woman who interviewed me asked, “Honey, if you can type, why would you want to work here?” In the sense that we’re all identified too much by our outsides instead of our insides and are mostly in underpaid service jobs, I realized we’re all Bunnies–so yes, I’m glad I did it.

She didn’t mention whether she felt empowered when she was doing the bunny dip.  We suspect her answer would have been no.

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This just in: Men are as miserable as women. At least that’s what we learn from a new study by Arizona State professor Chris M. Herbst, who suggests that men’s happiness has taken as big a dive as women’s over the past several years.

We think that’s good news.

Back in 2009, Penn economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers published ground-breaking research that sent the interwebs atwitter. Titled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” the study found that while, 35 years ago or so, women reported being happier than men, today women–regardless of marital or employment status or whether or not they have kids–report being unhappier than men.

At which point, the pundits swarmed: Was the women’s movement — responsible for ushering women out of the kitchen and into the workplace — to blame for this happiness gap? Were women themselves at fault for not taking proper care of themselves? There must be something wrong with you if you’re not happy, the media howled. Blame yourself! Blame feminism! Blame your choices! Whatever you do, don’t assume it’s the rational response to life itself or to a workplace that has not changed to accommodate the new reality: though women represent close to half of the workforce, the workplace still operates like a set from “Mad Men”as if the ideal employee is one with Betty Draper at home to take care of business.

Back to Herbst’s study: Not content to let women own their own funk, he used a different measure of well-being — happiness is notoriously hard to measure, if not define — to find that men’s life satisfaction had not only declined as much as women’s over the past two decades, but had gone south even more rapidly than women’s in recent years:

Men and women have also experienced comparable slippages in self-confidence, growing regrets about the past, and declines in virtually every measure of self-reported health. In a further departure from [Stevenson and Wolfers] results, I find that although the downward trend in life satisfaction became less severe for men and women over time, the slowdown occurred more aggressively among women. As a result, men’s life satisfaction began to fall more precipitously than that for women beginning in the late-1980s.

He suggests the reason may be a combination of several factors based on the erosion in social and civic engagement — coupled with economic insecurity.

Maybe so, but we think there’s something else at play. Because we’re optimists, we tend to think that all of this declining happiness business may be a sign of something positive: gender roles are shifting, and we — men and women alike — are working through the growing pains. As men begin to share more of the second shift in our dual-career families, are they also sharing more of the angst? And will that lead to positive change?

A new study out of the Families and Work Institute seems to suggest yes. According to “The New Male Mystique,” released last month, as gender roles have begun to shift—men’s stress over work-and-family conflict has increased. Last year, we interviewed Ellen Galinsky, President of the Institute and an author of the report, for our book and she told us that preliminary data on increasing stress levels among men suggested that the idea of work–life fit might move out of the pink ghetto and start being framed as change that benefits all of us.

Some might snipe that it’s time already that men feel the conflict too. But Galinsky believes that, as the generation of men who are (or who expect to be) more involved at home climb the ranks, they’re likely to be more amenable to family-friendly policies. She said her studies find that when supervisors—regardless of age or gender—have responsibilities for kids or elders, they are seen as more supportive of work–life policies, because, said Galinsky, “when you go through it yourself, typically you feel different about it.

What’s more, she told us, when men as well as women leave work to pick up kids—or if dad does the drop-off at the onsite daycare center— the stigma, and that maternal wall, starts to go away. “In an ideal world,” Galinsky said, “work would work for you and your employer, and there are some policies that would help you do that, but where the rubber hits the road is how your supervisor and coworkers treat you. You can work at a company that has fantastic policies, or live in a country that has fantastic policies, and you can still have a horrible situation. There has to be a culture where people value personal and family time.”

All of which goes to the heart of what’s often left out of studies of satisfaction and well-being: what has been dubbed a personal issue is really a political one. Maybe instead of kvetching about who’s happier than whom, what we ought to be talking about is changes in workplace structures and public policy.

And wouldn’t that just make all of us just a little bit more, you know, happy?

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I’ve been thinking about Shannon’s post from Tuesday about the Mad Men finale, when Don Draper chose Pretty over Smart — even though Smart was herself quite Pretty.  Now, I tend to think that Don went from rock star to weenie when he proposed to his 25-year old secretary on a sex-charged whim:   He rendered himself ordinary, morphing from interesting to cliche faster than you can say “I do,” by buying into that age-old distinction between pretty or smart.  But that’s another story.

