Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘“What should I do with my life?”’ Category

I sometimes wonder whether our uber-connection has left us more than a little disconnected.

There’s no denying the ubiquity of iComm.  Long ago, we gave up talking in favor of typing.  (My land line rarely rings.  Does yours?) More recently, email conversations -– thanks to the seductive buzz of the smart phones in our pockets – have given way to pithy texts.

This is especially pronounced among teens, especially girls. (A friend with a teen-aged daughter once told me that their monthly phone bill, which itemized the texts, came in a box, rather than an envelope.)

According to a recent Pew Research Center Report presented at an education conference this week, texting is the dominant form of communication among teenagers – who blast out on average of 60 texts a day.  Some quick numbers from the report’s summary:

·  Older girls remain the most enthusiastic texters, with a median of 100 texts a day in 2011, compared with 50 for boys the same age.

·  63% of all teens say they exchange text messages every day with people in their lives. This far surpasses the frequency with which they pick other forms of daily communication, including phone calling by cell phone (39% do that with others every day), face-to-face socializing outside of school (35%), social network site messaging (29%), instant messaging (22%), talking on landlines (19%) and emailing (6%).

We grown-ups aren’t all that different. That same Pew study reports that what we do most with our cells is text. An earlier Pew study found that adults who text send or receive an average of 41.5 messages a day. Among 18 – 24 year olds, that number soars to 109.5. That’s a lot of LOLs.

Before I go on, let me assure you that I’m as insanely Apple as the next geek. I have an iMac at work, an even newer iMac on my desk at home, and within reach: a MacBook, an iPad, and an iPad.  I’ve also got an iPod, but I’m not sure where. And yet, Apple cliché that I am, I can’t help wondering what we lose when our main form of communication is dependent upon the dexterity of our opposable thumbs.  Call it the curse of the small screen, and smaller keyboard?  Both render writing (or reading) more than a sentence or two a pain in the ass.

Can you go deep without going long?  And do our relationships suffer as a result?

MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of “Alone Together: Why We expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other”, suspects we may be sacrificing intimacy on the altar of instant connection. She agrees that texting is great for keeping in touch, but when texting becomes a replacement for conversation?  That’s where we enter the danger zone.  At a TED Talk earlier this year, she discussed ways in which our instant communication can in fact hide us from each other:

Across the generations, I see that people can’t get enough of each other, if and only if they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control. I call it the Goldilocks effect: not too close, not too far, just right. But what might feel just right for that middle-aged executive can be a problem for an adolescent who needs to develop face-to-face relationships. An 18-year-old boy who uses texting for almost everything says to me wistfully, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

When I ask people “What’s wrong with having a conversation?” people say, “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with having a conversation. It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say.” So that’s the bottom line. Texting, email, posting, all of these things let us present the self as we want to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to delete, and that means we get to retouch, the face, the voice, the flesh, the body — not too little, not too much, just right.

One more presentation of the iconic self?  Communication professor Charlotta Kratz, one of my colleagues at Santa Clara University, hears similar stuff from her students. “They prefer to text because they don’t want to talk to anyone,” she says. “Even talking on the phone is awkward.”  She recalled one student telling her that driving the 30 miles over to Santa Cruz with a group she didn’t know well for a class project was pure hell.

“We talked about generational differences and I told them that their tech non-savvy grandmas would make three new best friends on that car ride,” Kratz said.  “They agreed.”  Still, she says, “I’m not sure we lose anything necessarily [with texting].  I think it’s better to ask how things are different.  People are available 100 percent of the time now, for one thing.”

What’s interesting is that the 24/7 availability comes with its own rules that, SCU feminist scholar Laura Ellingson has found, often follow age-old gender scripts, at least when it comes to relationships: women are accused of being curt and mean if they send short texts, men are labeled girly if they are expressive. In a recent feminist methods class, Ellingson’s students investigated ways in which texting is gendered. “They found mostly that women send longer, more detailed messages with more emoticons and exclamation points and other ways of expressing emotion more explicitly than men did,” Ellingson said. “Both genders found that the medium is prone to misunderstandings and hurt feelings and unintended consequences.”

But what Ellingson found disconcerting about the class project was that two of the groups pursued themes around women’s over-analysis of texts for subtle meanings, essentially blaming the women for miscommunication, rather than the men who sent extremely brief texts:

“This is not a scientific study by any means, but it was illustrative of the point that in heterosexual relationships, it is still women who bear the majority of the responsibility for maintaining the health of the relationship; they are supposed to text as often as he wants to hear from them, but not too much so as not to be seen as “needy”.  They anxiously try to ferret out cryptic meanings in texts and then get labeled neurotic by the very men who expect them to competently interpret their meanings. The one thing that men are in charge of is the initial text following the exchange of cell phone numbers when first meeting or first becoming interested in each other. Women and men both said that it is up to the man to initiate first contact, and that women are seen as needy if they text first.

