Archive for March, 2010

Well, it doesn’t hurt to ask!

How many times have you used that very line, psyching up a friend before sending her into the field of battle, whether the battlefield be the boss’ office over a raise or a promotion or just a couple of days off, or the next cube over, daytime home of The Guy, the one she wants to get to know a little bit better–preferably in a setting with more favorable lighting? Dishing it out is one thing, but how often do we take that advice ourselves?

I bring this up because, this weekend, an Undecided reader shot me a link to a story entitled “Get What You Want: How to Make the Big Ask,” and the piece in question made me think. In it, the author Andrea Buchanan recounts an epic ask from her own life: minding her own business at LAX, en route to San Francisco for a party celebrating the publication of her first book, Buchanan spotted NYT columnist Maureen Dowd–a pretty serious Boldface-Name Sighting to begin with, made more so because Dowd happens to be one of Buchanan’s personal heroes. She wanted to tell Dowd how much she admired her–she wanted to invite her to the book party… And she did. (Via handwritten note. But still, points for balls ovaries!) And lo: Dowd not only came to the party, she left the party a couple of copies of Buchanan’s book heavier… and invited Buchanan to lunch! Talk about a risk that paid off. Here’s what Buchanan has to say about it:

I shudder to think of what an awesome connection I would have missed making had I not worked up the nerve to approach Maureen. But all too often, fear gets in the way of bravery. Think about it: When was the last time you asked for something with big risks and potentially big consequences?

…Here are a few things I’ve learned about asking: The minute you’re afraid to ask for something is when you should do it. It’s nice to offer something in return, even if it’s just a compliment or a kind gesture. It also helps to take a few deep breaths and imagine the worst possible outcome. Usually, it’s simply getting a no, which is not exactly life threatening.

I love that she says that the minute you’re afraid to ask is exactly when you should, because, while I don’t think fear is like guilt in terms of uselessness, I do think it’s one of those poor, misunderstood emotions that isn’t always what it seems–and that, just because a situation inspires fear doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth being afraid of. Maybe the purpose of that fear isn’t necessarily to power an about-face followed by a prompt escape; maybe it’s just a little note to self: take notice of this, tread carefully here, be conscious now.

Now, I confess, I’m a bit of a daredevil. I’ve been known to park in red zones, jump out of planes, try my friend’s homemade kimchee. And perhaps I’m a rarity among my gender in that way–a monster story in last week’s New York Magazine suggested that testosterone and risk-taking are pretty clearly linked… and that the whole Wall Street meltdown may have been avoided had Lehman Brothers been Lehman Sisters. I don’t know about all that, but I do know that, putting ourselves out there, identifying what we want and asking for it is, indeed, a risk. But maybe there’s a little bit of a lesson to be learned from the adrenaline junkies of the world, articulated oh-so-well by that vintage Nike ad campaign: maybe all that’s standing between ourselves and the objects or opportunities of our desire is a simple decision to Just Do It. Just ask.

What’s the worst that could happen?

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The strangest thing popped into my inbox the other day: a BCBG ad for this season’s statement jewelry. Front and center were a couple of iterations of what you see on your left: a knuckle ring. I kid you not.

Look closely and you’ll find that the “ring” is actually two of them linking your fingers together on the inside, with a bejeweled bar across the top of two fingers on the outside. It appears to be an ironic riff on the brass knuckles of gangster movie fame.

If your education in 1930’s films has been neglected, brass knuckles were four linked metal rings with a bar of concealed weight that, when the bad guy made a fist, gave him a sneaky and powerful punch.

Back to BCBG, couple the knuckle rings with the must-have shoes of the season – platform gladiator sandals – and you have a look that screams power. I’m going somewhere with this, but it probably isn’t where you think. But before we move on, let me just say that I have never been one to judge a feminist for her fashion. In fact, I applaud feminists who aren’t afraid to wear pink (when it’s the new black), who don’t shy away from lipstick, who dress to please themselves, whether it’s sensible shoes or sexy stilettos, khaki pants or trendy little pencil skirts. Either/or is in itself is a sign of power: What we wear is more than just utility.

