Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Hidden Cost of Acceptance

I'm not really into politics. I have my opinions, and some of them are actually pretty strong. I always vote, and I try very hard to make sure my vote is an educated one. But I don't enjoy the game of politics, so I mostly tune out during election season. I hate the point-scoring and spin and all that nonsense- I am not so naive as to not understand why it happens, but it frustrates me, because it all seems to stand in the way of what I really want, which is for our leaders to come together and have rational discussions, grounded in facts and our best understanding of likely outcomes, with a goal of actually solving problems.

Given all that, it is no surprise that I didn't watch either convention, and I haven't even gone and watched the recorded version of any of the speeches. I did, however, read the text of several of them. I find that I have been thinking a lot about Ann Romney's speech, and specifically the way she seemed to just accept- embrace even-  the inequalities women still face. This didn't really surprise me- she was hardly going to get up and deliver a feminist call to arms. Whatever she actually thinks, that would torpedo her husband's chances of election. But still. Like a lot of the commentary I've seen on her speech, I am frustrated by this almost retro acceptance of sexism as being just the way things are.

I couldn't really explain why I was so frustrated, given my incredibly low expectations for the speech, but recent events at work have helped me figure it out. I am frustrated because she seemed to be shrugging her shoulders and trivializing the extra work I have to do in comparison to my male colleagues. She seemed to be saying, "Yeah, things aren't really fair, but oh well! We're strong and we can handle it, so it is no big deal. Don't make a fuss."

And well, I don't generally make a fuss, primarily because doing so would actually decrease my chances of achieving the things I want to achieve. I know there are women who face far bigger problems than I do. But damn it, the extra weight around my ankles is a big deal.

The events at work that are rankling on me right now are, on their own, pretty trivial. I do not want to give specifics here, but the broad outlines are this: there is a guy who is not treating me with the respect my experience and demonstrated expertise (and his relative lack of experience and expertise) in a particular area warrant. It is a subtle thing, but noticeable, and I am certainly not the only one who has noticed it. In this particular case, I will "win," but I find the experience wearying. Is this problem a gender thing? Or a generational thing (I'm about 10 years older than he is)? Or is he just an ass? It is hard to say.

And that's the thing. In any one case, it is usually hard to say. But these experiences add up over the course of a career, and they wear you down. Where my male colleagues are just walking along a path, I'm walking along wearing those stupid ankle weights that were popular in the 80s. Sure, I've adjusted, and I've done really well. But damn, I'm tired.

Worse than that, these little insults accumulate in the dark corners of my consciousness, and are there to poke at me when I'm having a rough day. Because I can't point at them and definitively say "that was sexism!" it is far too easy to fall into thinking that they happen because I am less competent or knowledgeable than others. They make it easier to get discouraged, and convince myself that I'm not making a difference, that my work isn't important, and that maybe I should throw in the towel and go do something else.

So here I am, solidly mid-career in a pretty good career, but feeling restless. Feeling like maybe this thing I'm doing isn't the best use of my time, because I seem to always be swallowing some possible insult, or pushing past some obstacle that may or may not be there for women only. Maybe those obstacles are real, and maybe they're going to keep me from realizing my goals in this field. I've got other ideas, other things I could devote my energy to. Maybe I should pursue those.

But I know all about imposter syndrome, and I know that there is nothing I am interested in doing that won't be touched by sexism- in fact there are a lot of people who say that mothers can't do the other things I'm interested in, either. So maybe I am just looking over at a different path and imaging that I wouldn't have ankle weights on if I were over there, but in fact, if I went over there, I'd discover that the ankle weights women wear on that path are 10 lb weights instead of 3. So maybe I should stay here and keep walking. Maybe the summit is just around the corner.

The view I would have missed
Many years ago, before we had kids, Mr. Snarky and I hiked San Jacinto with a friend. We took the tram from Palm Springs up to its station, and then hiked the rest of the way. I was fitter than I was now, so this was not as crazy as it would be if I did it now. But it is still a pretty intense hike for an occasional hiker. At one point, after hiking for several hours, I stopped. I said I would not go any further. Mr. Snarky shoved cookies into me and pointed out that the summit was literally right around the corner and I could make it. And I did, and I'm glad I did. I'm afraid that the feeling I have now is like the feeling I had on that hike- I am low on energy, and I don't want to go any further, but if I turn back now I'll miss out on an awesome summit.

So I don't know what I should do. I am fortunate to be in the position to have this internal debate, but it isn't without cost. It isn't no big deal. It isn't something we should shrug away and just accept. I don't know how to change it and make those ankle weights go away, but I'm pretty sure that giving speeches where you almost revel in it isn't the way.