Whew. I have to wonder if all this angst could be eliminated by some good old fashioned facetime.  Or a multi-sentence conversation that doesn’t need emoticons. The point, I guess, is that life itself is messy, complicated. There are choices to be made and selves to find. And yet: as with all our digital diversions, we avoid actual interaction in favor of the intensity of nonstop, always-on, mass i-teraction.  And so you have to ask: what is it that we’re after? And, what is it we’re avoiding?

I could go on. And would. But I just got a text.  Gotta send a reply.

Photo credit: Sierra Smith, statepress.com

Read Full Post »

Sometimes what we need to do is clean house. I’m not necessarily talking about making your bed or doing the laundry — although either one is a good start — but channeling your inner minimalist and ditching the clutter.  Both literally and figuratively.

I’ve been thinking about this lately as I watched a friend make some changes in her life, both big and small.  As she has gone about this process of reclaiming herself, one of her tasks has been to reinvent her physical space.  Out with the stuff that doesn’t matter.  In with the stuff that does.  There’s a metaphor here.

According to a piece by Jack Feuer in the July issue of UCLA magazine, we have become a clutter culture.  As Feuer writes:

Walk into any dual-income, middle-class home in the U.S. and you will come face to face with an awesome array of stuff—toys, trinkets, family photos, furniture, games, DVDs, TVs, digital devices of all kinds, souvenirs, flags, food and more. We put our stuff anywhere in the house, everywhere there’s room, or even if there’s no room. Park the car on the street so we can store our stuff in the garage. Pile the dirty laundry in the shower because there’s nowhere else to store it and no time to wash it.

George Carlin famously observed that “a house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”

Freuer’s piece centers on a new book, Life at Home in the 21st Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors, due out this week, part of a long-running UCLA research project on working families run by UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF). In tracking the material culture of these families, the researchers found that when we say we have it all, what we have all of is stuff.  And lots of it.

And often, they found, this hyper-abundance leads to a world of grief, especially for women, whose stress-hormones spiked when smacked with the family clutter and who often referred to their homes with words like “not fun” and “very chaotic.”

“Cortisol data show a link between unhappy verbal characterizations of arrays of household possessions [chronically messy, cluttered rooms  or  unfinished remodeling projects] and higher stress level as measured by the hormone cortisol in the MOTHERS in the study,” UCLA professor of anthropology Jeanne Arnold, one of  the founding faculty of the CELF project, wrote in an email.  “Women who characterize their homes as restful, restorative, or tidy had lower stress levels. Fathers often omitted any mention of the same messy and unfinished spaces and were unaffected physiologically. Why? Likely because mothers still take on the lion’s share of responsibility for housework and because we still place value on tidiness. Our spreading possessions take oh so much time to organize and clean.”

No kidding. But there’s more to this mess than just cleaning out the junk drawers.  Research shows that physical clutter can lead not only to stress, but also depression, especially in women.  It’s not too much of a stretch to assume that it can also screw with our ability to focus.  I don’t know about you, but I get more than a little bit frazzled when the surface of my desk is hidden under a jumble of books, papers, files and to-do lists, some dating back to last spring, and my computer is slamming me with some 200 unread emails.  (True confession:  I even have a hard time holding down a thought when the breakfast dishes are still stacked up at dinner time.  Well, maybe that’s writer’s block.  Whatever.)

All of this has an obvious solution. Clean off the desk, read the emails, and do the dishes.  Done.  But it all gets more dicey when you extrapolate the effects of all this chaos to the clutter that clogs our brain when we deal with issues more profound than simply meeting a deadline or sorting through the clothes in your closet.  And where you can end up is in one hell of a pickle:  Undecided.  Lusting after the greener grass.  Longing for the road not traveled.

Just plain stuck.

Is it the curse of the information age?  We carry so much baggage, so many shoulds, from society, the workplace, our families, our friends, Facebook– all blasted at us at lightening speed, thanks to the interwebs — that it’s sometimes hard to find our authentic selves within the mental clutter.  And when the information, not to mention choices, increases exponentially, where’s the space to process? To reflect?

Amid all that chaos, it’s hard to isolate what it is that we really want to do with our lives, what it is that makes us happy.  The trigger for our book, in fact, was a conversation with a smart, accomplished woman we called Jane who nonetheless was so overwhelmed with trying to figure out what to do with her life that she once confessed she wished she had been born into a culture in which everything – where she lived, what she did, who she married – was chosen for her.

But back to my friend, the one who is redoing her house along with her life.  She emailed me a link to a blog by a woman who has embarked on what she dubbed  The William Morris Project. To wit: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

As in houses, so in life?  Good advice when we start to cut the clutter. No matter where we find it.

Read Full Post »

I woke up this morning to a message from a former student who’d sent me a link to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story in the new Atlantic.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a brilliant piece that lays out the reasons why women still can’t have it all — and what we as a society ought to do about it.  Within a few hours, links to the story were bouncing around the internet (not to mention my Facebook page) including an excellent recap by HuffPost columnist Lisa Belkin.

Slaughter, who gave up a prestigious State Department post in DC — her dream job, in fact – when she realized her family needed her more, starts the piece by recalling a conversation with a friend where she confessed that, when her time in Washington was up, she was going to “write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All.’”  Her friend was horrified:

“You can’t write that,” she said. “You, of all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman—a role model—would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women. By the end of the evening, she had talked me out of it, but for the remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet. I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January 2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.

