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Posts Tagged ‘Katha Pollitt’

The new buzzword is “He-covery”. That’s the term the New York Times’ Catherine Rampell  and others use to characterize the new numbers on our so-called economic recovery. Cute the way we use gender terms to nickname serious issues, isn’t it?

In case you’ve forgotten, the recession was dubbed the “mancession,” because the menfolk had lost the majority of the jobs, leading to a workplace that was finally gender-equal.  But, as a new report from the Pew Center has shown, since the recovery started, men have picked up some three-quarters of a million jobs.  Their sisters have lost close to a quarter of a million. Welcome back to the gender gap: Pew found that men “have fared better than women in all but one of 16 major sectors of the economy identified in this report.” Here’s a taste:

The recovery from the Great Recession is not off to a good start for women. From June 2009, when the recession ended, to May 2011, women have lost 218,000 jobs, with their employment level falling from 65.1 million to 64.9 million. Men, however, are finding new jobs in the recovery. Their employment level increased from 65.4 million in June 2009 to 66.1 million in May 2011, a gain of 768,000 jobs. Since 1970, this is the first two-year period into an economic recovery in which women have lost jobs even as men have gained them.

Now, the easy explanation would be to assume that job growth is occurring in the, you know, manly sector: construction, mining, manufacturing, the heavy-lifting kinds of jobs.  But what’s curious here is that men are also outscoring women in retail, professional and business services, education and health services (traditionally a female domain), hospitality and the federal government.  And when it comes to jobs lost, men have also won the jackpot, losing fewer jobs than women in utilities, information services and finance.

What gives? Pew can’t figure out the explanation for the gender discrepancy, and neither can anyone else. But what I wonder is whether we’re simply unwilling to suggest that the emperor has no clothes.  If women are losing ground even in traditionally female sectors, isn’t it possible there’s a little bit of gender discrimination at play? There I’ve said it. Mea culpa.

As one quick example, let’s look at the maternal wall:  studies have shown that women are penalized and considered less promotable because of family committments.   As University of Illinois management professor Jenny Hoobler found, this holds true even when women have no kids — and don’t plan on having any.  We interviewed Hoobler for our book, and here’s what she told us:

[Her study showed] “this lingering stereotype that women aren’t as dedicated to their careers because they are or will at some point take the primary responsibility for caregiving in the family.  What we found was that even when women did not have did not have children, did not have an elderly parent to care for, didn’t have a sick spouse, their bosses still felt  that they had higher conflict between the family and work than their male counterparts did.

“People think that this is something that has gone away. I think there is a misconception when you are talking about workers with kids that male and female parents share equally the responsibilities for the home but many research studies have shown recently that that is not the case.  While men are doing a lot more that their fathers did a generation ago, in dual career families, women are bearing the lion’s share of the caring of people in the home.  But what our study showed was that even when women DID NOT have those responsibilities, their bosses felt that they still did.”

We also found a study on fathers showing that, conversely, having a baby enhanced their self-image at work, in terms of reputation, credibility and even career options. He became a family man, as in “What a guy”!

Now I would be the last to suggest that the reason for the so-called He-covery is the fact that, all things being equal, empl0yers prefer men over women and hire accordingly. Nor would any boss cop to that. But it makes you think, right?  And the irony is that, at 77 cents on the dollar, women are good for the bottom line.

And even when we women made up half of the workforce, we were hardly taking home half of the pay. As The Nation’s Katha Pollitt wrote, back in 2009, when women first achieved workplace parity:

It is indeed remarkable that women are half the workforce, but there’d be more to cheer about if they also earned an equal share of the pay. It may be easier to find a job as a home health aide than a welder, but male jobs tend to pay a lot more than female ones (and, one might add, do not involve a lot of deferential smiling).

Deferential smiling. Wonder if the guys are good at that?

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Clearly, we’ve been remiss in our lack of commentary on what’s been dubbed “Franzenfreude”, or the running media flap about the fact that when men write novels, we call it literature — as opposed to, you know, when women write novels, we don’t.

So let’s catch up, shall we?

Jennifer Weiner, who wrote “Good in Bed” and other books that fell under the now-dismissive rubric of “chick lit”, coined the phrase as a Twitter hashtag in a fit of pique over the advance praise Jonathan Franzen’s new book, Freedom, had garnered from literary reviewers.   It hadn’t even hit the shelves, in fact, before New York Times reviewers declared it a masterpiece.  It might well be.  But the point that Weiner and another best-selling writer, Jodi Picoult, emphasized, is that novels by women are not only unlikely to receive such rave reviews, but are less likely to be reviewed at all.

