Women Across Borders

Live Journalism and the Women in the World Summit (in honor of National Poetry Month)

Photo by Margaret Fox

Last week, I had the opportunity to check out a day of Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. A lot of it was incredibly powerful. Some of it raised disturbing questions. The pace of the day left me breathless. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the entire production.

The format is unlike any conference I’ve ever attended: audience members sit in the dark while panel after panel unfolds on the stage. It’s highly produced and quite sleek. There’s no time for questions or discussion or reflection; everything is kept tightly on schedule. You can’t digest the stories of genocide and survival told by Rwandan women because you’re immediately thrown into the viewing of a film clip that sets up the next panel. In the course of the morning and part of the afternoon, I watched thirteen panels.

(I missed two because I had to eat lunch, and then I had to leave to cook dinner for my kids. Yes, they have to eat, too.)

This is Tina Brown’s “live journalism,” which she described to Washington Post journalist Emily Heil as follows:

It’s as journalistically intense as anything I’ve done—we spend our time finding incredible stories. We do a great deal of culling to find the most compelling stories and presenting them with a lot of dramatic intensity. It’s like living the pages of a magazine.

Exactly. Like living the pages of a magazine.

To be fair, some panels featured conversations that I recognized as journalism. I was rapt when Charlie Rose interviewed Pussy Riot activists Masha Alekhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova. They are incredibly brave, smart activists who articulated a powerfully trenchant critique of Russia (thanks to their interpreter) along with journalist-author Masha Gessen.

Other panels felt a bit more like corporate PR. This is also the world of WITW: corporate sponsors are all over the summit and in particular, the “Sponsor Solutions” section of the program. A lot of the summit has to do with the promotion of Women in the World as a “global brand” and “global platform” for the “women’s empowerment movement,” which is an accurate name for what this is.

I have mixed feelings. After all, what activist wouldn’t want to gain access to a global platform such as this? It’s a hugely powerful way to spread your message and talk about your work. At the same time, you’re signing on to be part of a media edutainment machine, largely funded by multinational corporations. The forces of neoliberalism and global capitalism are writ large all over this event. As journalist Luisita Lopez Torregrosa puts it:

A hyper organizer and lavish spender, Brown produces a perfect alchemy, mixing glamour and razzle-dazzle (Angelina Jolie! Meryl Streep! Pussy Riot!) with the gravitas of world figures like Hillary Clinton (who has launched her own women’s empowerment initiative), Christine Lagarde and Samantha Power, and the courage of unheralded activists. That high-gloss format draws to Women in the World the sort of media attention few other groups enjoy. It is also a magnet for international corporations like Toyota, Merck, Bank of America, AT&T, Dove, the Coca-Cola Co., Walmart and JW Marriott, all opening their checkbooks to help raise their own profiles among women.

In other words, the revolution is now being brought to you by Walmart.

Earlier this year, Jessica Valenti summed up “corporate feminism” in The Nation as follows:

The corporate interpretation of feminism has more to do with cheerleading all women’s accomplishments than ending patriarchy and pushing for equal rights.

While true, this doesn’t tell the whole story of the WITW summit. I heard many different stories, and a good number of the activists weren’t solely telling a story of individualized women’s empowerment (even when that interpretation was offered by their interviewer). The Rwandan women weren’t. Pussy Riot certainly didn’t. Many of the activists talked about ending oppression and systemic violence of all kinds. Comedian Sarah Silverman (who was there with her sister, Rabbi Susan) spoke out about women’s right to abortion. The activists and feminists at the center of the summit focused on equality, peace, and human rights.

But there were interesting tensions, at times, between what they were saying and the tightly scripted, predetermined format of the summit. The “stories” and the “solutions” didn’t always line up neatly, like the glossy program would have you believe.