Something struck me when I read the piece and started parsing it out for myself.  And that’s whether there’s another question we ought to be asking here.  It’s not simply whether we can have it all (like Slaughter, I agree: we can’t, at least given current workplace inequities and societal structures) — but what the pervasiveness of that myth has done to a whole generation of women whose expectations are out of sync with what awaits them out there in the real world.

Back when Undecided was just a twinkle in our eye (fueled, no doubt, by a frosty beer or two after a grueling hike on a hot summer day), the question that kept coming up in that initial bout of brainstorming was whether we as women had been sold a bill of goods.  And what we found in the two years of research and interviews that followed was that this idea of having it all, the mantra so many of us assumed was our birthright, had led to a world of grief.  Because when you’re led to believe that you can have it all — or worse, that you should have it all — you feel like you’ve done it wrong when things don’t measure up.  You are to blame.  Somehow, you’ve failed.  When the truth is that reality — workplace structures, public policy, the culture itself — has not kept pace with our own expectations.

One of the things that gets lost in the “you go, girl” rhetoric is what economists call opportunity cost.  As Stanford economist Myra Strober, who founded  Stanford’s  Center for Research on Women back in 1972, told us, “If you’re doing A, you can’t be doing B.  If you’re playing basketball, you can’t be reading Jane Austen.” In other words, unless and until we can clone ourselves, we’re stuck trying to balance a bunch of trade-offs.  Don’t get me wrong: This is not another salvo in the Mommy Wars or a knock on feminism. Or even a suggestion that life choices are an either/or proposition.  The point is not that we have to choose between family or career — but that we’re going to have to make peace with the fact that if we want to both raise a kid and run a company, it’s not only going to be hard but there are going to be challenges that are greater than we have been led to believe.

Despite our best intentions, very little in either realm is going to be perfect. We may have to compromise. And when we’re raised to be empowered, to believe that we can have it all, that’s one tough pill to swallow.

It’s a hard lesson, made harder by the fact that there aren’t a lot of role models out there who can show us how to navigate the trade-offs.  We were discussing this issue last year on a talk show, in fact, when the host brought up Michelle Obama and Oprah as powerful women who seemed to have it all.  And what we said was that in the traditional definition of having it all — fabulous career, fabulous marriage, parenthood — neither qualified:  Oprah has no family and Michelle, for obvious reasons, has given up her career. Likewise Hillary Clinton or, for that matter, Sheryl Sandberg.  Incredible role models, to be sure. But, in a way, scary ones, too.  Because for the for the vast majority of us, despite our own aspirations, if they are held up as the ideal, we are bound to feel that we have fallen short.

One of my senior journalism students this year wrote her capstone on the lack of women atop the corporate ladder and what younger women should do to get there.  In reporting the story, she interviewed women in leadership positions across the country, essentially digging for tips that would help her generation make it to the C-suite.  What she found, good and bad, was a lot of the stuff we write about here.  But the thing that struck me was her solid conviction that, when all was said and done, having it all was indeed a possibility.

Which is, I guess, is the right way to think from inside a college classroom: More power to her for her optimism — and her sincere conviction that her generation will be the one to make things work. But still, the question nags.  It’s not whether or not we can have it all — but why we saddle ourselves with the expectation that we should.

Read Full Post »

When your best intentions go south, new research suggests that it wasn’t the devil that made you do it.  It was your brain.

Will power, the study found, is a finite resource, one that can be easily depleted.  Which is why, when faced with a “do-I-or-don’t-I” kind of decision, you might find it easier to do the right thing when you haven’t already used up your reserve of self-control by forgoing that extra cocktail earlier in the night.

Oddly reassuring, right?

The study, to be published January 2013 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, suggests that self-control is not a muscle that grows stronger with exercise, but is more like a finite pool.  And when it gets drained, say, by saying no to that delightful little black dress you just tried on but don’t necessarily need, you’re more likely to lose your cool when that guy in the silver SUV cuts you off on the freeway driving home.

Or, for that matter, to have that second glass of Malbec once you get there.

The study, co-authored by William Hedgcock, assistant professor of marketing at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa, used brain imaging to scan people as they performed self-control tasks.  The fMRIs found that the brain consistently fired at full speed when tasked with recognizing a temptation, but once the part of the brain that actually manages self-control took over, it fired with less intensity the longer it continued to fight the good fight.

“Our results suggest self-control can be diminished by use,” Hedgcock tells us. “People have a hard time resisting temptation after prior acts of self-control. This can negatively affect people’s ability to maintain attention, resist tempting snacks, and resist purchasing on impulse.”

Call it good-girl fatigue?  Your brain may have no trouble recognizing the naughty options, but the more you try to fight them, the harder it can be to do what’s right.  Or why, as the authors write, when we work hard to pass up a second helping of lasagna, we might end up taking two pieces of cake at dessert.  And while the study found no significant gender differences, writes the study’s co-author Kathleen Vohs, associate professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, in an email from Amsterdam, “men and women often do adopt different goals (e.g., to lose weight for women [or to] pursue financial or sexual rewards for men) but they do so in similar ways.”

