The Power of Negative Thinking

First of all, apologies to anyone who is an RSS feed subscriber and got a long, very personal rumination on depression the other day. It was not meant for this blog.

But now that the cat’s out of the bag, let’s stare it down in its hissing face.

This morning, I had the honor of hearing the incomparable Donna Brazile speak at the Women’s Funding Alliance Amplify breakfast. A veteran political strategist, humorous public speaker, and savvy commentator, Brazile was inspiring – exactly the kind of woman that younger women like me can look up to. You may have seen her on CNN or ABC, where her commentary is courteous but direct, in-your-face but more of a firm caress than a slap. As a friend said of her Louisiana accent, “It’s like she opens her mouth and a whole culture comes out.”

Brazile didn’t dwell on the reasons she should not have succeeded or belabor her story with complaints about growing up poor, Black, and female. She just told her story confidently, without compromise. She made me think about how often I and the women I know have faced moments where we were pressured to compromise, and the anxiety that still brings. We know we have it in us to do a job, but somebody tells us we’re too young, too inexperienced, too feminine, not feminine enough, not wealthy enough, not educated enough, not connected enough, and for a split second, we wonder: Is it true?

How we answer that question determines everything.

In one camp, we have the pragmatists, who warn women not to be naive. I can’t help thinking of a quote from the NYT article published on September 7, “Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity“:

At an extracurricular presentation the year before, a female student asked William Boyce, a co-founder of Highland Capital Partners, a venture capital firm, for advice for women who wanted to go into his field. “Don’t,” he laughed, according to several students present.  Male partners did not want them there, he continued, and he was doing them a favor by warning them.

It’s fair to say that pragmatism alone never leads to change.

In the second camp, we have the optimists, who tell women that they can do anything they set their minds to. Here I place projects like the documentary Girl Rising. I believe deeply in girls’ education, but at the scene of a group of Nepalese girls singing their friend out of bonded labor, I nearly walked out of the auditorium. “Change is like a song,” they said, and my mind retorted, No, change requires more than singing. It requires organization, analysis, and action. Not every person can sing her way out of slavery. And, as I learned as a grants manager, meaning well does not equal doing good. The path to hell – or, to be less melodramatic, to lost jobs, undermined causes, and ineffective program management – is paved with good intentions.

It’s fair to say that optimism alone never leads to change.

In the third camp, we have the realists. They tell us that women will sometimes be punished for speaking up. Many women who raise their hands for jobs or boards or political office will never be selected. Straight women who call themselves feminists may find that there aren’t enough enlightened men around to meet their demand. Young women who apply for jobs that demand more experience than they have may well be unqualified to perform them. Women will continue to judge other women for what they wear.

This is reality. And it’s fair to say that reality can be changed.

When the HBS deans radically revised their program to facilitate women’s success, they were very realistic. They did more than tell girls to try harder or to “lean in.” They changed the way students and teachers were evaluated. They enforced gender-sensitivity across all aspects of campus life. They even tackled deeper, thornier issues like socioeconomic inequality that were keeping HBS students from living up to their full potential. They had some successes, they learned some lessons, and – most inspiringly – they changed some lives.

They did it by being optimistic in their vision and pragmatic in its execution. They held on to their vision, but they did not let it blind them to the obstacles before them. They chased unrealistic dreams not in their imaginations, but in reality, using their influence to nudge the world in the right direction.

I worry sometimes about the message we are sending young women when we tell them to “lean in” and then, when they ask how, shrug our shoulders. I worry about women like me, who are told our whole lives that we’re amazing and can do anything, who then discover that the tools of self-promotion we were taught to use make us more enemies than friends. I worry that, rather than giving girls a solid foundation to stand on when they encounter obstacles, we are putting them in balloons and then closing our ears when, at some less adorable age, they pop. Positive thinking alone won’t save the world. But without it, no worthy effort will get off the ground. That’s the power of negative thinking.

