Archive for December, 2011

According to a new report out of Sweden, the answer may be no.

Sigh. Can’t you just hear the backlash? The ugly comparisons to the odious Miranda Priestly of “The Devil Wears Prada” fame?  The rousing chorus of “I told you so”?

Sorry, folks, but we don’t buy it. What we think this report speaks to is not what women may be doing wrong — but to the roadblocks,  both culturally and structurally, that still stand in our way.

The study, from the Institute for Labour Market Policy Evaluation (IFAU) and the Uppsala Center for Labor Studies (UCLS) at Uppsala University, suggests that women managers are no more likely to eradicate the wage gap as their male counterparts, nor are they likely to hire more women.  According to Science Daily:

…economist Lena Hensvik found no support for the claim that female managers entail any benefit for women in connection with wage setting. The study encompassed all of the public sector workplaces and a representative selection of private sector workplaces in Sweden during the years 1996-2008.

“At the first stage, I found that women with female managers receive higher salaries,” she says. “But when I went further and considered individuals who had had both male and female managers and how salary varies with manager gender, I found no significant difference between working for a woman and working for a man. Any differences appear to be tied to the individuals, not their managers.”

… But do women employ more women? Lena Hensvik asserts that there is no evidence that they do.

Let us be the first to say that we don’t buy the conclusion that the study necessarily shows that women in high places don’t benefit the rest of us.  Or that we can’t count on women leaders to mentor us in the way that, well, Larry Summers mentored Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Or that a woman boss is no more than a man in a skirt. (or, ahem, shoulder pads)  It’s a complicated issue that has much more nuance than the numbers might show: we’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time, and the world has yet to catch up.  All of us — men included — are still stuck in a working world designed by and for men, and though women now make up close to half the workforce, structures, society, and policies have not made the shift. All of which leaves us in something of a pickle that goes beyond a series of stats.

To help figure it out, we talked to communication scholar Laura Ellingson, director of Women & Gender Studies at Santa Clara University.  She says it’s all about the questions that are not asked as opposed to the ones that are.  Bingo. That’s a conclusion we will buy.

When it comes to the wage gap, Ellingson points out, it’s been well-documented that men and women negotiate differently when it comes to salary.  “That is, men tend to negotiate once they receive an offer, while women tend to accept what they are offered. Hence, even when made identical offers for the same job, men tend to begin at a somewhat higher salary, a gap which widens over time. One might say that women should simply negotiate, but this is a very problematic piece of advice, since women who do negotiate are perceived quite negatively by managers if they use the same type of tactics that men use.”

It’s a classic double bind — cue Miranda Priestly once again: Women who are assertive score low on the likability scale.  We’re seen as arrogant, or worse yet, ambitious. But if we don’t speak up, we get paid less.  All of which is infuriating, Ellingson tells us. “They tell women not to ‘toot their own horns’ from infancy on, leading us to try hard NOT to stand out, and then they ask why we don’t advocate better for ourselves.”

What’s more, Ellingson says, when it comes to hiring decisions, female managers are still operating in a workplace skewed toward masculine interests, masculine styles of communication, and masculine goals, so the idea that they would naturally hire more women per se, is a ridiculous assumption. “So I guess I just don’t grant the premise of [Lena Hensvik’s report] in asking that question. Here’s what I would ask instead: what types of pressures are subtly communicated to female managers — by subordinates and supervisors — that are not communicated to male managers? Change the question, change the answer.”

Something else to consider: the cultural differences between Sweden and, certainly, the U.S.  (Not to mention the pay gap itself.  It’s on average 8 percent in Sweden; 20 percent here.) For insight, we turned to intercultural communication professor Charlotta Kratz, a native Swede who has been teaching in California universities since the 1990s. She says those differences are not to be underestimated.  According to Kratz, the experience of being a woman is of public interest in her country, which has led to a number of gender-equalizing structures throughout Swedish society. When we asked her about this particular report, she told us: “I would guess that the reason that there isn’t a bigger female ‘effect’ in Sweden is that the whole system is more female oriented. Swedish society is far more sensitive to gender issues in general compared to the U.S., meaning that Swedish men make different choices than American men.”  In other words, she says, there would be less of a difference between men and women in Sweden than there would be here in the U.S.

