Archive for February, 2010

Amid all this talk about whether women need to be more like men to make it in a man’s world, along comes Katie Couric in a sexy fashion shoot for the March issue of Harper’s Bazaar, due out Feb. 16.

Guts ball — or career poison? Does it diminish her credibility or, in an unexpected way, add to it? In an odd pop-culture kind of way, is she giving women permission to be themselves?

Clearly, Couric has made it in a so-called man’s world. And in this photo-spread, it’s pretty clear she’s not trying to be like one. There she is in a short and sexy one-shoulder cocktail dress. With smoky kohl-rimmed eyes. And look, are those Christian Louboutains? There she is again, wearing a don’t-mess-with-me mini-skirted black suit by Giorgio Armani. She stares right at the camera. Not flirty. Not flinty.

But on top of her game.

It’s a combination of sex and power, writes Robin Givhan in the Washington Post, who finds the pictures:

… an audacious celebration of a powerful woman as a boldly sexy one, too.

There’s nothing reserved or hesitant in the sex appeal on display in the four-page story about Couric. The images are a full-throated, even exaggerated, rebuke of the notion that a woman must dress in a prescribed manner — Suze Orman suits, full-coverage blouses, sensible heels — to protect her IQ, her résumé and her place in a male-dominated work culture.

Post- or pre-feminist? You tell me. Obviously, there is/will be backlash. Like this from Jezebel.com:

This argument feels like one of those moments where counterintuitive logic comes full circle to just plain retrogressiveness. I support Katie Couric’s right to pose as sexily as she wants to. Fashion shoots are fun and she looks great at whatever age. It’s part of her job, like it or not, to be someone people want to look at or watch. But do we have to pretend that the display of the traditional beauty of someone on television, as seen in a fashion magazine, is somehow fresh and progressive? Show me Candy Crowley in Balenciaga (or, um, in sweatpants?) and maybe I’ll be impressed.

And yet, stilettos notwithstanding, the fashion shoot, and reaction to it, makes you wonder all sorts of things. Do women have to downplay their sexuality to be taken seriously? If they don’t, are they playing to some regressive male fantasy? Are women still judged on their looks as much as on their abilites?

Or is this sexy shoot of the first successful female network news anchor none of the above? Is it really about seizing our identity as women without apologies, like Justice Sotomayor’s fire engined red nail enamel, a subtle sign that, as Gloria Steinem suggested in Shannon’s post from yesterday, it’s time to make the world fit women, rather than the other way around.

Now clearly, Gloria would have major issue with the stilettos. And probably with the fashion shoot itself. But with the underlying message?

It’s worth a reminder that Couric started her network job wearing age and gender-appropriate twin sets and blazers and, until the Palin interview that cemented her career, was considered something of a lightweight. You have to wonder if maybe what her fashion spread shows is that she has arrived and she knows it. From the Washington Post:

Now, in 2010, Couric has pronounced herself sexy in the Bazaar photographs. After breaking ground in network news, after having folks debate whether she should have worn a white blazer on her debut show — as if anything but black or navy proclaimed her less serious — there are these images. Unapologetically, forcefully, I-dare-you, sexy. In each one, Couric looks strong and capable. Capable of what, of course, is the underlying question.

Certainly, some will see the pictures as further proof of why she is all wrong for the job. They will probably be the same people for whom Couric has accumulated a personal work wardrobe of blacks, grays and pinstripes — a more sophisticated, yet still reserved, alternative to the news-anchor cliche of Crayola-colored blazers.

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One time, long long ago, in a kingdom far, far away, my mom said to me, “Shannon, I feel as though I haven’t given you enough advice.” To which I replied: “Shut the f*** up, mom.”

(Trust me; she’s given me plenty.)

And yet, get a group of women gathered together in the presence of a feminist icon like Gloria Steinem, and all we want is advice. But the thing about advice is: no matter who it’s coming from, no matter how sound and wise, it weighs on us, becomes a heavy, restrictive Should. Unless, of course, the advice is to ditch the shoulds altogether, as was Steinem’s, at a recent event at Yale:

During the question-and-answer session, Claire Gordon (’10) asked the members of the panel if they thought women should feel obligated to continue in the workforce.

“Dispense with the word ‘should,'” Steinem answered. “Don’t think about making women fit the world–think about making the world fit women.”

She said women should pursue the life choices they would most enjoy, regardless of social expectations.

I love this idea about making the world fit women–I love it on the macro level, obviously, but I love it in the individual sense as well. And I think maybe, just maybe, such a subtle sounding shift in perspective might in fact play out to be huge: rather than looking at ourselves as the X factor that, well, should do the bending required to fit within the conventions, the rules, the, you know, shoulds, imagine looking at our work, our relationships, the way we prioritize, the way we spend our time as the things that can be molded, tweaked, adjusted instead. Imagine if we took whatever unfair truths might exist, said To Hell With It, and did whatever we wanted–the way we wanted–anyway. Imagine, just for a second, that the only thing we should be doing is being who we are–and that the rest of the world should bend to suit us. All advice should be so freeing. And speaking of, that advice my mom wanted to give me? I shoulda listened.

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Just when we thought it couldn’t get any weirder, there’s this: on-the-job happiness coaching.

Kid you not. According to the Wall Street Journal, corralling employees in a conference room and showing them how to make happy is apparently the new black:

Happiness coaching is seeping into the workplace. A growing number of employers, including UBS, American Express, KPMG and the law firm Goodwin Procter, have hired trainers who draw on psychological research, ancient religious traditions or both to inspire workers to take a more positive attitude—or at least a neutral one. Happiness-at-work coaching is the theme of a crop of new business books and a growing number of MBA-school courses.

For the love. Have we taken this happiness business too far? Critics think so. Me, too. But back to the WSJ:

Critics say that pushing positive thinking is just a way for companies to improve morale while they continue to burden employees with the threat of layoffs and an ever-increasing workload. Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book, “Bright-sided,” blames “positive thinking” for enabling people to avoid confronting a wide range of serious problems in the economy and workplace.

Well, sure. If you’re busy bright-siding yourself, maybe you won’t notice that you’re overworked, you deserve a raise, the guy in the next room just got laid off, and today’s list of things-to-do-when-you-get home is longer than your right arm. There’s that seventy-seven cents on the dollar thing, too, and those structural changes that never quite happened that would allow for gender equity at work — and at home.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with positive thinking. I tend to like it, actually. And it’s a sure thing that running around the office complimenting each other and counting your blessings is definitely a way to improve morale — not to mention your company’s bottom line. But it’s also likely to keep you from making any changes to the status quo. Or maybe even wanting to.

Kinda makes me think of “Up In the Air”, where George Clooney’s character attempts to convince the newly-laid-off that their pink slips represent marvelous opportunity. I’m also reminded of a visit to the corporate campus of this wildly successful and notoriously hip young company for lunch one day. The cafeteria boasted at least seven stations where you could order anything from all-American burgers to grilled fish to Pad Thai to salads to make-your own sandwiches. (In my case, a BLT with an unlimited supply of perfectly cooked applewood-smoked bacon.) We sat outside at an umbrella table, within shouting distance of the lap pool and the sand volleyball court. Lunch was gratis for anyone with a badge. As was breakfast. And snacks. Inside, employees could do their laundry, get their hair cut, see the dentist, and play with their dogs. Out in front? Valet parking.

All of which clearly led to good moral and high productivity. And, since employees could do everything at the office but sleep — and lots of them did that, too — insanely long hours at work. Quite the trick, when you think about it.

Which brings us back to the happiness coaches. Another kind of Kool-Aid? They trainers suggest workers do a number of concrete on-the-job tasks to up their happiness quotient:

Write e-mails to your co-workers every day thanking them for something they have done. Meditate daily to clear your mind. Do something for somebody without expecting anything in return. Write in a journal about things you are thankful for; look for traits you admire in people and compliment them. Focus on the process of your work, which you can control, rather than outcomes, which you can’t. And don’t immediately label events good or bad, but remain open to potentially positive outcomes of even the most seemingly negative events.

Not exactly rocket science. But good ideas nonetheless. And I’d be all over it. Sigh.  If only I had the time.

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And again and again and again and again….

Undoubtedly, you’ve asked yourself this very question more than once in your life, wished for a replay, a do-over, a little taste of what Bill Murray was forced to endure in the 1993 flick Groundhog Day–giving an entirely new meaning to the term while he was at it.

It would make choices so much easier, wouldn’t it? After all, if you came to a fork in the road, yet knew you’d have the opportunity to take the other path the very next day, well, I doubt you’d spend too much time debating which way to go. I wouldn’t. Of course, we’d never get a chance to see where those roads led, how they played out in the long-term, either. Our decisions would become so much less weighty, in fact, they’d be all but meaningless.

And that’s the hell–well, that and Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania–in which Phil the Weatherman finds himself. At first, reveling in a life free of consequences, he behaves shamelessly. And, in the same situation, who wouldn’t? Consuming one’s weight in baked goods, driving drunk, bedding unsuspecting women, killing famous vermin…. Okay, maybe that’s not exactly how we’d do it, but whatever. The bottom line is that the living for today thing gets old pretty quickly. And so he gets outside of himself, he makes nice with the townspeople, takes a genuine interest in the woman he really wants, does a fabulous report on the Groundhog Day festival, and wakes up to find the spell is broken.

So what’s the moral? Well, according to Wikipedia:

In philosophyGroundhog Day has been considered a tale of self-improvement which emphasizes the need to look inside oneself and realize that the only satisfaction in life comes from turning outward and concerning oneself with others rather than concentrating solely on one’s own wants and desires. The phrase also has become a shorthand illustration for the concept of spiritual transcendence.[19][20] As such, the film has become a favorite of Buddhists[21][22] because they see its themes of selflessness and rebirth as a reflection of their own spiritual messages. It has also, in the Catholic tradition, been seen as a representation of Purgatory. It has even been dubbed by some religious leaders as the “most spiritual film of our time.”[23]

I don’t know about all that, but I will say this: whether that vermin sees his shadow or not, tomorrow’s a comin. And, as hard as our decisions can be, they matter… and it’s because they matter that they are so hard. But maybe the half-full way of looking at it is that with every choice we make, we take a little control of the tomorrow we’ll wake up to… tomorrow.

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Overheard last week on a college campus:

Two twentysomething women — call them Hannah and Suzanna — engaging in some chat about life, family and all things in between. Hannah reveals that she has three older sibs, and she’s the only girl. Which ultimately leads to this:

Suzanna: If you could give your brothers some advice right now, what would it be?
Hannah: It would be to do whatever makes them happy despite how much money it would make them or if it would lead to a successful life…

Suzanna: Do you think you’ll end up following your own advice?
Hannah: Yes. However, I think in my family dynamics it’s easier for me to do whatever makes me happy because the boys have more pressure to be successful breadwinners.

Makes you wonder, yes? Is this still true of most family dynamics? And if so, does it hold women back — or give them permission to follow their passion?

Interesting question, especially when you backdrop it with a couple of new studies out there: one on the so-called “stress of higher status“; and the other on what millennial women take into consideration when deciding what to do with their lives.

In the first study, researchers from the University of Toronto found that the more successful you are professionally, the more likely your work will wreak havoc on your personal life:

“We found several surprising patterns,” says [Sociology Professor Scott] Schieman. “People who are well-educated, professionals and those with job-related resources report that their work interferes with their personal lives more frequently, reflecting what we refer to as ‘the stress of higher status.’ While many benefits undoubtedly accrue to those in higher status positions and conditions, a downside is the greater likelihood of work interfering with personal life.”

What wasn’t measured in this study, but may follow, is that when 50 hours or more a week go into your work, your good hours — not to mention your emotional energy — are usually spent with colleagues or clients, or left at your desk. When you finally straggle home, it’s likely you’re spent. Which doesn’t do a whole lot for your personal life, regardless of gender.

Which may be what millennial women have seen in their older sisters, their parents — or brothers, for that matter. Which could explain why they want something different. In that second study, Accenture found that what women between 22 – 35 want from their career is work that matters (i.e., purpose) and a healthy balance between their personal and professional lives:

Some 66% of young women define success as doing meaningful work (i.e., “the type of work I want to do”), and 59% cite maintaining a balance between their personal and professional lives. Only 37% cite “being seen as an expert in my field” and even fewer (22%) cite “receiving awards or recognition internally.”

Which brings us back to Hannah and Suzanna. What at first whiff may have smelled like a pre-feminist dynamic may, for today’s women, be the impetus to carve out a new definition of success. Going back to Friday’s post, beating the boys at their own game? Not really a case of lowered expectations. Or limited expectations, either.

But expectations that all of us, regardless of gender, will eventually get it right. What do you think?!

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