At least by, ahem, serious reviewers.  According to a piece on Slate’s Double X:

Weiner and Picoult raise the following question: Is pop fiction written by men more likely to be lifted out of the “disposable” pile, becoming the kind of cultural objects august institutions like the New York Times feel compelled to pay attention to? And are the commercial genres most commonly associated with male writers and readers—science fiction, legal thriller—more likely to be taken seriously than their female equivalents (chick lit, romance novel)? Or as Weiner puts it, would certain male writers—Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Carl Hiaasen, or David Nicholls—”be considered chick lit writers if they were girls?”

Or, as Weiner told The New Republic:

“I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book—in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.”

Just to be clear, I loved Jonathan Franzen’s last book, and can’t wait to read this one.  (And, for the record, I also liked “Good in Bed”) But still, I’m pissed.  Because Weiner makes a good point about the whole double standard business — God forbid, issues that reside on the XX side of the fence like feelings or families be taken seriously — that The Nation’s Katha Pollitt picks up this week (thus giving us a newspeg) and goes deep:

Do male writers have an edge in attracting serious critical attention? This question, so urgent to women writers, so tedious to male editors and pundits, is getting its latest workout thanks to the vigorous tweeting of bestselling popular novelists Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult about the accolades heaped upon Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom (two ecstatic New York Times reviews, the cover of Time and much, much more) and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. Weiner is a sharp and fearless observer of literary gender politics, and I think she is onto something. (I should mention that she used my collection of personal essays, Learning to Drive, to illustrate the double standard by which women autobiographers are slammed for revealing small weaknesses while men are praised as honest and bold for chronicling their addictions and wife-beating. And as long as we are on the subject, let me add that my shocked, shocked reviewers were women.) Plenty of women writers get excellent reviews, but it is very rare for them to get the kind of excited, rapturous high-cultural reception given to writers who are “white and male and living in Brooklyn” or, since Franzen lives on the Upper East Side, are named Jonathan. “Girl genius” is not a phrase in our language.

Pollitt offers a good helping of stats, courtesy of Double X (which employed some XY spread-sheet analysis) to back up her thesis.  For example:

…over the past two years 62 percent of the fiction reviewed in the New York Times had male authors, as did 72 percent of the books that got both a daily and a Sunday review.

The Atlantic, The New Republic and Slate itself review more fiction by men (if you include the reviews in the DoubleX blog, it’s 55 percent).

… A year’s worth of fiction coverage in The Nation clocked in at 75 percent male (!). Of course, it is possible that men write two-thirds of fiction or (more likely, but still improbable) two-thirds of the kinds of fiction high-end book editors assign—but those assigning decisions are themselves the product of a whole hierarchy of taste that has gender already built into it. What is a significant subject? Which writers get to ask the reader to work hard? Chris Jackson, an editor at Spiegel & Grau, for Chrissake, confessed on the Atlantic website that he hadn’t read any fiction by women in years, so he read some, and, hey, it was pretty good!

Pretty good?! Ach! That pretentious dweeb. Can’t you just feel his patronizing little pat on the head?

Thing is — and here comes the meta-message, which is why this whole discussion matters — though we’re talking about writing books here, we could probably substitute any one of a number of career areas where, when men and women do the same type of work, men tend to be taken more seriously, promoted more and paid more.   And that is the point.  And while some folks like to say that difference has a lot to do with the fact that women are more likely to take time out, or a less-than-killer job, or have their priorities elsewhere in order to raise their kids, there are studies out there that show that even when women don’t have a family — or even plan to have one — they are still seen as less promotable.  Because, well, they might.

What it’s really about is the double standard.  Families notwithstanding, we’re dismissed for being who we are.  Period, end. Which brings us back, one last time, to Franzenfreude and Pollitt:

It’s often said that women’s writing is less valued because it takes up stereotypically feminine (i.e., narrower) subjects—family, children, love and becoming a woman (ho-hum, boring!)—while men’s books deal with rousing, Important Universal topics like war, politics and whaling, and becoming a man….When men write books about family life—John Updike, Jonathan Franzen—they are read as writing about America and the Human Condition. When women write books that are ambitious, political and engaged with the big world of ideas, they are seen as stories about the emotional lives of their characters.

As in lit, so in life?  Really?  Are we still paying the price for that extra X?  I’m tempted to insert here — exactly what’s wrong with stories about the emotional lives of the characters? — but then, sigh, you might never take me seriously.

P.S.  A free copy of our book if you can correctly guess who is pictured above.