35 comments:

  1. As a professional policy wonk, I thought Bill Clinton's speech was worth listening to. He really laid out real issues. (He did allow some misleading with suggesting that correlation is causation, but overall it was beautifully wonky but in a way that made the wonkiness clear.)

    Michelle Obama's speech made me cry. Literally, tears streaming down my face. It was beautiful, and full of hope and Protestant Work Ethic, not martyrdom. She also talked about the Lily Ledbetter Pay Act, and how society needs to change these social inequalities. A very different speech than Ann Romney's. I don't think I've seen as clear a difference between two political parties in my life-time.

    http://www.hlntv.com/article/2012/08/31/mitt-romney-rnc-dads-moms-speech brought up a lot of the same points about moms as martyrs in the Ann Romney speech.

    For me, being pushed on makes me push back harder. That's part of my personality. (And part of me feels guilty for staying in a situation I'm very happy in rather than working harder so I can trailblaze at a better school, but I can still be a shining star someplace other than a top 10 school. Plus there's the whole I don't like snow thing-- guilt only goes so far. And I'm rewarding this school for being a great environment... many of my efforts are now going towards program building.) But I know that pushing back isn't worth it for a lot of people, and that's understandable. I'm pro-choice when it comes to how much garbage a person has to put up with before changing paths. We obviously shouldn't have to put up with any, but there are different ways of dealing with that. And often I do wish I were a six foot tall white guy. Things are just easier.

    So, my sympathies!

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    1. I read Bill Clinton's speech, too. Actually, I read the version that showed what he'd written and what he actually said. That was amazing. I read Michelle Obama's speech, too, and thought it was good.

      I think part of my problem right now is that I'm not happy at work, and I can't tease apart what part is sexism (where my instinct is also to stay and fight), what part is overwork (which I could fix if I could find a junior PM to hire), and what part is that this isn't the right thing for me to be doing. So I'm feeling uncharacteristically paralyzed and unable to figure out what the right thing to do is.

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    2. Part of what was really electrifying about Michelle Obama's speech was her delivery. It was perfect - she sounded as though she meant every word passionately. As nicoleandmaggie say, it was deeply moving. (I say this as someone who, like you, never watches conventions and is not interested in speeches. But I watched hers on youtube and I was really glad I did.)

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  2. Anonymous7:03 AM

    I hear you. exhausting. and more exhausting because it is easy to feel like it is ones own fault because the sexism isn't explicit. i don't know of any solution. but it has to get better eventually, right? maybe for your own girls. and your work is helping!

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    1. You know, it has gotten better over the course of my career. I don't know if that is because I am more senior and less dismissable, or if it is actually getting better. I do hope that things are much better for my girls. Realistically, I know that they will still face similar problems, though.

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  3. I love the ankle weight analogy.
    I don't like broad generalizations on differences between men and women. But I am often struck of the differences in socialization that come from men growing up believing that they need to work for pay their whole adult lives and that their family's standard of living will be up to them so they need to earn a lot (and in fact will be judged on how much they earn). When you believe that, frustrations are less of existential questions -- because there's no out of the sort women sometimes adopt (be that scaling back, opting out, etc -- even if more men do that these days, it's not the same magnitude).
    I didn't watch Ann Romney's speech. Or Michelle Obama's. What still kind of bothers me about Obama is that their family did wind up making traditional trade-offs (mom works part-time, dad's career takes precedence, she covers all child emergencies) and that's why he's president and not her, when either seems it could have been an option. So in some ways, I wonder why she's occasionally pointed to as a feminist icon. Maybe she'll do the Hillary Clinton thing later - but she could have been the reason we know the Obama name.

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    1. Alexicographer12:32 PM

      "She could have been the reason we know the Obama name."

      If this is a general observation about her abilities and qualifications to be a top-notch, nationally known (e.g.) lawyer, then, sure.

      If you're envisioning a world where Michelle Obama, rather than Barack Obama, is running for a second term as president then I am *beyond* doubtful that the nation is ready to adopt a black *woman* president, or a *mother-to-young-children* president. I am not saying this is how I think it should be, but I do believe it's how it is. Hilary in 2016? Maybe ... Michelle in 2008? No way.

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    2. Anonymous6:40 PM

      There was an interesting interview with the Obamas a few years ago. When they were asked if Barack might give Michelle a policy position, she said "There are a ton of issues that I care deeply about. But the notion of sitting around the table with a set of policy advisors -- no offense -- makes me yawn. I like creating stuff. I'd love to be working with young people. I'd love to be having more conversations with military spouses. I've learned not to let other people push you into something that fundamentally isn't you." http://www.lhj.com/style/covers/barack-and-michelle-obama-the-full-interview/?page=3

      So as awesome as her convention speech was, and as much as it seems like she would be awesome in politics - I can fully respect if it's just not something she's fundamentally interested in - the great thing about feminism is the freedom to choose what we want to do, whatever it might be, and not matter what others might want for us. She actually does seem pretty happy with her life!