I’m thankful to Donna Brazile, Jamie-Rose Edwards of Young Women Empowered, and of course the many people who make up the Women’s Funding Alliance for this welcome reminder that, when it comes to making real change, it is best to err on the side of optimism.

Third, some changes are coming. It’s almost time to pivot. I’m looking forward to retiring this blog and reviving it as something different, based on the balance of optimism and pragmatism I’m seeking to promote. Thanks, in the meantime, for all your support this past year.

Taking Advantage of Girl Power

This weekend, journalist Jessica Grose (you’ve read her on Slate/XX Factor, the New York Times, and Fast Company’s Co.Create) published a brief, sassy piece in the Times about her girly voice.

Without perhaps meaning to, her column captures one of the central dilemmas for women of her generation: How to be yourself, a woman, in an industry where womanly qualities are grounds for not taking you seriously.

She talks about how she talks. Like many young women, Jessica discovered that upspeak – that sometimes annoying way of turning a comment into a question – could turn debates into dialogues, inviting others to share their opinions even if they disagreed. It’s a very feminine way of engaging people in a media culture that typically asks commentators to stake out their ideological territory and defend it.

Jessica went to a speech coach to try to fix her problem, but in the end, she decided to keep the way of speaking that had worked for her so far, perhaps precisely because she was underestimated:

Though [upspeak] doesn’t sound authoritative, it may sound egalitarian and accepting. In an interview situation, that may cause a source to open up to me.

Many women in my binder have said the same thing. I think they, and Jessica Grose, have the right approach. Instead of going to coaches who teach us how to be more like men, we should walk through the doors that womanhood – and even being underestimated – open for us. Eventually, we will become the norm.

The Big Picture

Three core beliefs motivate this blog and my work on women’s issues:

  1. By making the world better for women, we make it a better place for everyone. 
  2. There is no better way to make change than to make it yourself.
  3. Change only happens when people take action.

For the past several months, while continuing to work on the In My Binder book project (if less so on the blog), I have also been involving myself in the startup community and global projects such as Escape The City. I am inspired by the positive approach these people have taken to the workplace. Instead of just criticizing the status quo, they are challenging it with compelling alternative models. 

By now, “the new freelance economy” is no longer new. Forward-thinking policies such as the Affordable Care Act, even though they fall short of perfection, enable more Americans to strike out on their own. For years, I have watched with envy as my federal contractor colleagues exercised their flexibility, navigating through uncertainty without panicking, taking advantage of whatever opportunity seemed best. I was so immersed in my institutional bubble that I was slow to recognize that my experience was not unique: In the private sector, thousands of dynamos throw in the towel every year and strike out on their own.

Yes, the start-up community, like everything else professional, is still dominated by men. There are plenty of good reasons why men might be more willing to take the big risk of jumping ship: their choice is more likely to be perceived as brave, rather than manic; their skills tend to be more highly valued in the marketplace; they know that they will always be perceived as the breadwinner and therefore entitled to fair compensation. But there are also a number of incredibly inspiring women who’ve made the leap. They’re not leaning out; they’re just leaning in another direction.

I am now following in their footsteps. Leaving a tenured, well-compensated FTE position without independent wealth seems crazy to a lot of people, but I know that I can do more professionally and have a happier personal life outside of an institution that undervalues my work. It’s a little bit forceful – I am basically asking the economy to work around my priorities instead of accepting things as they are. But isn’t that precisely how change is made? 

Henceforth, you’ll see some changes to this site as well. Stay tuned. 

Multimedia Musts: Don’t give up edition

The biggest line from this story on office romances has nothing to do with love and everything to do with the female response to trouble at work:

“And if I had to work harder to prove that my love life wasn’t impacting my work life?” she asked. “Well, so be it. Working harder isn’t the worst thing that can happen.”

Um, ladies? Exactly how much harder do we think we can work?