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So this past Christmas, Santa left me a little day-planner, filled with retro images of 1950s housewives and their gray-flannel mates, captioned with suitably snarky one-liners.  Today by chance I happened to flip to a page showing two smiling businessmen, wearing suits, ties and hats, and looking quite pleased with themselves.  The caption?

“Housework is a snap since I realized… “hey, I’m a guy!”

All of which brought to mind, first, Hanna Rosin’s piece in The Atlantic, entitled “The End of Men“, which we ourselves referenced here a couple weeks ago, and the media blowback, which I tend to think is right on the money.   Rosin suggests that because women do better in school, earn over half the college degrees, and are soaring into the professions, a matriarchy is precious minutes away.

Those of us who get the humor I mentioned above or who have ever wanted to, say, go on the professional golf tour (trust me, I’ll tie this all together in a bit) might beg to differ.   Let’s look at what The Nation’s Katha Pollitt has to say:

Don’t worry, gentlemen. “The End of Men,” Hanna Rosin’s much discussed Atlantic cover story, isn’t really about the end of men. It’s about men’s declining economic ability to dominate women and various sociocultural consequences of that fact—but who’d read a piece with an unsensational message like that? Women are surging forward educationally, entering the professions and the burgeoning service fields in great numbers, having children on their own, putting up with less crap from boyfriends and husbands—we all know that. Men are taking less than half the BAs, have suffered from the decline of manufacturing and other traditionally male jobs, and have lost some of their domestic privileges and some of their cultural prestige—we all know that too. It may even be, as Rosin claims, that women are particularly well suited to the postindustrial economy, where brains, self-discipline, the ability to work well with others and verbal skills matter more than brawn and testosterone-fueled thrill-seeking. It takes a clever picker of statistical and anecdotal cherries, though, to make plausible Rosin’s claim that we are on the verge of becoming a matriarchy.

Pollitt then goes on to blow up Rosin’s rosy picture by, among other things, poking holes in the stats (Lies, damn lies, and statistics, remember?).  She notes, among other things, that, yeah, women may be getting more than half the college degrees, but men still dominate the high-paying fields.  There’s also, as we’ve mentioned in this space, time and again, the pay gap and the fact that women with kids are still hammered by discrimination at work and the second shift once they get home.

Pollit also takes issue with the zero-sum aspect of Rosin’s argument, and wonders: “why should it be that women can change but men cannot?”  And here’s where it all gets interesting:

Perhaps boys just haven’t had enough incentive. The old ways worked so well for so long, so much of life was rigged in men’s favor: all they had to do was show up. It can take a few generations for the new reality to sink in. Unfortunately, society at large isn’t doing much to help. American males are bathed from birth in pop culture that reveres the most childish, most retrograde, most narcissistic male fantasies, from misogynistic rap to moronic action movies. Where would they get the idea that they should put away the video game and do their homework? That social work or schoolteaching is a good life for a man? Girls get a ton of sexist messages, too. But even if they grow up hating their bodies and dressing like prostitutes, they know that if they don’t want to end up waitressing, they’ve got to hit the books and make a plan.

And yet.  Even if girls get it together and the boys do not, there’s still no reason to believe that a matriarchy is on its way, and one reason is the roots of the word itself.  Which is what brings us to golf.  The New York Times tells the tale of Cristie Kerr, currently ranked No. 1 on the LPGA tour, who is living proof that, as reporter Karen Crouse writes, “a woman’s athletic prime and her peak child-bearing years overlap like a total eclipse of the moon:”

For Kerr, the toughest course to plot a strategy for is motherhood.

“Some people get pregnant right away,” she said. “For some, it takes years. How do you know what’s going to happen? What if I couldn’t have kids and I need a surrogate? What if you wait until your late 30s and you can’t conceive?

“Are you going to be the natural mother? Are you going to adopt a baby? Are you going to have a surrogate?”

She and [her husband Erik] Stevens, a marketing consultant who is Kerr’s agent, routinely discuss those questions.

“Cristie earns $1 million a year on the golf course,”  Stevens said. “If she’s going to shut herself down for six months, what is that going to mean for the business? And the second part of it is, What’s going to happen after the pregnancy? What’s it going to do to her career? If Cristie wants to be involved in every aspect of parenthood, how will that absorb her time?”

Now, golf may be an extreme example, but still: Could you imagine this conversation if the genders were reversed?  I thought not.  Sometimes you have to think that no matter how well we do in school — or on the golf course — the only kind of matriarchy on the horizon for the foreseeable future is still the one where mom does the dishes.

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I say we leave it up to the kids. More below.

