Archive for September, 2011

And so a self-assured, kick-ass student we’ll call Jena followed me up to my office after the first day of class last week.  We made some idle chit-chat for a minute or two and then she got down to it:  She wasn’t sure she was going to stick it out.  Why?  For the first time ever, she confessed, a class had scared her shitless – as in, a knot in her stomach that kicked her clear out of her comfort zone.

To which my only response was this: “That’s terrific.”

Fear can be the best signal that you’re about to grow, to learn something new, to take a taste of something you thought was beyond you.  Harness it, and it’s often a source of power.  It’s all about stretching the muscles, as Salon’s Cary Tennis wrote to a teary grad student who was ready to flick it all in:

It hurts. You feel weak at first. Then you keep doing it and you get the muscles. Then you can do things you couldn’t do before.

It will always hurt a little. If it doesn’t hurt a little you’re not doing it right.

Love that. All of which got me thinking about the danger of the comfort zone, that safe little territory that keeps us from taking risks.

Now, you’ll never catch one of us (okay, me) jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.  Or white-water rafting.  Or even climbing to the top of a ladder.  But the two of us do share a healthy love of the kind of risk-taking that pushes women to throw themselves out there, to make those leaps of faith that get us past our initial fears.  In fact, what we believe is that the minute we realize we’re afraid to do something new, afraid to ask for what we want, maybe that’s precisely when we should jump out of the proverbial plane.  Men do that. Why shouldn’t we?

Take the case of Abby, a smart twenty-something we interviewed for our book.  She started out in journalism, left that gig for a job doing PR for a nonprofit, and then traded that one for a job doing PR for another nonprofit. She loved the job at first, but soon outgrew it, and interviewed for two new jobs – one that was merely good, and the other that was great.  She felt good about both interviews, and put in her two-weeks notice.  Risky business, right? That same day, she was offered the merely good job – but heard nothing from the great one.  So she played some guts ball.  She turned down the offer from the merely good job – and waited for an offer for the job she really wanted.  A few days later, it came.

Clearly, it could have gone either way.  But she made a choice, took a risk, and look how it turned out.

The conventional wisdom is that risk-taking is linked to testosterone, that women aren’t all that good at it.  But what we wonder is this: is risk-taking defined solely in terms of skateboarding without a helmet or driving too fast on curvy roads?  And is it nature or nurture, in that we girls have been conditioned to believe that our role is to play it safe?  Have we been too protected by doting parents who decided their role was to save us from ourselves?

Boys will be boys, but girls should be safe?

A recent study out of Columbia University suggests that gender disparities when it comes to risk taking may be different than what we assume.  It’s all pretty complex, writes Rick Nauert PhD, Senior News Editor of Psych Central:

Men are willing to take more risks in finances. But women take more social risks—a category that includes things like starting a new career in your mid-30s or speaking your mind about an unpopular issue in a meeting at work.

The researchers say that experience greatly influences the type of risk-taker a person may become and this explains why women and men perceive risks differently.

“If you have more experience with a risky situation, you may perceive it as less risky,” [said Bernd Figner, Ph.D., who cowrote the paper with Elke Weber, Ph.D]

Differences in how boys and girls encounter the world as they’re growing up may make them more comfortable with different kinds of risks.

Stuff to think about, right?  Meanwhile, back to Jena.  Day two, there she was.  Sitting front and center, flashing me a smile.  Giving it a shot.  And looking confident, indeed.

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Oy. You’ve surely seen the headlines by now: Women in charge have less sexToo bossy to make love: Women who make all the decisions at home pay the price in passion!

The message is clear: The stronger the lady, the less likely she is to get laid.

The thing is, though, that’s not exactly the case. The flurry of salacious news items all refer to a recent study out of John Hopkins University, which found that, of the women surveyed–women from six African countries–the more decisions they were responsible for, the less often they had sex. But the bit that gets left out of the headlines is, according to study co-author Carrie Muntifering, in places such as the countries where the study was conducted, this is likely a good thing, indicating more control over their sex lives.

What grates is the way such results are parlayed in our neck of the woods — where, in fact, more equality has been shown to be associated with more nookie, not less — as though women had better absolve themselves of any decision-making power, lest those decisions become the only form of action they can count on getting. And look at the judgment in some of that language: Bossy? Seriously? (And when you click on that one, the top of your browser will read: Desperate Housewives. Nope, not kidding.) Even leaving the (admittedly obnoxious) semantics aside, you gotta wonder: why is our first instinct to take a study like this–one that, for all intents and purposes, has precious little to do with us–and spin it in such a way as to strike the greatest amount of fear possible into our collective hearts? It’s all yet another way in which women are led to question the way we’re living, to worry over being too fill-in-the-blank and not fill-in-the-other-blank enough, and yet another way in which we’re faced with the false dichotomy that refuses to die: successful or sexy, ladies, not both.