In fact, I remember back when I was a new mom, with a pretty sweet free-lancing gig that allowed me to work from home when Shannon was a baby. Every once in a while, when the workload built up, my boss would go sideways, call me up and rant that either I did a full-on nine-to-five in the office everyday or the arrangement was kaput. At which point, I would call the babysitter and speed to the office, where I always managed to talk myself back into working from home. At such meetings, I always wore the same pair of don’t-mess-with-me high heeled boots.

I am the first to say that my boss never noticed my boots. They meant nothing to him. But they meant a lot to me. On those days, they gave me a sense of power (and, I confess, height) which for some reason gave me the juice to speak up.

Which brings us back to the knuckle rings and all the other overt Wonder Woman fashion statements: are they signs of power for women who have seized it – or props for women who still feel they have none? Here comes my point.

For too long women have been told they have no voice, that they’ve been silenced by the patriarchy. Which was one hell of a wake-up call and rallying cry back in the early days of the women’s movement. And maybe it’s still true to a certain extent. But what I wonder is if one of the unintended consequences of the rhetoric is that many women have come to believe it — and have silenced themselves, convinced that no one will listen.

Or feel that that their only source of power is in trappings like knuckle rings.

Which was why I was so proud of Jessica Bennett, Jesse Ellison and Sarah Ball, the young Newsweek women who were willing to bite the hand that feeds them in the blistering piece entitled “Are We There Yet?” (Answer: No) that Shannon wrote about on Tuesday. It wasn’t only what they wrote that so impressed me, but the fact that they had the guts to write it. That, to quote my favorite VP, is a big, fucking deal.

What’s also a pretty big deal is the fact that Newsweek ran with the story. It’s front and center and last I heard, Bennett, Ellison and Ball are still employed.

I see two lessons here. First, we’ve got a long way to go before the work of the women’s movement is done. But second is the subtext: we do indeed have a voice. We just have to use it.

And we probably don’t need knuckle rings to do so. Unless, of course, we think they’re cool.

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Are We There Yet? asks a recent Newsweek headline, with the kind of slug that leaves you with a distinctive sense of dread:

In 1976, 46 women filed a landmark gender-discrimination case. Their employer was NEWSWEEK. Forty years later, their contemporary counterparts question how much has actually changed.

It’s a great piece, as it shows how awfully far we have come (those women were flat-out told in their interviews that women could never get to the top–or even the middle–and spent their days at the veritable newsrag fetching coffee, sorting mail, and doing–and handing over–the reporting that a male writer would use in the stories that ultimately would bear his byline), as well as… well, how far we haven’t come. (For starters: in 1970 25 percent of Newsweek‘s editorial masthead was female; today that number is only 39 percent. Ahem, it’s FORTY YEARS LATER, PEOPLE. Last year, men wrote all but six of Newsweek‘s 49 cover stories, which is apparently par for the course: taking major magazines as a whole, there’s one female byline for every SEVEN male.) For the young women–new to the work force–who wrote this piece, the real world offered up quite a shock:

Forty years after NEWSWEEK’s women rose up, there’s no denying our cohort of young women is unlike even the half-generation before us. We are post-Title IX women, taught that the fight for equality was history; that we could do, or be, anything. The three of us were valedictorians and state-champion athletes; we got scholarships and were the first to raise our hands in class. As young professionals, we cheered the third female Supreme Court justice, and, nearly, the first female president. We’ve watched as women became the majority of American workers, prompting a Maria Shriver-backed survey on gender, released late last year, to proclaim that ‘the battle of the sexes is over.’

Can you sense the but coming? Good reader. Here it be:

The problem is, for women like us, the victory dance feels premature. Youthful impatience? Maybe. But consider this: U.S. Department of Education data show that a year out of school, despite having earned higher college GPAs in every subject, young women will take home, on average across all professions, just 80 percent of what their male colleagues do… Motherhood has long been the explanation for the persistent pay gap, yet a decade out of college, full-time working women who haven’t had children still make 77 cents on the male dollar. As women increasingly become the breadwinners in this recession, bringing home 23 percent less bacon hurts families more deeply than ever before.

