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Posts Tagged ‘Undecided: How to ditch the endless quest for perfect and find a career — and life — that works for you’

Report Card_6Something has been nagging at me ever since I read Christina Hoff Sommers’ Opinionator piece in Sunday’s New York Times. Did you catch it? It’s yet another essay lamenting the disconnect between today’s school system and, well, the nature of boys.

Her piece, which links declining male achievement with grade school culture, is pegged to a new study that found that, despite the fact that boys do just as well as girls on standardized tests, they are less likely to “get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college.”

 No previous study, to my knowledge, has demonstrated that the well-known gender gap in school grades begins so early and is almost entirely attributable to differences in behavior. The researchers found that teachers rated boys as less proficient even when the boys did just as well as the girls on tests of reading, math and science. (The teachers did not know the test scores in advance.) If the teachers had not accounted for classroom behavior, the boys’ grades, like the girls’, would have matched their test scores.

Can we just stop with the “woe be the boys” bullshit?  Arrgh.

Before I go on, let me assert my bias straight up.  I myself am a girl.  My two children are girls.  All our pets, save one, have been female.  One of my daughters and I wrote a whole book about, and for, women.  And if you check the first paragraph of this post, you might surmise — correctly, in fact — that while most of you, my husband included, were watching the Super Bowl, I was snuggled up on the couch reading the newspaper.  How girl can you get?

And so, yes, I may well be looking at this issue through pink-colored glasses, but what rankles me is the timing of all this tedious “end of men” business. I have no problem with Sommers’ point that boys struggle with school, more so than girls, because classrooms are set up to favor kids who can sit still, do as they’re told, and work independently, skills that girls tend to develop before boys do.  In fact, I agree completely.

But hasn’t that always been the case? What creeps me out is my suspicion that the real reason we are so worried about boys of late is the fact that when it comes to college or grad school or scoring the job with the corner office, girls have started to catch up.  Did we ever worry about grade school culture when, not that long ago, the majority of college grads were male?  No need to answer.

I think back to my grade school days at a Catholic school in San Francisco taught by no-nonsense nuns who would put the fear of God into God himself.  I still remember the names of the class trouble-makers who were sent regularly to the principal’s office for mouthing off, who were stuck on the bench at recess, who routinely flunked their spelling tests and, by seventh or eighth grade, were the first to smoke cigarettes and drink beer. Boys, every one. The girls, for the most part, got the gold stars and rarely got in trouble for anything more serious than rolling up their plaid skirts.

And yet, a few years down the line, most of those naughty little boys graduated from college, grad school even, and grew up to be highly successful men, pulling down the big bucks.  As for the good little girls?  Either married to them or working for them.

My point being, we had no problem with the ways in which schools privileged girls back in the days when we knew that, sooner or later, the boys would grow up to assume their rightful place.  But now that girls have begun to hold their own, we wring our hands and kvetch about leveling the playing field.

As if anticipating my riff, Sommers ends her piece this way:

I can sympathize with those who roll their eyes at the relatively recent alarm over boys’ achievement. Where was the indignation when men dominated higher education, decade after decade? Isn’t it time for women and girls to enjoy the advantages? The impulse is understandable but misguided. I became a feminist in the 1970s because I did not appreciate male chauvinism. I still don’t. But the proper corrective to chauvinism is not to reverse it and practice it against males, but rather basic fairness. And fairness today requires us to address the serious educational deficits of boys and young men. The rise of women, however long overdue, does not require the fall of men.

I couldn’t agree more: The rise of women does not at all require the fall of men.  Where I part company with Sommers, and the rest of the end-of-men contingent, is with the  implication that the two are even related.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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The last time our family got together — finding all of us in the same zipcode at the same time is a rare and wondrous feat — we hunkered down in a suite at the Holiday Inn Express (Backstory not important). With no bar or restaurant in sight, our family of foodies trekked to the closest place of business, a gas station mini mart, and bought tortilla chips, bean dip and salsa, and wine, which we drank out of styrofoam coffee cups.

I think we were happy.

I got to thinking about all this happiness business the other day via a piece in the New York Times that suggests that our all-American pursuit of happiness leads to nothing but angst.  The writer, Ruth Whippman, a Brit who recently relocated to California, contrasts British grim to American happy and says she’ll take grim any day.  She starts her piece with a quote from Eric Hoffer — “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness” — then sails right in:

Happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love. Its invocation can deftly minimize others’ achievements (“Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?”) and take the shine off our own.