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    3. I love Michelle Obama, I love Hillary Clinton too. But I agree with Alexicographer: the US is more likely to elect a flourescent green male president than a woman. I don't think we'll have a woman president in my lifetime.

      I have no doubt that both Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton would make kickass presidents. They just won't be given the chance.

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    4. I have long thought that our first female president will be a conservative Republican, because that would defang some of the sexist attacks.

      On Michelle Obama... I figure it just isn't what she wants to do. She was an administrator. Barack Obama was always the more political one of the two. What will be really interesting is to see what each of them does AFTER they are out of the White House.

      I'm glad you like the analogy. I tried several before I settled on that one! To be clear- I'm not thinking of scaling back my work. That would not be the right choice for me (unless the scaling back coincided with a lot of travel, and with a school age kid, that isn't in the cards). I am thinking of changing to a different sort of work.

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    5. I thought our first black president would have to be a Republican too -- I thought people would assume a black Democrat would be too liberal, whereas a black Republican would be perceived as on the moderate wing of the party. But along came Obama and blew that theory out of the water. So who knows? I think a lot of people in, say, 2000 were thinking we wouldn't see a black president in our lifetimes. So I wouldn't write off a woman president either -- of either party. There's starting to be a deep bench on both sides.

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    6. Perhaps I am too cynical. But I perceive misogyny to be a strong, unwavering societal force.

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    7. @Laura- that is a good point. I never expected to see our first black president, either. Racism runs as deep as sexism in this country. So who knows? Maybe I'll have another night like the one when Obama was elected, and I struggled to believe it was really happening. I remember crying that night. I went back and looked up the post I wrote: http://www.wandering-scientist.com/2008/11/proud.html

      A lot has happened in the intervening years, and the luster is definitely off of Obama's presidency. But that was always going to happen when he had to actually do things. It is worth remembering how much he achieved just by being elected.

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    8. As an economist, I think Obama has been great. He's quietly pushed through a lot of pragmatic legislation based on real research. His two failings are communicating his accomplishments and politically not effectively checking republicans who refused to allow appointments and things to be approved. And some of that failing came from following academic research that turns out not to apply if you're not, say, Clinton. My colleagues say he is similar to George HW Bush in many ways.

      My parents are more progressive and less pragmatic, and they're disappointed.

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    9. @nicoleandmaggie - I'm with your parents.

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    10. Alexicographer1:25 PM

      @nicoleandmaggie - in contrast to @hush, I'm with you.

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  4. I'm significantly earlier in my career than you, but what keeps me going is the fact that if I stop and look around, I can see the difference I can make in younger females in my field, either as a role model, or someone to stand up for the insults that are directed in a public setting, than a private one.

    "Because I can't point at them and definitively say "that was sexism!" it is far too easy to fall into thinking that they happen because I am less competent or knowledgeable than others."

    The most insidious part of sexism (or any other discrimination) is that it is never possible to know if any particular statement is driven by sexism. It is only possible to know that more women suffer insults of the same type than men do.

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    1. There's a really good book called "Lifting a ton of feathers" about women in academia. That title is such a good analogy... each feather is nothing but a ton of feathers weighs just as much as a ton of steel but is even more difficult to deal with.

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    2. Oooh, the "lifting a ton of feathers" analogy is a good one! I may look for that book.

      I do think that staying around and being a role model is valuable. I'm not sure I'm making myself visible enough outside my own company to really be doing that, though. My involvement in AWIS and similar organizations is one of the things I cut when I had kids.

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  5. This post really resonated with me. I, too, am going through a bit of a struggle at work. Nothing specific, but just this overall feeling that I'm not valued or appreciated as I should be. And I don't know if it's a gender thing or because I'm "staff" or what...but it's tiring.

    I like my job...well, actually what I like is my job description. And right now those two things aren't lining up, and I'm frustrated.

    Anyway...no advice...just wanted to let you know you're not alone.

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    1. Oh, that's too bad! It sucks when you can't tell if people are dissing the role or you. I get that a lot, too. Project managers often don't get a lot of respect.

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  6. Great post!
    I'm working from home, on my own business in a female dominated industry, so I don't have to deal with this sort of thing in a workplace.

    I did get a degree in a male dominated course though, and your post really resonated with me, as did the other comments.

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    1. Thanks! I think female-dominated industries come with their own issues, usually to do with compensation and respect from the general public. I don't know what the analogy is for that, though. Hmmm....