I know, that’s nothing new. You’ve certainly read about it here once or twice. But the point worth thinking about is what they get at here:

In countless small ways, each of us has felt frustrated over the years, as if something was amiss. But as products of a system in which we learned that the fight for equality had been won, we didn’t identify those feelings as gender-related. It seemed like a cop-out, a weakness, to suggest that the problem was anybody’s fault but our own.

Convenient, no? Tell everyone the problem’s been solved already, and maybe it’ll go away. Move along, nothing to see here… Nothing, of course, but those inequalities listed above. Or the ones below:

  • A Girl Scouts study found that young women avoid leadership roles for fear they’ll be labeled ‘bossy’;
  • women are four times less likely than men to negotiate a starting salary…
  • which is probably for the best, as a Harvard study found that women who demand more money are perceived as “less nice” (=less likely to be hired).

As infuriating as all of that may be — and, duh, it is — even more so is the fact that no one seems to be pissed off about it. And, I’d venture to say, there are even some among us who read those stats, who are familiar with the surveys and the survey results, and yet, somehow, can’t quite bring ourselves to believe it.

Susan Douglas would diagnose that as a classic case of “Enlightened Sexism,” and her new book on the subject makes a compelling case that, because of all the advances that we have made — and because of a lopsided accentuating of the positives (so sugar and spiced and everything niced are we!), the stereotypes, inequities, and biases that would have once been called sexist go unnoticed. Turn on the TV, she says: there are women doctors, women lawyers, women detectives and DAs and Hillary Clinton and Oprah to show you: See? We have come a long way, baby! But all that rose-colored imagery doesn’t exactly reflect reality. For instance, here’s something you might not have realized:

The four most common female professions today are: secretary, registered nurse, teacher, and cashier–low-paying, “pink collar” jobs that employ 43 percent of all women. Swap “domestic help” for nurse, and you’d be looking at the top female jobs from 1960, back when want ads were segregated by gender.

It’s all rather depressing, but, at the same time, not: those ladies at Newsweek? They’re putting it out there, putting themselves out there, calling it like they see it — like they live it. (And maybe even calling themselves Feminists, too.) And what they’re putting out there, what they’re calling, seeing, and living, is this: the job’s not done yet. Maybe they’ll be some of tomorrow’s leaders–any movement that wants to keep moving needs regular shots of fresh blood. And, shhhh: there’s more of us out there. And you know, even the leaders of the old-guard see cause for hope: in a piece just published yesterday, written by none other than The Female Eunuch author Germaine Greer, Greer begins, with characteristic sarcasm, by declaring feminism a failure (and The Female Eunuch not her best work). Eunuchs aside, she ends with a potent call to arms:

The media tend to think that the fantasies they peddle are realer than real. But in the real world, women have changed; bit by bit, they are growing stronger and braver, ready to begin the actual feminist revolution. The feminist revolution hasn’t failed, you see. It has only just begun.

And if that’s the case, there’s only one thing left to say: Bring it.

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Well, I never thought of Alice In Wonderland as a particularly feminist fairy tale of a movie, what with Johnny Depp and all. Alice is, you might note, not much taller than a teapot. But HuffPo blogger Marcia Reynolds apparently sees past the Mad Hatter to find several models of womenpower jumping off the 3D screen:

What I found even more interesting than the 3D effects was the way the three female characters used their power. The Red Queen chopped the heads off of anyone who disagreed with her. The White Queen, due to her commitment to peace and the sanctity of life, could not defend herself. Alice had to learn how to claim her power, slay evil, be benevolent instead of brutish when the situation called for compassion and above all, take charge of her own life and destiny. The distinction in the uses of power is important to realize for all women, young and old.