Nonetheless, I found it somewhat synchronous that Maureen Dowd’s column in Wednesday’s New York Times also touched on that same dichotomy:  beauty or brains.  Sexy or smart.  Elite or Just Folks.  She starts with a riff on Marilyn Monroe, who was sexy, but wanted to be smart:

The false choice between intellectualism and sexuality in women has persisted through the ages. There was no more poignant victim of it than Marilyn Monroe.

She was smart enough to become the most famous Dumb Blonde in history. Photographers loved to get her to pose in tight shorts, a silk robe or a swimsuit with a come-hither look and a weighty book — a history of Goya or James Joyce’s “Ulysses” or Heinrich Heine’s poems. A high-brow bunny picture, a variation on the sexy librarian trope. Men who were nervous about her erotic intensity could feel superior by making fun of her intellectually.

Marilyn was not completely in on the joke. Scarred by her schizophrenic mother and dislocated upbringing, she was happy to have the classics put in her hand. What’s more, she read some of them, from Proust to Dostoyevsky to Freud to Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln (given to her by husband Arthur Miller), collecting a library of 400 books.

Miller once called Marilyn “a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.”

That last one breaks your heart, right?  Dowd then segues nicely to her real point:  the false dichotomy, cooked up by the women of the far right — on Sunday, she dubbed them the Mean Girls — who have set up a political either/or between the Smart Kids and, you know, the Rest of Us:

At least, unlike Paris Hilton and her ilk, the Dumb Blonde of ’50s cinema had a firm grasp on one thing: It was cool to be smart. She aspired to read good books and be friends with intellectuals, even going so far as to marry one. But now another famous beauty with glowing skin and a powerful current, Sarah Palin, has made ignorance fashionable.

You struggle to name Supreme Court cases, newspapers you read and even founding fathers you admire? No problem. You endorse a candidate for the Pennsylvania Senate seat who is the nominee in West Virginia? Oh, well.

At least you’re not one of those “spineless” elites with an Ivy League education, like President Obama, who can’t feel anything. It’s news to Christine O’Donnell that the Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. It’s news to Joe Miller, whose guards handcuffed a journalist, and to Carl Paladino, who threatened The New York Post’s Fred Dicker, that the First Amendment exists, even in Tea Party Land. Michele Bachmann calls Smoot-Hawley Hoot-Smalley.

We can hoot and laugh all we want.  But I wonder:  How many of us hold ourselves back because somewhere along the line, we bought into life according to the Cool Kids:  Beauty or brains.  Sexy or smart. Straight A’s or prom dates.  Are we still trying to follow the code of some mythical arbiter of high school Cool?  Is that one of the reasons so many women talked themselves out of majoring in math?  Or opted for Physics for Poets?  Or stick with a job in a cube versus one that takes you outside the building because, well, it’s pre-approved?

Do we still let that mythical arbiter of Cool define who we are — and make our choices to fit, whether those choices involve a white picket fence — or Zooey Deschanel bangs and/or a couple or three tattoos?

The tastemakers may change, but the habits die hard.  No wonder we second guess ourselves.  Or, like poor old Don Draper, let silly stereotypes cooked up by Someone Else dictate who we are and who we want to be —  rather than making the discovery on our own.

If we did make that inner trek, we might find out that we’ve got beauty AND brains.  We’re sexy AND smart.  And, you know, we’re even good at math.

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Did you happen to catch Sunday’s Mad Men Finale? Entitled “Tomorrowland,” as always, the show served up a heaping dose of Yesteryear reality, tarted up in a no-detail-left-behind package of pitch-perfect mid-century style porn.

Initially–and despite the big jaw-dropper–I turned off the TV and thought about the women. Faye, the successful, independent, and beautiful doctor who challenged Don, encouraged him to be himself–even with some knowledge of his secret past–and seemed to have something verging on the serious with him… until, that is, Don took off to California with his much-younger secretary Megan, whom he’d slept with once before while working a late night at the office during which she proclaimed she was “interested in advertising,” and whom, in this episode, he asked to babysit during the trip after Betty canned the kids’ longtime nanny in a fit of temper. After a brush with his past that included the reclaiming of an heirloom ring, Don witnessed Megan leading the children in some sort of French nursery rhyme (just call her Megan VonTrapp), calmly cleaning spilled milkshakes, in a bikini and decked out for a night at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. Ergo, he slept with her, promptly decided he was in love, and, in the long and grand tradition of ad men and their secretaries, proposed. Back at the office, Peggy scored a six-figure deal with some panty-hose slingers, but news of the interoffice engagement trumped hers, despite the fact that the agency was going under. Seeing her shock, Don attempts to–what? console her?–by saying of Megan, “she reminds me of you.” Just a little younger, more beautiful, maternal, and not quite so smart… And then Don picks up the phone to dump Faye, who takes it like a woman–an understandably pissed off woman. Oh, also: Joan got a promotion. In title only–no raise for you, Joanie. (In a New York Times piece in which the writer watched the finale with National Women’s Political Caucus co-founder and “How to Make It in a Man’s World” author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the scene “prompt[ed] Ms. Pogrebin to laugh out loud and point at the screen: ‘We got the titles and not the salary.'”)