Point taken.  We have tied ourselves up in knots of late by using happiness as the barometer of who we are, what we are, and what we’re doing.  And we find that, no matter what, the scale is such that we don’t measure up.  How could we?  I can’t even define happiness.  Can you?

Nonetheless, this endless quest for what we consider our birthright lands us smack in the land of “yeah, but…” A good job that pays the rent?  And maybe even engaging for some of the day? Yeah, but…  If I put in a few more hours, if I got that raise, if I had a better title, if i didn’t have to grade those papers … Then, I’d be happy.

Family and friends?  We had a blast the last time we got together, but if only we could do it more often.  And, you know, the last time the wine was kinda sub-par….

Great kids?  Well, yeah…  He/she plays well with others, and indeed rocks the playground, but, sigh, we’d all be happier if he/she could get into that Chinese immersion program, get on the select soccer team, score off the charts in math, or get into that pricey school that everyone is talking about.

You get the drift.  We’ve bought into the idea that Happy is measurable, and especially for women it breaks down like this: Great career, with a fat paycheck and smug title. Exotic vacations (cue Facebook).  Adorable family that shows well in the Christmas card photo.  And, of course, scores well, too.  Sexy as all get out (and thin to boot).  A closet full of killer boots. (Okay, my own personal preference. Note: I do not measure up.) Yoga class and book club.  And granite in the kitchen.

Is it all about the shoulds? The quest for perfect?  For most of us, the package is unachievable.  But even if we could lay claim to the whole checklist, there’s always this: the next big thing.   Call it the “If-then” fallacy that keeps us living in the future, and blame it on what Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes in Stumbing on Happiness as our uncanny ability to blow it when it comes to predicting what will make us happy.  There’s something else at play here, too:  the American culture itself.   As we wrote in Undecided:

What gets us into trouble is a culture that is both acquisitional and aspirational, leaving us in a constant drool for the Next. Big. Thing. But once we get it, guess what? We’re happy for five minutes, and then we’re off on the chase. We’re back to square one, lusting again over that greener grass. And here’s an irony: Once we’ve jumped the fence, we sometimes wonder if what we had in the first place might have been what we really wanted after all.

Consumer culture doesn’t help. We’re constantly fed the message that we will be happy, sexy, thin, loved—pick one—if we buy the new and improved face cream, wheat bread, plastic wrap. Do we ever see the message that we have enough? Sure, we’re smart enough to know that ads in glossy magazines do not promise happiness, but the subtext spills over: This thing will make you happy. Get the externals in order. Happiness to follow.

But anyway, back to Whitman, whose column sparked this riff.  From her across-the-pond perspective, she has us down:

Since moving to the States just shy of a year ago, I have had more conversations about my own happiness than in the whole rest of my life. The subject comes up in the park pushing swings alongside a mother I met moments before, with the man behind the fish counter in the supermarket, with my gym instructor and with our baby sitter, who arrives to put our son to bed armed with pamphlets about a nudist happiness retreat in Northern California. While the British way can be drainingly negative, The American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety. The initial sense of promise and hope is seductive, but it soon gives way to a nagging slow-burn feeling of inadequacy. Am I happy? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could I be doing more about it? Even basic contentment feels like failure when pitched against capital-H Happiness. The goal is so elusive and hard to define, it’s impossible to pinpoint when it’s even been achieved — a recipe for neurosis.

Bingo.  In our lifelong chase after the impossible ideal we can’t even define, we’ve blinded ourselves to what happiness may be all about after all: a certain contentment with what is.  An ability to savor  the moment. We might even get there if we could ratchet down our expectations.

Which leads us back to the Holiday Inn Express, where our party of five ended up talking and laughing well into the night.  And even though the wine was sub-par, I think we were happy.  Maybe even with a capital-H.

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So, the subject of our book is certainly in the air as of late. First, Ann Marie Slaughter, and now, a piece on The Daily Beast by Debora Spar, whose take on the issues of women chasing perfection, juggling roles and choices in a not-adequately-changed world was, frankly, so similar to the things we’ve written here and in our book, it took us a moment to realize it wasn’t our byline on her piece.