Interesting, that. Reynolds goes on to mention other movies, too, where the girls, no longer “damsels in distress”, become take-charge chicks, who not only claim their independence, but their power, too. Even more interesting, she draws a comparison from the likes of Shrek’s Fiona to today’s twentysomething women:

How is this shift playing out in society? According to the Bem Sex Role Inventory, an increasing number of college-age women demonstrate qualities that are traditionally used to define masculinity, such as being self-reliant, independent, able to defend one’s beliefs, willing to take risks, and able to make decisions easily. However, these women also score high on traditionally feminine traits such as sociable, compassionate, understanding, and eager to work with others. The results demonstrate that women aren’t becoming more like men. They are becoming stronger as women.

As self-images go, darn good: You can do anything! You can do everything! The scary old dragon? Slay it yourself! And you can do it in Manolos… But here’s where the message slides down the rabbit hole: With all those options, with all those expectations, comes pressure. Pressure to commit to one option, when you now know something better might be waiting right around the corner. Pressure to please that iconic self, whether it be Alice or Fiona. Pressure to do it all — set up shop in the corner office, but don’t forget the cupcakes.

And pressure to be perfect when, in many cases, good enough is, you know, good enough. As we learned from Barry Schwartz, the guru of choice psychology, when options increase, expectations do, too. You tell yourself that with so many options, one of them must clearly be perfect. But when it it turns out to be merely good, you can’t help but be disappointed. You should have made a better choice.

That’s where we still have work to do: navigating the choices, dealing with the expectations, and understanding both how far we’ve come — and how far we have to go. Which, in a silly kind of way, brings us back to Alice and his Deppness:

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone: “so I can’t take more.”

“You mean you can’t take less,”said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.” *

* From “The Annotated Alice” by Lewis Carroll.  Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., p. 110

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What do you think Betty Freidan–or Betty Draper for that matter–might say to the idea that, come 2010, women everywhere would be finding their purpose right in their own backyards? Tending to the chicken coops in their own backyards, that is?

Don’t think that would fly?

Peggy Orenstein offers an interesting take on the Extreme-Homemaking-as-Feminism trend in a piece entitled “The Femivore’s Dilemma” in this week’s New York Times magazine, and while I can get behind the sentiment (I’m a card-carrying Pollanite; I’ve seen Food, Inc.; I buy my organic, grass-fed beef from a friend of mine every Saturday at the farmers market and can rant for hours about the environmental degradation wrought by the food industrial complex, and don’t even get me started on the antibiotics…), there’s just something about the phenomenon that ruffles my feathers.

Here’s a bit from Orenstein’s piece:

All of these gals–these chicks with chicks–are stay-at-home moms, highly educated women who left the work force to care for kith and kin. I don’t think that’s a coincidence: the omnivore’s dilemma has provided an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper. ‘Prior to this, I felt like my choices were either to break the glass ceiling or to accept the gilded cage,’ says Shannon Hayes, a grass-fed livestock farmer in upstate New York and author of ‘Radical Homemakers,’ a manifesto for ‘tomato-canning femininsts’.

I mean, on the one hand, it’s earth-mamma cool. Back to nature. Slow. Sustainable. Simple. Hormone-Free. It’s badass in it’s way, and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to accept a brunch invitation from any mother hen who’s literally escorted the eggs from the backyard to the table, never mind who brought home the bacon. Plus–full disclosure–I have several friends who raise their own birds. I dig it. (And, you know, brunch? I’m free.)

But is it really feminism?

Hayes pointed out that the original ‘problem that had no name’ was as much spiritual as economic: a malaise that overtook middle-class housewives trapped in a life of schlepping and shopping. A generation and many lawsuits later, some women found meaning and power through paid employment. Others merely found a new source of alienation. What to do? The wages of housewifery had not changed–an increased risk of depression, a niggling purposelessness, economic dependence on your husband–only now, bearing them was considered a ‘choice’: if you felt stuck, it was your own fault…

Enter the chicken coop.

