Thursday, April 9, 2015

Earnings on Need v. Merit

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about income inequality and the wage gap.  The former focuses on the increasing discrepancy between the most affluent in our society v. everyone else, with particular emphasis on those at the bottom of the wage scale.  The latter is the term used to describe that women have historically been paid less than men, even for the same work.  Even today, though the wage gap has shrunk, various estimates seem to agree that women still only make 70+% of what a man makes in the workplace.

I think both issues are important but I wanted to flag that their underlying concerns are based on distinct theories of compensation. 

Income inequality is based on the concern that those at the lower end of the wage scale are not being paid adequately.  They aren't earning enough to support themselves and their families.  If the workers at the lower end of the wage scale were all driving BMWs and vacationing in Aspen, no one would care about income inequality.  But the driving force in the coining of that term is that some are growing richer and richer in our society while the ranks of the poor explode.  It is that imbalance that is thought to be unhealthy.  But in the income inequality debate, there is no discussion about whether workers at the lower end of the wage scale are being paid their worth. 

Walmart is held up as the poster child of contributing to an exploding underclass with workers who are often being subsidized by taxpayers via SNAP, food stamps and Medicaid.  However, Walmart is premised on a business model with thin margins.  Though their gross revenue is huge, their actual profits are relatively thin.  They make the profits they do by doing everything on the cheap.  They force suppliers to undervalue their goods, their parking lots are notoriously dark, and shopping carts often clog their parking lots because of inadequate staffing to retrieve them.  In such a business model, all of Walmart's non-executive employees are poorly compensated.

But the wage gap is different.  It is premised on the idea that people should be paid what they earn regardless of their gender.  If a man is paid X for a job, a woman should not be paid X - 30% when she does the same job.  The wage gap has nothing to do with concern about whether people are being paid a livable wage.  Indeed, the wage gap is often particularly noticeable in the glass ceiling context when elite women are paid less than their male counterparts.  Lower down the wage scale, minimum wage often sets a floor to prevent a gender wage gap.

However, the wage gap originated in the idea that men needed their wages more because they had families to support, while women who worked just for "pin money."  Women's wages were for fun amusements while men's wages put food on the table for hungry children. 

I flag this difference between income inequality and the wage gap because I think it gets to fundamental issues in our economy.  We are a capitalist society that believes we should get what we earn.  As a culture, we eschew communitarian societies and a robust safety net.  So, the concerns over income inequality (which is dependent more on the latter) and the wage gap (which emphasize the former) are in some ways at odds with one another.


Saturday, June 28, 2014

"So, You're a Republican?"

I know the term "Red State Feminist" is confusing to many.  Some may think that embracing that label, I am indicating I am a registered Republican.  Actually, I am not.  I have lived in red states all my life, but I'm pretty progressive.

But I'm not totally out of step with the dominant values in my local culture.  Family and faith are hugely important to me.  I am a Christian who is very active in her church.  And I am now a full-time, stay-at-home mom, having left my professional career behind a year ago to focus more on my kids and volunteering at my church.  I don't really related to "Blue State Feminism," which is why I embrace the concept of Red State Feminism though I am not a Republican.

It has been said that Blue State Feminism has been dominate in shaping the modern feminist movement.  And NOW (National Organization for Women) is typically viewed as the leading organization of that movement.  NOW consistently lists as one of its top priorities access to "safe and legal abortion."  (See: 

Perhaps like many women, the clichéd labels of "pro choice" and "pro life" don't adequately describe what I think is a more complex issue.  I'll explain more later, but suffice it now to say that I think that medical abortions should remain legal, but I find it a sad tragedy when women exercise that choice.  As I'll explain more later, I do not judge or condemn such women.  Indeed, some are coerced by their partners or families to seek abortion against their will.  But I find it so sad on many levels when a woman terminates her pregnancy.  And I am less conservative on this issue than many similarly situated women.  As NOW is consistently viewed as being so focused on that particular issue, it alienates many family-oriented women from its organization and from feminism more broadly.  To many people in red states, being a feminist largely means being indifferent to "unborn children" and rabidly protecting abortion rights.

Also a top priority of NOW in recent decades, the organization is a strong supporter of "LGBT rights."  I too am a supporter of LGBT rights.  But many see that as only tangentially related to feminism.  It adds to the stereotype that NOW and feminism more generally are governed by lesbians.  Again, that alienates many people in red states, many of whom cite deep religious beliefs for their conviction that homosexuality is a sinful choice.

Abortion and lesbian rights are so closely aligned with the cause of feminism in the minds of many red state residents.  They don't necessarily think feminism can involve any other issues.  So, it becomes quite predictable that feminism--or at least the blue state version of it--is DOA in red states. 

Think about how narrow the potential audience for those two key issues. 

Abortion is only a potential choice for women of child-bearing years.  The average age for the onset of menses is 12 or 13, and the average age for a woman to go through menopause is 51.  (See: and  That means that, on average, a woman could become pregnant for 38-39 years of her life time.  But the average life expectancy for women is 86.  (See:  Thus, more than half of the life time of an average woman abortion is not even a physical possibility! 

The relevance of abortion is narrowed even more because most females don't become sexually active immediately at the onset of menses.  Further, contraception is widely used in the United States, which limits even more the potential for pregnancies when abortion might be considered. 

