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Archive for January, 2013

thumbnail[2]If we want to close the ambition gap, a good first step might be learning how to shake our heads.

There’s this great quote from Feminist icon Germaine Greer: When we talk about women having it all, what they really have all of is the work.”  She was being somewhat facetious.   But then again, not so much.

Which leads me to wonder: Would women be more powerful if we could just say no?  A couple of recent studies just say yes.

Some say that women are hard-wired to please.  Others say we’re socialized that way.  In either case, we see it all the time:  Good little girls doing as they’re told at home, eager for the stamp of approval from mommy or daddy.  Older girls sitting still in class and turning in their homework on time to please their teachers.

But what’s surprising is that, according to a new study, even those of us raised with the “you go, girl” rhetoric never seem to outgrow our eagerness to please.  According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal, a paper presented at the American Economic Association meeting earlier this month confirms that even when we grow up, we’re much more likely to say “yes” when we want to say “no”.

The study focused on 47 business-school students who were asked to recall a time when they were asked to do a favor on the job when they really didn’t want to.  And guess what?

The female participants did the favor, even though they were five times more likely than males to report having felt worn out. Perhaps they obliged because they were also twice as likely to have been worried about the consequences of saying no.

Ya think?  The researchers further postulated that this willingness to do favors  “may lead them to become overburdened with low-skill tasks.”

In other words, when we find ourselves locked into a continuing chorus of “Sure, I’ll be happy to…”, it not only saps our time, but zaps our power as well.

So much for the need to say no when we’re at work.  Head on over to the homefront and you find another related power drain:  According to a new study out of The University of California at Berkeley and Emory University, women who rule the roost at home are less likely “to pursue promotions and other career advancement steps at the office.”  In other words, when you’re the CEO at home, you’re much less likely to ever come close to the C-suite at work:

“It appears that being in charge of household decisions may bring a semblance of power to women’s traditional role, to the point where women may have less desire to push against the obstacles to achieving additional power outside the home,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Serena Chen, a co-author of the study.

Despite the feminist movement and other gender equity efforts, women largely retain authority over child-rearing and household chores and finances, with men deferring to their expertise in these matters, researchers point out. This paradigm has had an impact on women’s career choices, the study implies.

Whether all this power over domestic decisions takes away our ambition by fulfilling our innate need for power – or simply drains our energy– who knows for sure. But, says Chen, when it comes to seizing power in the workplace, we ought to let some go at home. Women need to “at least partially abdicate their role of ultimate household deciders, and men must agree to share such decision making.”

In other words, there’s only so much of us to go around, and we should use ourselves wisely.  The first step might be to reconsider the messaging we’ve been raised with: As we’ve written here and in our book, told we can have it all, we heard we must do it all. Told we can do anything, we heard that we could do everything —  and we’d better do it perfectly. We are told to be grateful for all the choices we have, and, of course, we are, but the one crucial message that never got sent was this: every choice entails a trade-off.  If you’re doing A, you can’t be doing B.

Or, in light of the studies above, you can’t be doing favors for someone else at work, and still have time to charge ahead on your own projects.  Nor, apparently, can you run the household like a CEO — and have any mojo left when it comes to climbing the ladder at work.  Which is to say, we need to give ourselves permission to let go.  Or even abdicate.  Even if it means that some things get done less than perfectly.  Or not at all.

When you think about it, it’s all pretty simple.  All we need do is learn to say no.

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It’s easy to be appalled by things that happen elsewhere: the brutal, horrifying rape of the 23 year-old Indian student, so violent that she died of her injuries. Malala Yousufzai, the 15 year-old Pakistani schoolgirl/activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban. It’s easy to feel a sort of removed pity in the face of such tragedies. But what we should feel is urgency, and responsibility.

And not just because gender violence happens here, too. In Steubenville, Ohio, an equally despicable incident happened last August, when an unconscious 16 year-old girl was carried from party to party, and raped over and over again.

It would be hard to carry out such acts on someone you saw as human, equal and valuable. It would be hard to carry out such acts if such acts were (loudly) understood to be completely unacceptable.

Reading Sunday’s New York Times, I was struck by two pieces: Nicholas D. Kristof’s excellent “Is Delhi So Different From Steubenville?,” and Maureen Dowd’s article about the lack of women appointed to top spots by President Obama so far. When it comes to policy and representation, is the U.S. doing as well as it could? Hardly.

As Kristof writes,

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has done a superb job trying to put these issues on the global agenda, and I hope President Obama and Senator John Kerry will continue her efforts. But Congress has been pathetic. Not only did it fail to renew the Violence Against Women Act, but it has also stalled on the global version, the International Violence Against Women Act, which would name and shame foreign countries that tolerate gender violence.

Congress even failed to renew the landmark legislation against human trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The obstacles were different in each case, but involved political polarization and paralysis. Can members of Congress not muster a stand on modern slavery?

(Hmm. I now understand better the results of a new survey from Public Policy Polling showing that Congress, with 9 percent approval, is less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams, lice or Genghis Khan.)

We can’t let Congress off the hook when it comes to these policies. According to Politifact, “On Dec. 11, 2012, U.S. Representative Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) and 119 other members of Congress signed a letter calling on House leaders to hold a vote on re-authorizing the Violence Against Women Act.” That vote never happened.

But there’s more than policy to consider. As Dowd writes, citing New York Magazine, apparently Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has a better record of appointing top women than Obama. Here’s a bit more from her:

‘We don’t have to order up some binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women’ to excel in all fields, the president said on the trail, vowing to unfurl the future for ‘our daughters.’

It may be because the president knows what a matriarchal world he himself lives in that he assumes we understand that the most trusted people in his life have been female–his wife, his daughters, his mother, his grandmother, his mother-in-law, his closest aide, Valerie.

But this isn’t about how he feels, or what his comfort zone is, or who’s in his line of sight. It’s about what he projects to the world–not to mention to his own daughters.

What’s the connection, though, between getting women into top spots, and gender violence throughout the world?

It’s not just that women in such positions are more likely to give voice to the global issues often sidelined as “women’s issues.” It’s not just the inherent value in diversity, in having a broad range of voices and perspectives involved in the decision-making process. It not just “the optics”–the fact that seeing women standing next to the President might inspire a young girl to aim high, or subtly nudge the consciousness of those who see her there in the direction of expecting to see women in top spots. It’s all of it, and more. Consider this, from Kristof’s piece:

Skeptics fret that sexual violence is ingrained into us, making the problem hopeless. But just look at modern American history, for the rising status of women has led to substantial drops in rates of reported rape and domestic violence. Few people realize it, but Justice Department statistics suggest that the incidence of rape has fallen by three-quarters over the last four decades.

Likewise, the rate at which American women are assaulted by their domestic partners has fallen by more than half in the last two decades. That reflects a revolution in attitudes. Steven Pinker, in his book ‘The Better Angels of our Nature,’ notes that only half of Americans polled in 1987 said that it was always wrong for a man to beat his wife with a belt or a stick; a decade later, 86 percent said it was always wrong.

Will having more women in high-level positions eliminate all gender violence? No. But the correlation between the “rising status of women” and drops in rates of rape and domestic violence is not coincidence. There’s a link to seeing women in power–and empowered–and seeing them as equals. And when we see others as equals, we tend to treat them that way. Will policies like the Violence Against Women Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act eliminate all gender violence? No. But it will make crimes more easily prosecutable. All of it matters; every bit counts. It’s tragic that here, and all over the world, there are those who see women as targets. We should be doing all we can to change that.

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