Speaking of people who work for free, I watched this video of Daily Beast/Newsweek editor-in-chief Tina Brown so I could hear her say, “We don’t have respect for content anymore.” But before getting, there, she made an elegant case for letting go of the idea of “having it all.” Worth a listen.


The brave team at Women Under Siege has released some new data. I can’t summarize it better than director Lauren Wolfe’s Atlantic headline: “Syria Has a Massive Rape Crisis.” Thank God somebody cares.


In more encouraging news, Kate Walsh joins a growing list of actresses (see last month’s NYT Mag profile of Connie Britton) who confess they have been happier and more successful after 35 than before. Sure, they’re actresses. But the barriers they’ve broken are no less real, and I find their continued commitment to their passion incredibly inspiring.


If you’re not a member of Levo League, it’s probably time to join. Their mission is spot-on! You might have missed today’s hilarious and encouraging “Office Hours” with Sheryl Sandberg, but you can catch the video at that link. There’s a bonus at the end: a funny, inspiring ad launching their next initiative:, showing all the ways we currently settle for less.


I get asked sometimes what all these issues – rape, civil war, and asking for a raise – really have to do with each other. This story from Tbilisi, Georgia by Tara Isabella Burton unintentionally proves my point. The story of a woman trying to get out from under her husband’s abusive hand is a rich reminder of why economic empowerment is so critical for women’s empowerment in every other sphere. It’s also noisy, evocative, and lyrical, a work of literary art in its own right. Well worth our time.

A Woman’s Worth

cast-of-the-berenstain-bears-5I recently got to be a fly on the wall at a strategy meeting for an organization that wants to create a new staff position. One of the board members outlined three scenarios for this employee: an entry-level option, part-time, with low pay and responsibilities; a mid-level position, 3/4-time, with slightly higher pay and much more responsibility; and a senior hire, full-time, with executive pay and responsibility.

“Or,” he said, “as we’ve taken to calling them, affectionately, Baby Bear, Mama Bear, and Papa Bear.”

Does anyone else see a problem here?

We all know the Baby Bears of American society, 22-year-olds who are willing to work 22-hour days for $22,000 a year (see today’s NYTimes piece, “The No-Limits Job“). Someone else, we assume–parents, most likely–will pay the bills. Mama Bear, then, doesn’t quite need full-time work or a living wage. Her husband pays the mortgage. Maybe she’s a recent mother trying to get back into the workplace, something we all support. Papa Bear, presumably, is the breadwinner, an experienced executive who must be better compensated and bears more of the responsibilities at home.

Let’s set aside, for a minute, the ethics of paying young people and women lower wages for equal work. Is it even true that families rely on male heads of household? The research says no:

Okay. Now let’s say that Mama Bear does have a husband who works. Does he make enough to support the family without her income? Probably not, since over 50% of minimum-wage workers are in families making less than $40,000/year (Economic Policy Institute, 2012). If he does, we can almost guarantee that their family is white or Asian.

The man who was speaking is not a sexist or a racist. I don’t think he meant to suggest that “Mama Bear” would be an actual mama, or that “Papa Bear” would have to be male. Furthermore, the organization in question happens do a lot of work in support of women and girls. They would never consciously pay a woman less for equal work. They simply picked the most salient example from our society, and it happened to be gendered.

And that’s precisely the problem. Stereotypes of women’s work are so deeply embedded in our culture that the best among us remain unconscious of them. But by assuming that women can get by without a living wage, we further entrench the gender pay gap. We pay men more for the same jobs, even when those men are in traditionally female-dominated careers. When a woman does a job, we assume that it’s a source of discretionary, or optional, income; when a man does the same, we assume he is providing for his household and therefore deserves higher pay.

Which brings us back to Mama Bear. I cannot fault cash-strapped do-good organizations for seeking cost-effective ways to expand their operations. But by creating a position that only an affluent person could afford to take, this organization would reinforce the very same gender and racial wealth gaps that it theoretically opposes.

