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Archive for July, 2009

The good old boys of last week’s Sonia Sotomayor hearings have some “‘splaining’ to do”, writes New York Times columnist Frank Rich. He frames his argument thus:

… The Sotomayor questioners also assumed a Hispanic woman, simply for being a Hispanic woman, could be portrayed as The Other and patronized like a greenhorn unfamiliar with How We Do Things Around Here….

He notes the following offenses:

Channeling Ricky Ricardo, Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn joked to Sotomayor: “You’ll have lots of ’splainin’ to do.”

South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham suggested to Sotomayor that she had “a temperament problem” and advised that “maybe these hearings are a time for self-reflection.”

And Coburn not only lectured Sotomayor on the “proper role” of judges, but read her the oath of office.

Are you kidding me?

I listened to it all last week, fuming, while hiking to the top of a nearby mountain (okay, it’s a hill), my fist-sized walkman plugged into my ear. But what I heard in the badgering, the condescencion, the patronizing pontificating wasn’t just about politics or race. It had to do with gender.

Would these guys ever have used such a blatantly disrespectful, wheedling, downright dismissive tone with a male nominee — regardless of political differences? Or color? I doubt it.

And while we’re at it, would the so-called fat police have scrutinized a chubby male appointee the way they’ve wagged their fingers at Surgeon General nominee Dr. Regina Benjamin? (For that matter, was Sarah Palin’s hairdo ever really that important?)

What all this tells me is that, even in this shiny new millenium, women are still stuck navigating a whole different world when it comes to the workplace. It makes me wonder, in fact, if this might be one reason why dealing with choice is so much more difficult for women than men: If this scrutiny and condescension is the way it plays for the women at the top of their game, you have to wonder if a measure of the second-guessing, the sense of overwhelm that sometimes paralyzes women in their 20s and 30s stems from an uncertainty as to how to find their way in this unfamiliar turf.

Sure, we women do school well. University structures, especially, support the way we learn and succeed. Overachievers? High expectations? Duly noted and rewarded. But once we get to the workplace? Different kind of rules.

Let’s face it. We missed the socialization. From ancient times, men have been raised to know their job is to slay the dragons, and that they will be alone in doing it. American mythology, too, teaches men that their role is to go, seek and conquer. For generations, men’s roles have been predetermined, and unquestioned: They provide. And workplace — and social — structures have evolved to support the model.

For women, though, relatively new to this world of work, roles are still in flux. We never learned to slay the dragon — we were the pretty princesses waiting back there in the castle — and often, we’re a little confused by the messy nature of reality as opposed to the comfortable fit of school. And so we’re flummoxed. Overwhelmed. We’re feeling our way. Where do we fit in? How do we fit in? Should we fit in?

Do we even want to fit in? In other words, more choices still.

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I quote Ron Livingston, in his iconic role as office cog-cum-construction-worker Peter Gibbons: “We don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way! Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.” You know you’re in trouble when “Office Space” stops making you laugh and starts pissing you off. And, in his prestigious think tank job and despite the PhD in philosophy under his belt, Matthew Crawford, the author of a new book called “Shop Class as Soulcraft” was most definitely in trouble. So, after several months of doing suprisingly little thinking at said think tank, he left, and opened up a motorcycle repair shop. His book is about the satisfaction of an honest day’s work–and how our society places too little value on such work (witness the extinction of shop class). In a recent NPR interview, he said:

Anyone with halfway decent test scores is getting hustled into a certain track, where you work in an office.

He argues that we’ve created an “educational monoculture,” with “only one respectable course” (those words made me think of the creepy meat-grinder scene in Pink Floyd’s The Wall–check the video at the end of this post), and goes on to say:

It takes a real contrarian streak to live more deliberately and make these calls for yourself…

That reminded me of this comment from Tamara, in response to my post about The Uniform Project, and whether less choice leads to more creativity: “I think it really comes down to an individual’s ingenuity and courage to be themselves.” And it does take courage–and a bit of a contrarian streak–to be yourself. Assuming we can find that courage and tap it, Crawford describes the point of work, as he sees it:

The point is to find some work where you can make yourself useful to people in a straightforward way that engages your own judgment and thinking so that your actions feel like they’re genuinely your own.