Interestingly, the same day my inbox was assaulted with these headlines, I came across a couple more, about Iris Krasnow’s new book, “The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes To Stay Married.” For her book, Krasnow interviewed 200 women, and found that

The happiest wives have a sense of purpose and passion in work and causes outside of the home. Wives who counted on a spouse for fulfillment and sustenance were often angry and lonely.

Huh. What do you know? Independent women have happier relationships? There’s a headline I’d love to see.

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Let me begin by telling you about the best baby shower I never went to. It was in honor of the daughter of a good friend who lived far, far away from most of us who knew her well. But she and her husband were, like all new parents, still in need of a great deal of baby-stuff.

And so her family gave her a “virtual” shower.  Which I thought was effing brilliant. You send a gift. You don’t have to go.

Those of you who have been on the tour undoubtedly know the obligatory torture known as the baby shower.  You give up a Saturday to make polite chit-chat with semi-strangers, rehash childbirth memories, rhapsodize about how motherhood is the ultimate fulfillment, play silly games like guess the circumference of the new mom’s belly, then ooh and ahh for the great unveiling of the gifts, some of which defy explanation.

All without benefit of cocktails.

Okay, I exaggerate. Don’t get me wrong.  I have nothing against motherhood.  I’m a mom myself and have loved (almost) every minute of it. I had a mom of my own, and I loved her dearly.  And, truth be told, I’ve played host to a number of baby showers myself.  But if you’ve been to your share of these blessed events, you probably catch my drift.

So you can imagine my glee when I found out that new dads are getting into the act as well. The idea is that, since men are becoming more involved at home, wanting to play a bigger role in raising their families, they should inaugurate their new role with showers of their own.

They call them “diaper parties”. Or Dadchelor parties.  Or, alternatively, “diaper kegs.”

Sigh. Bring on the beer bong.

Writing in the San Jose Mercury News on Sunday, Jessica Vardigan offered an inside look at the male answer to the baby shower: the man-guests bring boxes of diapers, and for their reward, they drink beer, play poker and watch TV sports with the daddy-to-be.  According to the experts quoted in Vardigan’s piece, the point is “to support the parent-to-be as he transitions into this new life passage.”

“Men are much more involved in the baby world than they were even a generation ago, so cultivating networks with like-minded guys is just as crucial as it is for Mom, says Judy Levit, an Oakland marriage and family therapist.

“They don’t talk about their feelings, but they know why they’re there,” Levit says of diaper parties. “If they’re going to be up all night with the baby and changing diapers, they need guys they can talk to. If they’re going to be supporting their wives, they need support.”

Right. ABC’s Nightline, too, tracked the new trend on Tuesday night with a piece about the send-off for an expectant, and soon-to-be-engaged, dad who decided to go big: he and his diaper-bearing buddies hopped aboard a party bus en route to a casino – for a blissful night of drinking, dancing and gambling.

Even the Life of Dad blog weighed in with a to-do list for putting together a dad-chelor party of one’s own, complete with a list of suitable venues, party foods (Dorito pie, anyone?), cocktail recipes, and party games, such as “Drink With me, Elmo”.  I think it was a send-up. Or so I hope.

I do get the concept, really I do:  Giving new dads a chance to bond over this life passage, where the expectant pop garners support from the other guys who have already been there. And clearly, I think we all could agree that these diaper parties are probably a lot more fun that the traditional baby shower.

But isn’t there something here that’s just a little bit off?  For all our talk about changing gender roles, household equality, and involved parenthood, it seems that the diaper party is just as wrong as the traditional baby shower in that both reinforce the stereotypical gender roles we think we’ve left behind.  Over here, we’ve got Lady Madonna, born to breed and keep a happy home.  And over there, we’ve got the clueless, beer-belching Homer Simpson.

The other thing is, it’s just not fair: we’d all rather drink beer and even watch football than drink punch and coo over nipple brushes.

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What if the surest indicator of your future success–of living a happy, meaningful, and productive life–is how good you are at failing?