So much to say! (Alas, Joan and Peggy beat me to a fair chunk of it, in their hilarious shit-talking session in Joan’s office, post-engagement bomb.) But, hey, the show’s already been deconstructed and reconstructed, backwards and forward. (Although, am I the only one who calls “Foul” at the irony of all the critics who praise the show for its accurate depiction of an incredibly sexist time–and then describe Peggy, who’s started to prove herself professionally, as “increasingly arrogant?” For. The. Love.) But anyway. What goes on in the show is often shocking, but also not, because while wardrobe and workplace mores may have changed, certain human tendencies have not. Take even Betty, arguably the most shockingly-behaved character on the show. In a Washington Post piece entitled “Why ‘Mad Men’ Is TV’s Most Feminist Show,” which ran a week or so ahead of the finale, Stephanie Coontz says:

Betty Draper won most viewers’ sympathy in the first season because of her husband’s infidelities and lies. But since then, many have come to hate her for displaying the traits of the dependent housewife that Betty Friedan critiqued so vividly in her 1963 bestseller, “The Feminine Mystique.” She is a woman who thinks a redecorated living room, a brief affair or a new husband might fill the emptiness inside her, and her attempts to appear the perfect wife render her incapable of fully knowing her children of even her successive husbands.

Interesting, that. (And it’s little wonder that the Sallys of the world are the ones who led feminism’s second wave, looking to live lives on equal, independent footing. As Pogrebin said in that NYT piece, “You should feel sorry for [Betty]… She has such a stunted life.”) But those issues–of misguided attempts at filling the emptiness inside, or the lengths one might go to in the service of avoiding getting to know oneself or one’s family or dealing with one’s or one’s family’s shit–become even more interesting when you consider this, from a New York magazine post-finale-premiere Q&A with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

Faye seemed like Don Draper’s mistress type…

MW: No, I think Faye seemed like the next Mrs. Don Draper. She’s a professional and he’s an equal. I mean, who knows? There’s no stories about men in this situation. Maybe The Odd Couple. I realized because guys like this weren’t single for that long. To me, the reason this episode is called “Tomorrowland” is because it’s really about the choice between, “Do you want to deal with who you are, and live with that?” or “Do you want to think about the person you could be in the future and you’re becoming?” And Megan said, “Go to Tomorrowland.” Everything’s pushing towards that fact. Why don’t you be the person you want to be, and not worry about dealing with the person you are?

Excellent question, Mr. Weiner. And, while thankfully, much of what goes down in Mad Men‘s yesterdayland is relegated to the past, that question gets to me. In the show, both Betty and Don would rather do anything than figure out who they are and be that person. Whether they prefer Fantasyland or Tomorrowland is incidental; it’s the need for escape that’s the same. Betty is a frightful cautionary tale, an emotional infant who deals in temper tantrums; Don is… a frightful cautionary tale, an emotional infant who deals in advertising, cocktails, and sex. Either one would sooner quit their Lucky Strike habit than give up the chase and take a moment to think.

As Salon.com’s Heather Havrilesky put it:

But Sunday night’s “Mad Men” finale reminds us of what Matthew Weiner’s riveting drama captures best of all: the particularly modern affliction of dissatisfaction, a sickness that robs us of our ability to savor the moment, to relish the mundane details of our lives and delight in all of the joys that our comforts and conveniences bring. Perversely, the more comfortable we are, the more we want. We’re constantly distracted by the notion that we could do better or have more, that we might become someone new overnight, that there’s a magic pot of gold around the next corner. Whether it’s advertising or celebrity or culture or some twisted mix of radio jingles, cartoons, soap operas, political speeches and suspense thrillers, our cultural marinade makes us fixate on easy answers, shortcuts, and magical thinking. We’re each about to win the lottery; salvation lies just around the next bend, we just have to wait and see what happens.