Ahem.

Now that that’s out of the way, as we noticed way back when we began writing Undecided in 2008, women today, blessed with the abundance of choices our mothers fought to get access to–and our foremothers might have thought impossible–are finding that this blessing is indeed mixed. That the messages on which we were raised, messages delivered with the best of intentions, have a flipside, as though delivered via an evil game of Telephone. Told we can have it all, we heard we must do it all. Told we can do anything, we heard that whatever we choose to do, it better be something good… and we better do it perfectly. We are told to be grateful for all the choices we have, and, of course, we are, but the one crucial message that never got sent was this: that every choice entails a trade-off. That we cannot be in two places at once. That, by definition (not to mention the basic laws of physics), if I am sitting here pounding out this piece right now, I am not taking my dog for a hike, or meeting a friend for happy hour, or cleaning out my closet as I’ve been meaning to do for weeks now. (Though, I am, as a matter of fact, simultaneously cooking dinner. And now my keyboard is getting sticky from the roasted garlic I just pulled out of the oven. Dear Multitasking: You suck.) There are only so many hours in the day. No one really clues us in to that one.

We set off, ready to conquer the world, as we believe we’re supposed to. And then we realize: Having it all is simply not possible. A high-flying career woman is not also a stay-at-home mom. A stay-at-home mom is not also a globe-trotting free spirit. A globe-trotting free spirit is not also putting down roots, and paying down a mortgage. Every time we make a choice in favor of something, we are by default not choosing something else. But the rub is that we think it’s only about us. That we’re not good enough. That if only we were ___er, we’d be able to swing it. But that’s a lie.

That the chorus is getting louder is good. Because there is so much that remains to be done. And that there remains so much to be done–on the public policy and workplace fronts, yes, but in the way we talk to (and about) our sisters, our girlfriends and our selves, as well–in no way diminishes all the work that has been done, all that’s come before. And that we don’t want to diminish all that’s come before doesn’t diminish what lies ahead. The world hasn’t caught up to what we’ve been told–that feminism‘s fight is over, the battles won–policies and structures are still evolving. And we’re still so very, very hard on ourselves. We worry we aren’t measuring up, aren’t successful enough or a good enough parent or pretty enough or in shape enough or organic enough. All while mired in the juggle!

As we wrote in Undecided, women today are experiencing a collective bout of growing pains. And one way to ease those pains is to give up the chase for perfect, the attempt to have it all, and focus instead on, well, finding the life that’s right for us.

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I received a terrifying letter in the mail the other day: an invitation to a grade school reunion.  As in eighth grade.

Ew, right? The very thought sent chills up my spine.  Did I really want to revisit my adolescent self? Does anyone?

Now, I am old enough to know that every one of us, from the beauty queens to the brainiacs, goes through an awkward stage – unloved, uncool, unsure of ourselves. We’ve gone here before:

Whether we were beauty or brains, prom queen or wallflower, picked first or last for volleyball or had our ass routinely kicked by Algebra II, we were filled with self doubt. Self-definition came in the form of how someone treated us at lunch or whether the phone rang that night. Deep inside, or maybe not even so deep, we were all just a little bit miserable because of, or in spite of, how we thought others perceived us.

For me, the dork stage came on like a bull at the start of seventh grade, peaked precipitously in eighth and ninth grade, then gradually subsided by the time I started my junior year of high school when, coincidentally, I had gotten both contact lenses and my driver’s license.  Up until then, however, I was the shy, nerdy girl with thick glasses, bad hair and – insult to injury — hay fever.

I was never without a Kleenex.

Yep, I was truly tragic for a few years there, yet not tragic enough to be oblivious to the fact. So clearly, you can imagine my reluctance to willingly go back to the dark days in the form of cocktails and lunch at a chichi restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf.  Would people I hadn’t seen since I turned 14 still remember me as the dorky kid?  Worse, would I suddenly start thinking of myself that way once again?

And then —  insert light bulb here — because I am a grown up and presumably have learned a thing or two about life along the way, I realized that maybe that sorry image of myself wasn’t about mean girls or pecking orders. It was really about me.  A prison of my own making.