Brace yourselves, perfectionists, because the evidence is mounting: in order to fly, you’ve first got to fail. And (worse!) how well you fail may be one of the biggest predictors of success. Bigger even than, say, IQ. Paul Tough’s recent piece in the New York Times, entitled “The Character Test: Why our kids’ success–and happiness–may depend less on perfect performance than on learning how to deal with failure,” looks at character-development programs in two schools–one school affluent, one not; both programs inspired by the character strengths inventory developed by Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson–which seem to show that the kids who move through failures with a mindset of looking at them as learning experiences are much more equipped for success in life. Of course, in order to move through a failure, they have to be allowed to fail. An issue about which Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School–one of NYC’s most prestigious private schools–is worried:

People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SATs, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, I think they’re going to be screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to handle that.

It’s a bit like the kid who eats the occasional fistful of dirt, versus the one whose every move is greeted with an anti-bacterial wipe. Sure, one will get dirty (and perhaps cooties)–but, long term, whose immune system is going to be stronger?

When it comes to failure, the trick is being able to look at it objectively: easier said than done, when you’re in the midst of being dressed down in the boardroom or rejected in the bedroom. And for women, as we explore in Undecided, there are even more complications: often we’re carrying the weight of some great expectations–whether our own, or those of our (real and proverbial) mothers who never had the opportunity we do–born of the well-intentioned message that we can do anything! (And that we’re so lucky that we can do anything.) And the kicker: we’re doing it blind! After all, as Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote,

We don’t have centuries of educated, autonomous female  role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map.

You look at it that way, and it seems we’ve all been set up for failure! But might that be a good thing–if only we could figure out how to fail well? Tom Brunzell, Dean of Students at Kipp Infinity School in the Bronx, says of the “character conversations” that have infiltrated all aspects of the curriculum:

what’s going on… isn’t academic instruction at all, or even disciple, it’s therapy. Specifically, it’s a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy, the very practical, nuts-and-bolts psychological technique that provides the theoretical underpinning for the whole positive psychology field. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, involves using the conscious mind to understand and overcome unconscious fears and self-destructive habits, using techniques like “self-talk”–putting an immediate crisis in perspective by reminding you of the larger context… “I mean, it’s middle school, the worst years of their lives. But the kids who make it are the ones who can tell themselves: ‘I can rise above this little situation. I’m OK. Tomorrow is a new day.”

It’s tough not to let our ego get in the way (even when we know there are worse things than messing up or being wrong), but when we succumb to that knee-jerk defensiveness (a “baby attack,” in KIPP school parlance), we deprive ourselves real growth. What if we could just tell our ego to chill, and take a minute to observe: what can this situation teach me about the areas where I have a little room for improvement? What can I do better next time? (And then, the fun part: holy crap! Imagine how successful I could be if I could figure out a way to get better at the things I’m not as good at yet!)

The thing is, blowing it every once in a while is inevitable: we might as well do it well.

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Remember Hanna Rosin?  She’s the author of last year’s controversial “End of Men” cover story in The Atlantic that suggested that because women do better in school, earn over half the college degrees, and are soaring into the professions, a matriarchy is precious minutes away.

Wednesday, she was interviewed over at Slate where, in anticipation of a Slate/Intelligence Squared U.S. debate on Sept. 20 — and possibly to pimp the publication of her upcoming book on men’s demise — she held fast to her premise that women indeed are poised to dominate.

We’ve done a bit of kvetching about her theory, which is to say: we disagree.  Sure, women may be doing better in school, but we’re still up against the pay gap and glass ceiling at work and the second shift at home.  And that’s only half the story.

What left us scratching our heads on Wednesday was the mental juxtaposition of Rosin’s end-of-men business with the national poverty stats, just released by the Census Bureau. In case you missed the memo, the numbers showed that, as of 2010, 15.1 percent of all Americans are living in poverty (defined as an income of $22,314 or less for a family of four), the highest rate since 1993.  That’s a staggering — and embarrassing — 46.2 million people, the largest number of poor Americans since estimates were first published 52 years ago.

In addition, the data showed that the poverty rate for children under 18 was 22 percent – over one-fifth of all kids in America.

Horrifying, right? But what you had to search hard to find – and probably didn’t, at least in the mainstream media — was an even more horrifying breakdown of those stats by gender. According to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center, for households headed by a single woman, the poverty rate was 31.6 percent.  For those headed by a single male, the rate was about half that: 15.8 percent. And among women who head families, 4 in 10 (40.7 percent) lived in poverty (up from 38.5 percent in 2009).

There’s more. The Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund drilled down the data a little further and found the raw numbers – not to mention the way the gender gap has been ignored —  even more unsettling:

In 2010, adult woman were 29 percent more likely to be poor than adult men, with a poverty rate of 14.5% compared to a 11.2% rate for adult men. There were 17.2 million poor adult women compared to 12.6 million poor adult men.

