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thumbnail[2]If we want to close the ambition gap, a good first step might be learning how to shake our heads.

There’s this great quote from Feminist icon Germaine Greer: When we talk about women having it all, what they really have all of is the work.”  She was being somewhat facetious.   But then again, not so much.

Which leads me to wonder: Would women be more powerful if we could just say no?  A couple of recent studies just say yes.

Some say that women are hard-wired to please.  Others say we’re socialized that way.  In either case, we see it all the time:  Good little girls doing as they’re told at home, eager for the stamp of approval from mommy or daddy.  Older girls sitting still in class and turning in their homework on time to please their teachers.

But what’s surprising is that, according to a new study, even those of us raised with the “you go, girl” rhetoric never seem to outgrow our eagerness to please.  According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal, a paper presented at the American Economic Association meeting earlier this month confirms that even when we grow up, we’re much more likely to say “yes” when we want to say “no”.

The study focused on 47 business-school students who were asked to recall a time when they were asked to do a favor on the job when they really didn’t want to.  And guess what?

The female participants did the favor, even though they were five times more likely than males to report having felt worn out. Perhaps they obliged because they were also twice as likely to have been worried about the consequences of saying no.

Ya think?  The researchers further postulated that this willingness to do favors  “may lead them to become overburdened with low-skill tasks.”

In other words, when we find ourselves locked into a continuing chorus of “Sure, I’ll be happy to…”, it not only saps our time, but zaps our power as well.

So much for the need to say no when we’re at work.  Head on over to the homefront and you find another related power drain:  According to a new study out of The University of California at Berkeley and Emory University, women who rule the roost at home are less likely “to pursue promotions and other career advancement steps at the office.”  In other words, when you’re the CEO at home, you’re much less likely to ever come close to the C-suite at work:

“It appears that being in charge of household decisions may bring a semblance of power to women’s traditional role, to the point where women may have less desire to push against the obstacles to achieving additional power outside the home,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Serena Chen, a co-author of the study.

Despite the feminist movement and other gender equity efforts, women largely retain authority over child-rearing and household chores and finances, with men deferring to their expertise in these matters, researchers point out. This paradigm has had an impact on women’s career choices, the study implies.

Whether all this power over domestic decisions takes away our ambition by fulfilling our innate need for power – or simply drains our energy– who knows for sure. But, says Chen, when it comes to seizing power in the workplace, we ought to let some go at home. Women need to “at least partially abdicate their role of ultimate household deciders, and men must agree to share such decision making.”

In other words, there’s only so much of us to go around, and we should use ourselves wisely.  The first step might be to reconsider the messaging we’ve been raised with: As we’ve written here and in our book, told we can have it all, we heard we must do it all. Told we can do anything, we heard that we could do everything —  and we’d 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: every choice entails a trade-off.  If you’re doing A, you can’t be doing B.

Or, in light of the studies above, you can’t be doing favors for someone else at work, and still have time to charge ahead on your own projects.  Nor, apparently, can you run the household like a CEO — and have any mojo left when it comes to climbing the ladder at work.  Which is to say, we need to give ourselves permission to let go.  Or even abdicate.  Even if it means that some things get done less than perfectly.  Or not at all.

When you think about it, it’s all pretty simple.  All we need do is learn to say no.

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

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

Sounds quite dreamy, doesn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

Phooey, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Well, it certainly seems like it. According to Pamela Paul’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times,

Mother’s little helper of the new millennium may in fact be the sleeping pill – a prescription not likely to inspire a jaunty pop song anytime soon. Nearly 3 in 10 American women fess up to using some kind of sleep aid at least a few nights a week, according to “Women and Sleep,” a 2007 study by the National Sleep Foundation, a nonprofit research group.

And anecdotal research indicates it’s not just mothers who are starved for shut-eye, but women in general:

Sleep-medicine practices are overwhelmingly dominated by female patients. Dr. Nancy Collop, director of the Emory Sleep Center in Atlanta, said three out of four insomnia patients at the clinic are women…

In the ‘Women and Sleep’ study, 80 percent of women reported being just too stressed or worried to turn out the proverbial lights.