The panel that illustrated this the most for me featured Senna, a young Peruvian woman and poet from the documentary Girl Rising (which I wrote about last year). Senna is amazing. She performed a powerful poem that she had written (in Spanish) and, with the help of writer Marie Arana as interpreter, talked with journalist Juju Chang. Then, someone else walked out onto the stage: a young woman from Compton, LA named Marquesha Babers, who had been so moved by Girl Rising that she wrote a poem in honor of Senna. Somehow the WITW team had discovered Marquesha and had flown her to New York to perform her poem in front of Senna.

Let me tell you, this young woman rocked the house. Talk about the power of words spoken by a poet on fire. Everyone was in tears. It was hard not to be deeply moved.

At the same time, it felt a bit like I was watching a daytime TV talk show. Mainly because of the way individual human struggles were being turned into entertainment. And then, as we were all wiping our eyes and everyone on stage was hugging, the journalist—perhaps in a struggle to find something to say? to deal with the overwhelming emotion? to move things along?—commented that she wished she was filming a TV show so that she could fast-forward ten years and see what best friends they had become.

A powerful moment of human connection, instantly packaged into DocuTV. I know she didn’t mean any harm by it. But it startled me.

In 2009, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a memorable TED talk (another powerful media platform) in which she talked about the “power of the single story.” In it, she observed that

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

Precisely. Who knows what the future will hold for Senna and Marquesha? Will they be friends, or not? Will they achieve their potential? Will they be happy? What meanings will they themselves derive from their lives, and how will they express these meanings—in poetry, or in other ways?

I hope these two girls remain strong. I hope they continue to write poetry. I hope they continue to be the authors of their own lives. But the meanings of their lives will likely unfold in complex and multiple ways. Despite this connection, their lives may be very different from each other. (Their lives are very different from each other.) Whatever meaning they will forge—whatever meaning any of us have—will far exceed the format of a segment on TV.

If this is live journalism, then I’d like more poetry.

Follow Heather online @heatherhewett. 

Manly Musings

Making Sense of Changes in Masculinity*

By: C.J. Pascoe and Tristan Bridges

coverWhat it means to be masculine changes over time and from place to place.  After all, men used to wear dresses and high heels, take intimate pictures with one another and wear pink in childhood.  In our scholarship and blog posts we have been grappling with making sense of some of these more recent changes as we’ve watched (and contributed to) a discussion about what it means to be an ally and changing views on gender and sexual inequality—primarily among men (see here and here).  We recently published an article thinking through changes in contemporary definitions of masculinity allegedly occurring among a specific population of young, white, heterosexual men.

We sought to make sense of some complex issues like the contradiction between what seems like an “epidemic” of homophobic bullying alongside rising levels of support for gay marriage.  Or the seeming contradiction between young white men’s adoration and emulation of hip hop culture side by side with deeply entrenched racism toward African-American men.  Or the way in which contemporary men speak of desiring equal partnerships and marriages, yet women still earn less  in the workplace and do more of the housework and childcare.

In our article, we collect a body of research illustrating that, often, what is going on in contradictions like this, is that systems of power and inequality are symbolically upheld even as their material bases are (partially) challenged (e.g., here). We show how these seemingly disparate issues might be better understood as small pieces of a larger phenomenon—something we refer to as “hybrid masculinity” (drawing on other scholars—see here, here, and here).

Hybrid masculinity refers to the way in which contemporary men draw on “bits and pieces” of feminized or marginalized masculine identities and incorporate them into their own gender identities.  Simply put, men are behaving differently, taking on politics and perspectives that might have been understood as emasculating a generation ago that seem to bolster (some) men’s masculinities today.  Importantly, however, we argue that research shows that this is most often happening in ways that don’t actually fundamentally alter gender and sexual inequality or masculine dominance. In other words, what recognizing hybrid masculinity allows us to do is to think through these changes in masculinity carefully.  While these changes may  appear to challenge gender and sexual inequality, we argue that most research reveals that hybrid masculinities are better understood as obscuring than as challenging inequality.