I have had many close female friends over the years, a few of which have confided that they have had abortions to terminate unplanned and unwanted pregnancies.  In every case, the pregnancies occurred when the women were in their teens or early twenties.  They had been sexually active with people they were not prepared to marry.  In several instances, the women had used a lot of alcohol and/or narcotics before realizing they were pregnant.  In those situations, the decision to seek an abortion was in part due to concern that the child would otherwise be born with severe birth defects or other health problems.

Over the years, I have also had several friends share that they considered having an abortion at some point, though they did not ultimately seek one.  In those situations, there were quite different commonalities.  These women were older (i.e., in their 30s), happily married, healthy and comfortable financially.  These women also were already mothers and loved that role.  However, the consideration of selecting to terminate their fetus was prompted by prenatal test results indicating their child had severe health issues that would be a huge long-term challenge, which they were unsure they could handle given their resources and support system. 

More frequently in my social circles, I have encountered women who struggle with infertility.  IVF and adoption issues (including the huge costs associated with both options) have been much more prominent with the women I've known. 

I flag all these points simply to note how limited appeal the issue of abortion rights is and how alienating it is to many women, particularly in red states.

Similarly limited is the appeal of LGBT rights.  Sexual minorities are just that--numerical minorities.  Though it is notoriously difficult to estimate the percentage of people in society who are gay, it is safe to say the number is less than 10% of the general population.  And the number of lesbians tends to be smaller than the number of gay men.  (See: 

While it is true that people who are not directly impacted by issues can be motivated by them, that happens less frequently and will generally less passion.  One tends to get more motivated to support issues, with which one has familiarity and for which one has a personal interest.  For this reason, the public's continual linkage of these two issues with feminism means that Blue State Feminism will be DOA for a long time to come.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Back Story (Part V) (Embrace of the "F Word")

Feminism was the "F Word" in the conservative, red state culture where I lived, worked and had roots.  I don't think I ever knew anyone who embraced the term.  No one I knew joined NOW (National Organization of Women).  I didn't know any women praising Phyllis Schlafly, but Gloria Steinem was hardly admired either.

Few people like being the odd man (or woman) out.  So, I never embraced the F Word.  That would have been a pretty lonely, if not isolating thing to do in my culture.  "Feminist, party of one, please."

And it has been my experience that people in marginalized groups often do not like to admit they are being ill-treated unless it is to the point of violence or otherwise extreme so that it cannot be denied.  It is not fun to be the victim.  It is not fun to be maligned. 

I've particularly found this phenomenon to occur among otherwise well-educated or professionally successful people.  My husband's boss for many years was the only African American person in their office.  He quoted Rush Limbaugh with the best of them.  More recently, Morgan Freeman controversially declared that inequality due to race is a thing of the past.  I've had gay friends who bitterly resent efforts by the LGBTQ community to unify and support one another.  One friend called it ghettoization, and he thought that integration was a much better goal.

I think that the same thing often happens with women.  Particularly career-oriented women.  We don't like to think that we aren't being treated as well as our male co-workers.  We don't like to think that we are less likely to advance and be promoted due to our gender.  And in my experience, women who focus full-time on raising their kids are often removed from situations where gender bias might pose problems.  As a result, I've found that sexism is even less on their radar.

But what is ironic is that frequently the women who focus full-time on their families are the ones that experience the strongest sexism.  That is counterintuitive in many ways, so let me back up a bit to explain why that would be.

Several years ago, I left industry and became an academic.  Part of my responsibilities as a tenure track faculty member was to do research to produce scholarship and to be more knowledgeable about the courses I was teaching.  One article I wrote was inspired by a trend I had seen in my profession: early in their careers, women stepped out of the work force temporarily for several years or permanently.  This trend had particularly gotten my attention because it included women who had been at the top of their classes at prestigious schools.  They left lucrative, promising careers most typically when they became moms.  Our profession is very demanding.  And it has long been dominated by men, so the notion of flexible scheduling is still pretty foreign.  Moreover, most firms have a rigid "up or out system" where one must make partner within 6-8 years or one must find another job elsewhere.  The result is that some of the most demanding years professionally are when women are starting families.  If push comes to shove, they can step away from their careers, but their biological time clocks are less flexible.  If they are going to bear children, there is a fairly narrow window after they graduate from school and enter the work force.

In the course of doing the research for this article, I came to understand that this trend was not unique to my profession but went on in others as well.  I learned so much from that project and it opened my eyes tremendously.  It really peaked my interest in gender issues, as well as how they interplay in family life and in professional contexts. 

One resource I came across in my research was particularly enlightening: Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It (Oxford University Press, 2000).  The author is Joan C. Williams, who is a well-respected law professor.  She is currently at Hastings College of Law.  Her book was such an epiphany to me.  I will write more about that as this blog progresses.  I encourage everyone to read that book--and have a pencil ready to mark passages that particularly impress you!

Among other things, in reading Professor Williams' book, I began to realize that even though we as a society have made a lot of progress in terms of gender equality in the work place (though more is still needed!), much less progress has taken place on the home front.  And that lack of progress at home has huge ripple effects that most of us overlook.  It is easier in some ways to talk about structural changes in schools and work places to help women achieve professional equality.  To do that, one is typically asking a faceless institution to do something.  In many ways, it is much harder to ask one's partner to make big changes to advance gender equality.  In the constant negotiation that is any long-term relationship, such requests can rock the boat and may be ignored if the requested party believes they are too burdensome.