Femivorism is grounded in the very principles of self-sufficiency, autonomy and personal fulfillment that drove women into the work force in the first place.

It’s such a romantic idea. Living off the land! Chopping the wood for the fires that will heat your home and bathwater! Hunting, foraging, toiling and tilling… you know, working. But how empowering is it really? For an answer, read what former New York City-living, former women’s mag editor Jessie Knadler has to say about her new life–which involves involves all of that… and axe-wielding, produce-canning, jerky-drying, and water-hauling–in the post she published in response to Orenstein’s piece, on her blog “Rurally Screwed.” (Um, awesome, that.)

The irony is that while there’s no question I’m more resourceful and frugal and self-sufficient in my new life, I actually feel like less of a feminist than ever… Instead of feeling proud of myself for all my physical accomplishments, I sometimes find myself wishing that Jake would do more manual labor for me. You know, because he’s a dude and I’m not. I sometimes find myself wanting to hole up in the house and assuage my guilt for not helping him dig a trench to China by baking him cookies, or making him a nice casserole, or some such. Suddenly, dusting the end tables doesn’t seem so bad. Betty Friedan would probably roll over in her grave.

Yowch. I’d say anything that makes dusting the end tables look good qualifies as a pretty serious Con. But what really bothers me about the whole thing is this: is the Extreme Homemaker yet another ideal to which we must aspire, like the cupcake- and Kleenex-brandishing Office Mom? Another iconic self? A perfectionist response to the dilemma of having too many choices and feeling a little insecure about the one we’ve chosen? It kind of reminds me of this quote, from Sandra Tsing Loh in the Cautionary Matrons piece I wrote about awhile back:

In our 20s, the world was totally our oyster. All those fights had been fought. We weren’t going to be ’50s housewives, we were in college, we could pick and choose from a menu of careers… We were smart women who had a lot of options and made intelligent choices… We were the proteges of old-guard feminists… We were sold more of a mission plan and now you guys… Well, sadly, it all seems like kind of a mess. There is no mission. Even stay-at-home moms feel unsuccessful unless they’re canning their own marmalade and selling it on the Internet.

As Orenstein notes, even Hayes acknowledges that such an existence, taken to extremes, can be isolating and crazy-making:

Hayes found that without a larger purpose–activism, teaching, creating a business or otherwise moving outside the home–women’s enthusiasm for the domestic arts eventually flagged… ‘There can be loss of self-esteem, loss of soul, and an inability to return to the world to get your bearings. You can start to wonder, What’s this all for?’ It was an unnervingly familiar litany: if a woman is not careful, it seems, chicken wire can coop her up as surely as any gilded cage.

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So clearly, you don’t often start the day thinking of “The Graduate.” But I was reminded of the iconic film about post-grad angst this A.M. via an op-ed from the Daily Pennsylvanian, written by Juliette Mullin, a senior at Penn, where, Mullin writes, students tend to equate the Penn seal on their diplomas with a six-figure salary.

And what I thought was this: Funny how expectations can do us in. (This seems to be a recurrent theme on Undecided, yeah?) Here’s how Mullin’s piece begins:

Lately, I’ve been having the same conversation on repeat. It doesn’t matter whom I’m talking to or where I am, everyone loves asking the same question: “Do you have plans for next year?”

This question has become such a sore spot for so many seniors at this point in the year that most will flat out preempt it with “I know this is the question we’re not supposed to ask each other but…”

Now it’s not how you ask that bothers me. In fact, unlike most, I don’t even mind being asked. What bothers me is the response I often get when I tell someone my plans are still up in the air — the look of slight pity and concern that I still don’t have my life completely figured out, followed by a weak, “Sorry I asked.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? No matter how old you are. Sure, it’s a question college seniors have been ever asked, and it’s been ever loaded, mixed as it is with curiosity on the part of the questioner (I confess. Often guilty as charged) with just a dash of reproach. But add the expectations that ride the backs of so many women today — Succeed! Excel! Score Trophies! — coupled with the added onus of graduating from a prestigious school like Penn and you’ve got a boatload of angst, according to Mullin, who compares figuring out her future to the stress of taking one more class — but more so:

Unlike our classes, however, we tend to go through this alone, constantly feeling behind the pack. This year, it’s especially tough thanks to the economy. And, of course, it’s all made more stressful by being at a school with such a pre-professional focus.