Of course, Mad Men is fiction. But what about the rest of us? How often do we push down our real self, procrastinate the work of getting to know her, and instead obsess over changing our external circumstances, hoping they’ll offer us some sort of satisfaction? Or ignore who we are today in favor of who we think we’ll be tomorrow, what we think will satisfy us then? Or find ourselves categorically incapable of being in the here and now, distracted instead by the bright, shiny promise of what could be? It’s so funny, isn’t it, how, sometimes, somehow, we actually believe it’s easier to make decisions based on who we want to be than who we actually are–or possible to distract ourselves out of our dissatisfaction. I’m not happy, but maybe if I leave my philandering husband for this politician, or up and move my family across town, then I’ll feel better? Or, perhaps I’ll have a seventh scotch and screw my secretary–that should do the trick! Or, everything is great… but couldn’t it–shouldn’t it–be better?

Ridiculous, right? And yet. It’s kinda funny how that part carries the disturbing ring of truth, how Fantasyland and Tomorrowland hold such a timeless, universal appeal. I’m in a shitty relationship, but I don’t want to deal with it… I’m gonna cut my hair! And dye it, too! My job is sucking my soul… Time to plan a vacay! Everything is fine, but I sure am bored… maybe I’ll go back to school! Or maybe I should take up with that barista who makes a skull-and-crossbones in my latte foam… Or this: I’m so stressed out over the pages of final edits to my very first book, I just can’t deal… maybe I’ll pour myself a glass of wine, cozy up to the couch, and settled in to watch some salacious TV instead.

Although actually, for 56 minutes, that last one worked like a charm.

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So we’re going to put two and two together here, draw on some other stuff, come up with five.  Or maybe three.  Who knows.  It’s all about the math.  Or maybe not.  But it’s important.    There’s even a treat at the end.

Anyway.

Last week, the San Jose Mercury — located as it is in the heart of Silicon Valley — had a front page biz story on the lack of the XX chromosome in the tech field.  Specifically, when it comes to  being an entrepreneur.  Reporter Scott Duke Harris starts by recalling meeting Jessica Mah, a 17 year old whiz-girl at a TechCrunch gathering three years ago.  When she was 13, she had started a Web-hosting service.  (Hello, I’m not ever sure what that means.)  Now she’s 20, and she has a degree in computer science from UC-Berkeley, has funding from a start-up incubator, and is co founder of a Web-based money management service for small businesses.  And what she tells Harris is that despite the fact that her business is doing well, she wonders whether she is a good entrepreneur — or she is benefiting from a good market.   WTF.  She’s 20 years old.  About the same age as that other kid was when he started Facebook.

Let’s read what Harris has to say:

Today, I have another notion about my initial skepticism: Gender profiling. If this had been a geek named Jesse, not Jessica, maybe I’d be wondering if this kid might be the next Zuckerberg, instead of wondering whether to take him seriously.

With former Silicon Valley CEOs Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina now running self-financed campaigns for higher office and Carol Bartz leading Yahoo, there is less talk today about the “glass ceiling.” But they prospered on the executive track, not as entrepreneurs. While dozens of valley startups have been launched by women — Judy Estrin, Kim Polese and Caterina Fake come to mind — hundreds have been launched by men.

Consider Y Combinator: Since its startup “boot camp” began in 2005, providing techies with shoestring budgets and a collaborative environment, about 450 people have been accepted to the program. The number of women: 14, including Mah and three others in the current class.

It’s tempting to think the Y in Y Combinator has something to do with the Y chromosome. But the name actually derives from a calculus term familiar to geeks. And geeks, it seems, disproportionately happen to have the male XY chromosome, not the female XX. The question is: Why?

Well, I’d beg to differ about what he says about the glass ceiling, and, okay, I don’t like either Whitman or Fiorina, but that’s beside the point. (And if you’ve been living under a rock, Zuckerberg is the kid who started Facebook)  So first, I’m pissed.  But then I wonder, too:  nature or nurture, as Harris asks.  Former Harvard president Larry Summers implied it might be nature — and lost his job because of it (though he landed on his feet in the Obama administration.) And we have suggested here that maybe it has to do with women just not being welcome at the party.

Recently, we interviewed Stanford economist Myra Strober, founder of Stanford’s  Center for Research on Women back in 1972, for our book.  We were talking about the strides women have made since the days when she started her career and became a pretty big name in women’s rights — and where we still need to go.  The first thing she said was that the pay gap had to go.  She’s an economist, after all.