I will explore these topics more.  But right now, I just want to note that I didn't really embrace the F word until I was a mom.  Even then, it was a gradual evolution.  In some ways, it was only because of the gender research I began for my article.  And it was helped along as my children got older such that the responsibilities of raising them became more nuanced and challenging.  It is one thing to give a baby a bottle or change its diaper.  It is quite another thing to counsel a child through awkward social issues with their peers and the challenges of algebra.  As my children have gotten older and their needs have changed, I have become cognizant that I am much more in tune with those needs and how to help them.  This has been quite a shock because my husband has always been a trailblazer in terms of gender equality and is a kind-hearted person.  He is not some stereotypical man like Archie Bunker!  It has been a mystery to me how in a theoretically egalitarian relationship like ours, things are often so lopsided.  But in my further research, I have come to understand this is incredibly typical in modern American heterosexual couples.  More on that and other exciting topics in future blog posts!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Back Story Part IV (Gradual Epiphany)

So, I have spent my life in red states.  I've had a vague interest in feminism, but it hasn't been strong.  In the culture where I've lived, feminism was one of two "f words."  People loved Rush Limbaugh, quoted him like they were quoting Scripture.  And we all know his views on the topic.  He coined the term "feminazi."  That pretty much summed up the sentiment of most folks I knew.  The term "feminist" was absolutely toxic.  It was up there with "communist" and "atheist." 

And this was equally true of the women I knew.  Even in law school, the other female students generally were not fond of anything that focused on their gender.  There was sort of a head in the sand approach to sexism.  Most of the women were perfectly content with the way things were.  And they were smart and confident in their ability to make their way in what was still a man's world.

My last year in law school something unexpected happened.  We began the year and one of the women on law review was pregnant.  She was expected to give birth sometime in the spring semester before graduation.  This was quite scandalous in some ways though she was happily married and had wanted to start a family.  I don't remember the male students saying much, but the other female students were generally horrified.  That was not the right order.  You were supposed to wait, get established in your career, THEN you start having babies.  What would happen when this woman jumped the gun?!  She had an offer for permanent employment upon graduation.  How would it all work out if she needed to start that job while on FMLA?

And then something even more shocking happened.  It was like there was an epidemic.  Several other women in our class seemed to be inspired and they got pregnant too!  By May when we had our graduation ceremony, we had half a dozen women waddling across the stage and needing help climbing up and down the steep ramp to the dais.  The dean even made a joke about what would happen if a baby was born at commencement.

I remember my 3L year when my husband and I talked about trying to get pregnant ahead of schedule.  Maybe these women had a better plan.  But we decided against it.  It just seemed like a sure shot to wreck your career.  Why waste all the time, money and effort to not be a lawyer?

When I began my post-graduation job, I was one of the only women.  It was a very white, very male work environment.  I had no one to talk to about things that interested me.  Football and conservative politics were the mainstay of lunch time banter.  No thanks.  I remember once driving with my manager and a supervisor in our office, desperate for a conversation topic.  I began with, "I've got some exciting news!"  The two men turned to me with a look of horror, which I didn't understand.  I then told them my husband and I had scored some cheap tickets to London and we were going to go on a short vacation there over the New Year's holiday.  The two men then exhaled and the looks on their faces brightened considerable.  It dawned on me that they thought I was going to announce I was pregnant. 

That was insightful.  I got the clear message that pregnancy was not going to be welcome news in our office.  And that was disappointing because in law school I had worked long and hard to find the most family friendly work environment I could.  This was the best I could find, and it wasn't in the end that friendly to family.

Indeed, around that same time, I had become friends with another woman in another department.  I admired her because she was smart and down to earth.  And she was married with kids.  I viewed her as a great role model for me.  She was one of the only other women with kids in the company.  I would ask her about her kids sometimes.  I remember being shocked once because she told me the reality of what happened when her kids got sick and could not go to school.  Her mom was her only local relative, and she was still working so that typically she was not available to stay with the kids.  So my friend or her husband had to take off work to stay with the kids.  More specifically, they had to use vacation days when their kids were sick.  This was alarming news because our employer was notorious about giving very few vacation days each year.  She said that between the two of them, most of her vacation and her husband's went to caring for sick kids.  They never got a real vacation.  That was so demoralizing.  We worked long hours.  I was at the office 6-7 days each week.  I was already thinking I'd be burnt out with so little vacation time allotted.  What on earth would we do if we went years without a break other than to nurse sick children?