(more…)

Nice Work

Janelle Jones: The (Positive!) Union Advantage for Black Workers

Guest poster Janelle Jones, Research Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC, gives Girlwpen an update on her most recent CEPR report. Janelle researches and writes on a variety of U.S. labor market topics, such as unemployment, job quality, and unions. (Bio here.) Last summer she wrote Has Education Paid Off for Black Workers? The project continues with this new study that asks what is the union advantage for black workers? At the end, Janelle puts the new study in context with her earlier one.

So far this year, we’ve had some pretty mixed union news. The workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted not to join the UAW but just this week the NLRB ruled in favor of Northwestern University football players’ ability to unionize. Even in the midst of inconsistent union success, John Schmitt and I find that unions still have a significant positive impact on black workers’ wages and benefits.

We’ve all heard that unions are dying. While that may be an exaggeration, even for black workers, the racial group with the highest levels of unionization, the share in a union has been falling continuously since the early 1980s. In 1983, more than one in four black workers (27.1 percent) was in a union, compared to only 13.6 percent in 2013. Over this entire period, black men have had higher unionization rates than black women, although that gap is closing.

In the face of this unionization decline for black workers, are unions still having an impact?  Well, yes. Even after controlling for systematic difference between the unionized and non-unionized workforce, unionization has a significant positive impact. For the years 2008-2013, the union wage premium is 15.6 percent for all black workers, 18.1 percent for black men and 13.1 percent for black women. That is, black workers in a union earn 15 percent more per hour than their non-unionized counterparts. Now, that’s a raise!

Next, we examine the union advantage for black workers by education and find the largest gains in wages and benefits for the less educated. Unionization raised the hourly wage for black workers with less than a four-year college degree by nearly 20 percent (19.3 percent for those with less than a high school degree, 19.4 percent for those with only a high school degree, and 17.7 percent for those with some college but short a four-year degree). The union wage premium for these workers is almost double the (still noticeable) 10.3 percent premium for black workers with a four-year degree.

Finally, we turn to the effect of unionization for black workers in traditionally low-wage occupations, including security guards, janitors, and food prep workers. While black workers accounted for just over 11 percent of total employment in our analysis period (2008-2013), they made up over 18 percent of all workers in the 15 low-wage occupations we analyzed. Similar to workers with less formal education, the union wage premium is nearly 20 percent larger for black workers in these occupations, compared to the 15.6 percent premium for black workers overall.

In the report, we also look at the effect of unionization on health insurance coverage and retirement plans for black workers. For each of the breakdowns listed above, gender, education level, and low-wage occupations, black workers in unions were much more likely to have these on-the-job benefits. For example, for black women, unionization increased the likelihood of employer (or union) provided health insurance by nearly one-third (31.1 percent) and a retirement plan by more than one-third (41.0 percent).

The promise of unions looks like an important consideration for black women. Black women—who face double-discrimination based on race and on gender–find themselves by most measures at the bottom of the pay and benefit scale. The most commonly offered solution is to increase educational attainment. But we’ve done that. Black women have already doubled graduation rates since1979, and the share of black women with less than a high school degree has fallen by more than 20 percent. Yet labor market difficulties persist. Our research shows that one thing that can complement increases in education in a concrete way would be increasing unionization, which offers black women higher pay and substantially better benefits to help overcome, at least in part, the double-discrimination.

Mama w/ Pen

Here’s What Two Generations of Women Journos Have to Say about Sexism at Work (Newsflash: It Still Exists!)

This guest post is brought to you by Mary Kay Devine, a Chicago-based feminist and mother of four.  Mary Kay’s day job is the Director of Community Initiatives at Women Employed, a nonprofit that mobilizes people and organizations to expand educational and employment opportunities for America’s working women. Founded in 1973, WE has a 40-year track record of opening doors, breaking barriers, and creating fairer workplaces for women.  For more information, visit www.womenemployed.org. PS. I love this org! – Deborah

MKD Head Shot 2013 (reduced size)March is Women’s History Month – a month when the American public honors women and their voices. But even in 2014, we’re not hearing enough of those voices. The Women’s Media Center recently released their annual report on the state of women in the media, and the numbers were grim. Male front-page bylines in print media outnumber female front-page bylines by 3 to 1. Only 25% of guests on Sunday talk shows are women. Men write the majority of newspaper op-eds. And all-too-often, women reporters are still consigned to writing about “pink topics” like food and fashion.