What’s hugely important about the study, writes Vohs, is that “we haven’t had a good understanding of how the brain changes when people engage in self-control. Which means being able to ultimately understand self-control in new ways.”

For years, researchers have known that there’s some significant work going on upstairs when we try to make decisions (whether or not those choices involve resisting temptation) about anything from buying a new pair of jeans to figuring out what to do with our lives.  Many studies we’ve referenced in our book and our blog, in fact, have shown that any kind of mental overload can mess with our ability to make good choices — or any at all.  A pivotal study by Harvard psychologist George Miller back in the 1950s found that the rational brain can only hold about seven chunks of information in working memory at any given time. Any more, and the conscious brain often just throws up its hands in defeat. What psychologists have figured out since, is that when the cognitive brain gets too full, decision making—if it gets done at all—gets appropriated by the emotions. Because the rational brain has, in effect, logged off, there’s less control over gut impulses.

Some fifty years after Miller’s essay, Stanford marketing professor Baba Shiv put an interesting spin on this epic battle between heart and mind. In his study, he asked students to memorize either seven digits or two, then afterward offered both groups their choice of a reward: fruit salad or gooey chocolate cake. What he found was that the seven-digit group went with their gut instincts. They overwhelmingly chose cake. The two-digit folks? They made the rational decision and chose a snack that wouldn’t spoil their dinner: nice and healthful fruit salad.

A number of other studies have also shown that making choices just plain wears us out, which brings us back to some earlier work on self-control by Kathleen Vohs.  Back in 2008, she found that folks who are faced with too many choices have a tough time staying focused or exerting self-control afterward.  In one part of that study, she found that college students asked to make a number of random choices earlier in the day ended up spending more time later playing video games or reading magazines — rather than studying for a test.

But back to this particular study, Hedgcock suggests that when the well of self-control runs dry, the only way to fill it back up is with time.  In other words, give yourself a break.

Or, what the hell, pour yourself a glass of wine.

Read Full Post »

This being graduation season, the other day I asked the over-achieving rockstars in my senior journalism capstone class what they’d most like to hear from a commencement speaker.

Thankfully, I heard no references to roads not taken nor endings-versus-beginnings.  (Though I would have enjoyed a quick reference to that four-word piece of advice from the iconic film about post-grad angst, The Graduate:  “In a Word: Plastics”)

But anyway.

The best answer came from a young woman who said she’d like to hear from someone who has failed – and was still okay.

Now, I suspect this is a young woman who, herself, has never failed.  And yet: she may have tapped into one of the biggest fears of young women who have been raised with great expectations, high aspirations and the message that they could do it all and have it all: What happens if they can’t?

If you’ve been following this space, you probably know that one of our key messages is the need to embrace failure, to put yourself out there, to take some risks – even when said risks might end in a big fat fail.  In most cases, if you can see that failure for what it is – just one step in a life-long process of trial and error – you may well learn something that can propel you forward.  Or, as psychologist Ramani Durvasula told us back when we were reporting our book: “You’ll always get over a failure.  But regret?  It’s not recoverable.”

In other words, to borrow a quote from another movie classic, you’ll always wonder if you “coulda been a contender.”

And so, as a nod to my student, and to graduates anywhere, here’s a short list of successful women who failed famously – and still, one way or the other, ended up on top:

Emily Dickinson:  Regarded as one of America’s greatest poets, she wrote over 1700 poems.  Only a handful were published in her lifetime.

Lucille Ball: The winner of four Emmys and a Lifetime Achievement Award was told by one of her first drama teachers that she should try another profession.

Marilyn Monroe: When she was just starting out, modeling agents told her she should go be a secretary.  Why?  She wasn’t attractive enough.

Kathryn Stockett:  Her manuscript for “The Help” was rejected by 60 literary agents over a period of three and a half years, before being picked up by an agent named Susan Ramer, who sold the book to a publisher three weeks later.

Oprah Winfrey:  At 22, she scored a gig co-anchoring the evening news in Baltimore, and eight months later, was fired.  Because she still had a contract with the station, they shuffled her off to a talk show, which ultimately launched her career.

Hilary Clinton:  The Yale Law School graduate failed the D.C. bar exam – but passed the Arkansas bar and moved there to be with Bill.  The rest, as they say, is the history of one of the most influential women in the United States, if not the world.

The list goes on, or could, but the point is this: while we all fail at one time or another (be sure to ask me about some of my own personal doozies) the only real failure is letting the fear of it hold us back.  Or, as former New York Times editor Anna Quindlen once said: “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

By the way, our commencement speaker this year is Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, who has experienced a few failures of his own.

Let’s hope he doesn’t fail to mention them.

Read Full Post »

If rules were made to be broken, why are so many of us so afraid of breaking them?