Meanwhile, three women had been pregnant in the department when I had been a summer clerk.  That had been encouraging to me.  But by the time I arrived to work as a permanent employee, a very different situation had come into play.  One woman had had to ask for a transfer to another part of the company when her husband's job was moved to another city.  She was lucky in that they accommodated her.  But she effectively was dead-ended in a part of the company without much growth opportunity.  Another woman was also put out to pasture after she became a mom.  She was sent to another worksite in the same city, one where the boss was an ogre and there were few opportunities for advancement.  She was at a dead-end.  The third of this trio had realized after becoming a mom that she needed to find a new job to better accommodate her family.  She went to a large law firm that promised it respected her need for job flexibility and a less intense schedule.  Unfortunately, the person who became her boss at the firm had not gotten the memo on that flexibility, and he put tremendous pressure on her to work insane hours.  I don't think she even lasted a year before moving on.  Parenthetically, I've lost count how many female lawyers I've known who've gone through that same experience.  During interviews, the firms say they'll be flexible and accommodating of family, but then that doesn't last long before they are forced to travel and work more and more hours.

Something else happened to me that was insightful about the work-life balance issue.  As a summer clerk, I worked with several women who had to balance tremendous work demands while dealing with a very difficult pregnancy.  One woman's experience particularly impressed me.  She had been put on bed rest by her doctor due to the risk of miscarriage.  But her husband suddenly lost his job and she became the sole breadwinner.  This was in the late 1990s.  Telecommuting was not yet a thing.  So to work, she had to be at the office--45 minutes from her home.  She shared with me that if she had followed doctor's orders, they would have put her on disability.  She would have been paid less--exacerbating her family's financial woes with the loss of her husband's paycheck.  And the disability would only last a certain number of weeks such that she'd have to go back to work right after giving birth.  I was stunned at her situation.  And scared. 

I'm always getting sick at inopportune times.  I'll get the flu or a stomach bug or pneumonia when I'm under stress and have a lot to do.  I began to worry about what I'd do if I had a difficult pregnancy.  I didn't know how I'd handle it all.  Maybe it would wreck my career.  I wasn't terribly ambitious.  I didn't want to be a manager or make a lot of money.  But I had worked hard in law school and seemed to have a talent for the work I was doing.  I wanted to practice my profession for the foreseeable future, and not let my hard work and students loans be in vain.  I'd always had an interest in adoption.  I'd vaguely thought that maybe we'd have a few biological children, then adopt.  But after seeing my female colleagues' difficulties balancing pregnancy and demanding jobs, I began to think about adoption more and more as a primary way to build our family.

I spend the first few years of my career focusing on work and proving myself.  But I also spent my limited free time researching adoption.  My husband and I ultimately decided to go in that direction.  Both our children are adopted.  I've never regretted our decision.  Our daughters are the lights of our lives.

Moreover, I've often thought how trying to get pregnant while working would not have been a good combination.  Eventually, we had a few more women join our department and we became close.  One dear friend suffered through several miscarriages, one was very far into her pregnancy.  I cried with her but had no silver bullets to make the pain go away.  What's worse, she had had to confide in her bosses about her pregnancies because she was suffering severe gestational diabetes and could no longer travel or work really insane hours.  They accommodated her needs temporarily, but when she miscarried, she had to tell them of the situation so they would know why she no longer needed the accommodation.  The humiliation of having to share something so personal and so painful with one's bosses to talk about cold, hard facts like business trips and who was covering which project.

That same friend was also advised to breast feed for at least a year to help ensure that her son would not develop diabetes.  Her manager knew of this situation and was accommodating.  But her immediate supervisor was quite the sadist, contriving excuses to send her on needless business trips during this time.  This was not long after 9/11.  The nightmare of having to lug a breast pump and a refrigerated cooler through security was more than I could imagine.  TSA couldn't conceive of a breastfeeding woman without a baby.

Interestingly, this friend's accommodating manager was male and her sadist supervisor was one of the few females in a position of authority in our whole division.  To be specific, there were three.  One had married late in life and never had children.  Another was married and had one child.  Her husband did not have a career and cared for their daughter full-time while her mom worked and traveled a lot.  The third was the youngest woman in a position of authority.  She was brilliant but she had no social life.  Though her star was rising within the company, she complained openly about not having a love life and her ticking biological time clock.  This third woman was my friend's sadist supervisor.  My friend and I were convinced she treated my friend so cruelly only because she was jealous of her.  Several years earlier, she had also said some very cruel things to my friend when she announced her engagement.

That vicarious experience--and the pattern within our division--gave me important insights.  Before that time, I had figured we women were all in it together.  We were all in the same boat and were natural allies.  Thus, we should support one another.  It began to dawn on me that that was not the reality.  There was actually a division between the moms and the non-moms.  The women who rose to positions of authority were not moms or they had partners who were devoted to caregiving.  Either way, they could not conceive of the plight of my friend who had to use vacation days to nurse her sick kids or my friend who was not supposed to travel due to pregnancy or the need to provide breast milk for her son.  The first two women of authority in the division were just ignorant of their plight and thus unintentionally insensitive.  But the third woman was deliberately cruel due to her own jealousy. 

I began to see a delineation between the few women at work.  There were the moms and the non-moms.  Some of the non-moms were sympathetic--either because they hoped to one day be moms themselves or they were just kind hearted human beings.  But some of the non-moms were decidedly not sympathetic.  They wanted to be like the men, which seemed to be the surest path towards success.  However, this was a small group--thank goodness! 

