Saturday, November 05, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Working Women Edition

I went to see Rebecca Skloot (author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) talk this week, and that one night out had ripple effects on the rest of my week. It was definitely worth it, but it also definitely reminded me of what I do that sort of thing all that often.

I'd love to write a post about the lecture (it was great), or about how that night out messed with my week (less great)- but I haven't really got the mental energy for that right now. So instead, I'll give you some links I've come across recently about women in the workforce.

First, FSP had a post that really resonated with me, about how you gain confidence as you get older and have more work experience. I find that I can't really summarize it well, and it is short, so just go read it, OK?

It reminded me of the difficulty I have when I am asked by a young woman for advice about how not to have your career take second place to your spouse's. I understand where that question comes from, and I wish I had good advice, but I don't. My answer is as simple as it is useless to the questioner: "Don't let it."

Like I said- I know that is useless advice. But I guess I mean that there is no shortcut, except, perhaps, to marry someone who is uninterested in his or her career. You have to do the work of choosing a partner who will value your career as much as his or hers, and then you have to do the work of making sure that you both have equal opportunities to advance your career.

On that last point, Blue Milk had an excellent dissection of that Time cover article declaring that we should end the "chore wars". She does a great job of explaining why that piece made so many of us angry. Here's what I said over there (with typos fixed, as usual):


This is a great post.

You did a much better job of taking this apart than I did when I first came across it. I just focused on the “but maybe the women would rather be doing less at home and more at work and can’t because someone has to make the damn dinner” angle.

I also wondered what would have happened if the research had matched men and women by career type. The (admittedly small) surveys I’ve seen in which that is done don’t look so good. I referenced one on academic scientists in this post:

In that survey, the men and women are doing the same number of hours at work while the men do far less at home (on average, of course).

I think the reason things slide so much more out of balance when kids come along is because that requires a different type of division of the work. Before kids, we could just split all chores 50-50. I cook one night, he cooks the next. He takes one car to the mechanic, I take the other. Etc., etc. But then you have a baby, and suddenly two things happen: (1) you have a lot less time, so the benefits of specialization become more evident. I am faster at X and he is faster at Y, so I should do X and he should do Y. (2) if you are breastfeeding (and probably even if you aren’t although I don’t really know about that since I breastfed) there is a whole class of work that he cannot participate in equally. In our house, this meant we very explicitly decided he’d do more of some of the other work, like dishes. But this is a hard thing to truly balance, because how do you factor in the fact that some of my baby-feeding/comforting work happens at 2 a.m., while the dishes never wake you up in the middle of the night?

That said, I do think it is important to acknowledge that there are some men out there who truly are pulling their weight at home- i.e., that some couples have figured this out. I think this is important not so much because I think those men or their spouses deserve a gold star, but because I think it is important to acknowledge that this is NOT a problem without a solution. It is very much solvable, but it requires two partners who want to solve it. (And yes, I count myself and my husband in the group of people who have this worked out- usually.)


As often happens when I write a post or comment saying that my husband pulls his weight at home, he did something last night that really annoyed me. It was raining, which is rare enough here that it inevitably screws up traffic. Therefore, I left work ten minutes early, so that I would still get the kids and get home on time to make dinner. He also knew that traffic would be bad, but decided not to leave work early, and got home after dinner was over. In his defense, picking up the kids and making dinner during the week is one of my chores. He does drop off in the morning, and makes dinners on the weekends. (There is, of course, a much larger balance sheet of chores, which I do think comes out equal- usually.) But I was mad that he didn't even seem to realize that the reason he had the flexibility to stay to his usual time despite the predictable bad traffic was that someone else was picking up the slack. And I pointed out that it isn't like I get up in the morning, see it raining, and then declare that I'm not going to help get the girls ready for day care and just rush out the door.

I think he saw my point, and all is peaceful again at Chez Cloud.