Seems like a lot to ask for from a job–and yet it also seems so profoundly simple, there’s no way it can’t be true. Leave it to a philosopher. But really. Do you feel like you were steered away from your passions, your soulcraft, in pursuit of…. a job? And, again back to the choices thing, I wonder if, as overwhelmingly inclusive as the whole “you can be whatever you want!” mantra is, it’s all too easy to just get on the conveyer belt, and hope to make some decent… hamburger? Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot to be said for hamburger. Security. Benefits (dare to dream). But what about fulfillment? What about passion? Is it possible to have any pudding, if we don’t eat our meat?

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imagesYou have to wonder if Nancy Drew was the first feminist role model for generations of young women.

She was smart, brave, confident: the leader of her pack who scooted around town to scary places — at night, no less — in her very own roadster, convertible top down, with sidekicks Bess and George, and sometimes asexual boyfriend Ned, all letting her call the shots.

And in the end, our Nancy always figured it out.

Apparently prompted by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s admission that she devoured Nancy Drew books as a child, Sunday’s New York Times featured a piece by Jan Hoffman who listed a Who’s Who of confident , accomplished and prominent women in their 40s, 50s and beyond who grew up with Nancy by their side: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Diane Sawyer, Laura Bush, Nancies Grace and Pelosi, and former ground-breaking Congresswoman Pat Shroeder, who was given a stack of Nancy Drew books after she failed Home Ec:

“I needed Nancy Drew,” said Ms. Schroeder. “She was smart and she didn’t have to hide it! She showed me there was another way to live,” added Ms. Schroeder, who would earn her pilot’s license at 15, and become a feminist politician from Colorado. For women like Ms. Schroeder and Judge Sotomayor, the acquisition of the books is central to their Nancy Drew narratives.

Clearly, as Hoffman suggests, Nancy Drew was an inspiration for many of us who came of age in pre-feminist times, supplying through fiction what we couldn’t find in real life. She made life — and choices — seem easy. And possible.

Of course the books were thoroughly unrealistic. Probably even silly. Certainly Nancy led the unexamined life. And, the ultimate deception, Nancy was created by a man. (Yes, Virginia, there is no Carolyn Keene.)

And yet. You have to wonder if the beauty of identifying with Nancy (as opposed to, say, Barbie) when you are young and impressionable is that, somehow, a lesson sticks: Maybe choices are easier when you’ve grown up believing in your own resilience, trusting that you can follow your gut wherever it leads, without second guessing, because in the end — somewhere around page 224 — things always work out.

For the record, I read every Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on when I was a kid, and still have a box of them out in our garage. Right next to my red roadster.

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Interesting conversations started on Undecided — and on our Facebook page (and our fans’ FB pages) — this week. To continue the chitchat or read the whole comments, click the links. We’re just getting started:

Several comments revolved around Jack Welch and his comments on the impossibility of work-life balance:

The only way this will ever change is when the definitions “mother” and “father” and the traditional roles at home change. Of course women leave the work force when they are expected to work as hard, if not harder, than men in the workplace AND do all the traditional “mother” roles, cooking, cleaning, staying home with the sick child, driving kids to practices, taking kids shopping etc. etc. But, maybe that goes to the differences between men and women. I, for one, cannot imagine missing out on that stuff (well maybe the cleaning) for a long night at the office. — Colleen

As I’m reading this blog at work (hey, it’s break time), I can hear the President and owner of the financial services company that I work for making a personal call – which happens during the 3:30 coffee/debriefing hour and generally happens with the door open. Annoying, you might think? Nah. It’s been back-to-back conference calls and meetings all day. In fact, the check-ins reinforce the culture of this office and demonstrate our owner’s belief that success outside of the office is equally as important as success in the office; in fact perhaps one begets the other. … Sounds like my boss will be enjoying grilled salmon for dinner tonight and they DID remember (phew) to pick up the dry-cleaning this afternoon. Oh, and HER daughter finished the SAT prep homework already and HER husband picked up the birthday gift they’d discussed…. — Page

Nothing infuriates me more than the fact that men are never told that they can’t have it all, but women are almost always the ones who are expected to choose at the fork in the road. — Lorraine

I think that in general, everyone has the choice. Men also can’t be a great dad and a great powerful CEO any more than women can. It is just more societally acceptable for men to pick work over family…. Also, it is based on what you expect from a mom or dad. ..And honestly, I feel kind of lucky to be a woman to know that when the time comes, I’ll (hopefully) be able to do both, work, but not be chained to a desk fulltime, and be at home. Not too many men can do that… — Kelley

Another chat revolved around the inverse relationship between choice and creativity — and the curse of the plaid skirt:

I think limitation/less choice absolutely leads to more creativity. Which is why great art is usually made by people who come from lesser means. I, too, did time in Catholic school, and actually had this very observation in highschool. Not that I enjoyed the itchy, ill-fitting plaid skirt—but it was sort of a game/challenge to find a way to allow one’s personality to shine through—hair color, shoe color, nail polish color. It just goes to show choice or “lack of” can be a blessing and a curse. I think it really comes down to an individual’s ingenuity and courage to be themselves. — Tamara

I wore a plaid skirt everyday for 12 years. I loved free dress days and would literally plan out my outfit for weeks. Flash forward 15 years, I am a lawyer, and some days, I am excited when I have to go to court, not because I am pumped for whatever hearing, but because I can just grab a suit (kinda like a uniform) and not think about what I’m going to wear that day…. — Colleen

Since I can’t really relate to ensconcing myself in much other than my daily uniform of jeans and a t-shirt, I’ll go with what I know (artmaking).At my best, I know enough to have a self-imposed limited palette of one type or another. The art is almost always more interesting. I think this works for people like me who have a tendency to want to sum everything up, because there are truly SO many choices….The more I try to stay true to the chaotic everythingness of everything, the more immobilizing it is for me. Sometimes the smallest thing (which I often discover is much more expansive than I expected) can be a testament to that larger rule... — Warren

On whether to stay put or move on:

Dude, I’m doing what I wanted to do out of college and now I’m OVER IT. Sometimes what we originally think is glamorous turns out to be the opposite. After 10 years in this industry I’m ready for a BIG change….. ideally owning my own business and not ever having to worry about a director not enjoying his sandwich. — Samantha

“If I stay there will be trouble; if I leave there will be double.” I think that what is important is making some kind of choice…doing nothing is the worst choice of all. Newton was right about a body at rest staying at rest and a body in motion staying in motion. Physics — governs everything we do, feel, believe, spiritually, emotionally, physically. Inertia…make a choice and keep moving, you can always make another choice. But staying at rest, not growing, not changing…ahh…that would be awful. Leap, knowing you can choose again and keep moving forward. — Leslie

Finally, from Shannon’s brilliant take on what happens when your life unfolds just the way you had it planned — and why we get the heebie-jeebies when it does:

I don’t think second guessing yourself and having that “grass is greener” feeling happens for women only. I’m speaking for myself (as a man) but I have those second guess feelings as well.Maybe men don’t speak of it because we feel more of a responsibility to be the main source of income and create a stable environment for our family. The dream option is often not practical. -and who is to say you won’t still have those feelings about what you left if you do leave. — Pablo

I wonder if choices are so difficult for women because we are led to believe THEY MEAN TOO MUCH. And so we avoid choosing? Or regret the choices we make? Forgetting … that most of our career choices are destined to change, anyhow.So maybe the question is why women think their choices are so important — and irrevocable? — Yours Truly.

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Yesterday in Cary Tennis’ advice column in Salon.com, he doled out some wisdom to a tormented soon-to-be law student. Or maybe not. In her letter, “Terrified” has this to say:

With every day that passes, I am fighting a rising sense of utter panic. I don’t know if I want to do this. I have been working my whole life toward this moment… all with my eye on the prize of admission to law school and an eventual J.D. My father is a lawyer and since I was a little girl I have dreamed about following in his footsteps. The problem, I think, is that law school has been my goal for so long that I’ve never really stopped to examine it, and now I’m afraid that it’s way too late to change my mind… Despite the fact that my dad and I are very similar people, he never had experiences like mine. My priorities are just… well, different. He graduated from a state law school and has practiced in his home state ever since. I am a mover; I yearn to go; I don’t want to stay in one place and work myself to the bone… When I think about being a lawyer, I panic. In my heart I’ve always wanted to be a writer.

My heart bleeds for the girl—maybe because I’ve been there. Haven’t we all? That unpleasant place where it feels as though you’re on cruise control, being driven by inertia, watching the time go by, second-guessing every decision you’ve ever made that’s brought you to this point, and convinced that stopping the train would take strength of superhuman proportions. “Terrified” describes feeling that it’s “way too late” to change directions. I stuck on those words, let my mind ramble, and lingered on a thought: do you ever hear men talk this way? Do you think the message we as women are fed—that our stock goes down as our age goes up—makes us extra conscious of the clock, an underlying worry that seeps into everything, intensifying the pressure we feel every time we find ourselves at a crossroads? And then there’s Jack Welch’s “women can’t have it all” comment, which Barbara blogged about yesterday. It’s 2009, and still we fight that idea, even as we internalize it: if I can’t have it all, I better pick wisely. And in a hurry. The clock’s a-tickin’.