In a word: unshocking. I myself am firmly in the Fall Asleep Fine But Wake At 3 And Can’t Get Back to Sleep camp. I don’t have kids, but I do have several jobs, and a life. Last night I worried over the writing deadlines I have this week, the speaking engagement I have on Wednesday halfway across the state, and the new coaching client whose appointment I’m going to have to reschedule in order to travel to said speaking engagement… not to mention the shopping list, the whipping wind’s effect on the palm tree that sways outside my front window, the doctor’s appointment I’ve been meaning to make for, oh, the past five months, what I’m going to wear to said speaking engagement… I could go on — but I’m guessing you catch my drift. More than likely, it would seem, you do exactly the same thing. As Paul wrote:

According to IMS Health, a health care consulting firm in Danbury, Conn., the use of prescription sleep aids among women peaks from 40 to 59. Last year, the firm said, 15,473,000 American women between those ages got a prescription to help them sleep, nearly twice the number of men in that age group.

Those figures do not include those who are prescribed anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications, frequently used off-label for insomnia. Nor do they include women who zone out with a glass of wine.

The question is, how is it that men aren’t similarly affected?

Well, I’d guess there are more than a couple factors at play: it’s personal, and it’s political. Women hold ourselves to high standards — we internalize the messages that bombard us from all directions, from the media to our mothers. We want to be perfect: perfect employees, perfect partners, perfect moms, perfect friends, perfect looking, perfect yogis, chefs, decorators, you name it. We were weaned on the messages that we could have it all and that we could do anything — and so we fill our days with our valiant attempts to do it all, running at full speed ahead, from this to that and back again, so adrenalized that the only way to unwind, it seems, is to dive into a bottle, whether of pills or Pinot.

But it’s not only our tough inner critic that’s to blame. The fact is, the modern workplace–of which women are now the majority–is still set up as though the workers who fill it were Don Draper clones, men with a full-time Betty at home, able to take care of all of the stuff that keeps a life running smoothly. But the ladies (and gentlemen) of today don’t have a Betty. So we do our best Don–and then we make the time to get Betty’s job done, too. We work our full day–and then we fold the clothes. And do the grocery shopping. And pick up the dry cleaning. And attempt to cook healthy items (or contend with the parking lot at our favorite take-out joint), to exercise, to socialize, to sleep. To quote Germaine Greer:

When we talk about women having it all, what they really have all of is the work.

…and none of the Zzzs.

So, what to do? Being a little easier on ourselves would certainly be a start. Asking for help might be another. And then: start thinking bigger, recognize the deeper truths for the eye-openers that they are. The world has changed, but the workplace and expectations haven’t. So maybe what we really need to be thinking about is what we can do to change that.

Just, hopefully, not at 3am.

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When the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn was dismissed on Tuesday, it occurred to me that what we had in front of us was a good metaphor for one of the tawdry underbellies of American life.

Call it the power of privilege — the unacknowledged advantages that permeate so many layers of our public, and not so public, lives.

I’m not here to argue the merits of the case, or to rant about the legal system. We are, in fact, a family that is lousy with attorneys. On any given day, you can’t walk down the hall without bumping elbows with one. On Thanksgiving, we joke about replacing the kids’ table with a lawyers’ table.

But this is essentially a case of he-said, she-said, right? Of parties whose closets apparently hold more than a couple of skeletons. So our thought question for today is this: Why is Strauss-Kahn, a powerful white male, who asserts that the sex was consensual, more believable than Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel maid who fled her native Guinea for asylum in the U.S., who says she was raped?

And why has Diallo’s background cast doubt on her story when our erstwhile defendant’s past is equally checkered? As Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman wrote on Tuesday:

A woman who gets intoxicated can be raped. Prostitutes can be raped. And a poor woman who has told lies can be raped. In fact, it is often the women who “don’t make good victims” who are most at risk because they are the most vulnerable, and it is these women who are least likely to be listened to.