In their analysis, they found that Census stats revealed “a deep gender gap in poverty rates, even when factors such as work experience, education, or family structure are taken into account.” For example:

* women who worked outside the home in 2010 were 22 percent more likely to be poor than men who worked outside the home, with a poverty rate of 7.7% compared to 6.3% for men.

* While education reduces the likelihood of being poor for both men and women, women are more likely to be poor than men with the same level of education. In 2010, at every education level women were again more likely to be poor than men.

* The 37.1% poverty rate for single parents in 2010 was 4.2 times the 8.8% poverty rate for married parents. However, comparing married parents with all solo parents gives a misleading impression of the significance of family structure by concealing the sharp difference in poverty rates between solo fathers and solo mothers. The 40.7% poverty rate for solo mother families was 68 percent greater than the 24.2% rate for solo father families.

We’re baffled.  How exactly does one reconcile the fact that women are more likely than men to be poor with this so called “end of men” nonsense? Rosin herself, back on Slate, concedes that the dominance of the alpha-gals she writes about is not quite all it’s cracked up to be:

The dominance of women is a good and a bad thing. If you take the non-college-educated class, for example, the women are really, really struggling. They’re holding down the jobs, they’re going to school, they’re raising the kids. One economist calls that situation “the last one holding the bag” theory. In other words, the reason that women are doing better than men is because the children are with them, and so they have to make ends meet. So they hustle in order to make ends meet, but their lives are really, really hard, and it’s terrible for the children. And the fact that about one-fifth of American men are not working—we’re almost at Great Depression levels—that’s really terrible. And it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. So, no, this isn’t like, “yay, we won! yay, we triumphed!” It’s actually really bad. 

And so we wonder. Isn’t all this chat about the “End of Men” just more backlash?  A smokescreen that keeps us from tackling deeper and more serious issues that won’t go away?  We vote yes.  Especially given the fact that the only place, outside of the classroom, where women appear to be dominating is in the poverty stats.

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Be authentic. What does that even mean, anyway? Not a whole hell of a lot, according to Stephanie Rosenbloom in this Sunday’s New York Times. The word, she says, has been watered down to the point of meaninglessness, like so many white wine spritzers. Everyone from Anderson Cooper to Sarah Ferguson to Katie Couric to Michelle Bachmann to the Pope have claimed the descriptor, generally while in the service of selling themselves. (Sales. What’s more inauthentic than that?)

And, as Rosenbloom’s piece points out and as we’ve written before, we’re complicit in this faux-thenticity, too. Think about your Facebook profile–and now imagine what it would look like if it were truly authentic. Take mine, for example: instead of that cute profile pic of me smiling broadly in New Orleans alongside a status update alluding to a highbrow day of writing, my pic might show me sitting at my computer, in the chair I’ve spent so much time in, I’ve literally worn the finish off of it. And if I were to be authentic about it, today’s status update–rather than being glamorous, pithy, or intelligent–might read: Unshowered. Writer’s block. Dining on a spoonful of peanut butter. Had I documented my status last night, I would have seemed the epitome of uncool, when my neighbor’s band practice inspired not my admiration of his creativity or his nascent musical skills, but a lengthy debate on whether or not to call the cops. (I didn’t. Score another one for inauthenticity. They were more terrible than they were loud–and they were window-rattlingly loud.)

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Peggy Orenstein once confessed that, while spending some glorious time with her little girl listening to E.B. White reading Trumpet of the Swan, a nasty thought intruded: How will I tweet this? She admits that the tweet she decided on (“Listening to E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan with Daisy. Slow and sweet.”) was “not really about my own impressions. It was about how I imagined—and wanted—others to react to them.”

Marketing folks might say we’re branding ourselves in our profile pictures, our status updates, our tweets. We say that maybe we’re feeding the iconic self, the self-image we’ve constructed, which, in ways big and small, is the face of our great expectations. (She’s kind of a tyrant, too.) So why do we do it? Are we so desperate for approval that we’d rather pretend to be someone else than our, ahem, authentic self? Women, after all, are raised to be pleasers. Do we feel guilty about veering off the pre-approved path? Where did we become convinced that the faux is any more acceptable than the real? And why, oh why, do we so readily buy into the idea that the images everyone else is presenting are any more real than our own?

Why is it so hard to embrace the idea that, as Wavy Gravy–he of LSD and ice cream fame–put it, we’re all just bozos on the bus, so we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride?