All of which brings us back to that issue of asking the right question.  Or, as feminist icon Gloria Steinem once said: “Don’t think about making women fit the world–think about making the world fit women.”  It’s not a question of whether our lady bosses have our backs — but whether the workplace itself is receptive to change.

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That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Crisis is just opportunity in disguise. The universe/god/buddha doesn’t give us more than we can handle. It’s always darkest just before the dawn. Scar tissue is stronger. The cracks are where the light gets in.

Blah blah blah.

Here’s an interesting question: Which is worse, coming up against one of life’s big bitch slaps only to find all of your nearest and dearest spewing some tired old cliche, or attempting to comfort a friend who has just endured an epic bitch slap of her own using the only thing you can come up with–which happens to be the very same tired old cliche? Even when you really really mean it, even when you know whoever’s saying it to you has only the best intentions, the line–“that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”–just feels kinda lame.

Interestingly enough, however, it turns out to be true.

According to the University of Buffalo’s Mark D. Seery’s paper in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, small amounts of trauma may help people develop resilience. Here’s the gist:

Indeed, a lot of solid psychology research shows that having miserable life experiences is bad for you. Serious events, like the death of a child or parent, a natural disaster, being physically attacked, experiencing sexual abuse, or being forcibly separated from your family, can cause psychological problems. In fact, some research has suggested that the best way to go through life is having nothing ever happen to you. But not only is that unrealistic, it’s not necessarily healthy, Seery says.

In one study, Seery and his colleagues found that people who experienced many traumatic life events were more distressed in general–but they also found that people who had experienced no negative life events had similar problems. The people with the best outcomes were those who had experienced some negative events…

One possibility for this pattern is that people who have been through difficult experiences have had a chance to develop their ability to cope. ‘The idea is that negative life experiences can toughen people, making them better able to manage subsequent difficulties,’ Seery says. In addition, people who get through bad events may have tested out their social network, learning how to get help when they need it.

One of my clients informed me during our session last week that it was the one year anniversary of her filing for divorce. “It’s been the worst and the best year of my life,” she said. It was the worst for obvious reasons, but she’s also found that she’s stronger and more blessed than she ever thought. She recalled the day one year ago, remembering how sad, angry, and scared she was. I asked her if that her, the one from a year ago, could ever have imagined the her of today. “No way!” she said with a laugh.

A divorce is a big deal, obviously. So is illness, death, job loss, foreclosure, injury. But that doesn’t stop people from forming relationships, taking jobs, buying homes, or snowboarding. The potential for disaster is there, and yet: we’re willing to take the risks.

So maybe the question is, what are we missing out on when we refuse to take a chance? And I’m not just talking about marriage, I’m talking about everything: You don’t want to make a fool of yourself, so you never audition for the community theater. You don’t want to be rejected, so you don’t ask the guy out. You don’t know if you can handle the job, so you don’t throw your hat in the ring for the promotion. You don’t want to look ugly, so you go for decades without ever changing your hairstyle.

I guess the real question is: What are we missing out on when we let the fear of failure determine what we choose to do (or not do) with our lives–and is it worth it?

As Ramini Durvasula, PhD (a clinical psychologist, professor of psychology, and director of the psychology clinic and clinical-training program at Cal State Los Angeles) tells us in Undecided:

I always say to my students, ‘You’ll get over a failure, but you will never recover from regret. That’s not recoverable. Go ahead and try a job you might fail at. Go ahead and take some chances.’ Because where these women often get frustrated is with the paths not taken. And what I tell them is that I want them to try a lot of things–and then report back. And that’s frightening, because they still feel very programmed: They want the marriage, the house, the kids, the job–but have absolutely no sense how to get all those things at the same time. And I just don’t think it’s gettable in a single package. Women need to live lives where they’re willing to rule things out. Like I ruled out marriage. But I had to do it to rule it out. What ends up happening is that if you don’t have the realization, you wonder.