I confess I know no more about the case itself than do any of you, and I am willing to admit that it’s possible that there was no criminal case to be made. But – evidence notwithstanding apologies to the attorneys in the family– I still wonder about the larger issue, which is this: All things being equal, why is it that the scales always tend to tip in favor of privilege?

One of the worst aspects of privilege, whether in the courtroom or the workplace, is that those who have it tend not to notice. What’s second-worst is that, because of the above, privilege tends to perpetuate itself.

Back in 1989, Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D., associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, wrote a pivotal paper entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In the paper, she listed the contents of that knapsack, a collection of invisible “privileges” she enjoyed by virtue of her race – from being able to buy or rent a home wherever she wanted to being assured that when she’s pulled over for a traffic stop, it’s not because of the color of her skin.

Her point, derived from her work in women’s studies, was this. While those with privilege may be willing to admit that those without it are indeed disadvantaged, what they don’t seem to notice is the other side of the coin: doors automatically open for some folks simply because of their skin color – or their gender.

As McIntosh noted, it’s a source of power and advantage that is largely unearned. And it automatically puts many of us on the other side of the power divide. That includes women, even when we enjoy the privileges of race. Need a refresher? We make less money than our male counterparts. We’re often stymied on our way up the corporate ladder simply because of something related specifically to our gender: motherhood – or in some cases, lack of same. And then there’s the workplace itself, which is still structured around the outdated concept of the ideal employee, who can put in the 52 hour workweek, secure in the knowledge that there is someone at home to take care of business.

We’ll stop there.

My point, at least today, is not to vent about the inherent inequities – but to suggest that we start paying attention to the power that some folks hold through no fault of their own. Which brings us back to the case at hand.

Diallo has filed a civil suit against Strauss-Kahn, whose attorney has announced that Strauss-Kahn is considering a lawsuit of his own because he has suffered “enormous damages.”

Should both lawsuits see their day in court, let’s lay some odds, shall we? Who do you think is likely to prevail?

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Seeing as how this is the week of “fitting in” — or not so much — my ears perked up the other day when I was having a chat with a prof whose area of research includes career and workplace issues. When she mentioned a study that suggested that women may avoid situations — like math or engineering — when they feel outnumbered, I instantly thought Undecided.

I also thought of my daughters, who excelled in math in high school, but never pursued it.  (I did — for one quarter of college.  But that’s another story.) I also thought of women like one family member who has been a lawyer for years — but never really liked it. At one point, in fact, she took a career aptitude test (like that one our elusive Ms. X went searching for when she was in college) and found that all the results pointed in one direction: engineering. She wasn’t surprised. Just somewhat regretful.

But back to the study (you can link to a pdf here) in question. Researchers Mary Murphy, Claude Steele and James Gross found that when women math, science and engineering undergrads simply watched a video, pitching a fictional conference, where men outnumbered women, they showed the physical signs of threat — faster heart rates and sweating — and reported a lower sense of belonging, and less desire to participate in the conference at all. The researchers also found that the women who watched the gender unbalanced video were more vigilant of their surroundings overall.

All of which suggests one reason why women may avoid fields like math and engineering: it’s not “innate differences”, as erstwhile Harvard President Lawrence Summers infamously suggested back in 2005. It may be that we just don’t feel welcome.

All of which makes sense when we are talking science and related fields. But what about the workplace in general? Could these “social identity threats” be one reason we are often unsure of ourselves? Agonize over career decisions? Look over our shoulders? Stick with safe and risk-free women-friendly careers (which, incidentally, might be more comfy, but fall lower on the pay scale)?

Sometimes it’s the threat, not the reality, that does us in. Why we end up side-stepping opportunites instead of marching right in, loaded for bear. Add it all up and you just might find that, math rules notwithstanding, two and two equals five after all.


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