They mean well; I truly believe that. So do the rest of us. However, if we want to move beyond meaning well to actually doing good, we have to consider the Mama Bears of today’s economic reality–not just the ones in our collective imagination.

Why We Need Men on Our Side

We know that most good jobs go to insiders, so in some way’s today’s New York Times article, “In Hiring, Friend in Need is a Prospect, Indeed” breaks no new ground. However, it is news that companies are actively promoting the strategy of hiring through referrals, with Ernst & Young aiming for 50 percent.

How does this affect the diversity of organizations in the long term? For people looking to break into new industries, it is challenging to do so without going back to school full-time. But for groups that are already underrepresented within specific firms, recommendation-based hiring presents an additional hurdle:

People tend to recommend people much like themselves, economists say, a phenomenon known as assortative matching. Mr. Topa’s study for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that 63.5 percent of employees recommended candidates of the same sex, while 71.5 percent favored the same race or ethnicity. (emphasis mine)

Wow. Not only does that mean that mean that race and gender imbalances are in danger of becoming more entrenched, it means that individuals from underrepresented groups have even more hurdles to overcome.

This could be read as an argument for women who are underrepresented in the workplace to be even more adamant about recommending other women, and for everyone to be more conscious of their biases toward members of the same race and gender. But I would argue that we need to start further back than that and look at our networks.

Men still dominate powerful networks in business and government. In response to this, many women have taken to forming exclusive networks of their own. I am a member of several such groups (85 Broads, Levo League, Women in International Security), and I support their mission. But these networks by themselves have limited value. Almost every woman I have interviewed credits her first big break to a man who saw her talent and not just her gender.

If we’re ever going to make it to the top, we have to get out of that separate binder marked “qualified women” and into the same binder as everyone else. And the only way to do it is to network.

Nice Girls Finish Last

“When I first got to Brown, there was no model for me,” [Brown University Associate Professor Tara] Nummedal said, but she is determined to make a difference, which has at times led to uncomfortable conversations with colleagues.

Yesterday’s Atlantic article outlining how gender discrimination works in academia has already made the rounds – it’s the “most emailed” article of the day. Why? My guess is not because a higher proportion of academics read the Atlantic, though that may well be true. It’s because the difficulties outlined in that article are faced by women across professional fields.

Women are still expected to subvert their own careers for the sake of their families, even if – as was the case for my working-class parents – a wife out-earns her husband. We are fairly ingenious at adapting to difficult circumstances, which I think leads to the perception that we are “okay with” these compromises. In fact, we’re simply used to making sacrifices.

We are also team players, believing, often naively, that this will be recognized when promotion time comes. Nummendal blames at least some of women’s slower advancement on their inability to say no when the community “needs” them – for example, needing them to serve on committees so that departments can show off their diversity, even if the committee itself is not representative of overall hiring.

I love working on teams, and I gain a lot of professional satisfaction from being part of a community. Problems arise when that obligation to community, rather than boosting our prospects, condemns us to thankless work. I have seen plenty of people – including other women – prey on women’s sense of duty to get them to take on less rewarding work. Their willingness to “take one for the team” over and over frees up the higher-profile work for others. In fact, were it not for the helpful intervention of a woman mentor, my first job would have been well beneath my abilities. That would have stuck with me throughout my career. She encouraged me to fight for a better position, and I was surprised but thrilled when I got it.

No wonder successful women leaders admonish us to demand more. But it’s harder than it looks. Our positions are often precarious to begin with: Untenured, unprotected by the old boys’ network, afraid of being perceived as bitchy, we feel intense pressure to say yes to things we’d rather not – perhaps not so much out of the mistaken hope that we’ll be rewarded for it as the fear that we will be punished for saying no.

That’s why women have to play as a team. I applaud the women in this article for having the guts to speak up, even though some of their colleagues – including females – will no doubt brand them as whiners. I know there will always be women who try to get ahead by slamming other women. But I would remind them that someday, they, too, will need to say no. And a collective no has a lot more power.