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Posts Tagged ‘The Nation’

Bryce Covert’s recent post on The Nation’s website got me thinking today. It’s about an Accenture survey of Gen Y working women which found that

-they have the most positive outlook for women in the workplace of any other generation.

And yet:

-when it comes to their careers, they’re less likely to proactively manage their career or ask for a raise than their male counterparts.

Further:

-they feel underpaid,

-and have found that their careers take a bigger hit than their male counterparts’ once they become parents.

Whew. That’s one hell of a disconnect, wouldn’t you say? While I’m generally an unrepentant optimist, the type to blow sunshine up even the crankiest of derrieres until I get a smile, a study like this makes me question my approach. A positive attitude is well and good, but, when young women declare themselves optimistic about women in the workplace in the very same survey in which they point out gender-based inequities, you kinda gotta worry. Sunshine is good; complacency, not so much.

The trouble is the message we women have been fed: that feminism’s work is over; the battle won. That’s where that sense of optimism comes in, I’d argue. I myself went to an all-girls high school, not too (too too) terribly long ago, and spent my four plaid-skirted years surrounded by the enthusiastic and inspiring message that girls could do anything boys could do. Which is good, of course–because it’s true. Save for peeing one’s name in the snow.

But there’s a little bit of trouble with that approach. One: that you enter the real world largely unprepared for the injustices you will, (yes, I said WILL) come up against as a woman. And two: that when you do come up against them, you will assume they have only to do with you. That the situation–your lesser paycheck; your unwillingness to “proactively manage your career or ask for a raise” for fear of bias or judgment; your employer’s subtly shifting opportunities away once you’ve become a mom or the discrimination you’ll face if you don’t have kids–and the fact that your male counterpart in either of those scenarios will likely be rewarded, seen as either a dependable family man or a guy who has the time to devote to his job, where you’ll be perceived a flight risk or cold and odd, respectively; the realization that if you want a killer career and your husband wants a killer career and you want kids you’re in for a daily struggle that may well lead to one of you “opting” out; that if, against these formidable odds, you do make it to the very top, you will find yourself wildly outnumbered–is merely your problem. That it is personal, and not political. When, of course, it is exactly that. It is collective and it is political–and change happens when we’re willing to see it that way.

Don’t get me wrong: We have come a long way (baby). Think about this: when my mom graduated from college, it was still totally legal for employment want-ads to be segregated by gender. A company could list a managerial job in the men’s want-ads, a secretarial one in the women’s. This was not the dark ages; this was the 1970s.  So clearly we’ve come a tremendous way since disco inferno.

But the fact that we’ve come so far does not mean that our work here is finished. The fact that we have much to be grateful for in no way precludes the many things we should be angry about. Take that pay gap, for example:

U.S. Department of Education data show that a year out of school, despite having earned higher college GPAs in every subject, young women will take home, on average across all professions, just 80 percent of what their male colleagues do… Motherhood has long been the explanation for the persistent pay gap, yet a decade out of college, full-time working women who haven’t had children still make 77 cents on the male dollar.

April 17 of this year is Equal Pay Day. Don’t let the delightful sounding name fool ya, though: that’s the day that a woman’s salary catches up to a man’s… from last year. For doing the same job. Another way to look at that is like this: taken as a whole, from January through April 17, women are working for free.

So, clearly, we still have a hell of a way to go.

Or, I suppose, maybe I should rephrase: the world still has a hell of a way to go.

But who is going to be responsible for steering it in the right direction?

It occurs to me that perhaps these young women are right in their optimism–or here’s my Pollyanna side’s spin, anyway:  for centuries, men’s roles have not changed. Whether buffalo or bacon, they were to bring it home. They were the hunters. They were to provide.

Women, on the other hand, have always adapted–whether when acting the gatherers, surveying the environment to see what it had in store and shifting the game plan accordingly, or to a male-dominated workplace in which we nevertheless were able to ascend, bit by bit, to the point where we are today. We had to fight for the right to wear pants, for craps sake. Now, how many pairs of jeans are in your closet? Change is in our DNA. The office, corporate culture, political institutions — these things aren’t going to change themselves.

The angry part of me and the Pollyanna part come together in the faith that these women will eventually get angry on their own behalf: and once that happens, they’ll see the rest of us, and they’ll join us. And then we’ll do what we’ve always done. We’ll change things. A little anger will help. And so will a little optimism.

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Clearly, we’ve been remiss in our lack of commentary on what’s been dubbed “Franzenfreude”, or the running media flap about the fact that when men write novels, we call it literature — as opposed to, you know, when women write novels, we don’t.

So let’s catch up, shall we?

Jennifer Weiner, who wrote “Good in Bed” and other books that fell under the now-dismissive rubric of “chick lit”, coined the phrase as a Twitter hashtag in a fit of pique over the advance praise Jonathan Franzen’s new book, Freedom, had garnered from literary reviewers.   It hadn’t even hit the shelves, in fact, before New York Times reviewers declared it a masterpiece.  It might well be.  But the point that Weiner and another best-selling writer, Jodi Picoult, emphasized, is that novels by women are not only unlikely to receive such rave reviews, but are less likely to be reviewed at all.

At least by, ahem, serious reviewers.  According to a piece on Slate’s Double X:

Weiner and Picoult raise the following question: Is pop fiction written by men more likely to be lifted out of the “disposable” pile, becoming the kind of cultural objects august institutions like the New York Times feel compelled to pay attention to? And are the commercial genres most commonly associated with male writers and readers—science fiction, legal thriller—more likely to be taken seriously than their female equivalents (chick lit, romance novel)? Or as Weiner puts it, would certain male writers—Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Carl Hiaasen, or David Nicholls—”be considered chick lit writers if they were girls?”

Or, as Weiner told The New Republic:

“I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book—in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.”

Just to be clear, I loved Jonathan Franzen’s last book, and can’t wait to read this one.  (And, for the record, I also liked “Good in Bed”) But still, I’m pissed.  Because Weiner makes a good point about the whole double standard business — God forbid, issues that reside on the XX side of the fence like feelings or families be taken seriously — that The Nation’s Katha Pollitt picks up this week (thus giving us a newspeg) and goes deep:

Do male writers have an edge in attracting serious critical attention? This question, so urgent to women writers, so tedious to male editors and pundits, is getting its latest workout thanks to the vigorous tweeting of bestselling popular novelists Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult about the accolades heaped upon Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom (two ecstatic New York Times reviews, the cover of Time and much, much more) and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. Weiner is a sharp and fearless observer of literary gender politics, and I think she is onto something. (I should mention that she used my collection of personal essays, Learning to Drive, to illustrate the double standard by which women autobiographers are slammed for revealing small weaknesses while men are praised as honest and bold for chronicling their addictions and wife-beating. And as long as we are on the subject, let me add that my shocked, shocked reviewers were women.) Plenty of women writers get excellent reviews, but it is very rare for them to get the kind of excited, rapturous high-cultural reception given to writers who are “white and male and living in Brooklyn” or, since Franzen lives on the Upper East Side, are named Jonathan. “Girl genius” is not a phrase in our language.

Pollitt offers a good helping of stats, courtesy of Double X (which employed some XY spread-sheet analysis) to back up her thesis.  For example:

…over the past two years 62 percent of the fiction reviewed in the New York Times had male authors, as did 72 percent of the books that got both a daily and a Sunday review.

The Atlantic, The New Republic and Slate itself review more fiction by men (if you include the reviews in the DoubleX blog, it’s 55 percent).

… A year’s worth of fiction coverage in The Nation clocked in at 75 percent male (!). Of course, it is possible that men write two-thirds of fiction or (more likely, but still improbable) two-thirds of the kinds of fiction high-end book editors assign—but those assigning decisions are themselves the product of a whole hierarchy of taste that has gender already built into it. What is a significant subject? Which writers get to ask the reader to work hard? Chris Jackson, an editor at Spiegel & Grau, for Chrissake, confessed on the Atlantic website that he hadn’t read any fiction by women in years, so he read some, and, hey, it was pretty good!

Pretty good?! Ach! That pretentious dweeb. Can’t you just feel his patronizing little pat on the head?

Thing is — and here comes the meta-message, which is why this whole discussion matters — though we’re talking about writing books here, we could probably substitute any one of a number of career areas where, when men and women do the same type of work, men tend to be taken more seriously, promoted more and paid more.   And that is the point.  And while some folks like to say that difference has a lot to do with the fact that women are more likely to take time out, or a less-than-killer job, or have their priorities elsewhere in order to raise their kids, there are studies out there that show that even when women don’t have a family — or even plan to have one — they are still seen as less promotable.  Because, well, they might.

What it’s really about is the double standard.  Families notwithstanding, we’re dismissed for being who we are.  Period, end. Which brings us back, one last time, to Franzenfreude and Pollitt:

It’s often said that women’s writing is less valued because it takes up stereotypically feminine (i.e., narrower) subjects—family, children, love and becoming a woman (ho-hum, boring!)—while men’s books deal with rousing, Important Universal topics like war, politics and whaling, and becoming a man….When men write books about family life—John Updike, Jonathan Franzen—they are read as writing about America and the Human Condition. When women write books that are ambitious, political and engaged with the big world of ideas, they are seen as stories about the emotional lives of their characters.

As in lit, so in life?  Really?  Are we still paying the price for that extra X?  I’m tempted to insert here — exactly what’s wrong with stories about the emotional lives of the characters? — but then, sigh, you might never take me seriously.

P.S.  A free copy of our book if you can correctly guess who is pictured above.

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So this past Christmas, Santa left me a little day-planner, filled with retro images of 1950s housewives and their gray-flannel mates, captioned with suitably snarky one-liners.  Today by chance I happened to flip to a page showing two smiling businessmen, wearing suits, ties and hats, and looking quite pleased with themselves.  The caption?

“Housework is a snap since I realized… “hey, I’m a guy!”

All of which brought to mind, first, Hanna Rosin’s piece in The Atlantic, entitled “The End of Men“, which we ourselves referenced here a couple weeks ago, and the media blowback, which I tend to think is right on the money.   Rosin suggests that because women do better in school, earn over half the college degrees, and are soaring into the professions, a matriarchy is precious minutes away.

Those of us who get the humor I mentioned above or who have ever wanted to, say, go on the professional golf tour (trust me, I’ll tie this all together in a bit) might beg to differ.   Let’s look at what The Nation’s Katha Pollitt has to say:

Don’t worry, gentlemen. “The End of Men,” Hanna Rosin’s much discussed Atlantic cover story, isn’t really about the end of men. It’s about men’s declining economic ability to dominate women and various sociocultural consequences of that fact—but who’d read a piece with an unsensational message like that? Women are surging forward educationally, entering the professions and the burgeoning service fields in great numbers, having children on their own, putting up with less crap from boyfriends and husbands—we all know that. Men are taking less than half the BAs, have suffered from the decline of manufacturing and other traditionally male jobs, and have lost some of their domestic privileges and some of their cultural prestige—we all know that too. It may even be, as Rosin claims, that women are particularly well suited to the postindustrial economy, where brains, self-discipline, the ability to work well with others and verbal skills matter more than brawn and testosterone-fueled thrill-seeking. It takes a clever picker of statistical and anecdotal cherries, though, to make plausible Rosin’s claim that we are on the verge of becoming a matriarchy.

Pollitt then goes on to blow up Rosin’s rosy picture by, among other things, poking holes in the stats (Lies, damn lies, and statistics, remember?).  She notes, among other things, that, yeah, women may be getting more than half the college degrees, but men still dominate the high-paying fields.  There’s also, as we’ve mentioned in this space, time and again, the pay gap and the fact that women with kids are still hammered by discrimination at work and the second shift once they get home.

Pollit also takes issue with the zero-sum aspect of Rosin’s argument, and wonders: “why should it be that women can change but men cannot?”  And here’s where it all gets interesting:

Perhaps boys just haven’t had enough incentive. The old ways worked so well for so long, so much of life was rigged in men’s favor: all they had to do was show up. It can take a few generations for the new reality to sink in. Unfortunately, society at large isn’t doing much to help. American males are bathed from birth in pop culture that reveres the most childish, most retrograde, most narcissistic male fantasies, from misogynistic rap to moronic action movies. Where would they get the idea that they should put away the video game and do their homework? That social work or schoolteaching is a good life for a man? Girls get a ton of sexist messages, too. But even if they grow up hating their bodies and dressing like prostitutes, they know that if they don’t want to end up waitressing, they’ve got to hit the books and make a plan.

And yet.  Even if girls get it together and the boys do not, there’s still no reason to believe that a matriarchy is on its way, and one reason is the roots of the word itself.  Which is what brings us to golf.  The New York Times tells the tale of Cristie Kerr, currently ranked No. 1 on the LPGA tour, who is living proof that, as reporter Karen Crouse writes, “a woman’s athletic prime and her peak child-bearing years overlap like a total eclipse of the moon:”

For Kerr, the toughest course to plot a strategy for is motherhood.

“Some people get pregnant right away,” she said. “For some, it takes years. How do you know what’s going to happen? What if I couldn’t have kids and I need a surrogate? What if you wait until your late 30s and you can’t conceive?

“Are you going to be the natural mother? Are you going to adopt a baby? Are you going to have a surrogate?”

She and [her husband Erik] Stevens, a marketing consultant who is Kerr’s agent, routinely discuss those questions.

“Cristie earns $1 million a year on the golf course,”  Stevens said. “If she’s going to shut herself down for six months, what is that going to mean for the business? And the second part of it is, What’s going to happen after the pregnancy? What’s it going to do to her career? If Cristie wants to be involved in every aspect of parenthood, how will that absorb her time?”

Now, golf may be an extreme example, but still: Could you imagine this conversation if the genders were reversed?  I thought not.  Sometimes you have to think that no matter how well we do in school — or on the golf course — the only kind of matriarchy on the horizon for the foreseeable future is still the one where mom does the dishes.

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Weren’t we all?

I came across that line Wednesday in a piece by Maureen Dowd, who quoted Michelle Obama as saying that her husband had spent so much time alone growing up that it was as if he had been raised by wolves.

Love that phrase, don’t you?

Think about it and you realize that, in a twisted kind of way, we’ve all been raised by wolves. As women in this new millennium, most of us are going it alone right now, figuring out how to navigate new and unfamiliar turf, without really knowing the rules once we leave the woods.

Growing pains? You bet. And you see them everywhere you look, in a variety of flavors. Here’s just a taste. In a piece in The Nation on the upcoming confirmation of Elena Kagan, Patricia J. Williams predicts that Kagan’s success as a lawyer will be characterized as “unwomanly” because, of course, success in such fields is equated with testosterone. She reminds us both how far we’ve come — and how far we’ve yet to go, noting that gender stereotyping is sometimes embedded in the language:

Forty years after the birth of modern feminism, we are still not able to think about women who attain certain kinds of professional success as normatively gendered. Officially, the English language does not have gendered nouns. Yet it seems that we do invest certain words with gendered exclusivity—nurse, fireman, CEO, lawyer—if only as a matter of general parlance. There’s a story that used to be ubiquitous about thirty years ago: a father rushes his son to the hospital after a bicycle accident. The boy is whisked into Emergency and ends up on the operating table. The surgeon looks down at the boy and gasps, “Oh, my God! This is my son!” The story would end with the question, “How is that possible?” Much puzzlement would ensue until the “Aha!” moment: the surgeon was the boy’s mother. In that era, the likelihood of a surgeon being female was so negligible that divining the answer became a kind of “test” of radical feminist sensibility.

Then there’s this, Vivia Chen’s piece from Legalweek.com that reminds us how much of our lives are caught up in trying to navigate that odious term called work-life balance. She reports on an interview with Harvard Law School grad Angie Kim whose sprint up the corporate ladder took a five year detour when her second child became sick with an undiagnosed illness. A few months back, Kim did some research and found that the majority of the women in her law school class had left the fast track. But the interesting thing (another sign of shifting terrain?) is what she told Chen:

“The ‘mommy track’ was renounced at birth for sanctioning boring flextime jobs with low plaster ceilings. But some of my not-fast-track classmates are using their clout and influence to create prestigious roles. A senior partner who brought many clients to her law firm, for example, now works 15 to 40 hours per week, mainly out of her home and on her own schedule… The author of a best-selling book on negotiations launched her own conflict resolution firm with about 15 lawyer and consultants. She works from home during school hours and after bedtime and takes July and August off.”

Kim argues that “the line between the fast track and the mommy track is blurring,” and that flexibility “is infiltrating more and more jobs and replacing traditional work values – long hours, face time – as the new workplace ideal.”

Positive signs? Could be, especially when you consider that as our workplace numbers rise — and with it our economic clout — we girls are in a better position to push for changes that work for us. Let’s look at Hanna Rosin’s piece in The Atlantic entitled “The End of Men.

What would a society in which women are on top look like? We already have an inkling. This is the first time that the cohort of Americans ages 30 to 44 has more college-educated women than college-educated men, and the effects are upsetting the traditional Cleaver-family dynamics. In 1970, women contributed 2 to 6 percent of the family income. Now the typical working wife brings home 42.2 percent, and four in 10 mothers—many of them single mothers—are the primary breadwinners in their families. The whole question of whether mothers should work is moot, argues Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress, “because they just do. This idealized family—he works, she stays home—hardly exists anymore.”

The terms of marriage have changed radically since 1970. Typically, women’s income has been the main factor in determining whether a family moves up the class ladder or stays stagnant. And increasing numbers of women—unable to find men with a similar income and education—are forgoing marriage altogether. In 1970, 84 percent of women ages 30 to 44 were married; now 60 percent are. In 2007, among American women without a high-school diploma, 43 percent were married. And yet, for all the hand-wringing over the lonely spinster, the real loser in society—the only one to have made just slight financial gains since the 1970s—is the single man, whether poor or rich, college-educated or not. Hens rejoice; it’s the bachelor party that’s over.

Rosin doesn’t mention things like the wage gap or pervasive gender stereotyping (see above) that effectively quashes our numbers right now. But she does make an important point: if higher education is the “gateway to economic success” as well as a prereq for life in the middle class, clearly women in the not-too-distant future are going to be calling their own shots.

What those shots might be, however, is what’s so hard to figure out. In “Doing Grown-up Wrong” on siren.com, Allison Hantschel asks “what we do when we don’t have what the Jonese have and worse, don’t even want it?” What she knows she doesn’t want: a big house in the country, a bunch of kids, a climb up the corporate ladder. What she does want? That, she doesn’t quite get.

Which brings us back to the wolves. We’ve been raised in one world and suddenly we find ourselves in another, roadmap not included. What now? Insert howl here.

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