…which is well and good in theory, but who wants to admit to being a bozo? We have images to uphold! And whatever your role, the performance is remarkably similar. Someone asks how you’re doing; you say fine. You ask her; she says fine. Fine, then! We worry what other people think (though we’d never admit it), and, of course, we want to be happy, confident, competent, and successful. So we pretend we are. And, compounding the issue is the fact that the happy, confident, competent, successful self is the self everyone else shows to us, too, which compels us to keep our dirty little secret under even deeper wraps. If she (and she and she) has it together, what the hell is the matter with me??

It’s the open secret Rumi wrote about (and to which Elizabeth Lesser makes beautiful reference here), yet, centuries later, we still feel compelled to keep. And that’s understandable. Who wants to admit to being afraid, uncertain, overwhelmed, clumsy, neurotic, or prone to saying the wrong thing? The thing is, though, all of those things are part of the human condition–and those things and the good things aren’t mutually exclusive. And so why should claiming them be a negative? On the contrary: I think there’s a promise of something pretty awesome that comes when we’re able to own it all. The sky doesn’t fall, but, like the curtain hiding the Wizard of Oz, the blinders do.

And then what might we see? Well, for one thing, maybe a willingness to own our complex, dualistic, not always delightful but utterly human nature can make our choices a little bit clearer. With no one to impress, no images to uphold, we’ve got a lot less to factor in. There’s a freedom there. And power, too: because when we are willing to come out of the I’m Fine! closet, maybe our friends will join us. And that, I’d bet, would make for one hell of a party.

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I almost choked on my Cheerios Wednesday morning when I read about an incomprehensibly sexist tee-shirt that JCPenney had attempted to market to tweener girls. The shirt not-s0-subtly trumpeted the retro stereotype that girls can be smart or they can be pretty.  But never both. Its slogan, emblazoned front and center in colorful girly writing, was this:  “I’m Too Pretty to Do Homework, So My Brother Has to Do it For Me.”

Color me outraged. The design, if you can call it that, featured hearts, flowers and a couple of easy math problems — one of them left undone.

The good news is that thanks to a fast and furious barrage from the twitterverse, JCPenney pulled the shirt off the market and, in fact, apologized. (As an aside, JCPenney has another tweener shirt still on the market.  This one pimps a girl’s best subjects as boys, shopping, music and dancing.)

But the bad news is that they ever came up with any of this backlash-y nonsense in the first place: As if the “too pretty to do homework”shirt itself weren’t enough to set girls back a generation or two, take a gander at the ad copy: “Who has time for homework when there’s a new Justin Bieber album out? She’ll love this tee that’s just as cute and sassy as she is.”

Cute?  Sassy?  Justin Beiber?

The mind boggles and the heart sinks. It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to recognize that when girls are told that they’re no good at something — or that there’s still this false dichotomy between beauty and brains — it often becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. And so we have to wonder: is this kind of messaging one reason why — as Slate writer Shankar Vedantam noted a few months back:

Less than one in five professors of science and math at top research universities in the United States is a woman. The gender distribution of engineers at top Silicon Valley companies is similar to the gender distribution of the audience at your average strip club.

Strip club? Ouch.

Obviously, it’s all a bit more complicated than the outdated message that there’s beauty or there’s brains, and never the twain shall meet. But you have to wonder if these kinds of messages, subtle or otherwise, that we send to little girls often set the stage for deeper obstacles that keep women out of the game when it comes to math and science. Slate’s Vedantam went on to cite a study by Amherst psychologists who found that college women did better in math and science — and felt more comfortable in their abilities — when their professors were also female.

You don’t have to be a science geek to know where this is headed: the subtle discrimination that often impacts our choices.  And part of that discrimination — let’s just call it sexism — may have to do with whether or not we have role modes who look like us and who make us feel that we belong.

An earlier study likewise suggested that women avoid math and science, not because they lack the aptitude, but because they don’t feel welcome. Call it identity threat: women may avoid situations — like math or engineering — when they feel outnumbered. Researchers Mary Murphy, Claude Steele and James Gross found that when women math, science and engineering undergrads simply watched a video that pitched a fictional conference where men outnumbered women, the women 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.

The point? Sometimes it’s the threat, as much as the reality, that does us in. Which could be why we often end up side-stepping opportunities instead of marching right in, loaded for bear. It’s kind of a chicken-or-egg scenario:  Women who want to succeed — in math, science or the corporate boardroom — are more likely to do so if there are other women before them to pave the way. But how do those women get there?

Back to JCPenney and their sexist tee-shirt, the first step may be making sure young girls know that they don’t have to chose between beauty and brains — or Justin Beiber and schoolwork.  And that, when it comes to their homework, they can do as well as their brothers any day.

Even when it’s math.

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