The sympathetic non-moms tended to fall into one of two groups.  There were women who wanted to eventually be moms themselves.  They often looked to me as a role model and mentor.  I was flattered, but always uncomfortable in the role because I had no silver bullet to make work-life balance magically work out.  The other group of sympathetic non-moms tended to be older women who had tried earlier in their careers to be like the guys, and had given their all to climbing the corporate ladder.  It had worked for a while, but eventually they had been pushed back down.  They were sometimes a bit bitter about the experience, but tended to be wise about office politics and realized that playing corporate games was not a fulfilling way to spend one's life.  They tended to retire as soon as they hit the minimum retirement age.  They then went on to lead a happy life away from work--gardening, painting, traveling or engaging in other hobbies.  They had lives away from work.  The unsympathetic non-moms did not.  When they have been forced to retire because they hit a certain age, they have not known what to do with themselves.  I feel bad for them.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Back Story Part III (Young Adult Years)

After college, I entered the work force.  My chosen profession (teaching) was one that is traditionally dominated by women.  It is also not well-compensated or well-respected.  I was really proud and passionate about it because I wanted to help people and make a difference in their lives.  But I soon learned that few others outside my profession seemed to share my enthusiasm.  Occasionally, I would run into someone who would give me a sort of pitying congratulation on my chosen path.  But these were typically people in better-compensated fields who seemed to think I was overly idealistic.

Most people, however, seemed to think that I was likely a dim-wit who just couldn't do any better.  Obviously I had fallen into teaching because I couldn't do anything else.  It couldn't be anything other than a last choice made of desperation.  Their eyes glazed over when I told them what I did.  They were bored.  Working with children clearly was not an endeavor that most adults I met thought intelligent people did as their life's work.  The attitude seemed to be that children are stupid, thus, adults who work with them must be as well.  I was young and impressionable.  At the time, I think I accepted this way of thinking to some extent.  I did not stay in my chosen profession beyond four years.  Though I enjoyed it and felt like I was making a difference, my mind had been poisoned and I kept thinking that my brilliance would be dimmed if I did that kind of work for 30 years.  I figured I needed to find a "real" career to challenge myself.  I decided on law.

Something interesting happened when I made the decision to go to law school.  Up until that point, when I was in social situations and people asked what I did, they seemed bored and completely unimpressed by my answer.  But when I began to add that I was applying to law schools, their eyes perked up.  Folks were definitely impressed by that.  Over the years, they became even more impressed when the answer was "I'm a law student" or "I'm an attorney."  And they would almost fall out of their seats when I would tell them my specialty was corporate tax law.  The same people who looked at me with boredom and pity began to show me more respect.  A LOT more respect.  They went from condescension and thinking I was not worthy of their time to admiration and acting like I was too good for them. 

Those reactions really taught me a lot.  My IQ had remained the same all that time, but people's estimation of my IQ changed tremendously.  Note that I had been perceived as a dim-wit and dull when I was working with children in a female dominated profession.  But I was viewed as highly intelligent when I was working in a traditionally male dominated profession with just adults, without children.  Back then, I would have thought it was a coincidence, but now I recognize it is not.  Traditionally female jobs (e.g., nurse, secretary, maid, nanny, grade school teacher) are not respected or paid well.  But if you go into a traditionally male job (e.g., doctor, manager, professor), people are much more impressed and you are much better paid.  Moreover, in our country, despite our insistence on "family values," we don't really value children.  Further, we certainly do not respect people who care for them.  More on that later.

But during my 20s, I was somewhat insulated from gender issues because I began my work life in a female dominated profession.  There were so few men beyond the head custodian.  It was a bit like being in a convent! 

In law school too, I was somewhat insulated.  My class was apparently the first in our school's history to have approximate gender parity in the incoming 1L class.  That was a little surprising to me.  I did not really think about law being a male dominated profession.  There had been plenty of women in LA Law when I was a kid.  And Ally McBeal was a hit at that time.  I had the impression that there had been plenty of female lawyers for a while.  That I was wrong was evidence of my naiveté.  I wasn't even too interested in the fact that I was part of the first class to achieve gender parity.  As long as we had parity while I was there, the past (even recent past) didn't seem to bother me. 

Moreover, even though the Socratic method was tough and even cruel at times.  I didn't perceive the professors as being disrespectful to the women any more than towards the men.  I witnessed quiet, non-aggressive men being pummeled by tough professors.  And plenty of outspoken women in my class stood up to the most overbearing profs.  I didn't see a gender difference.  Nonetheless, it was generally understood that it was the female students who were more likely to break into tears over a particularly rough Socratic lashing.  However, this did not strike me as a huge gender issue. I felt reasonably well-respected by my colleagues and professors in law school.  I did not feel disrespected due to my gender.

Meanwhile, in my 20s, I fell in love and eventually married a great guy.  We had met at church in college.  He was a professional in a Fortune 500 company.  He was proud that I aspired to be a lawyer.  More importantly, he was supportive of my aspirations in meaningful ways.  For example, he was willing to relocate to another city for me to attend law school.  Though we considered that seriously and even made a trip to another town to scout out places to live, I didn't end up taking him up on that option because a local school was a better fit.  But he supported us financially when I quit teaching to go to school full-time.  And he even agreed to do 100% of the housework while I was in school so I could focus on my studies.  I'm fortunate that his was not a passive "support."  I've always credited him as having helped me achieve what I did as a law student.

Despite all this, there were two things that did make my radar a bit as possible gender issues involving my decision to become a lawyer. 

