It’s About Time

Today’s great news: The Pentagon officially lifted its ban on women in combat. The landmark decision comes after years of advocacy and lawsuits, including one brought just this past November. It’s a big accomplishment.

However, as some initial responses indicate, we still have a long way to go in terms of combating public ignorance.

Of the nasty comments already being made about women’s capability on the battlefield, I’m only going to address three:

1) The myth of lower standards. Yes, women have more time to complete their two-mile run and get more points per push-up on the physical fitness test. But when was the last time someone had a push-up-off with a terrorist? Women are actually better suited for surviving harsh conditions, in large part because of their metabolic differences. For years, the U.S. military has struggled to recruit to standard due to rising obesity and poor public education. Embracing women not only widens the pool of recruits, it brings in other important physical skills – like flexibility, endurance, and ability to tolerate extreme heat and cold. Turns out that higher body fat comes in handy sometimes, and not just when bearing children. Who knew?

2.) The myth of the Hollywood battlefield. Nevermind that most women at my Crossfit gym can execute more push-ups in a minute than the average talking head has done all year – the modern U.S. military demands a lot of talents that go well beyond rucking. Ever heard of the “tooth-to-tail ratio”? That’s the number of boots on the ground for every pair folded under an office chair, and it’s still around 10-to-one. So, just as you can’t have a successful career while excluded from combat, nor does playing movie-star soldier merit lifetime taxpayer payroll. American women are already an important asset on the battlefield and in the thousands of desk jobs that are the bulk of the DOD’s work; this just means that they can finally be recognized for all of it.

3.) The myth of men who “can’t help themselves.” Although I appreciate the irony in saying that the same men who “can’t help but protect” women on the battlefield “can’t help but attack” them sexually later on, it simply isn’t true. There are plenty of real men in the U.S. armed forces. Those who really feel that gender segregation is necessary might consider fighting for the other side. Not only does al-Qaeda keep women in their place, I hear they’ve got an impressive stash of porn.

If, on the other hand, you consider this a landmark and believe women in the military deserve better, you can help by supporting the Service Women’s Action Network. Or, you know, watching The Hunger Games, doing Fran at Rx, and getting that overweight, opinionated he-man at the bar to attempt the splits. Some things are just better when they’re co-ed.

Moral Crimes, Afghan Justice, and a Small Town in Ohio

I am sure that they will try to kill her again. If her brother did this and they did not put him in jail, why would he have changed? And maybe he will even feel more strongly.
– Hassina Nekzad of Women for Afghan Women

In December, I wrote about Gul Meena, an Afghan girl who ran away from home with a man who was not her husband and survived an attempted honor killing – thanks in large part to the support of villagers and medical personnel in conservative eastern Afghanistan. Finally, we have an update on her story – complete with an incredible photo of her head and face, scarred by ax blows but still held together. Her survival is inspiring. But her story is also a challenge to those of us who believe in putting public pressure on the justice system to do the right thing.

Gul Meena’s story broke at around the same time that the Steubenville, Ohio rape case hit the national media and the whole world learned the horrifying story of a rape in New Delhi. I had just written about a teenage girl who took to Twitter for revenge after the courts let off two boys who sexually assaulted her. In all three cases, thousands of people like me are concerned that the courts will not do their jobs. We contend that these cases are about more than just the individuals at stake; their outcomes will determine whether sexual assault is taken seriously by the courts and therefore by our society. We worry that not punishing these criminals does more than just let dangerous men go free – it endorses a culture that blames victims, not perpetrators, for assault. In other words, our worries are strikingly similar to those of the Pashtun villagers mentioned in the Times’ original article.

While Gul Meena has survived for now, she remains in danger of what an American would call vigilante justice and what many Afghans would call reality. Tribal law and the court of public opinion could yet decide that her “moral crime” merits the punishment her brother tried to inflict, and if she goes home, the justice system can do little to protect her. Her best hope would be a trial of both her and her brother for their separate crimes. While the entire category of “moral crimes” is about as acceptable to women’s rights advocates as blaming a female rape victim for getting drunk, it’s the reality of Afghan law and the reason I was furious over criticism of western Afghanistan’s chief prosecutor, Maria Bashir that was published in the Times last month.

After all, Bashir’s effectiveness as a woman is directly tied to her performance as prosecutor. A respected advocate for Afghan women and winner of the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage award, Bashir has been a powerful force for fighting corruption and establishing rule of law in Herat Province. In a country where the formal justice system is often trumped by commonly held ideas about sharia and tribal law, Bashir’s prosecution record – including for adultery, which is a crime under Afghan law – is outstanding. In the article, she is quoted as saying, “I want to be an enforcer of the law rather than human rights.”

While it may pain Bashir to prosecute these women, she’s taking the long view. It’s the wise one. A functioning justice system that entitles any citizen to a fair trial under existing law is humanity’s best solution to the vexing problem of crime. While some Americans still yearn for the Wild West, I am willing to bet that most women recognize they are safer inside a justice system than outside of it.

