Someone’s On Her Soapbox

My super smart, stylish, and successful lawyer mom friend (that’s actually what her gigantic business cards say) sent me this Atlantic article by Gwynn Guilford last week, and I luuuurve it. In a nutshell, the article lays out the clear economic benefits of keeping women in the workplace, and proposes that providing equal pay and more paternity leave – yes, paternity leave – may be the key to doing that.

This makes so much sense to me. It’s way easier (and cheaper) to return to work and leave your child at home with your baby daddy than to find other child care arrangements. Also, it’s super fun to see how terrified he gets the first time he is alone with the baby.

But offering more paternity leave raises difficult cultural issues. There’s still a huge stigma around men taking paternity leave in the U.S. For example: remember that poor Mets player who took advantage of the MLB’s paternity leave and missed two totally inconsequential games at the beginning of the season? Yeah, that didn’t go over so well, although I’m guessing his wife and child appreciated it. And then there are the obvious financial problems with taking leave. Apparently only about 14% of employers in the US even offer paid paternity leave, so taking time off is a usually a financial hit. And when men are making a dollar for every 78 cents a woman is making (IT IS TRUE), it’s much harder financially on the whole family for men to take several weeks or months off of work.

Guilford’s article in the Atlantic talks about the problem of childcare leave in Japan, which, compared to America, has got it pretty freaking good. In Japan, couples get 12 MONTHS of PAID childcare leave, which the couple can divide as they choose.

I will pause and let you collect yourself.

Now that you are done looking at real estate in Tokyo, here’s where it gets complicated. The Japanese government pays 2/3 of the parent’s salary for the first six months, and then ½ for the remaining leave. While this all seems “very equitable,” in practice it doesn’t work out that way because of–you guessed it–cultural stigma and the wage gap. In Japan, women usually take the first few months of leave (because childbirth and breastfeeding are hard), and men are stuck with the last part, where their typically higher salary is cut in half. The more leave the man takes, the greater the financial hit to the whole family. The result? Men don’t take much leave, and women take a lot. Duh. For women, then, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Japanese businesses expect women will be out for a long time so they pay them less and don’t offer them promotions or management positions. And women aren’t getting paid fairly or offered promotions or management positions, so they stay home.

Sigh. It’s so complicated. BUT WAIT NOT REALLY. How about we just pay people equally and stop making assumptions about what moms and dads want based on outdated ideas about gender? As I may have mentioned, not every woman wants to walk away from a career as soon as she pops out a baby. Yes, I said pops out. And not every dad wants to ensconce himself in his office and leave the childrearing to the ladies. Yes, I said childrearing.

Exhibit A: the CEO of Pimco (a $2 trillion with-a-t global investment fund) said LATER to his job after his wise 10-year-old daughter presented him with a list of 22 important life events he had missed while working. The CEO said he felt guilty about his “out of whack” work-life balance, and who wouldn’t with his schedule? Every day he would wake up at 2:45am, which is the MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, work like a maniac, and then go to bed at 8:45pm.

I mean. NO ONE, man or woman, should be expected to keep up that kind of routine for very long, unless you are in college and “work” is “eating cereal and watching daytime talk shows in pajama pants.” But it’s refreshing to see men talking publicly about the unreasonable pressures on parents to maintain demanding jobs while trying to be an involved parent. Men want paternity leave, and they want to have balance, too, and that has benefits for women, which has benefits for the economy as a whole. This is clearly not only a women’s issue, and finding the solution will involve both women and men.

That said, equal pay for women and mandated paid maternity leave are no brainers and would be a solid start to making meaningful changes. For example, did you know the U.S., Lesotho, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea are the only countries that do not require some kind of paid maternity leave? And did you know that Lesotho is a country? Because, I’m not going to lie, I did not. But now I’m mad at it.

Which is why I was psyched to see Labor Secretary Thomas Perez say recently that it’s all kinds of ridiculousness that the U.S. still does not provide paid leave for new moms. And he frames it as, “We are not serving our women and our families well.” Yes – women and families. When we start to talk about this problem as a family one, and one that we all need to fight for, then maybe things will change.

Or we can just all move to Sweden and get 480 days of paid leave per child. PER CHILD! Hallå!

Slip Sliding Away

I am 100% sure that this amazing contraption would have kept me working happily at my lawyer job a whole lot longer. And by “working,” I mean making worker’s comp claims while I lay on my living room floor with a ruptured disc. It is a wooden human-sized hamster wheel, designed to keep you moving while you’re shopping online typing your super important work emails. Bonus: it also offers the chance of an unexpected faceplant into your laptop. If you work in one of those hip “no walls” office spaces, imagine the entertainment this will provide your co-workers!

Are there really people who are coordinated enough to type and maneuver a human hamster wheel at the same time? I can’t even imagine. After having kids, I lost any coordination I may have had, and that is saying something. For example, before kids I routinely tripped when boarding the metro during rush hour. Embarrassing? Yes. Bloody? Not so much. Flash forward to after I had my son, and my embarrassing stumbles turned into unintentional gymnastics. During rush hour, it was totally normal for me to slip and slide down the escalators during my commute, and not in a cool, rebellious way.

That is not me.

That is not me.

Once I slid down an entire set of escalators in a splits formation when my front leg slipped right out from under me. But that’s not all: while doing my sliding splits, a college-aged dude near me got tangled up in—that’s right—my breast pump bag, and I took him down with me. When we reached the ground, I untangled my boob horns from his backpack, pulled my shit together, and walked my bloodied legs onto the nearest train car. Where everyone promptly avoided eye contact with me.

But even in my clumsiest moments, I know that I’m still a badass, and here is why. When J was really little, I bundled him up and headed out during an ice storm because I was determined to have him in the voting booth with me while I cast my ballot for a lady president in the primaries. Because babies love voting, duh. I knew that, in between drooling and playing with his toes, he would appreciate the significance of the moment, and years later we could reminisce about what a formative event it was in his life.

We never made it, though, because I wiped out on an ice patch on the top of our front steps with my baby sitting on my hip. Instead of diving head first down the steps, I somehow twisted around in mid-air, wrapped my arms around J’s gigantic baby head, and landed on my back. J never even touched the ground. My whole body hurt, but I was so worried about my son seeing me freak out that I laughed and looked into his worried baby eyes and said, “Wheee, that was fun!”

For the record, it was NOT fun at all and I lied right to my little baby’s adorable face. But we were fine. For the next few days, I kept running over and over in my head how badly it all could have ended. I scolded myself for not being more careful, and for risking my child’s safety to do something he wouldn’t even remember. I felt terrible—until my husband pointed out my mid-air ninja maneuvers that had kept my son perfectly safe.

So, no, I may not be able to gracefully walk down stairs or, um, stand still on escalators like a regular person any more. But when it matters, I’ve still got some moves.

But that dude I ensnared with my boob horns might disagree.

On Nuggets and Ear Holes

I haven’t blogged here in almost a year, and I have no real excuse other than having to wash my hair, learning how to grocery shop (I am serious), trying to get some freelance stuff going, and just life. Oh life!

So what made me come out of my retirement, asked no one? Well, let me tell you. It is this article describing the “motherhood penalty” and the “fatherhood bonus.” Take a deep breath: after controlling for variables like hours, types of jobs, experience, and salaries of spouses, research shows that men’s pay increases around six percent when they have kids, and women’s pay decreases around four percent when they have kids. And, you guessed it, the majority of this motherhood penalty is because of “discrimination” and “a cultural bias against mothers.”

Mother effer. I wrote about some of this nonsense four years ago here and it’s hard to see where we’ve made much progress. But maybe this hard data—and giving the motherhood penalty a catchy little name!—will help. Maybe?

For one, it should answer questions about why women leave the workforce more than men after having children. No, it is not because our ovaries flip some maternal switch in our boobies, causing us to prioritize nap schedules and diaper changes above all else. It is because, for many families, after paying hundreds, even thousands, of dollars a month for childcare and then dealing with an actual monetary penalty in their paychecks, quitting may be the most rational choice. Throw in the stress of, say, pumping milk in a supply closet in between client meetings, or knowing that your daddy colleagues are getting high fives while you are getting eye rolls, and the decision becomes even more reasonable.

Also, maybe it will encourage supervisors to be aware of what messages they’re sending to their employees and what cultural biases they’re reinforcing. I’ve spoken with plenty of women about that intangible shift that happens in the office when they are preggers. Some of you know what I’m talking about: suddenly finding yourself out of the loop on projects you used to manage, supervisors assuming you don’t want challenging work anymore, people asking if you’re really going to come back to the office after maternity leave. I’ve talked with two women in different fields about supervisors who explicitly said they expected them to have one foot out the door if—IF—they came back from maternity leave. Sigh. I want to believe that these supervisors think they’re being supportive of a massive life change. But assuming that moms don’t care about their careers anymore isn’t supportive, it’s ridiculous. Also, um, discriminatory.

Speaking of that, I will leave you with this little nugget. Sorry, it is not Chuy from Late Night with Chelsea Handler, which I miss.

Picture from TMZ.com.

Picture from TMZ.com.

FYI, that is Chuy (a.k.a. Little Nugget) in a nudie suit swaying slowly back and forth on a swing while Sia, overcome with stage fright, sings “Chandelier” with her back to the audience and her shirt on backwards. It is the most confusing and life affirming thing I have ever seen on television.

I digress. Here’s my little nugget: this summer I was small talking with someone I’d just met while on vacation. Turns out he was a law firm partner. When I told him I had worked at a big firm and was taking some time off, he seemed sympathetic to my decision. And then he said, “Look, I hate to say it, but 30-something moms working in a law firm are the worst. They’re so entitled and think they should get treated like the men, and then they need all these breaks during the day and want to go pick up their kids early. It’s just non-stop drama.”

MOTHER. EFFER. I was enraged, and I am pretty sure smoke came out of my ear holes. But then I used my highly trained analytical thinking skills and realized something: that dude was old. Like, super old. And the fact that he was saying shit like that out loud to lady strangers shows some extremely bad judgment. He is (literally) the old guard, and his days of passing over talented women because he’s sexist (oh yes he is) are numbered. And then what will happen? Well, all of us more enlightened folks will take over, and the motherhood penalty will just refer to something else less devastating. Like when your skinny jeans don’t fit and your youngest child is 7—it’s not baby weight anymore, it’s the motherhood penalty. Or when you hear yourself yelling fancy shit like, “The next person who talks about diarrhea is sleeping in the woods tonight!” you guessed it; that’s the motherhood penalty talking. Sidenote: the fatherhood bonus is obviously balding, and cannot ever be used to refer to penis size. Just needed to establish that now.

Lean On Me

Guess who had the geekiest, hottest ticket in DC last Thursday night? I will give you a hint: it was me. That’s right, I saw the lovely Mee-chele Norris from NPR have a heart-to-heart with Sheryl Sandberg about Sandberg’s “sort of manifesto,” Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Spoiler alert: there was no Tory-Burch-briefcase-throwing, but since it was a room full of women, there was lots of hysteria, crying, and talking about hair. Obvs.

Sandberg’s message was mostly noncontroversial: women (and men, too, but esp. women) need to recognize the stereotypes we have about ourselves and our abilities, stop selling ourselves short, speak up, and expect equal treatment in whatever we do. I had seen her TED talk so I knew Sandberg would be engaging and interesting – and she was. Her responses to questions were well-rehearsed, and she described several entertaining anecdotes from her book (which, for the record, I haven’t read yet – I find that criticizing is way easier when you’re not tied to things like “facts,” am I right?!). It all felt a little canned and routine, but hey, she was on stop number five of a book tour and had her spiel down. It didn’t bother me, but she was much more believable when she dropped the “fake sincerity,” as one of my friends described it. Also, one of my other friends might have described her presentation as being like “Tammy Faye Baker televangelism.” And she did not mean that as a compliment about her passion and bold eye make-up.

There has been a lot of criticism about Sandberg’s message being inapplicable to normal women – you know, those slacker women who didn’t get two degrees from Harvard and don’t have an outrageously impressive resume. That criticism doesn’t resonate with me. She is brilliant and dynamic, and has taken risks and worked hard for her success, and I don’t think she should be discounted for that. But I did feel like she was out of touch for a different reason: she presented a lot of the issues that my lady colleagues and I have talked about for nearly a decade now as if they were new, and as if women hadn’t been wrestling with them before Lean In. Which is just blatantly untrue, at least in my circle. The way she described the problems women face wasn’t surprising to me at all. Don’t we all know that women often earn less than men because we just don’t ask? And don’t we all know that men who are aggressive are seen as leaders, while equally aggressive women are seen as bossy or bitchy? Don’t we all know that women often downplay their achievements, while men are more likely to bask in the glory of theirs?

But I guess her point is that while the women who have experienced these things – who have been called sweetheart or girl in a room full of male colleagues, who have been the only woman lawyer in a huge deposition and asked, “Are you the court reporter?”, who have been told by male supervisors that we can’t have lunch together at a bar because it will make people suspicious – need to make the shift from just talking to one another about it to talking to the world about it. And demanding better.

But I think with Lean In, Sandberg is presenting an over-simplified solution to an extremely complex problem. Two women who asked questions (questions that Sandberg largely dodged) got to the heart of my frustrations with her message.

First frustration: a feisty senior member of the audience (who was accessorized with some serious green jewelry) got up to the mic and introduced herself as an “original feminist.” And I believed her. Just the sound of her voice made me want to rip off my bra and burn it. She said Sandberg’s message was “fine,” but in her many years as an attorney in DC she had seen thousands of impoverished women who didn’t stand a chance of getting out of their circumstances just by “leaning in” and asserting themselves – what they need is meaningful legislation and public policy that helps them just get on the ladder, much less climb those last few rungs. The audience cheered for the green-bejeweled-feminist. Sandberg responded that she supports policies to even the playing field, but that “public policy on its own isn’t enough.”

And this is when it got realz.

Sandberg cited Scandinavia as an example of why we can’t rely on public policy to create equality. Apparently Scandinavia has enacted super progressive women’s rights laws, and yet, only 1% of its corporations are run by women. Persuasive, right? WELL, the green bejeweled woman immediately threw some Scandinavia stats RIGHT BACK AT HER – something about, “Well, yes, but that is balanced by Scandinavia’s legislative quota system, which requires significant female membership on all boards.” What the WHAT? Who can just spontaneously throw out facts about Scandinavian gender quota systems? That original feminist lady, that’s who. Sandberg recovered nicely from the Scandinavia smackdown and stood by her response – what she is doing is a complement to necessary changes in public policies and legislation, and isn’t the entire solution. (She also referenced leanin.org for the, oh, 4,000th time right about here.)

Second frustration: another woman stood at the mic and basically told my life story (minus the irrational fear of opossums and obsession with celebrity gossip). Her question was something along the lines of: how am I supposed to “lean in” at a job that is sucking the freaking life out of me, and also, why would I want to? She was (shockingly) in corporate law at a big law firm, had two little kids, and said that her job required long hours and travel on short notice, and it wasn’t worth it to her to lean in and stick around to get a management position. A management position that would continue to suck the life out of her, with a slightly bigger paycheck and a significantly higher level of stress.

At this point, all of my BigLaw expat lady friends grabbed each other’s hands and wept, and then called out to invite her to join our sisterhood.

I was psyched to hear Sandberg’s answer to this one. I totally leaned in and was ready to get some wisdom dropped on me. And do you know what she said? Something along the lines of the best way to get the flexibility that you want and need is to be in management. And that in major corporations and big law firms, the CEOs and partners call the shots, and the underlings respond.

Um. First of all, I don’t even know how true it is that CEOs and partners have tons of flexibility – in any high-paying client services industry, there is always unpredictability and the need to immediately respond to your client’s requests and needs, no matter what your level. But even if it is true, what about the years and years of pain and daily sacrifice leading up to that? What about all that work that might land you in the corner office but leave you with nothing satisfying outside of that fancy office – no relationships, hobbies, kids, etc.? What if “leaning in” to the workplace means sacrificing your chance to travel, fall in love, get married, have kids, and just live your life? (Look here for an interesting take on that issue from Erin Callan, former Lehman CFO.) She had no real response for that.

Maybe she would say that until we get women in those management positions, things aren’t going to change for the better for women. So we need women to sacrifice and make it happen if we want things to change. I don’t know. But her response reminded me that while she’s getting everyone talking, her advice about “leaning in” isn’t the whole solution.

I think the best thing Sandberg is doing right now is getting people talking about feminism again, and giving me an excuse to go out for overpriced drinks with my lady friends. But she doesn’t speak for everyone and “leaning in” isn’t a cure all. Not even close. I’ve made my peace with Sandberg’s message by being grateful that she is bringing the discussion to a national audience, and especially to high-profile men who are in power positions. She has the access and the street cred to literally pick up the phone and call the old white dude CEOs of major companies and get them talking about how to get women leading, which is amazing. Because when I tried that, they all just hung up on me.

But I hope the discussion keeps going and involves even more women from different backgrounds and perspectives. Like that green bejeweled lady – she has some things to SAY, I just know it. If I can’t find her to interview for my next piece, I will at least try to post a picture of her jewelry. Or a picture of me burning my bra in solidarity with her. Look for a teeny, tiny puff of smoke, that will not signal that a new pope has been chosen, but will tell you that I have found some grrrrrrl power.

Holy Gallinippers

Tonight I’m going to see Sheryl Sandberg speak in downtown DC about her new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. I’m going with a group of women who are former colleagues, and who also happen to all be big law firm expats. I am a little nervous about the crowd at this event – I’m imagining hundreds of stressed out, overachieving women in the audience either asking insightful questions and cheering Ms. Sandberg on, OR berating her for being out of touch and throwing their Tory Burch briefcases at her. We’ll see. Either way, it will be nice to hear my lady friends’ thoughts on Sandberg’s advice, and to distract myself from THIS NEWS about shaggy-haired, monster mosquitoes invading Florida. They are called called gallinippers, and oh no, here comes a picture:

Gallinipper

I do not live in Florida, or even close, but just knowing that these bugs exist is nearly debilitating. It is only a matter of time before they travel north and conspire with the wildlife in my backyard to terrorize me somehow.

Anywho, I will let you know how the Sandberg event goes. I’m secretly hoping for a confrontational showdown, but this is DC, where everyone is well-behaved and conservative. At least in public. So it probably won’t be too dramatic, unless a gallinipper gets in the room, in which case I am definitely going to make a scene.