One was work-life balance.  I had heard about the crazy hours that lawyers had to work.  I wasn't sure how I'd handle that and a family.  By then I was pretty sure I did want to have kids.  But I didn't view this as a gender issue.  I assumed that in my household, all responsibilities would be shared equally.  At the time, however, I didn't perceive this so much as a gender issue.  Instead, I was worried only about how I'd hold up my end of the deal.  My husband was already working crazy hours in his demanding career.  He couldn't do 100% of the housework forever.  And there would be more to do when we had children.  I was concerned about the logistics.  Even in law school I worried about that and was trying to figure out which career path would make the logistics easier to manage.  (More on that later.)

The other thing that made my radar involved the paucity of women in positions of power.  Although in 3 years of law school, I only had three courses taught by women, I did not think much about this imbalance.  It was a shame there were only a few women on the faculty.  But I had been raised in the post Title IX period when many of us glossed over such things because we figured real sexism was a thing of the past.  I realized most of the profs were male, but I assumed this would change in time because there weren't any barriers anymore.  I just did not perceive major structural impediments preventing that from that happening.  Similarly, when I began to job hunt, I was surprised at the gender parity in the associate ranks while there was a dearth of women in the partner ranks at firms.  But again, I assumed that in another 6-10 years, when my class was eligible for elevation to partner, things would even up.

Boy, was I wrong!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Back Story Part II (College)

I went off to college when I finished high school.  I attended a massive university where it was hard initially to find my place in the sea of thousands of faces.  There were a lot of student organizations, however, and I tried a few to find my place.  I chose groups with interests aligned with mine.  One was the student chapter of NOW--National Organization of Women.  I figured I was interested in women's rights, I should get involved with like minded young women.  It didn't end up being a good fit.

Actually, I went to just one meeting.  After only a few minutes of listening to the group's leaders discuss current projects and upcoming events, I quickly realized that pretty much all the attendees were lesbians.  Even as an immature, not particularly sensitive teen, I had no problem with homosexuals.  Not to be cliché, but some of my closest friends are gay.  However, I am not.  And sitting in that NOW meeting, I really felt like I didn't fit in.  In fact, I kept wondering if the whole rest of the world knew something I did not.  Maybe "women's rights" was code for "lesbian rights."  But I was confused why that would be.  I didn't understand why I appeared to be the only straight woman in attendance.  And I was uncomfortable.  I was worried that if I spoke, somehow everyone would figure out I was not gay and I'd be unwelcome, maybe even embarrassed for having apparently violated some unwritten rule.  So, I never went back to NOW.  Interestingly, the president of that group later became the president of the largest LGBT student organization on campus. 

That was my freshman year.  As a senior, I took my one and only Women's Studies course.  I was a foreign language major and it was cross listed with my department.  I was very excited and had high hopes.  Unfortunately, I was very disappointed.  The course was not that interesting, but that was not the problem.  I learned more about the country whose culture we were studying, and very little about women's history or perspectives.  Oh, well.  But the real problem came when I was shocked to get a very low grade on a paper I wrote.  The grade itself was not even the worst part.  My writing was my strength in college.  I wrote a lot of papers for my courses.  They tended to be very well-received.  I was even told they were among the best some professors had received.  So, it was odd to me that I received such a bad grade on the paper for this Women's Studies course.  I had worked hard on it and it seemed to me to be solid.  However, the professor had not given me much feedback to explain the grade.  We had several other papers in the course, I was worried I'd bring down my GPA if I continued on that path.  I've never challenged a prof's grade or even communicated disappointment or disagreement to a prof about a grade.  But I did work my courage up to talk to this professor to see if she could give me some insight as to what I did wrong and where I needed to improve.  That was where the real lessons and disappointment over the course came.  When I spoke with her, she said that she didn't really have any specific suggestions, but she was under a lot of pressure from the university administration to not inflate grades, so she had to give a lot of low grades to avoid push back from the powers that be.  She specifically said that female professors in particular are often perceived as pushovers and she had to prove she was strong.  She was an un-tenured professor, and in retrospect she was apparently concerned about being perceived as weak by the tenure review board.

I thought a lot about her words over the semester and beyond.  I thought about whether other female professors I had had gave in to such pressures.  But then I began to realize I'd made it to my senior year with only a few female instructors.  One was near retirement when she taught me.  She was tenured, perhaps one of the few women in her department to have earned that distinction.  But she seemed to lead a lonely life with her cat.  She was an eccentric, very harsh professor.  She liked me a lot because I was always prepared.  But she was cruel and humiliated those who were not prepared or who did not have a real aptitude for her subject.  Another female instructor I had was an untenured, but brilliant prof.  I learned so much from her.  She actually tended to give overly high grades to students and was well-liked as a result.  I looked her up a few years after graduation.  Despite being highly respected, she was never granted tenure.  The other female instructors I had had were graduate students or lecturers--people who were not on the tenure track. 

So, that Women's Studies course was a bit of an eye-opener.  I had been raised in the post-Title IX period to think we were all equal.  The women's movement was over because all the major battles were over and we were on the same playing field.  It had never occurred to me this was not the case.  I was perplexed that my female professors might be judged differently from the male ones.  I had had plenty of male professors who were demanding--but not one whom I'd classify as "cruel" or who tried to humiliate students.  I had also had male professors who were very gentle and kind.  It began to dawn on me that maybe they could afford to be nice because they did not have the kind of pressures the female profs apparently had due to the way they were judged by their superiors.  By then, I didn't have many classes left prior to graduation, but I did consciously consider the gender of the instructor.  Frankly, I was hesitant to take a course with another female professor.  I am not proud of that, but I'm being honest.  I feared that out of self-preservation, the female professors would be harsher than the males.

Another gender-based realization had also slowly dawned on me in college.  My high school was a high performing magnet school with near universal college attendance.  We had all been groomed for college for years.  It was not a question of if but of where.  And many of my colleagues ended up at highly competitive, prestigious universities.  I remember seeing a list at graduation indicating where we were going and what we were studying.  There was not a real gender difference based on the prestige of the universities we had chosen.  But there was a marked difference in terms of our majors.  A significant number of the male graduates listed engineering, a few indicated accounting.  The women tended to list various liberal arts majors, a few indicated sciences.  Many female graduates were undecided.  I too was vaguely in the liberal arts camp.  Honestly, it hadn't occurred to me there was another option. 

What really struck me was all our male colleagues choosing engineering.  I'm completely sincere when I write that I had never heard of that major.  I'm not joking when I write that I thought it had something to do with working on a train.  I wasn't really sure what accounting was either, but I vaguely understood it involved business.  For years, I've thought about this marked difference in our chosen majors.  We girls sat in those same math classes as the guys.  But somehow the guys got the message about engineering as a career, and we girls did not. 

Think of the implications.  The starting salaries for engineers v. liberal arts majors is huge and disparity continues throughout one's career.  Having worked in the petroleum industry for a number of years, I have witnessed firsthand the incredible paucity of women in engineering.  There are so few that I've heard the women describe the horrible isolation they experience and plan for a change to a different career--typically staying home to raise kids or becoming school teachers.  Not only do those female engineers end up economically disadvantaged, but the whole profession misses out tremendously from a lack of a more diverse perspective.  It cannot be a good thing when a profession is so homogenous.  We overlook things when group think sets in.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Back Story Part I (Growing Up)

To understand why I'm interested in the subject of feminism despite the culture in which I live, we have to back up. 

I was a child of the 70s, then was a teen and came of age in the 80s.  When I was very young, my parents divorced.  I must have been a baby or toddler because I don't actually have any memories of them together.  My mom had primary custody of me.  It was just the two of us for a number of years, so she undoubtedly had an influence on my views on women and feminism.

She was a kid in the 50s and became an adult in the 60s.  She had always been a good student and she graduated early from high school.  But then she sort of floundered.  She had really wanted to be a veterinarian, but the only vet school in her state was at a public school that only admitted male students.  Her family did not have much money and out of state tuition was totally out of the cards. 

Eventually she got an English degree and fell into teaching.  It was either that or nursing for women with degrees back then.  But before finishing her degree, she married my dad.  She followed him around as he got his degree and started his career.  That slowed her own progress on finishing her education.  An early marriage ended up being a bad decision.  The marriage failed within a decade. 

My earliest memories were of just my mom and I living in a trailer park on the edge of a large Southern city.  She was a school teacher in a rural district.  On weekends, I remember my mom blaring the same records over and over.  She LOVED Tammy Wynette.  She alternated between "Stand By Your Man" and "D-I-V-O-R-C-E."  She also played Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" a lot.  These seemed to be her anthems. 

My mom eventually remarried.  The marriage meant we had to move to a new state.  Up until then, I got to stay with my dad every other weekend and I spent a lot of time with my grandparents.  The move meant I grew up isolated from my family.  My mom did not like the new town where we moved.  It was a lot colder, people were less friendly.  The urban traffic and hustle-bustle were more intense.  She hated it all and seemed pretty miserable a lot of the time. 

And moving also meant she gave up her career.  For years after the divorce, she had worked hard to earn her master's degree part time to become a librarian.  And a year or two before the move, she had been lucky enough to land a school librarian position.  Those were few and far between, but someone in her district had retired and she had beaten out the competition to land the spot.  She absolutely loved it.  She has always been an avid reader and loved being in charge of a library, encouraging kids to read.  When we moved, she was unable to get another library gig.  And she wasn't even able to get a teaching job because there was a glut of high school English teachers in our new area. 

She spent a year as a stay-at-home mom.  Initially, I was thrilled.  I'd be like everyone else with a mom who didn't work and was available to help at the school.  But things didn't work out as I expected.  My mom didn't know what to do with herself.  She'd go days without doing her hair and just wear knit hats with large pompoms on top.  She'd go on adult "field trips" organized by the local parks and recreation department, lose track of the time and be late picking me up, which was scary.  She cooked hot meals that didn't come in metal trays, but she has never been interested in domestic stuff so her cooking was a little odd.  She'd make this baked chicken dish with a black sauce.  It was actually pretty tasty, but it was so strange looking that I never wanted it served when I had a friend over.