That’s why today’s news out of Steubenville is actually heartening. One of the lawyers for the two small-town football players accused of rape has requested a delay, a change of venue, and a closed trial. When I think about this case, a moral crime if ever there was one, I feel angry. I worry that the courts will find some absurd reason to let these boys go, silencing present and future victims of sexual assault who may lose their faith in justice as a result. But the only way to ensure justice in the long run is to give the accused a fair trial.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can do as so many Afghans have done for Gul Meena: support victims, even when that means risking our reputations on their behalf; advocate for necessary changes in our laws and our cultures; and hold the justice system accountable – not to our personal consciences, but to the law.

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.


Wooing Meg Whitman

HP SuitorsReally, New York Times?

Good writers create atmosphere with word choice. Did the character dash, sprint, or scurry to the next appointment? Sunlight pierces a stabbing victim’s eyes; for a politician about to be exposed by the media, it glares. The best writers do this subtly, so that, without telling you that the character feels a sense of loneliness, you know it because she describes the furniture as solitary, the floor-to-ceiling windows that she once hoped would erase her inner walls as riot shields.

Usually this is an unconscious choice. But Michael J. de la Merced and the editors at the Times most definitely knew what they were doing when they described potential buyers for two HP units as “suitors.” Did Meg Whitman put her Electronic Data Systems on display and maybe jiggle them a little when investors came over to check them out? I would guess not. But you had better believe that no one would have used the word “suitors” if previous CEO Leo Apotheker had been the one to put HP’s goods on the market.

Another day, another stupid media portrayal of a successful woman. Onward.


Who Gets To Be Happy?

Today, Emily Oster at Slate explains why women shouldn’t spend more time at home than at work. In doing so, you could say she is echoing Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial view that women should not “lean back” at work when they have children.

Her reasoning has less to do with career success and more to do with personal happiness:

Each hour of your day—sleeping, eating, working, showering, playing with those dinosaur stickers—delivers some amount of happiness. And usually the second hour of the same activity makes you less happy than the first one. The first hour of dinosaur stickers, amazing. The second hour, OK. The third hour? Even the best parent may wonder if it’s, perhaps, time for a glass of wine. In the language of economics, the marginal utility of time with your kids—the happiness you get from the last hour you spend with them—is declining as you spend more hours.

Granted, what this does not take into account is how much your kids need you. Raising children is a responsibility, even when it doesn’t maximize both parents’ happiness in any given 24-hour period. In that way, the economist’s argument seems a bit crass, and commenters have pounced on that.

But I think Dr. Oster is making an important point from the pendulum swing’s forgotten other end. Our society romanticizes child-rearing to the point that many of us feel guilty about wanting to have careers just as badly as we want to have kids – if not more so.

This approach transfers all responsibility for child-rearing to the mother, essentially making the same case: Providing childcare, maternity leave, and paths to leadership for working mothers does not make us/our shareholders/our taxpayers “happy,” so we don’t have to do it. Instead, we still force women to feel guilty for wanting to define themselves as more than mothers.

Instead of berating women who enjoy their time at work, perhaps we could all take a little more responsibility for the next generation?

High-Powered Women + Love + Motherhood Roundup

Articles worth your time (all, not coincidentally, written by women):

ABC News‘ Sarah Parnass and Dana Hughes on the end of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State:

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Dec. 6 shows 57 percent of participants saying they’d back a run by Clinton to succeed President Obama.

Asked about his wife’s Oval Office ambitions last April, Bill Clinton said he would be happy either way.

“If she comes home and we do this foundation stuff the rest of our lives, I’ll be happy.  If she changes her mind and decides to run, I’ll be happy,” the former president said. “But that’s light-years away.”

Janice D’Arcy for the Washington Post magazine on the challenges of sharing parenting responsibilities:

Marriage historian Stephanie Coontz says American parents have higher expectations of themselves than any previous generation. Modern parents, she says, do not realize how much they are up against as they try to change the child-rearing rules while living up to heightened demands. “People don’t anticipate in advance what a strain this will be.” They end up “turning on each other.”

Better, she says, would be “less indignation at each other and more at our society” — our familial infrastructure, the schedules of schools and offices that remain fixed in a two-parent, single-income world.

Related, and old, but not yet dated, Jan Hoffman’ for the New York Times on the importance of date night:

“The Obamas really are products of the culture,” said Christine B. Whelan, a sociologist at the University of Iowa who studies the American family. The Obamas exemplify what sociologists call the “individualized marriage,” she added, where a thriving relationship is marked by love and mutual attraction, not just duty to family and social roles.

Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath, and Mary Davis Holt at the Harvard Business Review list the six paradoxes women leaders face, including:

6. The Careful-What-You-Wish-For Paradox. Women have more opportunities to work today, yet they are opting-out in high numbers. It has been nearly a decade since Lisa Belkin’s article “The Opt-Out Revolution” made headlines in 2003, yet recent statistics illustrate that more women than ever aspire to walk away from work to stay home full-time to raise children. This paradox underscores the reality that women today still feel pressure to have it all and can become stressed and discouraged when that dream is revealed to be impossible. All women (and many men) feel the pressure from conflicting priorities, yet when good women leave work it is organizations that suffer the most. 

What did I miss?

I’m Over It, Too

If you’re following these issues at all, you probably already know three things about rape culture:

  1. Indian women are over it. Don’t even make me put all those hyperlinks in here. It’s not just New Delhi. If you really want a new definition of brutal sexual assault, use your Google machine and type in the words rape or gang rape and Haryana. If you’re not in a place where it will be okay to weep openly, try not to read the stories about prepubescent girls – and be warned, there are lots of them.
  2. The U.S. Congress doesn’t care. (Why are we not surprised?) America may be starting to, as fallout from the Steubenville, Ohio attack is finally hitting the news, or it could just be another case of the somebody-should-do-somethings.
  3. Eve Ensler is over it, and asking us all to be the somebody who does something.

Well, I won’t be reading any of her monologues anytime soon, but I will be joining Ms. Ensler to Occupy Rape on February 14, 2012. One way or another, I’ll be telling my own story.

Why? Because we have allowed shame to silence so many victims and empower so many perpetrators. Because we’ve accepted this culture for so long. Because yes, there is a link between sexual violence and women’s ability to succeed in the workplace.

A culture that passes off sexual harassment as mere “eve teasing” – sorry, in Western parlance, “boys will be boys” – is a culture that will never treat women as equals.

So why do we – nice, polite girls who try to cover up our cleavage and suck it up when the powerful old guys talk to us like we’re trash – let Slut Walk and Eve Ensler do our dirty work?

I joined Ms. Ensler’s campaign, but for me, standing up doesn’t mean reading one of her plays. It means speaking up in my own voice. It means pointing out that rape isn’t just something that happens in Appalachia or at frat parties or in far-off places. A culture that blames women’s bodies for tempting the men around them is reprehensible, whether it’s expressed by covering women in burqas or firing them for their curves or even shunning them from church because their God-given breasts are too big. (And I’m not just talking about Jessica Simpson, here.)

In this kind of culture, the only way to be taken seriously as a woman is to erase your body as much as possible. That can take the form of voluntary breast reduction, something many women I know have done. It can take the form of weight gain or loss. It can take the form of dressing as masculine as possible, as commentators like Ruth Marcus recommend, condemning young, single women to a joyless future with no room for sexuality.

That’s why I’m inspired by other women who refuse to play by those rules, and I don’t mean by wearing skintight dresses in the workplace. I mean by simply being women, their full selves, in whatever context, and refusing to accept any gender-based barriers to success.

Don’t just do it for the rest of us, do it for yourself. It’s a question of honor.

More on Motherhood

Sometimes it feels uncanny. Just one day after I posted on the advantages of being raised by a working mom, Slate is opening a series on single moms that challenges the long-held idea that being raised by a single mom leads kids to having problems later in life.

In fact, single motherhood may simply be a proxy for other disadvantages, many of which are thrust on single-parent families by a society that doesn’t provide many options for working moms. In this article, a single mom talks about the valuable lessons her kids have learned from their upbringing, including the hard parts – and they’re asking for more stories like hers.

I’m glad to see this narrative evolving. I was raised by a full-time mom, and there is no way I’d be where I am if she hadn’t fought for opportunities for me at every turn. I don’t know if she could have done all that – demanding that I get a chance to go to a school that would challenge me, and, when I passed the test against all odds, driving me across town so I could go there – if she were working. When we were little, she ran a daycare in the house to help pay the bills. For a working-class family that eventually grew to four children, there weren’t any other options – and besides, being a full-time mom is all she ever wanted. I respect her and her choices enormously.

But we have to leave room for the idea that there’s more than one way to be a good mom. Including single motherhood. Keep it up, Slate.

Makers and Mothers

PBS and AOL have put together compelling video interviews with women who really are making history. They call it Makers, and it’s well worth your free time. For today, I’m zeroing in on a segment from Madeleine Albright’s interview called “Unforgiving Women.” In it, she says:

I have often felt that, often, women were more judgmental about what I was doing than men. Making me feel like I should have been with my children. You know, “Don’t you miss waiting for your children in the carpool line?” I mean, doing your PhD while your kids are in school is not a bad thing, though I have to say, it took me so long to do it that […] But I think that other women, for a long time, made me feel guilty. [emphasis mine]

While a lot of things have changed since Albright’s time, one thing hasn’t: Women continue to fight it out over which kind of motherhood is ideal.  Continue reading