Second, though, and actually related to her first point, was this:  “Opening up and making science and engineering more interesting for women so that they go into those careers is very important.  I think you teach it in a different way.  First of all, some of these science courses are taught so competitively because they’re trying to winnow out which people are going to get good grades in medical school.  Of course, women have gone into medicine.  But I think science other than medicine, I think women are poorly represented in those fields.  And I think it behooves those fields to figure out how to make those courses more appealing to women.  And the workplace, too.”

No kidding.  But back to Harris, who at this point in his story, is interviewing Adora Cheung, the 26-year-old founder of another tech start-up:

Cheung suggested that it may be a matter of social expectations: When math gets tough, girls are often told that’s OK and try something else, but boys are encouraged to work harder.

Cheung said she was pleasantly surprised to find three other women in her Y Combinator class. Contagion Health co-founder Jen McCabe, who has scant computing skills, teamed with an engineer on their startup, designed to use social networks to promote healthy living. The notion that Y Combinator discriminates, McCabe said, is preposterous: “I’m actually surprised more women don’t do this.”

And after talking to the women of Y Combinator — and thinking about my young daughter and her brothers — I’m thinking that Cheung is on to something. Maybe the paucity of female tech entrepreneurs has something to do with what has been called the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Ya think?  And now, I’m kinda bummed  that I never stuck it out as a math major.  Not that I necessarily wanted to go into that field as a career.  But it would have given me some street cred to call out the likes of Larry Summers.

On the other hand — and here’s the toy in the Crackerjacks box — I never would have related to the Mad Men job interview.  Apparently, I’d make a good Accounts Manager.

And you?


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The pill. So singularly significant, that’s all the ID it needs. And soon, May 9 to be exact, it will celebrate its 50th birthday. And while how much of the change those 50 years have seen can be attributed to The Pill is debatable, it’d be pretty damn hard to deny the effect that little plastic case has had on the lives of countless women. In the sexual realm, yes–although, as you’ll find in the current slew of stories on this very subject, many believe the link between the Pill’s arrival on the scene and the sexual revolution to be (wildly) overrated–but more so (wait for it…), in terms of the choices over one’s life that control over one’s body opened up. As Nancy Gibbs writes in Time magazine’s current cover story, The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom, and Paradox:

when contraception was put under a woman’s control, it put many other things under her control as well…

By the 1970s the true impact of the Pill could begin to be measured, and it was not on the sexual behavior of American women; it was on how they envisioned their lives, their choices, and their obligations. In 1970 the median age at which college graduates married was about 23; by 1975, as use of the Pill among single women became more common, that age had jumped 2.5 years. The fashion for large families went the way of the girdle. In 1963, 80% of non-Catholic college women said they wanted three or more children; that plunged to 29% by 1973. More women were able to imagine a life that included both a family and a job, which changed their childbearing calculations.

As I myself put it some time ago:

Finally, women could screw with abandon! Or at least with a greatly reduced chance of a lifelong reminder of a night of screwing with abandon. No longer would our dreams have to take a backseat to an accidental pregnancy. With the choice of when–and if–we’d become mothers in our own control, all kinds of other choices–like hey, what do I want to do with this life of mine??–materialized.

All was not immediately groovy, of course. Many doctors–even Planned Parenthood–would not prescribe the Pill to women unless they were married. The Catholic Church forbade its use. And then there was the stigma–that, though “nice girls” might get carried away in a moment, they certainly don’t plan for such moments. And if they did, well, it’s a slippery slope to becoming the town strumpet–or so suggested Peggy’s smoking gyno, in this Mad Men clip, who offered the sage advice that “even in our modern times, easy women don’t find husbands”:

That’s fiction, of course… but yesterday’s On Point offered the real-life counterpart. The show counted Gibbs and Elisa Ross, ob/gyn and staff physician in the Women’s Health Institute of the Cleveland Clinic, as guests, but the standouts were the callers, who recalled their own experiences, marked by the absence of choices when it came to their reproductive systems–and, subsequently, their lives. Two of the callers were in college and engaged or just graduated and newlywed when the Pill was approved. One, Catholic, said she sobbed when the Catholic Church came out against its use: she had a toddler and a new baby–just 14 months apart–and was justifiably freaked out that, before she knew it, she’d have an entire litter to raise. The other, just prior to her wedding, which was to take place in between she and her husband-to-be’s senior years of college, was denied the Pill by her Catholic doctor. (Which should give us an additional something or two to think about, in light of today’s “conscience clauses,” which allow hospital workers and pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions, based on their own beliefs.) She got pregnant on their honeymoon. She loves her children, of course, but she said she wonders what kind of path her life would have taken, had things been different. But the best call was from a man, a physician, who said there was one woman in his class at med school. In 1990, he returned to that school, as Dean, to a class of med students that was nearly 50% female. And he thought it was wonderful: “Women are born healers,” he said. “Men have to be taught.”