They have their function, after all: if everyone took a red light as but a minor suggestion, driving—or merely riding in—a car would be a seriously risky endeavor. Actually though, it occurs to me as I type this, there’s an intersection by my house, near where I get onto the freeway to go North. The light works on some sort of timer or sensor or something. And several times, in the painfully early hours when I’ve been on my way to the airport, I’ve sat at that light. And I’ve waited. And waited. And waited. In fact, I’ve never seen it turn green. More than once I’ve inched into that intersection, staring down the deserted streets, thinking to myself “Should I, or shouldn’t I?”

I got to thinking about all this rule-breaking business after hearing Barry Schwartz’ most recent TED Talk on NPR. In it, he talks about what he calls “practical wisdom,” how ideas and behaviors that typically would fall under the heading of “common sense” are valued less and less. His talk focused primarily on organizations and institutions, how an over-reliance on policies and procedures creates bureaucracies and red tape the navigation of which take precedence over a more thoughtful approach–and which are a nightmare to deal with, to boot. How we can get so focused on objective knowledge that our humanity takes a hit. How sometimes, in fact, the rules can lead us astray – as when one man’s child was taken from him after a security guard spotted the clueless father giving his son a Hard Lemonade at a baseball game, oblivious to the fact that “hard” meant booze. Though it was an honest mistake, it was weeks before the child was returned to his home and his father allowed to see him again.

What’s all this got to do with the rest of us? I tend to think quite a bit. When it comes to what we choose to do with our lives—and the angst around those choices—I’d bet that no small part of the difficulty there has to do with the tension between the desire to be true to ourselves, and the desire to play by the rules. To do the things that are expected of us. To color within the lines. To be the perfect fill-in-the-blank. (And the perfect fill-in-the-other-blank, and the other blank, and the other blank…) Certain things are allowed. Certain things are expected. But are they right? And, more importantly, are they right for us? How can we be sure?

Schwartz quotes Aristotle, saying that practical wisdom is figuring out the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance, with a particular person, at a particular time. In other words, it’s subjective. Frustratingly so… except when you consider that, if that’s the goal–to live with practical wisdom–you have all the answers you need. You don’t need to consult the rule book—or bow down to the shoulds—because the only should that matters is that you do what’s right for you, given the circumstances of your life now. If that means coloring outside of the lines, so be it. In fact, if that means coloring outside of the lines, then that’s exactly what you should do.

Just make sure to look both ways first.

Read Full Post »

I came across an interesting study the other day that found that, when it comes to independent work – freelancing, consulting, you name it – those indie workers are more likely to be women. According to MBO Partners’ Independent Workforce Index, some 8.5 million women are choosing to fly solo when it comes to work, making up 53 percent of all independent workers.

It’s all about work life balance and career satisfaction, the study found, adding that many of the women they surveyed are finding their choice to go it alone more rewarding than traditional work.

Sounds quite dreamy, doesn’t it?

But when you look beyond the numbers, you realize there’s more involved here than the entrepreneurial spirit or the freedom to go to work in your jammies — which, when you come right down to it, really isn’t all that dreamy. One reason for the growing number of women saying “oh, phooey” to the land of nine-to-five may speak to something beyond career satisfaction, and that’s the workplace itself, which still skews a little Mad Men, where, for every Don behind the desk, there’s a Betty at home to take care of business. (Okay, Betty’s been replaced, but you get my point.)

This especially hits women with kids. Back when we were reporting our book, we came across a relevant study by Joan Williams, who’s a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and director of the Hastings Center for WorkLife Law. Her report, The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict, authored with the Center for American Progress, found that women with families were often marginalized or even pushed out when their jobs demanded 24/7 availability or when “full time” meant fifty hours a week or more.

In today’s workplace culture, that’s just about every job, right?

And then there’s this: while women make up close to half the workforce, they have yet to make their mark at the top of the ladder. According to the Catalyst 2011 Census:

women have made no significant gains in the last year and are no further along the corporate ladder than they were six years ago:
• Women held 16.1% of board seats in 2011, compared to 15.7% in 2010.
• Less than one-fifth of companies had 25% or more women board directors.
• About one in ten companies had no women serving on their boards.
• Women of color still held only 3% of corporate board seats.
• Women held 14.1% of Executive Officer positions in 2011, compared to 14.4% in 2010.
• Women held only 7.5% of Executive Officer top-earner positions in 2011, while men accounted for 92.5% of top earners.
• Less than one in five companies had 25% or more women Executive Officers and more than one-quarter had zero.

Phooey, indeed.

And don’t forget the “mommy track”—a term coined by the New York Times and based on an idea that Catalyst founder Felice Schwartz proposed in a Harvard Business Review article back in 1989. The term still stings. Schwartz’ article suggested that businesses could accommodate the growing number of working mothers by offering them alternative career paths. Good perhaps in theory, but in practice, what it meant was that women who bought into such arrangements were stereotyped as less serious about their careers. The upshot? Rather than corporate America changing structures to accommodate those who wanted/needed a life outside of work (um, all of us?), many women had the choice made for them and found themselves sidelined.