When Career Services Senior Associate Director Barbara Hewitt used to work at a more “liberal-arts focused school,” she found that the general stress level surrounding the job hunt was not nearly as pronounced as it is at Penn. Here, we look at the students who have already secured well-paid Wall Street or engineering jobs for next year and immediately start to feel like we’re behind.

Which leads us back to expectations. Sure, they help us to move forward, to do our best, yadda yadda. But when they are impossibly high, when the you-can-do-anything mantra becomes part and parcel of the iconic self, well, anything less becomes grounds for disappointment.

Or indecision. That grass over there? Gotta be greener. Let’s check.

Meanwhile, scroll to the end of the story, and you find that our Ms. Mullin seems to have things figured out. At least right now. And I agree with her, but in a much larger sense: no matter your age, your job, your personal goals — life itself is a work in progress. Look at it that way, and you’re less likely to be lusting over that other side of the fence.

Until you get to that mindset, though, what then?

There’s always plastics.

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Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and I spent it wondering how to write about it–without sounding like I’d been body-snatched by Debbie Downer.

(Why? Well, I’m not especially interested in beating a dead horse, but by now you know the score: we’re paid less and underrepresented. Child care and health care are dismal. Our ranking in the World Economic Forum’s international gender equality ratings is an appalling 31st. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but did you hear a single peep about it being International Women’s Day? Did you know that in China, Russia, Vietnam, and Bulgaria, IWD is a HOLIDAY? I wouldn’t have minded sleeping in. After all, sleep is a feminist issue!)

I think more than the inequities that still exist, though, what bothers me is the denial. The feeling that: We don’t need a Women’s Day in the United States! The women’s movement? Been there, done that! Equality? We’re so there. Because, obviously, we’re not. Consider this, from a HuffPo piece written by Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder and executive director of Momsrising.org:

A friend called me today, sharing her delight that her 10 year-old daughter came down to breakfast and wished her a “Happy International Women’s Day!” We wondered how her daughter knew about this important day without her mom telling her, and shared some happy thoughts about our strong, growing, young daughters.

Then the conversation turned: We simultaneously realized that both of our daughters think of International Women’s Day as something we celebrate for women in other countries, not our own.

We wondered, why?

My friend thinks it’s because: “There’s a real disconnect between our desire as parents to tell our girls that they can do anything they want to do in life, and the reality of the challenges that they will later face as women in our own nation.”

This disconnect isn’t unique to my friend and her daughter, it’s a disconnect that we see with policy makers, news reporters, and business leaders as they fail to recognize inequality that women still face in the United States.

The problem is that without recognition, we can’t get to solutions. And solutions are indeed needed.

They are indeed–and, as we’ve mentioned oh, once or twice before, it seems to me that the way in which we frame the issues for which solutions are needed is precisely why there aren’t any. We make them personal (find your own work-life balance much? make time for sleep? follow this man’s three steps to happiness?), and in doing so, we lighten the load, trivialize the deeper issues, and take the burdens off the institutions and put them squarely onto our own backs.

Oh, it was a sad sight. Eating toast (toast! the world’s perfect food!) on the morn of the 100th International Women’s Day, Debbie Downer was threatening to have me for breakfast. (Even despite the fact that, the night before, Kathryn Bigelow had just scored the Oscar’s top two honors–becoming the first female to be named Best Director. The only one… In 82 years… Ack! Do you see how Debbie does it?) But then, a ray of sunlight, in the form of a tweet from Hollee Temple. She thought I’d like the guest post on her blog. And guess what? I did!

First, the intro:

Today we welcome Lisa Tannenbaum to our blog to discuss how she remodeled her job to fit her notions of motherhood — and managed to get promoted with her job-sharing partner. Inspiring!