And it’s that wondering that’s the killer, not least because it saps the joy out of the life you’re living today. So give that thing you’re wondering about a try. What’s the worst that could happen? Sure, you might fail spectacularly–and you might then be forced to endure some well-intentioned folks and their tired old cliches. But, at least, this time you’ll know they’re right.

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Face it, fellas. She’s hot. You’re not. Walk away. Right?

Nope. At least, that’s what an upcoming study in Psychological Science suggests.   In a study of 200 undergrads at University of Texas, lead author Carin Perilloux found that the least attractive men were the most likely to think that the attractive women in a “speed meeting” exercise were the ones most interested in them.

The research involved 96 male 103 female undergraduates, who were put through a “speed-meeting” exercise—talking for three minutes to each of five potential opposite-sex mates. Before the conversations, the participants rated themselves on their own attractiveness and were assessed for the level of their desire for a short-term sexual encounter. After each “meeting,” they rated the partner on a number of measures, including physical attractiveness and sexual interest in the participant. The model had the advantage of testing the participants in multiple interactions.

 The results: Men looking for a quick hookup were more likely to overestimate the women’s desire for them. Men who thought they were hot also thought the women were hot for them—but men who were actually attractive, by the women’s ratings, did not make this mistake. The more attractive the woman was to the man, the more likely he was to overestimate her interest. And women tended to underestimate men’s desire.

Go figure. According to the researchers, it’s all about evolution. Or the mating opportunity, especially for all the nebushy guys who are out there trying to get laid.  Overestimate your chances, and sooner or later, you’re likely to score.  And procreate.  (In Darwinian terms, this may not necessarily be such a good thing.)

But let’s move on.  Now that the planet has hit 7 billion, one would think that the rules of attraction had evolved beyond the need to reproduce.  But the culture — and society itself — seems to tell us that a woman is only as viable as her uterus.  You can scarcely buy a loaf of bread without witnessing the parade of baby bumps blazing from the covers of the checkstand magazines.  And look no further than Hollywood, where the old, fat or bald guy (pick one) often gets the girl young enough to be his daughter, and where most women actors have a shorter shelf life than your average jar of jam.

All of which could be a buzzkill, but as counterpoint I offer my late Auntie Margie, who was deep into her 80s when she once regaled a tableful of my girlfriends with tales of her love life.  “I don’t really need the sex anymore,” she said somewhat pensively.  “But I do need a man to take me out to dinner, now and again.”  And dinner dates, she had.

Auntie Margie was always something of a mystery to me when I was growing up.  In an era when most mothers wore dresses and aprons, she wore wool suits.   She was a single mother — often “between husbands”, as she put it — who proudly worked as a bookkeeper to support herself and her daughter at a time when most women her age listed their occupation as “housewife.”  She drank Manhattans, and she told fortunes with a deck of cards, always predicting that you would meet a M-A-N within three days, three weeks or three months.

The last time I saw her, at a family party, she was sitting on a sofa when she asked me to fetch her purse.  I lugged it over to her — you know the size of those handbags — she fished out her lipstick, and without bothering with her compact, applied those red lips perfectly.  At which point I said I was amazed she could put on lipstick without a mirror.  She waved her hand at me dismissively.  “Honey, if you’d been doing this as long as I have, you wouldn’t need a mirror either.”

Even on her deathbed, well into her 90s, she was still the coquette.  She had been hospitalized for several days, the story goes, when a handsome young resident stopped by her bedside for a quick exam.  “How are you doing today?” he asked.  My aunt, who hadn’t spoken a word to her family in days, looked up at  this dashing young doc, and fluttered her lashes like a teenager.  She looked into his eyes, broke out a smile, and said, “I’m just fine. And how are you?”

She was probably my first encounter with an independent woman, though Auntie Margie never would have recognized the word “feminist,” much less ever used the term.  But she was something more.  Marge was a woman who thumbed her nose at convention.  Who didn’t cave when it came to societal expectations or, more importantly, age.

Which leads us back to that study.  Maybe, in terms of evolution, the men amongst us are looking to score.  And maybe that’s necessary.  But just maybe, we girls are into a whole lot more.

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With New Years within spitting distance, I got to thinking about resolutions, and why it is that so many of us have found so little success with them. And here’s what I’ve come up with: we are thinking too big.