Still do. Which is why, I suspect many women, as as several sources told us and as MBO found, are thumbing their nose at the mommy track entirely and carving their own paths, often from their own homes. (One such “mompreneuer” is the quintessential Gen-Xer, Soleil Moon Frye—a.k.a. Punky Brewster—who cofounded an ecofriendly baby-products business called The Little Seed.) But what those women often find – whether or not they have kids – is that they’re always “on” – working longer, harder, faster –- often juggling several things at once.

We found other women who tried to make work work by cutting back to part-time. A report from the U.S. Joint Economic Committee showed that in 2009, some 17 million American women worked part-time— approximately one-fourth of all working women. And while part-time arrangements can be a good compromise, the bad news is that they not only present their own glass ceilings, but they pay less too. The report found that part-timers (nearly two-thirds of them are women) make less per hour than full-timers—even for the same work. And, as one bright thirty-something found, even the best part-time arrangement can have its own set of hazards.

A media liason who cut back when her first child was born, she thought she’d hit the jackpot when she negotiated a job-sharing gig: Two days in the office, one day working from home. But what she realized is that the flexibility had bought her a whole new set of hazards:

“My own expectations were too high,” she told us. “News seemed to hit on days I wasn’t in the office. I had only co-ownership over my position and therefore less power. And I seemed to disappoint my boss regularly, just by virtue of the schedule. It’s a tough adjustment to go from being a valuable team player to a part-timer who has to be out the door at five and won’t be in tomorrow. Also, there was no hope for advancement…”

And finally, there’s this: when you work at home, what you gain in flexibility, you sometimes lose in sanity. Trust me on this one. Back when my kids were young, I worked from home as a freelance magazine writer, and more often than not, I’d get a callback from a source right around five o’clock, known to parents everywhere as the witching hour. Once I flipped open my notebook, it was a cue to my kids for all hell to break loose. It often did. You can ask me about that sometime.

Then again — if you’re about to declare your independence — don’t.

Read Full Post »

Last week, I attended an alumni/student networking event at my alma mater, UC Santa Barbara. The event consisted of about 50 working professionals (I was in this camp), and 100 soon-to-be-grads, sniffing around for some intel on what the “real world” might have in store. The kids (umm – ouch — you know you’re getting older when you start referring to 20-ish-year-olds as “kids”) had been given bios on all us pros, and we were wearing nametags, so there was nowhere to hide. Many of them had seen the title of my book, and wanted my advice. On the small matter of what to do with their lives. Gulp.

(And, let it be said: these are not the lost souls – the organizers maxed the event out, early, at 100 students, so these were the sorts of students who’d actually jumped on the chance to attend a “networking event,” something which, to be perfectly honest, would never have occurred to me while I was in college. Of course, I majored in Religious Studies and Anthropology, so career prospects weren’t exactly my primary motivators.)

Anyway. They wanted to know what to do, how to reach their goals. (I want to be a political speech writer! An oncologist! A professor! Or the–judging by body language alone–shameful: I don’t know what to do with my life! But I’ve done this, this, and this already, so whatever I do has to be good.) Big dreams!  Huge ambitions! And they all seemed a bit like deer in the headlights. A feeling which, I told them, I remember exactly. (College graduation day: shudder. Nowhere as fun as its cracked up to be.) But, I said, what I’ve learned in my own life, and what the research we did for the book proves is this: don’t sweat it. You will have many (many!) jobs in your professional life. You will move. You will have different friends, different titles. You’ll play different roles. The parameters of your “family” will shift. Your priorities will shift.

They looked at me with expressions I can only describe as some mixture of relief and something akin to the face you’d make had I told you to become a mermaid.

But, I get it. Even now, with more job titles than I know what to do with (author, speaker, writer, coach, editor), I understand that ambition. Because I am ambitious. Extremely so. I often describe it as just a part of who I am – as fundamental to me as the fact that I do not like Chinese food, that I am a total grouch if I have no exercise in the morning, and that I’d rather spend a Sunday on the couch reading the paper than doing nearly anything else.  And I’m cool with that.

But this ambition thing. It’s tricky. Difficult to parse how much is fundamental to me, and how much is some sort of weird internalization of the cultural messaging that swirls around all of us, so thick as to be the very air we breathe. The water we swim in.

I got to thinking about it, more than usual, when I read Meghan Daum’s piece about the (most) recent Mommy War flare-up, over Hilary Rosen’s words about Ann Romney:

A lot of this, of course, is the usual bluster of an election season, the tempests that get brewed up in campaign teapots, only to subside as quickly as they erupted. But this latest storm points not only to Americans’ seemingly endless appetite for flimsy controversy but to the incredible sensitivity we have around the issue of work.

To put it bluntly, we’re obsessed with work — with who’s doing it and not doing it, with how many hours are being spent at it and how much money is being paid for it. And we’re not just obsessed in the sense that we rely on work to survive (and, these days, are suffering for lack of it). We’re obsessed with work because our identities are defined by it. We work, therefore we are.