Indeed, left without the excuse that hiring women–or even accepting them into school–would be a waste, as they might get pregnant and drop out or quit at any time, women’s numbers both in the workplace and in college exploded. Which is, of course, good stuff. The Pill, low unemployment (Gibbs quotes federal manpower expert Howard Stambler saying, of 1966’s 3.8% unemployment rate, “There are almost no men left” to hire), the strengthening women’s movement, Title IX, they all conspired to bring women into the fold. And, historically speaking, quickstyle. But, pithy as ever, Gloria Steinem in 1962 offered an insightful warning:

‘The real danger of the contraceptive revolution may be the acceleration of woman’s role change without any corresponding change of man’s attitude toward her role.’

And that, dear reader, is the rub–and not just in terms of man’s attitude. But in terms of our own aptitude to deal with all the incredible choices we have before us–and in society’s aptitude to support the woman who wants both, to be a mother to her children and the mistress of her own destiny.

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2mad_men_10_restrict_width_792The newest “Are You A ….” game to pop up here in cyberspace involves Peggy and Joan, the two female stars of Mad Men, the spot-on series set in an advertising agency in the early 60’s. It starts its third season on Sunday. Full disclosure: I can’t wait.

For those new to the series, Peggy is the mousy twenty-something who starts as a secretary and works up to being a copywriter, the only woman with that title in the entire agency. Maybe even in the whole testosterone-charged industry. She’s a little bit frumpy and somewhat sexless — though she did get knocked up the first season. Joan is the sexy red-headed office manager who runs the ship while the guys are out drinking martinis. She wears tight dresses in bold colors (who says redheads can’t wear red?), hair in a sky-high beehive, and is clearly smarter than most of the men around her. But no one notices.

This new game, MadMen Yourself, invites you to get your Peggy or Joan on via virtual paper-dolls. You can play with fashions, hairdos, accessories — you name it — all to find your persona in a mid-century fantasy.

This is only the latest in a long line of games inviting women to define themselves in terms of TV characters, from SATC to Golden Girls: Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha or Miranda? Dorothy, Sophia, Blanche or Rose? The thing with those games, though, is that you always knew who you wanted to be before you started — and tried to game the answers accordingly.

Which makes me wonder: as it is in sit-com games, also in life? Do we first choose a character, then make decisions based on type? Do we allow ourselves inconsistency? Self-discovery? Forks in the road? And is that what gets us into trouble?

But back to Peggy and Joan. The girls from Salon’s Broadsheet recently had great fun playing with MadMen Yourself, writes Tracy Clark-Flory, who pondered why her crew of “brassy feminists” is so eager for some retro role-playing:

Well, I happen to think there’s plenty of room within feminism for personal contradiction — or, as I prefer to call it, evolutionary growing pains. That said, you don’t have to be a psychologist to recognize that a large part of the satisfaction derived from this kind of silly exercise comes from simple self-identification. It’s the “oh, I’m that type” recognition that people get from personality tests — whether it’s Myers-Briggs or the “Sex and the City” character quiz. In the “Mad Men” world, choices are pretty limited: Peggy or Joan? Jackie O. or Marilyn? Or, put in timeless terms: Wife or whore…

I so agree with what she says about room for personal contradiction when it comes to feminism. (And, in fact, didn’t a certain intolerance for that contradiction once push some feminists out of the tent?) But it’s the either/or that gets us into trouble. Especially when it comes to decisions — why we make them, why we can’t, and why we keep looking over our shoulders.

Meanwhile, back to that full disclosure I mentioned up top. For a few minutes (or, alternately, what seemed like an eternity) after college — long after the Mad Men era — I worked at an advertising agency, where I was caught in my own slice of Peggy-Joan land. The only woman in the small shop, I hired on as a copy-writer. Great, the bosses said. But you still have to sit at the front desk and answer the phones.

Oh yes. And look cute.

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