And inspiring it is. For several reasons. Here’s a taste:

Both Sandy (Tannenbaum’s job-sharing other half) and I have young children; we wanted to maintain our careers with Deloitte, a company to which we are very loyal and from which we have felt that loyalty returned. Deloitte is consistently recognized as a fantastic work environment for women, initiating many creative and innovative work/life balance programs, many of which have become the industry standard… Since we began this endeavor [in 2004], we have become an internal role model for how people can be successful, and even continue to progress, in their careers with such an arrangement.

Did you say “progress”?

There were certainly skeptics… questions about whether our arrangement worked efficiently on all levels. At one point, we actually believed that this job-share may have been a roadblock in our ability to advance. Rather than abandoning the concept, we coordinated our resumes together, posted for jobs together, and even interviewed together. It took a very strong and proven performance history, respected advocates, and finally, as with any workplace innovation, a leap of faith from leaders at Deloitte, but, alas, the answer was ultimately that we could move up the hierarchy–together!

We were promoted in our job-share arrangement to a managerial position. Six months into this new role, things are going very well as we continue to prove ourselves capable of efficiency, imagination, leadership, and teamwork on a daily basis. Trailblazing this arrangement together to a new group of leaders, learning the unique skill set of job-share management, and creating a path for the next generation of career-oriented mothers in the organization is wildly exciting and fulfilling–both as an employee of Deloitte AND as a mom.

Consider Debbie down for the count! And consider this my wish for you, on this very special Day After International Women’s Day: may you find personal success, and the internal strength and the external support you need to make the life you want to live possible. And may your success help to pave the way for the ladies that’ll come after you.

And may your optimism render your own personal Debbie Downer toast.

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Or, how to explain why we spend hours trying to decide between the red one or the blue one.

And sometimes walk away with nothing at all.

There are any one of a number of research studies out there on the science of choice. (You’ll read about many of them in our book, in fact. Stay tuned.) What you find out when you read them is that when we’re undecided, when we can’t figure out what to do with our lives, it’s not necessarily that we’re whiny and wishy-washy, but that some significant shit is going down in the space upstairs.

We’ve talked here about the “Paradox of Choice”, Barry Schwartz’ pivotal book that suggests that, the more choices we have, the more likely we are to be disappointed in whatever we choose. We’ve also talked about “magical number seven”, another well-referenced study from the 1950s that suggests we mortals can only hold seven (plus or minus two) items in the gray matter at any given time. Explains a lot, that one.

But one of the most referenced studies on choice has to be the iconic jam study, where shoppers at Drager’s — a chi-chi Northern California grocery store where you find bottles of imported balsamic vinegar in a glass case under lock and key — were confronted with two displays of jam. One table held six jars, the other 24. The folks at the table of six chose one and walked away happy. But those faced with 24 may have enjoyed the extensive array in front of them — but left empty-handed.

One of the authors of that study was Sheena S. Iyengar, now of Columbia University, who has just come out with “The Art of Choosing: The hidden science of choice.” (In the journalist’s world, this here is called burying the lead. But I digress…) The book is a tapestry of anecdotes, science and pop culture to explain, yet again, why when it comes to choice, less is generally more.

This week, she talked to Salon.com about everything from arranged marriages (not necessarily a bad thing), to ballot order (it screwed Al Gore) and how a blind researcher — Iyengar lost her sight when she was a teenager — understands color (she has an easier time of it.). From that interview:

At one point in the book, you write about the ways names shape color preference. How did your blindness affect your ability to research color?

Because I’m blind, I’m not emotionally invested in a particular color or color combination. I’m much more able to discern how invested sighted people are in what looks good and how enormously subjective it is. It was my struggle with color that made me pay so much attention to it. Names of shades of particular colors kept changing — along with the idea of what color should go with what others.