Tennis’ advice? Think happy thoughts, go to law school. You can always drop out if you change your mind.

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… the more they remain the same?

A woman can be a good mommy. Or she can be a good CEO. But never both.

That was the message from Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, in a recent speech that rightly ignited a firestorm in the press and the blogosphere. It wasn’t just that he said that for women, life itself is one big choice. That’s kind of what we’ve been saying here. But he defined that choice in mid-century terms:

Women can have a family. Or a successful career. But gee whiz, they can’t have both. Work-life balance? All a pipe-dream, girls.

(Funny. No one ever says men can’t have both. But that’s another story.)

Still. As offputting as Welch’s comments were, could they hint at one source of the angst felt by young women who DO want it all — but are still being told it can never work? Is it any wonder that analysis paralysis steps in when women believe that they must decide between career and family?

And is this either/or business a false choice?

Back in the day, of course, women didn’t even have the choice. It was often made for them by well-meaning males in bad suits who were allowed to ask rude questions – and make hiring decisions based on the answers.

Case in point: A few years out of college, I took a test for a management training program for a large corporation. Never mind the name. I scored high, made it through the first round of interviews, and then ran up against a smug middle-manager who asked:

What did my husband do? (Strike one)

Isn’t it likely that I might be moving if he got a better job somewhere else? (Strike two)

And, once his career took off, wouldn’t I be eager to start a family? (Strike three)

And out. On my way to the door, this guy said something to the effect that management training was a costly process, so surely I could understand why they would be reluctant to risk all that money on someone: Who. Might. Leave.

All of which is to show how far we’ve come. But, as Welch’s comments clearly show, we’ve got a ways to go.

Making the case in the Washington Post that American companies need more senior women, Womenomics authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman wrote:

Professional women have been leaving the workplace in droves, and we need to stop the brain drain. Recent studies show that almost a third of professional women opt out at some point in their careers and, strikingly, that MBAs are more likely than lawyers or doctors to choose to stay home with their children.

Beyond a certain point, many women find that the costs to family of a high-octane career are just too great. We need to recognize that the glass ceiling is in part a self-imposed, defensive perimeter. But we can’t afford to have women take themselves out of the running for top slots. And the only way to prevent that is changing the workplace to allow us the freedom to fit in our personal lives.

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Rob Walker’s “Consumed” column, “This Year’s Model“, in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine presents an interesting question: when constrained by a lack of choice, are we forced to get creative? Walker tells the tale of Sheena Matheiken’s Uniform Project, “which involves wearing the same dress every day for a year, and seeing just how aesthetically creative she could be despite that limitation.” Matheiken’s personal background clearly factored into the project’s inspiration: on her site, she writes:

I was raised and schooled in India where uniforms were a mandate in most public schools. Despite the imposed conformity, kids always found a way to bend the rules and flaunt a little personality… Poking through the sea of uniforms were the idiosyncrasies of teen style and individual flare.

This sounded familiar to me: I wore a school uniform for 12 years. In high school, my sartorial self-expression was limited to my shoes. But while part of me engaged in the grass-is-greener fantasy of a post-high-school life in which I could wear whatever I wanted, while stuck in that plaid skirt, I embraced the challenge and got as creative as I possibly could. Doc Martens, alternated with converse low-tops, became my statement of choice. Of this sort of forced creativity, Walker writes:

Rules stifle creativity and enforce conformity. Rules can do something else too: inspire creativity that thwarts conformity.

Which makes me wonder: as it is in fashion, is it in life? Are there instances in which a lack of choice has forced you to get creative? Is that a good thing? Which would you rather have: a lack of choices that forces you to think out of the box, or endless choices proscribed by no box at all?

As for me, fifteen years post-uniform, I still love clothes. I love the freedom to wear whatever I want. (Is it any wonder that one of my regular writing gigs is as the style columnist for the Santa Barbara Independent?) But I’m not gonna lie: with the hours I’ve spent staring at the innards of my closet, digging through drawers, and trying on outfit after outfit, I could have written The Great American Novel (not to mention come up with The Great American Premise for the Great American Novel). Just this morning, I went through three options before deciding on the one in which I’m currently ensconced. But would I go back to the uniformed days of my youth? Not a chance.

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