Eventually, my mom realized that staying at home was not for her.  She needed the structure of a full-time job.  However, there weren't a lot of options.  She finally landed a job as a secretary.  Mid-thirties, master's degree, lots of professional experience.  And it was her freshman high school typing course that got her the job.  It probably hurt her feelings to start over like that, and not use her college education.  She was promoted over the years and towards the end of her second career she began to land positions with titles other than "administrative assistant."  Eventually, she had her own secretary.  However, she never made lots of money.  She worked in nonprofits where most of the work was done by women, though most of the bosses and the boards providing oversight were composed of men.

As far as I can recall, my mom never marched in any parades, but in her quieter way she definitely supported the women's movement.  Around the house, she would put up little cartoons about the struggle for women's rights, and if my step-father was un-PC and thoughtlessly used sexist language, he got a stare.  She was a fan of Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda and Geraldine Ferraro. 

Because she had had to start over professionally, my mom was often older than the other women she worked with.  Many were just starting out, and my mom seemed to be sort of a mentor to many of them.  I remember my mom telling my step-father about their problems.  They were young, smart women who had a lot of potential.  But it is hard for anyone to get their foot in the door and get out of the secretarial pool. 

And their love lives were a constant challenge.  Actually that seemed to be a bigger part of her mentoring than career matters.  None of them seemed able to find a suitable mate.  The men they met seemed to be adverse to commitment.  They wanted to just have fun.  At the time, Three's Company was one of my favorite shows.  The character Jack Tripper seemed to embody the type of men my mom's mentees were meeting.  And the comic strip Cathy was very popular. I think I grew up with the impression that young, smart women would find it difficult to get a man to commit.  Yet even before the term "biological time clock" was coined, my mom's mentees were worried about not finding a man before it was too late.  These were the days before professional women would even contemplate conceiving or adopting a child without a husband.  My mom's mentees wanted to "have it all" as we were always hearing in the media.  But without a man to cooperate, they wouldn't be able to have everything they wanted. 

Several of my mom's mentees did get married and have kids.  That made an impression on me too.  Some of them were well into their 30s when they got pregnant.  That was not easy.  Working full-time, long commutes, maintaining a home.  Many of these women had difficult pregnancies.  I remember being with my mom when we ran into one such woman at the grocery store.  She was by herself after work getting groceries for the week.  She was normally a very attractive woman, but that night she looked awful, was leaning on her grocery cart like she could barely take another step.  I remember being a little scared.  She said she was ok and we eventually went our own ways.  But in retrospect, I'm wondering why her husband couldn't have gone to the grocery store and let her rest.

I didn't have the happiest childhood.  I've surmised over the years that I was a surprise at a time in my parents' marriage when divorce was being contemplated.  My arrival may have put that off briefly.  But my mom has even admitted to me that she never wanted to be a mom.  She said she didn't think she'd be any good at it. 

My recollection of my childhood is that my mom never seemed very interested in me.  She never took an interest in my schooling.  Never asked about homework or helped me study.  She'd look at my report card when it came, but she never said much.  Fortunately, for the most part, I was a fairly decent student and self-sufficient.

I also don't remember my mom ever wanting to do anything with me.  I was an only child and was pretty lonely most of my childhood.  I played by myself in my room a lot.  When I was older, I spent a lot of time on the phone with my friends.  But when I was at home, no one seemed to pay me much attention or talk to me--unless they were yelling because they were mad at me. 

We rarely ate together as a family.  Once my mom went back to work, she sort of gave up on cooking.  She'd microwave a hot dog or something for me.  I'd eat it alone at the kitchen table most of the time.  We typically just ate together when we went out to eat.  As I got older, I was implicitly expected to fend for myself, though there were rarely many groceries in the kitchen.  I guess if you don't cook, you don't think about buying food.

The TV was constantly on at our house.  We were in the same room watching it sometimes.  But we also had TVs in our bedrooms, so sometimes we watched separately.  On the weekends, my mom liked to read or do crafts.  But she never involved me. 

Every summer I would spend part of my vacation with my dad and other relatives back home.  I remember a friend of the family telling me once that my mom got very sad when I left for those trips.  I was shocked and had trouble believing her.  My mom never seemed to notice I was around most of the year, I couldn't comprehend why she would mind when I was gone.  I guess I had always assumed that she was relieved to have me gone.  At least she wouldn't have to worry about childcare.

So, with this assembly of life experiences growing up, I had a strange view of the women's movement.  My mom supported it and had her own career ambitions. But she completely gave up a career she loved very much to move far away for a man.  The ethos of the 80s was "having it all," and I'm sure to my mom's mentees, she seemed to have it all.  But she was a disinterested parent.  She was nominally a mom, but rarely interacted with me. 

I suppose the result of all this was that I did believe that women should be equal in every way to men.  But I also grew up realizing that women had issues men did not.  Men could start families in their 40s and 50s.  Women could not.  Men seemed to have a large pool of spouse candidates, if they were ever interested in marriage.  Women on the other hand rarely seemed to find men who might be interested in getting married.

Fortunately or unfortunately for me, I had never really experienced a happy home life, so marriage and children were not necessarily on my list of life ambitions.  I hadn't ruled it out, but it was not clearly on my list of goals.  As I was growing up, I wanted to travel and be a writer.  I wanted to speak foreign languages.  I wasn't terribly clear on how all this would translate into a career, but I knew I wanted to go to college.  I figured it would all fall into place from there.