Writing in The Nation last week, Katha Pollitt threw some love at Julie and Julia, the feel-good foodie movie about Julia Child and Julie Powell, the 20-something blogger who tried to channel Child by cooking her way through “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” What Pollitt liked most about the movie was the fact that it was about adult women finding meaning through work:

What I loved most of all, though, was that Julie & Julia is that very rare thing, a movie centered on adult women, and that even rarer thing, a movie about women’s struggle to express their gifts through work. Not a boyfriend, a fabulous wedding, a baby, a gay best friend, a better marriage, escape from a serial killer, the perfect work-family balance, another baby. Real life is full of women for whom work is at the center, who crave creative challenge, who are miserable until they find a way to make a mark on the world. But in the movies, women with big ambitions tend to be Prada-wearing devils or uptight thirtysomethings who relax when they find a slacker boyfriend or inherit an adorable orphan. Among recent films, Seraphine, Martin Provost’s biopic about an early-twentieth-century French cleaning woman and self-taught painter, is practically unique in its curiosity about a woman’s creative drive. More usually, a woman’s cinematic function is to forward, thwart, complicate or decorate the story of a man. As Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s elusive girlfriend in (500) Days of Summer, Zooey Deschanel has all the external trappings of individuality–aloofness, a sly smile, vintage clothes and indie tastes–but she has no more inner life than Petrarch’s Laura. She’s there to break the hero’s heart and rekindle his ambitions. What will she become? Someone else’s wife.

I read this piece after a long Sunday afternoon of a breakneck email back-and-forth relating to Marcus Buckingham and the happiness gap, which Shannon wrote about so eloquently yesterday. Much of the backchat centered around sexism: Why on earth would we look to a male to define, understand and proffer solutions for our own particular brand of angst? The answer was the obvious. We’re still living in a man’s world. Or, if you prefer the loaded term, a patriarchy, where most of the social structures were set up by men — to benefit men. Men dominate for the simple reason that they can.

Which made me wonder: some 50 years after Betty Friedan ignited the second wave of the women’s movement by writing about the “problem that has no name”, why are we still pleasantly pleased to find a movie about grown-up women who have lives apart from their significant others? Why do we let men (and the editors who publish them) take our conversations away from us? Why were we shocked and amazed that Hillary made it so far into last year’s primary season — all the while secretly acknowledging to ourselves that she could never win the presidency? Why do we still earn 71 cents on the dollar — and then come home and do the laundry? Why, in fact, do I still use terms like “Why women” (just hit search) in my posts?

No wonder we are undecided.

I came of age during the bra-burning era — which, by the way, never happened — at a time when I was known as a “women’s libber.” That dates me, yeah? At my first job out of college, my co-workers (mostly women several years older than I) were almost all involved in consciousness-raising groups, and brought those conversations into the lunch room and break rooms. There was momentum: we were prepped for change, and by god, we were going to make it happen.

But see above. We didn’t. And having been along for most of the ride, I’m frustrated that the movement seems to have stalled.

Why are words like “patriarchy” still part of the lexicon? Why, after Pat Shroeder broke ground in 1973 by becoming the first woman from Colorado to be elected to the U.S. house of representatives – and the first woman to make a legitimate run for president — why are women so woefully underrepresented in the House and, primarily, the Senate? Why are we tempted to use the same loaded  rhetoric of 50 years back without realizing that, just maybe, we need to change strats?

Back in the day, feminism was fueled, to a certain extent, by anger. And it was appropriate: Wake up, women! Embrace your oppression! Fight the patriarchy! That, we got. But moving from anger to constructive action? Seems to me the movement might have gotten so stuck in the rhetoric that it not only closed the tent, but couldn’t pull the trigger.

(As an aside, these are questions for the next generation: What was the last thing you read about NOW? What do you know about EMILY’s list — and do you even know what EMILY stands for?)

One of my friends who was part of Sunday’s bang-a-thon is from Sweden, where this type of conversation is probably close to obsolete. In her country, where there is both gender parity and equality, she suggests, it may be due to their social-democratic-ness: “It’s normal to look at society as a structure and ask yourself who will benefit — and how it can be changed to benefit other groups.”

Why didn’t we think of that? Is it possible that the anger that was so successful as a wake-up call ended up immobilizing us as much as complacency might have? Rather than building a coalition, as President Obama, who achieved the impossible last November, was able to do, did we end up alienating those we needed as allies?

I have no answers. Which is why I’m hoping the twenty and thirty-somethings might pick up the mantle and go forward with some fresh ideas.  Third-wave feminism has been dubbed by some “do-me feminism” or “Sex and the City feminism.” I have to wonder: do we need a fourth wave?

I vote yes.

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