Sometimes what keeps us from growing into ourselves, what holds us back in any number of ways and often keeps us undecided when it comes to figuring out what to do with our lives — and being happy with that decision once we’ve made it — is the fear of being judged.  But what it takes a while to realize is this:  often the almighty judge who had us quaking in our grade school plaid is made of straw.  The mythical mean girls we feared then – and those we fear now — may exist only in our own heads. And when it comes to all this leftover adolescent angst, women seem to have much thinner skins than men.

Is it the lingering legacy of adolescence? We’re held back by the fear that we are going to be judged when in fact, the only judge is the girl in the mirror.  Sure, we know this.  And yet: still we second-guess our decisions.  We search for approval.  We let ourselves be tyrannized by the shoulds. We worry about whether we will measure up.  Whether we fit in. We see ourselves as (we assume) others see us.

We end up, in fact, imprisoned by our own assumptions of what other folks will think – based on who we think those people actually are.  The funny thing is, what we’re doing is judging them.  It’s often unfair — and insulting, to boot. And we do it all the time.

Anyway, if all of the above sounds like a pep talk to get me to shell out the fifty-five bucks for that reunion, you’re right.  I’m still undecided as to whether I’m going to go. On the plus side, I am considerably better looking than I was at 14, I have a pretty cool job, and have finally mastered the art of conversation.  I also spend a good amount of money to have good hair.

But then again: I still have hay fever.  Don’t judge.

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“Good girls go to Heaven, but bad girls go everywhere.” So said Helen Gurley Brown, longtime editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine and author of the bestselling “Sex and the Single Girl.” And while one can say what one will about Cosmopolitan magazine, few can argue that HGB was not a gamechanger.

Don’t get me wrong: Cosmo will never be mistaken for a bastion of literary sophistication. Indeed, certain types might look down on its not-so-subtle ethos of Empowerment Through Sex Tips. (How many sex tips does an empowered woman really need, after all?) But the thing is, the thing that feels, to American women in the year 2012, so obvious as to be unnecessary to even mention, is that being empowered sexually is inextricably tied to being empowered, period.

In the New York Times’ “99 Ways to Be Naughty in Kazakhstan: How Cosmo Conquered the World,” writer Edith Zimmerman explores the “global juggernaut,”–a phrase which is no exaggeration:

Through those 64 editions, the magazine now spreads wild sex stories to 100 million teens and young women (making it closer to the 12th-largest country [in the world]), actually) in more than 100 nations–including quite a few where any discussion of sex is taboo.

In fact, Zimmerman says she received an email from the editor of Cosmo India, who wrote:

When we launched in 1996, we were flooded with letters — women wanted to know if kissing could cause pregnancy. They were clueless about the basics of having sex, and they had a million questions about what was right and wrong. The Cosmo team actually tackled these questions personally — writing back to readers with answers or carrying stories that tackled their concerns. Indian parents are usually conservative about sexual matters, and friends were often equally ignorant, so Cosmo was the only one with reliable information.

That’s pretty wild. And honestly, it’s pretty important.

Back in America (and back in the day), the messages HGB heralded were proportionately eye-opening. You don’t need a husband to be happy (in fact, she once dropped this doosie: “I think marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life. During your best years you don’t need a husband. You do need a man of course every step of the way, and they are often cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen”). Your primary fulfillment should come from work. Be self-sufficient. Have sex. (And lots of it! Without shame!) Work hard. Don’t depend on a man for anything.

“So you’re single. You can still have sex. You can have a great life. And if you marry, don’t just sponge off a man or be the gold-medal-winning mother. Don’t use men to get what you want in life–get it for yourself.

And, she championed the “mouseburgers”–women who didn’t come from privilege, pedigree, or Princeton. Her book “Sex and The Single Girl” was published one year before “The Feminine Mystique.” Something was in the air, and she was a part of it.

And her legacy is clear. While one might no longer embrace her ideas about sleeping with married men (HGB: go for it), anorexia (HGB: a touch of it can be a good thing), or dealing with the boss (HGB: seduce him, then marry him), others have become internalized by our collective, womanly subconscious: namely, that we can have it all.

As we wrote about in Undecided, while women have now reached the point where even that message feels, in some ways, constrictive–knotted up with pressure and expectations and juggling and the entrenched inequality that remains–clearly, we’re making progress. HGB and countless others had their eyes on the ball (I refuse to make a Cosmo-worthy pun here); it’s our job to keep running with 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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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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