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  7. Mrs. Romney's speech hits all the standard talking points of women-supporting-the-partriarchy. They do it every time they wink and nod, saying, "Oh those silly men! They think they're so strong but they're helpless. *We* really run things/do all the work but we have to let them pretend they do because they need our protection. We have to act weak, but we know how strong we are." Seven hundred thousand tons of barf is not enough. I cannot bring myself to smile when a girlfriend makes one of those eye-rolling, isn't-my-husband-useless remarks. It makes me absolutely bananas. That is always the tiny bit of space that women have made for themselves inside the patriarchy, and clearly shows why that strategy is never going to work. it is only when we refuse to accept those structures that significant progress can be made.

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    1. I can usually tolerate this sort of stuff from random women in my private life. Usually. It was the elevation of it to the national stage that got to me, I think.

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  8. FSP had a post on micro-inequities here

    http://science-professor.blogspot.com/2009/09/start-seeing-micro-inequities.html

    Yael left this link on my site a few days ago.

    I have nothing to add, except that I understand what you are saying. And it is so very exhausting.

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    1. Thanks! I think I remember that post. I should go reread it. FSP usually has good things to say on these subjects.

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  9. This resonates with me too. Last week I gave a presentation to some students about my career path. At the end one of the students asked if I've experienced any challenges in research, as a woman. I wasn't sure how to answer. Sure there have been a few incidents that I could point to, but mentioning them sounds really trivial, not what I would call a challenge. But I didn't want to dismiss the idea that women face real challenges, by saying oh no, I never experienced sexism. So I said something about the accumulation of micro-inequalities, and made some more general comments about challenges faced by women. Actually FSP made be recognise that seemingly small things like constantly being mistaken for a student can add up to make you feel like you don't belong.

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  10. Of course, by being a non-white president, he had a mountain of expectations in front of him, and by virtue of being human (and having a shitty House) he failed to effortlessly conquer them all. He would have to be much better than most presidents to simply be called OK. And all he does, the good and the bad (particularly the bad) automatically get ascribed to all potential black leaders.

    We know it all too well, amirite?

    http://xkcd.com/385/

    (Sorry I am in such a foul mood. Dealing with the crap work done by my former student made me lose the will to live.)

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    1. This should have been after the above comments by Laura and Cloud and Alexicographer re Obama.

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  11. Not sure where to start. I was feeling those weights, all about my ankles, waist and wrists even, honestly, up til last weeks when I shed them and walked away.

    I honestly hadn't even thought about the behavios being sexism/ageism until my (just noting, very Republican) friend pointed out that his idiotic disrespect was probably centered on his feeling threatened by the fact that I was a youthful, petite Asian woman in charge of a very large and profitable operation over which he had no control and no equivalent expertise.

    I pushed back, and hard, for months but, without getting into details, there was no traction and I decided that leaving made the most sense for me. I did agonize over whether that meant that I was a failure for not sticking it out until I won.

    Ultimately, I still left, and I think at peace with the decision because it's good and doesn't really matter what happens to what I left behind but for a while I did wonder if I had done the best I could to fight back against creeping sexism and other -isms.

    Something I have noticed - I tolerated this sort of BS for a very long run at my last gig. I tolerated it for about a fifth of that time here, despite having far more seniority and authority. It seems my BS-meter is much more easily broken these days, I can't see my putting up with very much nonsense in future jobs either whether it be stamping it out or walking away if it's let in by other people.

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    1. Given that you got more money and a shorter commute, I would say that's a win for you and a loss for their company. Even ignoring work conditions.

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    2. Oh yes, the basic math is in my favor definitely. Just I suppose it's the bit where, as Cloud mentioned above, did the sexism at the higher levels still win out? Could I have gotten the better money, more work from home and been heard about the crap work environment if they weren't sexist and ageist and so taken me more seriously rather than dismissing my very valid points as those of, say, an "inexperienced, unseasoned young woman"?

      Question obviously will go unanswered but that's what was left on my mind when I exited.

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  12. Anonymous6:13 PM

    I know those weights too and it sucks. I do see progress though - the weights of many of my mentors were much heavier and made it impossible for so many women to pursue the full set of experiences they wanted out of life. How do I handle those weights? For me part of it is knowing that pushing on as a female scientist helps if not eliminate, make the weight on the next set of women coming up through the field a little lighter. I also have to thank you because I think every time we share our stories we help each other carry the weight together. Thanks

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  13. I work in a male-dominated industry (AV). I've discovered that I have to be the absolute best at what I do in order to get real acceptance from a lot of the folks that I encounter. It's pushed me to truly excel, but it sure is exhausting!

    In a truly equal world, I could be accepted as mediocre. :p

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