And I think this little exchange also makes my point about there being no shortcuts to some magical land of marital equality. You have to be willing to speak up when things are out of whack. Of course, this is much easier if you are both starting from the assumption that things should be equal, which is where I think there is a need for cultural change. But we don't have to wait for that change before we can have equal relationships. The details of how we do things have changed since I wrote the post on housework logistics that I linked to in my comment on Blue Milk's blog. Petunia's bedtimes got harder, we decided to have the cleaner come twice a month instead of once... and somehow we found our chores schedule went by the wayside. But we still manage to split the work fairly equally. As I said in my comment on Blue Milk's post, this is very much a solvable problem.

Frustratingly, though, even when we think we have solved this problem in our own lives, other people may have erroneous ideas about women in the workplace that impact our opportunities. I came across a defense of the ability of a mother to be a CEO of a start up recently, written by a mother who is a CEO of a start up, in response to an article written by one of her venture capital backers, who had concerns when he heard that she was pregnant. The venture capitalist's article is a bit depressing, but not as asshole-y as you might expect (he does come to the right decision, after all, and funds her company).

On a much lighter note, I came across this post about how annoying it is that tech conferences only have "unisex" (really men's) t-shirts. I laughed in recognition when I read this piece, since I, too, have a drawer full of t-shirts that resemble tents, all of the freebies from science and tech conferences or other events that don't really cater to women (like beer festivals).

And finally, Nicoleandmaggie had a post this week with a call from a reader looking for blogs written by working mothers. If you meet that description, go leave a comment on the post- or just go and browse the comments for new reading material.


  1. Lucky you, getting to hear Rebecca Skloot in person! I reviewed her book on my blog ages ago, but feel free to chime in:

    Amen on "there being no shortcuts to some magical land of marital equality. You have to be willing to speak up when things are out of whack." Yes. I also think you have to approach the conversation with the correct tone. (John Gottman's writings have been enormously helpful to DH and me.) Yes, it is a solveable problem if you are both willing to work together, and of course, if you did not marry an asshole. ;)

  2. @hush- Rebecca Skloot's lecture was indeed awesome.

    And yes, it is important not to marry an asshole!

  3. haha @hush, re: not marrying an asshole :)

    I also find that speaking up when you're NOT upset works better. Unless you are crying, in which case that works pretty well too :) But the angry "you never do x" totally DOES NOT WORK in our house.

  4. The more people in the equation, the harder it is, no matter that two adults shouldn't necessarily create more work for one another but it seems to be the case. And I think family dinner time when dinner doesn't consist of yogurt in a disposable container is the part of the puzzle that keeps the tension on the rest of the pieces. At least I have noticed that going from it just being me and Tate and dinners being whenever and whatever is reasonably healthy and tasty to dinner at a time that is a cooked meal to feed two adults and Tate adds to my daily stress the way nothing else has (not even the dog). Each day there's a block of time that can't really be used for anything else. Groceries have to thought about in advance. Preference given, or not, to what the kid will eat and the effort that takes. There's more housework to do as a result. The decision to have "family meal time" with two working outside the home parents is not an inconsequential one as silly as that sounds. I'm not convinced yet it's worth the effort long term. The novelty is wearing thin in a few short months.

  5. I feel you on the "Don't let it." I think my answer would be: "That doesn't happen to me because I'm not having it." But of course that's not helpful at all because it is in part an outgrowth of the person I married. On the other hand, I knew 100% after a whole series of failed relationships in my twenties what kind of *partner* I wanted to have, and that I would be happier alone than with someone who wasn't pulling his weight. My husband had a traditional mother (old school SAHM, submissive and in the shadows) and he knew 100% that he didn't want that in a wife. Definitely kids coming along brings new challenges. My husband had never held a new baby before our first, and I had tons of experience. But I handed the baby over and said, here, you comfort him. And he did, and was great at it. The only thing he's "bad" at is disciplining. I'm the long arm of the law in our family, but we're working on it, because I want that to be equal too.

    I know what you mean about breastfeeding, though I have to say I never felt like it created imbalance for us. It's true that we couldn't share the labor of nursing, but he was often up with me in the night. We nursed but didn't co-sleep, so he did a lot of soothing after I nursed, or diaper changing, or co-slept with them in another room, or what have you. Or if I took the nights, he took the early AM so I could get extra sleep.


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