Women, identity, and valuing ourselves

October 28, 2013


Britain's new ten pound note, featuring Jane Austen

The other week I wrote a post I called When Women Work For Free. It was inspired by Tess Vigeland's post Me, Work For Free At This Point In My Career? and today I was alerted to this New York Times piece by Tim Kreider (for which he was actually paid), Slaves of the Internet, Unite! I'm going off on a slight tangent here, especially as Kreider, obviously, is male, and yet has himself agreed to work for nothing on what sounds like multiple occasions. But the way women value themselves - and how their sense of identity messes with their ability to get more money - played into a talk I attended last week at a conference put on by Working Mother Media. Columbia Business School professor Michael Morris talked about his, and former student, Emily Amanatullah's, research into women and negotiating. I'm slightly obsessed with this topic, as some of you may know. I've reported two stories on negotiating for Marketplace in the past, and episode 13 of The Broad Experience was about what happens when women ask women for a raise. I'm always banging on about the bookAsk For It, which I recommend to any woman who'll listen.

Morris presented us with a graph showing that when women in the Columbia experiment had to negotiate for themselves, they lowballed themselves. As a result, they ended up with a far lower salary offer than the men in the experiment, who, after receiving a relatively low offer, countered with a much higher one, and got something in the middle. He said the women were notably "much less assertive" and that this is because "they anticipate a backlash" from the interviewer. They're trying to manage society's expectations for their behavior, he said. We all know what he's talking about: that idea that you have to be nice at all times and if you're not, you'll suffer for it. Sadly, other experiments have borne this out. Both male and female interviewers do view women with distaste when they negotiate aggressively. When men do so, neither sex bats an eyelid (read Ask For It to find out more).

(I should say here that I approached Morris after the talk and he doesn't seem to agree with me that part of the issue for women when negotiating for ourselves is that many women just don't think we deserve things, period. Maybe it would take a different experiment to prove that theory.)

But women aren't hampered by some innate inability to negotiate. Morris and Amanatullah found that when women are charged with negotiating on behalf of someone else, there's no difference in what they manage to get. Men and women, in other words, when negotiating for another person, aim high and get the same amount. What stymies women is juggling their sense of self and society's view of them with securing more money for themselves. These elements are at odds with one another. Morris went on to talk about women's sense of identity, and how that plays out in the workplace. I'll quote him: "People whose 'woman' identity was well integrated...they were more likely to negotiate better and be warm." Basically, it all comes down to your company culture, which, as we know, tends to default to 'male'. Morris says if you're a woman who feels comfortable in your corporate setting, you're more likely to be yourself, and thus do a better job of negotiating for yourself, than if you're having to put on a mask every day to go to work. 

"Shape an organizational culture so your employees don't feel they have to check their identity at the door," said Morris. "They can then negotiate better. Life is more comfortable when you have an integrated identity." 


How working women have created a less equal world

September 26, 2013

My well-thumbed copy of The XX Factor

Alison Wolf is just arriving in the US to discuss her book, with its provocative (sub) title - The XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World. I met her in London recently, and she'll feature in the next episode of The Broad Experience. I tore through the book, though I didn't really expect to. Perhaps I've become too used to reading self-helpish books like Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In (which I enjoyed), but knowing Wolf was a longtime professor and expert on labor markets, I feared I might have to plow through a pretty dry tome. But, career academic though she is, Wolf thankfully doesn't write like one. 

The book talks about the extent to which modern working women's lives would be impossible without the poorly paid labor of millions of other women. People like me, and probably you, Wolf says, can have the lives we do because some other female is looking after our children, cleaning our house, doing our dry cleaning or looking after our elderly parents - all work that would have been done by women - for free - just a few decades ago. She's not saying this is a terrible thing, but she takes readers on a fascinating tour of just how much educated women's lives have changed in the past half century or so, and how, by comparison, less educated women's have not. She reminds us that, until the pill came along, sex really was the key to women's livelihoods, whether you look at that from the perspective of women 'saving themselves' for marriage - which was their livelihood in many cases - or women actually earning their living through prostitution. She also has interesting data on how many sexual partners women with degrees have compared to other women, and how much this has changed over the years - this is all part of her contention that 'elite women' live quite different lives from everyone else on the planet. In short, highly educated women, on the whole, have sex later than others (all the better to concentrate on our grades and careers). But education seems to make women more adventurous - or encourages them to take their time in finding 'the one', because these days women with degrees have a slightly higher number of sexual partners than those without.

And you know how we all think of the Scandinavian countries as beacons of equality? 

"The thing no one believes till I tell them is that Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries have the most segregated labor markets in the world in terms of men and women working separately...if you walk into the Swedish or Danish parliament you see lots of women…but the Scandinavians very early on outsourced domestic life, daycare centers, care for elderly...all the sorts of things mothers used to do in the home they turned into paid labor. So what happened was vast numbers of women who used to do female type things at home [now do] female type things in the labor market.

...So you’ve got this enormous female workforce that’s staffing the welfare state, and a professional life that is not more integrated than anywhere else." 

The book is packed with interesting data (of note: it wasn't the advent of the vacuum cleaner or dishwasher, but the invention of frozen meals that really saw women entering the workforce in numbers), and information on working women in different parts of the world. Wolf also takes her hat off to the educated women of the past who spent many hours a week volunteering. That world has pretty much gone, Wolf says, and we're worse off for it. 

That said, she has no desire to go back to the kitchen. 

The new show will be out on October 7th.

Can we elevate the debate on working parenthood?

June 20, 2013

"Everything is about pretty, rich Marissa Mayer." - Jessica Grose

"Women without children are barred from the conversation about women. Not only do they not have a seat at the table but they can't even get into the restroom." - Lauren Sandler

Can we move the debate on working parenthood forward? That was the question posed by a panel of writers and commentators at The New America Foundation's New York offices last night. Note the use of the word 'parenthood' rather than 'motherhood'. Still, there was only a scattering of men in the audience.

The panelists are all well known for writing and speaking on what I'll have to call women's issues, although I dislike the term for reasons I can barely explain. Judith Warner wrote the book Perfect Madness - Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, Sharon Lerner is the author of The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation, Lauren Sandler is everywhere right now discussing her new book One and Only: the Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One, and I used to listen to Jessica Grose regularly on Slate's Double X podcast. She now writes about things women-related for a host of publications including Slate and The New Republic.

A few takeaways from the evening:

  • The debate on working parenthood is stuck in the US for a few reasons: what Sharon Lerner called America's "rampant and deep strains of individualism" is one of them. When I moved here 17 years ago I was truly struck by how allergic to government so many people are in this country. A country that was built by individuals and has long emphasized what one person can achieve if they just work hard enough, isn't that invested in creating a uniform system of leave and childcare policy that could help everyone. Or at least it feels very ambivalent about it. 
  • Another reason may be a reluctance to talk about just how hard things are. Judith Warner said Americans are more open about their sex lives than they are about money (though having just produced a show on sex, I'm not so sure). She said the cost of pre-school is killing all but the wealthiest Americans, but that few people are talking about this honestly.
  • But things aren't perfect in Europe either. Scandinavia may be the envy of many because of its generous family policies, but in the UK, where I grew up, things are more of a mishmash. My friends get a year's maternity leave, but quality, affordable childcare is relatively hard to come by. Lauren Sandler pointed out that this situation is now playing itself out in British homes, as people apparently choose to have smaller families - almost half of British families now have just one child. 
  • The panelists discussed the fact that in the US, the debate on - heck, let's just call it working motherhood - is all about rich women like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg. But there are millions and millions of women in this country who have almost no control over their lives and cannot take a sick day if one of their kids is sick, or they're sick, and actually get paid for it. Why do we always focus on the rich and famous? Because, according to the panelists, there is an 'aspirational' culture here that means we're always looking up. This gets me to the evil media, of which I am a member.
  • Lauren Sandler was surprised when her latest piece in the Atlantic - about female writers who had one child - was published with the headline: The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid. She said readers responded mainly to the provocative headline - and the comments beneath the piece - and barely to the content of the piece itself. I was sitting next to friend and colleague Rachael Ellison of Reworking Parents and she echoed Sandler's point, saying the media has a lot to do with the so-called 'Mommy wars' or indeed the discussion around women and work in general. The whole point of a headline is to get people to read or click. I get that. But I think Rachael is right that part of the reason our debates around these issues get stuck is that editors like to focus on the things that have always riled people or always excited people because they know those articles will sell. This really needs an entire blog post to itself.
  • Finally, mothers tend to dominate the conversation on working women. Lauren Sandler put it well: "Women without children are barred from the conversation about women. Not only do they not have a seat at the table but they can't even get into the restroom." This is partly why I'm dong this show. There are so many issues to do with working womanhood that are not child-related, and I want to make sure they get covered.