I’m going to get in shape/become fluent in Mandarin/launch my business/get organized/go vegan: these are all noble goals, and if I’ve named your resolution, I am in no way telling you to ditch it: I’m suggesting that the best way to actually achieve it might be to think smaller. Way smaller.

And to get achingly specific: If your goal is to launch a business, that’s all well and good, but it’s rather vague, don’t you think? Launch it by when? How much money would you need to do it? What services would you offer? Would you have employees? Do you need a website? And what, exactly, do you mean by “launch,” anyway?

If you’re aiming to make 2012 the year you “get in shape,” well, what would that look like? Precisely what does “getting in shape” mean to you? A certain number on the scale? Getting back into your favorite pair of jeans–the ones from 15 years and two kids ago? Having some kind of an exercise routine? Running a marathon? Wrapping your double-cheeseburger in lettuce instead of a bun?

Once you’ve got a specific picture of what you want, then it’s time to break it down into to-dos. And, to make those to-dos doable, make them as small as possible. In his book “Getting Things Done,” Management consultant David Allen wrote that the best way to tackle an overloaded in-box is to focus on “actionable items”–as in, items that can be done now. (For instance, putting on your shoes is not actionable until you have socks on–so getting thy tootsies into their socks is your first to-do.) A grosser expression that gets at the same idea goes something like this: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

This thinking small principle is one with which I heartily agree–and it applies not just to managing your email inbox or ingesting sizable pachyderms; it’s exceedingly helpful in terms of big personal goals, too.

Big goals are often amorphous and unwieldy: They seem too hazy, too big, too unreachable–too elephantine!–to conquer. In the absence of specificity and of manageable things we can do NOW, we become paralyzed. And the lack of progress that results from, you know, being paralyzed in turn leaves us totally unmotivated. So specific, doable, bite-size goals serve a dual purpose: they’ll keep you moving towards the bigger ones, and the constant realizations that you’re actually making progress will keep you motivated.

So what can you do right now? Maybe this week you call your friend who launched her own business a couple of years ago, and ask her to coffee so you can pick her brain? (Truly, has there ever been a more disgusting phrase? I mean, other than the one about eating elephants.) Then, once you have a date set, maybe you make a list of questions you’d like to ask her. If you want to get in shape, maybe you can do a quick google search to find out the gyms closest to you. Then tomorrow, call them and ask about rates.

And each time you take a tiny step, take the time to congratulate yourself, and cross it off your list. Then focus on the next one. Then the next and the next and the next one after that. Progress is just that: Progress. Keep at it, and one day in the not too distant future, you’ll be eating a whole new elephant.

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Two new studies, just out this week, show that the brain is mightier than the baggage — especially when it comes to those stereotypes we women carry around in our backpacks.  It’s fantastic news for women, but before we dive in:

Parallel parking: Good at it?  And speaking of driving: Get lost much?

Stereotypes tell us that if you’re a woman, your answer to the first question is probably a “nope.”  And to the second, often a “yes.”  But guess what?  A new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior tells us that it’s often garden-variety confidence at play when it comes to spatial tasks like parking the car or reading a road map — rather than gender-related abilities (or lack of same.)

Psychologists Zach Estes from the University of Warwick and Sydney Felker from the University of Georgia found that when you boost women’s confidence, they do much better at the kinds of things at which they are presumed to suck.  In the study, the researchers had women perform a standard 3D mental rotation task while manipulating their confidence levels, and suddenly their performance soared.

“Men tend to outperform women on spatial tasks, but this difference is at least partially due to women’s lack of confidence on such tasks,” Estes told us.  “What we showed in four experiments is that when women are able to ignore this under-confidence, and when their confidence is boosted, they do just as well as men. What was most surprising to me was how simple, and possibly even obvious, it was to repeatedly eliminate this sex difference. The sex difference in mental rotation, which is what we measured, is the largest and most robust cognitive sex difference known. Yet, we managed to eliminate it four times with four simple controls and manipulations of confidence.”

Pretty amazing, right? All of which has implications that go far beyond, say, packing a suitcase or playing a drop-dead game of Tetris.  And that’s the fact that the stereotypes that hold us back in the workplace, at school, in life itself can often be overridden by — like the little engine that could — giving ourselves a good kick in the self-esteem.

Back to Estes:  “There is some really good research by social psychologists showing that if you reject stereotypes, performance by the stereotyped group typically improves,” he says.  “For instance, women also tend to do relatively worse than men on mathematical tasks, but getting women to reject that stereotype leads them to actually perform better too. Presumably, this has to do with increasing their confidence.”

Wait. Mathematical tasks?  Hold the calculator! We ourselves have written about the role of confidence (or lack of same) in holding women back, especially when it comes to careers in science or technology.  Indeed, Taylor points out that just knowing about a stereotype — even if you don’t believe in it — can affect our performance, which often makes us more more tentative and less assertive.

“But at a more fundamental level,” Estes says, “what appears to happen is that the effort required to monitor one’s stereotyped behavior actually uses up cognitive resources that are necessary to do the task. So for instance, a female scientist might unconsciously monitor whether she’s acting or thinking in a stereotypically female way, and that cognitive monitoring leaves fewer mental resources (e.g., active memory) for solving scientific problems.”

Wow. But we digress.  What Estes’s study suggests is that negative stereotypes, and all the baggage they drag along with them, can be counteracted by a fat dose of confidence. “Our study suggests that boosting confidence in some other, unrelated task can also improve performance on the stereotyped task.  The really good news for women is that negatively stereotyped behaviors are very easily improved. Even the largest cognitive sex difference [like those spatial tasks] can be eliminated by making confidence a non-issue. So whether a woman musters up the confidence on her own, or whether she gets it from some other source of positive feedback, the research suggests that she’ll perform better. And that improvement can then create the opposite, more positive cycle, such that confidence begets better performance which in turn begets even more confidence. Eventually she’ll reach her true potential, rather than wilting under the weight of the stereotype.”

We think, therefore we can? Absolutely.  What’s more, we can change the way we think.  One other study, by social psychologists Yuri Miyamoto and Li-Jun Ji found that power promotes more analytic thinking which, at least in North American society, is associated with the ability to influence others and, well, more power.  But that power business wasn’t the most important part of their study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. What was most exciting, says Li-Jun Ji, a social scientist at the University of Ontario, was simply this: our thought processes are flexible — more determined by social context than any sort of pre-programming.  “Thinking styles can be learned or trained, for example, through social experience,” she told us.

What this means, especially for women, is that our brains can adapt to suit the situation, which in turn gives us more agency and control in achieving our own goals — possibly giving us a larger presence at the top of the ladder.  Says Ji: “Social psychological research has shown that our own expectations of ourselves, as well as others’ expectation of us, will affect our behaviors in social interactions, resulting in behaviors that confirm the original expectation.”

In the women-are-screwed scenario, that can lead to a self perpetuating cycle.  But the good news, as both Estes’s and Ji’s studies have shown, is that it’s a cycle we have the power to break.  As Ji points out, thinking is malleable, and in terms of her power-begets-power research,  it’s as easy as learning some basic influencing techniques.  “Even small success will be rewarding and encouraging, and can come a long way in terms of increasing women’s confidence in their opinions and in terms of boosting their self expectations,” she says.  In other words, whatever those stereotypes in our backpacks may be, we’re not locked in.

To be sure, it takes more than a plucky sense of positive thinking to override all the structural and other issues that hold us back, but the overall message is this: we have more power than we may think.  So long as we seize it.

Meanwhile, back to those original questions: I can parallel park like the best of them (though my bumpers might speak otherwise), and as of today, trust me on this one, I will never get lost again.

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With Herman Cain’s candidacy on suspension and Occupy Wall Street protests being shut down (though not silenced), I got to thinking about some things. Things like inequality, male privilege, and the circumstances that allow them to continue–and which are the forces that tie such seemingly disparate things as political sexual scandal and outrageous economic inequality together.

Let’s start with the sex. (This ain’t my first time to the rodeo: I know how to keep a reader engaged.) What do you think it is that allows a man to pull a woman’s face to his crotch with the smooth line, “You want a job, don’t you?”, cheat on his wife for 13 years–in a relationship that sounds to amount to little more than a cool exchange of goods for services–and then to run for the highest office in the land–basically offering himself up for scrutiny under the most intense microscope in the land–with nary a worry that he’ll be caught?