Case in point: the way the formerly quotidian institution known as “parenthood” has lately seen its job description ratcheted up to include not just age-old duties like the feeding, clothing and chauffeuring of children but, in some circles, a downright competitive approach to co-sleeping, organic food shopping, baby sign-language teaching, protracted breast-feeding and sometimes even home schooling. With our self-worth so intrinsically connected to our professional status, we’ve extended the values of corporate ladder climbing on to family life. And some mothers, in the process of taking charge of the home front — or sometimes letting their children take charge — have imposed a greater tyranny on themselves than their office supervisors ever did.

Strikes a cord, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s just a tic of human beings: we have to be able to define ourselves. A job is convenient for this purpose. So is a role. As we’ve often written, where once women defined themselves strictly in terms of their relationships to others (daughter, sister, wife, mother), now we define ourselves in terms of our work. And, hey – work’s (relatively) new to us, and it’s fun! And if what we do with our time–our work–is taking care of others, goddamnit, we’re gonna do it perfectly. If we can prove that we’re doing something well–or even if we just have the title to imply that we are–then we matter. We’re worthwhile.

And that’s all fine, to a certain extent: there’s value in doing good work, and there’s value in being a good fill-in-the-blank to someone else. But we are not our roles. And we are not our resumes. And if that leaves you wondering what’s left, well, you’re certainly not alone.

But really: wouldn’t it be more fun if we could somehow loosen the grip of the grand title, the grand role, the grand image, and just be? To try things out, and then if things don’t go as planned, to simply change course, and see what’s around the next bend? To decide that what matters is not what we achieve or how perfectly we achieve it, but that we’ve allowed ourselves to be who we are, and gotten to like her?

Seems to me, that’s a goal worthy of some of my own ambition. And hey, if it doesn’t work out, there’s always grad school.

Read Full Post »

I don’t know about you, but I am unbearably tired of phrases like “aging gracefully.”  Or worse yet:  “Embracing your age.”  Define please, could you? And while you’re at it, please tell me why such phrases are often accompanied by a photo of a woman with white hair.

It seems the last bastion of socially acceptable stereotyping is Age with a capital “A”.  Especially when it comes to women. You’ll have to excuse my attitude, but today I am wearing some serious cranky pants.

I confess.  I am a baby boomer.  Where once we boomers were stereotyped in terms of sex, drugs and rock and roll, today it’s old age. And what riles me up is this:  Rather than being defined by our birthdays, why the hell can’t we just be? Whether I look my age, or younger or older, is immaterial to me.  What matters is the way others treat me, and it’s been my experience that older women begin to lose credibility when they hit middle age — an ugly term if ever their were one.

It’s not our age per se that does us in; it’s the expectation of what a woman of a certain age is and is not, can and cannot do, should and should not look like, that gets us.  Age itself may not matter.  But the way we are pigeonholed certainly does.

The other day, a professor friend told me about a comment she heard in class from one young women who declared that a woman’s life is over at menopause, and that starts at 50.  Do we ever speak of men that way. Ugh, right?

For years,  I have set myself up as guinea pig for my journalism students to practice interview techniques. Back when, I would tell them my age — if they asked — and the response was often a gasp.  At first, I thought it was flattering.  But then I realized.  It was all about the stereotypes. I didn’t conform to their image of what a woman my age was supposed to be like. What, I asked them: should I be sporting polyester and humming show tunes?

What I really wonder is why this is predominantly a women’s issue.  Men grow older, more distinguished.  They run for political office.  But women? With a few exceptions, we exhaust our shelf life.  We’re assumed to be no longer vital.  Relevant.  We become redundant.  Invisible.  Not supposed to care what we see in the mirror.  At least that’s what the media, and society itself, tells us.

Today in class, to test a point, I put my students on the spot:  Let’s take our president, I said. He’ll be 51 this summer.  Do you think of him as middle-aged — or four years away from his AARP card?  Most of them laughed.  Now, I said.  Take a woman that age, maybe your aunt or someone else.  How do you picture her?

For the one or two kids who still didn’t get it, I pushed a little bit further:  Name some women actors Brad Pitt’s age — or older — who still get starring roles.  (Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren don’t count.  They are the exceptions who prove the rule.  And Julia Roberts?  America’s former sweetheart is now playing the evil queen in Snow White.)  Silence.

This week I caught a piece in Salon by a thirty-something writer I happen to like.  The essay was about taking a water aerobics class at her local YMCA with a bunch of “old women”. She thought they’d love her, embrace her, make her feel young.  Instead, they aimed a bunch of jokes in her direction, laughing like the mean girls in junior high.  Cute story, but what got  me was the description of the women:  

My poolies, the ones at my gym, had necks that had long since defied definition. Massive freckled cleavage became neck became chin became face and so on. They wore bathing caps with plastic flowers and swim suits with pointy foam bra cups. Underneath, their hair was teased and thinning in shades of copper and yellow.

And then, the way she categorized them:  old ladies and elderly women.  But never mind. What had gotten the writer’s goat, she realized, was the fact that these feisty chicks didn’t “fall into the role I assigned them, because they were busy being their own people.” Good point, but what I wonder is whether she realized how she had loaded her piece with stereotypes. Which is, after all, the most insidious thing about the damage they do.