Sighted people’s emotions are tied not just to what they’re seeing but what they’re feeling while they’re seeing. If you walk up to a sighted person and say that outfit just doesn’t go, or that their makeup is cakey, they’ll say, “How can you be so cruel?” It’s because you’re commenting on the person’s judgment. Now imagine if you’re blind, and you don’t have an emotional investment in that. If somebody tells me my makeup is caked, I’ll go, “Oh, I’ll fix it.”

Is it really true that Al Gore would have won the 2000 election if his name had been first on the ballot?

Oh yeah. This is research done by John Krosnick at Stanford. It’s estimated that Bush coming first on the ballot cost Gore 2 percent of the vote, which in that election was critical. Why do we vote for the first person? When you open up a menu in a restaurant the first dish serves as your reference point, when you interview people for a job the first person serves as a reference point; it’s just human nature.

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Here’s something you might not know: a writer generally spends as much (or more) time cutting words as writing them. And it can be heartbreaking–once you finally have your thoughts out and onto the page in clear, organized, rhythmic form, the last thing you want to do is commence a blood bath. But, assignments usually come with a word count, and editors don’t take kindly to egregious over-writing. (Egregious? Gone!) What to keep? What to cut? Every piece entails countless such decisions. So, how do we decide? A lot of ways, but there’s a saying among writers: Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings.

(I know; it’s a tad dark. But haven’t you heard? Writers are morbid.)

(Note: parenthesis are a one-way ticket to the cutting room floor.)

The idea here is that, sometimes, we come up with a clever little turn of phrase, metaphor, anecdote, or some other word-heavy sentiment that’s quite pleasing to our writerly soul. So pleasing that, when we’re going over (and over, and over) our story, looking for unnecessary, or repetitive, or ineloquent words to get rid of, we don’t even think about axing them. We adore them so much, they’re not even on our radar.

So, if we love them so, what’s up with the kill ’em edict? Because often, they’re unnecessary. They don’t offer much in the way of facts or clarification or color. Cleverly-constructed though they might be, more often than not, they’re just a waste of space. And the truth of the matter is that a story is usually a lot better after passing through the hands of a ruthless editor.

Speaking of ruthless editors, the inspiration for today’s post was the film “The September Issue,” which I saw this weekend. In it–a documentary about the making of Vogue magazine’s September 2007 issue–there is one story line that stands out. Creative Director Grace Coddington–a bonafide genius, by the way (and, by the way, any phrase that includes ‘by the way’ would be out without a second thought)–orchestrates one shoot in particular that becomes her undeniable darling. And with good reason; to say the 1920s-inspired images, shot by Steven Meisel, are transcendent would not be much of an exaggeration. But, there were a lot of shots. And Coddington loved every single one of them. But, after a cursory review, Anna Wintour was quick to get rid of several of Coddington’s favorites, whittling the story down to a precious few pictures. Coddington was crushed.

After the fact, though, what did she have to say about it? Check this quote (and maybe take it with a grain of salt; it’s from an interview for Vogue’s website, about the film):

I also believe that everyone needs an editor. What [Wintour] does is edit and make my work stronger.

What does any of this have to do with anything? Well, it occurs to me that maybe, when it comes to the big life decisions, the many paths we find ourselves facing, we’d do well to wield the proverbial red pen. And, even, god forbid, to take it to some of our darlings. Maybe some of the energy we expend clinging to certain options would be better spent devoted to the few that really could work.

Maybe we’ve always wanted to sail around the world solo, write a novel, get our PhD–they’re lovely dreams, so we refuse to let them go. Despite the fact that we’ve never learned to sail, have no idea how to go about crafting a work of fiction, and, though we like how those extra letters look after our names, we have zero interest in actually doing the work required to earn them. It hurts to cross them off the bucket list–and, in a way, such an idea amounts to blasphemy to anyone weaned on the idea that she can be anything she wants–but I do wonder: as with a well-edited story, might our lives be stronger if we could just let them go?

And now (in honor of me finally accepting that a slot on Vogue‘s masthead is not likely in the cards–and because I have no editor), some gratuitous fashion porn.


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