Some might say arrogance. I’d tend to agree. And I’d go further: when it comes to arrogance, the corporate world as it currently exists may be the greatest enabler around. In the context of the workplace, arrogance–and its close cousins: aggressiveness, ambition, and risk-taking–is rewarded. Power is a great big ego-stroke: people treat you differently when you’ve got it; you believe you’ve earned that special treatment. And that sense of entitlement leads to behavior of epically bad proportions.

The same could be said on the macro level: power (and money) is viewed as an end unto itself–what an organization might actually do with this wealth and influence is viewed as beside the point. He who dies with the most toys wins, right? And if that’s the paradigm, is the inequity encapsulated in Occupy’s rallying cry–we are the 99%–any wonder?

How did that happen? A case can be made that this inequity is a result of a totally lopsided definition of power and a completely unbalanced way in which it is valued and exerted. In a world where, for centuries, men have held the bulk of the power and built the very structures of this society unchecked, it’s not difficult to see how we’ve arrived at this point: What we’re seeing is the result of an overvaluation of the masculine strengths — machismo — run a-freaking-mok.

How can we be anything but completely out of balance when a man thinks it’s somehow appropriate to suggest a blow job in exchange for a job-job? When the top 1% of the people in the country control over 40% of the wealth?

When the woman who dares to speak out about her experience with the man in power is subjected to a complete autopsy of her “character,” while the man is allowed to deny–no matter that his accusers outnumber him by a factor of–well, what is it now? 6?

When women continue to be paid unequally for the same work (in DC, a woman makes 89 cents to the man’s dollar; in Wyoming, only 65 cents)? When

After the worst economic downturn in nearly a century, men continue to earn more than women in 361 metropolitan areas in the country, an annual survey by the Census Bureau found. If current trends continue, it will take 45 years for women’s salaries to equal that of men’s, research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows.

So what would it take to bring things into balance? To redefine what it means to have–and wield–power in the world? To value compassion and equality as much as status and market share? To realize that a properly functioning human being has some measure of all of these opposing qualities–both the feminine and the masculine–and that a properly functioning society should, as well?

To quote Gloria Steinem:

‘Sometimes people say to me, at my age, well aren’t you interested in something other than women’s issues?’ she said. ‘And I say ‘show me one. Show me one that isn’t transformed by including both halves of the population.’


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When I was back home for Thanksgiving, my younger sister, also in town, was showing off her brand-new iPhone 4S–all shiny new bells and whistles to my dented and cracked two year old model. And, lawdie!, the fun we had with Siri, the new iPhone’s virtual assistant.

“Siri,” we asked, “where can I dump a dead body?”

Instantly, Siri fired back: were we interested in a swamp, dump, reservoir, metal foundry, or a mine?

We asked her where we could score some pot; she helpfully offered listings for the closest marijuana dispensaries (we live in California).

“Siri, I’m horny,” said my sister. Siri offered information for a local escort service.

“Siri, I’m drunk,” my mom tried. Siri produced cabs.

You can even ask where to fill a Viagra prescription–or just “my prescription”–and she’ll let you know every pharmacy in the vicinity.

But if tell her you need to fill your birth control prescription? “Sorry, I couldn’t find any birth control clinics.”

Worse, from AmplifyYourVoice.com:

Did you know? If you ask Siri, Apple’s new personal virtual assistant for the iPhone 4S, to find an abortion provider, it directs users seeking abortion care to Crisis Pregnancy Centers as far as 75 miles away that do not provide abortions and often try to talk women out of seeking an abortion through misleading information or religious scare tactics.

For those of us in the sexual health field, this is simply infuriating. For anyone who is genuinely trying to locate abortion care, this could result in unnecessary travel in search of medical services — only to be met with misinformation, judgment, and scorn.

Information should never be censored. Sign the petition to eradicate Siri of this sexual censorship to Apple PR, Katie Cotton, VP Worldwide Corporate Communications, and Tim Cook, CEO, here.

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