We, The Bloodthirsty

Read this now. It’s a brilliant, powerful, shocking piece by Italian freelance journalist Francesca Borri under the somewhat misleading title, “Woman’s Work.” She briefly addresses her gender head-on, but it’s the media establishment at large that is truly damned.

See, it’s not just Aleppo that’s “all gunpowder and testosterone.” It’s the newsrooms.

Earlier this year, I strongly considered going into journalism. I already spent a year in Afghanistan and speak one local language fluently, the other enough to break the ice. I thought perhaps I could use that to build connections and bring their stories to the world. When I started pitching story ideas to traditional outlets, I realized that my background was more interesting only if I were willing to throw my former employer under the bus or use my skills to uncover some sort of scandal. Apparently, where people put themselves at risk to do good, there’s no “story.”

I admire those who put their lives at risk, as Borri does, regularly, for almost no pay. But for every much-lauded story of a journalist (male, almost always) who grows a beard and embeds with an Afghan National Army unit or dresses up like the Taliban or rides a motorcycle across the desert, there are dozens of positive stories that are intentionally overlooked by newsrooms consumed by bloodlust, like the editor who asked Borri to live-Tweet her captivity. We need to make space for thoughtful young Afghan men and women telling their own stories. We need to make space for other truths.

My Afghan friends are frustrated by the stories foreign journalists empower. Those stories feed back into the local media and influence the way people think. If the Taliban are just going to win anyway, why should any Afghan stick around? If the only stories you read are of terror and failure, then it is hard to picture any other reality. In describing only suffering, we in fact perpetuate it.

That is not to knock what Borri and others do. Millions of people are huddled there, in that “dark, rancid corner,” begging the world to do something. Here’s one thing we can do: Instead of empowering only narratives of death and destruction, we can hold hands with a Syrian refugee, buy soccer balls from a Pakistani child, choose to read stories about people making a difference.

We can dare to live and love and speak our truth, even in a world that is “no place for a woman.”


Positive Thoughts for the Weekend

This isn’t breaking news, but there was a lovely post on the Harvard Business Review blog network last month by the Blackstone Group’s Joan Solatar, titled “Truths for Our Daughters.”

She calls for a change to the way we talk to young women about career success, moving away from criticisms of what women have not yet achieved to narratives about those who have. As I read it, I thought, Yes — that’s exactly what In My Binder is about. 

As Solatar writes, “There is no Secret Formula X for success.” All of us have to adapt to different circumstances, and all of us bring different talents to the world. But there are some universal truths that emerge from all our narratives, including some surprising ones – like the truth that women make great warriors, mathematicians, entrepreneurs, and political leaders, not just at-home nurturers. 

That alone is powerful. Combined with the advice and shared knowledge of women across professions and generations, our stories can change the world. Especially if hearing the stories of others gives us the courage to continue living out our own. 

Have a beautiful, empowered weekend. 


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. 

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.


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.

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?