But back to this aging business: The topic has fast become a staple of women’s media – by women, for women, about women.  Surely, for example, you’ve noticed an upwelling of articles and broadcast pieces – many of them just a little smug  — about going gray as a way to embrace one’s age.   Now, don’t get me wrong – if you love your gray hair, more power to you.  I’m certainly not going to judge you for refusing to color your hair.  But please, by the same token, don’t judge me for choosing to color mine.

I started coloring my hair when I was in my mid-thirties, when a much older cousin took me aside and said, “Oh, sweetie.  You’re way too young to have so much gray in your bangs.”  I’ve been coloring since.  It’s not to pass for  young.  Or keep my job.  Or, for the love of God, please the patriarchy.  Nope.  I color my fair for the same reason my twenty and thirty something sisters do:  vanity.   I like the way I look, especially with my copper lowlights.

But I digress.  I’ve noticed that a lot of what we read about aging is written by women who aren’t even close to the cut-off line and that the subtext is fear, which seems to be enabled by the messages themselves.  The irony is that the media tell us that younger women are supposed to fear getting older — while their older sisters should put away the women they thought were and just fade to, you know, gray.  It occurs to me: maybe one of the reasons certain milestone birthdays are so scary for younger women is the assumptions they make about the women who have already reached them.

And could that focus on the ticking clock be one reason why, as we found in the research for our book, women agonize over their life choices?

Many smart women have suggested that one way to ditch the stigma is for all of us to claim our age — to show that, no matter how many fingers we are, we are still smart, vital, productive, funny and, what the hell, stylish, too.  I for one would be happy to do it, so long as you promise you won’t frame me in terms of my birthdays.  You know, patronize or marginalize me.  So I’ll do it, pinky swear.

But only if you go first.

Read Full Post »

Last Sunday, after a particularly wild weekend out of town weekend with family and friends, a small group of us convened for brunch before going our separate ways. I looked at the menu, and while the chilaquiles softly called to me, I opted for my standby: huevos rancheros. But when the food came out I was consumed with regret. I should have ordered the friggen chilaquiles.

Regret. Such a miserable feeling. If only! I should have! Why didn’t I? When you’re deep in the throes of a musing over the road not traveled, it’s hard to imagine two uglier words that these: What if? 

Ugly, and seemingly unavoidable. Every choice entails a trade-off, right? But a recent study shows that those unpleasant feelings of regret ease as we get older. That, indeed, what age takes in collagen and hangover resilience, it gives back in the form of a certain kind of contentment.

From Scientific American:

The latest research suggests that young people tend to fixate on their regrets, whereas older adults generally learn not to waste time wallowing in remorse about past circumstances they cannot change. A new study demonstrates that these cognitive differences manifest themselves in brain scans and physiological responses, revealing that, unlike healthy adults, both depressed adults and young people treat missed opportunities and genuine losses as equally regretful events–even if they were not directly responsible. Taming such ruefulness appears to be crucial to emotional stability and happiness in old age, and related therapies could help with depression. For the young, however, a little regret might be useful, motivating them to learn from their mistakes.

The study in question involved a simple gambling video game, played from within the comfortable confines of an MRI machine. On the screen, participants saw a row of eight unopened boxes that they could open one at a time, from left to right–and were told that seven of the boxes would contain gold, and one would contain a devil, who would steal whatever gold had been amassed. Devilish! Participants could quit at any time, but once they did, the contents of all the remaining boxes would be revealed–so they’d get a good look at what they missed out on.

And the brain scans showed that–if you’ll allow me to paraphrase–realizing they’d bugged out before collecting all of the gold there was to be had only bothered the young adults and the depressed older adults. The healthy older adults’ brains showed hardly any change. In other words, healthy adults don’t moon over the road not traveled the way their younger counterparts do.

Regret is a huge topic in our book, because it’s so inextricably tied to making choices, and taking chances. We fear being left with regrets almost as much as we fear failure. Because that feeling is just so awful–the wondering about what we’re missing out on gnaws, and the gnawing saps the joy out of whatever it is we are doing, you know, instead of that thing we’re not. But, it seems that, as is the case with failure, perhaps there’s a bright side to regret: it, too, can be a teacher.

Brassen further proposes that disengaging from regret is a protective strategy that kicks in sometime in old age, preventing the elderly–who do not have as much time or opportunity to make amends–from needlessly feeling sorry about things they cannot realistically change. In contrast, young people have their whole lives ahead of them–plenty of time to repeat their mistakes if they do not learn from them.

Wrosch says he thinks about regret similarly: ‘If someone in their 70s regrets that they never had the education or job they wanted, there’s no going back to change life circumstances. But if a similar regret happens to someone in their early 20s, they can use that information to turn their life around.’

Kind of a sad spin on what’s really going on with the, um, more mature among us, but also, I suppose, reassuring: our trusty brains will shield us from the dark feelings of regret once it’s too late to make changes. Which might also mean this: if you’re actively feeling regret, perhaps it’s possible that it’s not too late yet.

Bring on the friggen chilaquiles.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »