I know the article has nothing in it that will seem new to feminist blogging fans, but I really liked this piece in Newsweek about the continuing problems facing women in the workplace 40 years after the landmark lawsuit against the magazine for sex discrimination. It’s a great synthesis of the various ways that women with the talent and skills to compete with men are being held back, and they avoid the tendency common in the mainstream media to blame women themselves. For instance, they note that women are far less likely to assert themselves and ask for things from their bosses, but they also acknowledge that the reason for this is not that women are weak, but because of sexism. Women are far more likely to be considered bitchy than men for asserting themselves.
And I think I learned something new, actually. Or had a new perspective I hadn’t thought about before, because I’ve never faced what they describe:
In a highly sexualized, post-PC world, navigating gender roles at work is more confusing than ever. The sad truth is that when we do see women rise to the top, we wonder: was it purely their abilities, or did it have something to do with their looks? If a man takes an interest in our work, we can’t help but think about the male superior who advised “using our sexuality” to get ahead, or the manager who winkingly asked one of us, apropos of nothing, to “bake me cookies.” One young colleague recalls being teased about the older male boss who lingered near her desk. “What am I supposed to do with that? Assume that’s the explanation for any accomplishments? Assume my work isn’t valuable?” she asks. “It gets in your head, which is the most insidious part.”
I correct myself. I have in fact faced this prejudice. When I joined Pandagon, there were very few female bloggers in the top ranks, and the biggest one was assumed by most readers to be a man (Digby). It’s hard to believe it now, but back in 2005, bringing a female blogger onto a blog like Pandagon was really unusual, and so Jesse and I both got some kind of weird attitudes from some people about his choice to ask me to join the blog. We’ve joked before about how a lot of people outright assumed that I had used my feminine wiles to lure Jesse into giving me this spot, but the mundane reality is that we had never met when he asked, and I don’t think that we even knew what each other looked like. (Pictures weren’t as big a deal online then as now.) To make the whole situation more frustrating, these insinuations that Jesse had ulterior motives of some sort rested right next to contradictory assumptions (usually made by fanatical wingnut readers) that I was some sort of ugly beast. The sexist assumption that women are “for” sex with men underlies both accusations/insinuations. If you’re good-looking, you’re seen as somehow exploiting men’s sexual interest, but if you’re not, it’s assumed you only work hard because your true purpose in life as a sex object has been taken from you and you’re bitter.
But for all that this stuff will piss you off, I never actually felt compromised by the people I’ve worked with, male or female, straight or gay, because of my identity as a straight woman. I’ve been really lucky, both in my work as a political writer and the jobs I did in my life prior to blogging. But personal experience shouldn’t cloud understanding basic realities, and one of these is that women are still considered such an oddity in some worlds that their male colleagues just sexualize them routinely. I can tell you that it’s hard enough to be confident when it’s coming from outsiders, but when it’s coming from the people you work with—even if they mean well generally—that is bound to be really unnerving.
The other aspect well-covered in this piece is that dreaded phrase the “work/life balance”. Whenever this is cited as something that uniquely affects women’s ability to get ahead, I have conflicting emotions. On one hand, this is indisputably the reality on the ground. If the workplace was more accommodating to child-rearing and other family issues, women would not have to make hard choices that sometimes take them out of the running. But I have to point out that men don’t seem to suffer this problem in near the same degree, and it’s because often their work is balanced by women taking care of their life. It gets a tad circular, in fact, because if a man doesn’t have a woman in his life, he doesn’t have the “life” part of the work/life balance most of the time. He probably doesn’t have children to care for, and as a single man, his home obligations are minor, and extended family tends not to expect much from single men. But if he’s got a partner, someone takes over the newly created work for him, and her work suffers for it.
I feel sometimes that the obsession with the work/life balance is conceding an argument I don’t want to concede—the one over whether or not men should pull their weight at home. A lot of women need to have more accommodation at work because they get very little at home. Of course, we don’t want to leave the needs of single mothers out of the discussion, and talking about men doing more at home so women can be freed up to have non-family lives like men have leaves the needs of single mothers out. But the current state of the discussion on what women needs neatly cuts out any discussion of men taking on more responsibility.
I don’t know if I’ve told this story here, but it’s funny enough I thought I’d share. Last Netroots Nation, we had a panel on feminism and blogging with myself, Pam, Jill from Feministe, Lindsay Beyerstein, and Samhita from Feministing. We covered a number of issues related to holding your own online not just as a woman, but as a self-identified feminist. The audience had great questions, mostly related to interacting in these spaces and self-promotion and promotion of your ideas. Afterwards, an awesome writer/activist who I’ll leave anonymous joked to me that she was so grateful no one asked us about maintaining the work/life balance, a question she said she heard pointed at women in almost every panel like this, but never at men in similar situations. I told her I was glad no one asked, either, because they probably wouldn’t like the answer, which is that none of us have husbands, which are where those work/life balance problems tend to begin. (Pam has a wife, of course, but the rest of us are unmarried, whether partnered or not.) And none of us have children. No matter how devoted you are to your pets, I don’t think they present the same demands on your work/life balance. Not to speak for anyone else, but I don’t have to worry about the work/life balance, because while I think I have a fucking great life, it’s also one that puts absolutely no demands on time that I need to be devoting to work. Except perhaps when Molly demands I hold her so much typing becomes an issue.
As the Newsweek writers point out, simply not having a husband or kids is not only asking something of women that’s unfair (since men can have wives and children without taking the hit at work), but it’s also not the entire story. Women with college degrees but without children still make less than their male peers. But that the issue of the work/life balance is considered a women’s issue is, in and of itself, a serious problem. And we as a society need to find a solution.