Women Employed, an organization that has spent the last four decades opening doors, breaking barriers, and creating fairer workplaces for women, recently brought two prominent journalists together to discuss the ongoing problem of gender discrimination. They talked about gender bias in newsrooms, and also in other workplaces, as well as what women can do about it.

“We loved Newsweek! We just wanted Newsweek to be better for women.” That’s what author and trailblazing journalist Lynn Povich told the sold-out crowd at The Newsweek case that changed the workplace…or did it?  Povich shared the story of how she and her female colleagues confronted blatant sexism at Newsweek in the 1960s. In an era when female employees were told that “women don’t write at Newsweek,” they refused to accept it. She and 45 of her female colleagues brought a landmark lawsuit against the magazine in 1970—and won! Povich eventually became not only a writer for Newsweek, but also their first female senior editor.

Povich was joined by Jesse Ellison, a recent Newsweek writer who, forty years after the original lawsuit, came to realize that she and the other women around her were still experiencing gender discrimination.  “The young men around us were getting much better story assignments, they were getting raises and promotions much more easily… We were each having to work much harder than our male peers to get to the same end.” So in 2010, she banded together with her female colleagues to co-author a Newsweek article on the 40th anniversary of the landmark lawsuit questioning how much has actually changed for working women.

These two women highlighted the similarities and the differences in their struggles, pointing out that women today don’t suffer the overt workplace discrimination that Mad Men-era women had to endure. However, they still face obstacles. It’s just that those obstacles are so much more subtle and harder to identify. For working women today, one of the biggest challenges is never being sure if their inability to advance is a personal failure or a result of gender bias.

That makes it in some ways a much harder battle. But as Ellison’s experiences show, it’s not an impossible fight. Both Povich and Ellison stressed that if you are a woman who has been frustrated in her attempts to succeed at work, it’s vital that you not be afraid to speak to your colleagues, both female and male, to determine if what you’re experiencing could be a systemic problem. And then you should act. The experiences of both women show that change can happen, and it can happen from within. When people band together for change, they are powerful, and they can make a positive difference.

Hear what Povich and Ellison have to say about their experiences at Newsweek, about fighting gender discrimination in the Mad Men era and the modern era, and about what still needs to change:

And see their message for working women:

And then go out, make change, and help ensure that more women’s voices are heard, not just this month, but in EVERY month!   Here are some ways you can help: http://womenemployed.org/act

your ink

Guest Post: Trending: “Headless Women?”

Today’s guest post from Christine Gallagher Kearney was originally published here. Christine Gallagher Kearney is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project, member of the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago Board of Ambassador Council, co-founder of ChiFems Action Network and past president of DePaul University’s Women’s Network. She has published in places like ForbesWomanWomen’s eNews and Girl w/Pen! (now a part of The Society Pages).

Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In organization are still trending, and while I’m not excited about everything she and her organization are doing for women — see bell hooks’ critique — the new Lean In Collection with Getty Images, “a library of images devoted to the powerful depiction of women, girls and the people who support them,” is heartening, especially in the face of recent female disembodiment in the news media.

TIME didn’t start the disembodiment, but they did name it. In a rundown of recent visual advertisements depicting “headless women,” writer Laura Stampler describes and calls the occurrence of headless women a “trend,” reducing women’s bodies to objects for consumption.

To be sure, “headless women” in advertising is not new. Take for example a 1990s ad for BodySlimmers that depicts a woman standing provocatively in what looks like a black swimming suit. Her head is not visible in the image. Or think back to an advertisement by Axe for shower gel that depicts a woman’s body covered in mud, with “wash me” written with a finger across her stomach, her head is not visible in the image.

However, announcing a “headless woman” trend in 2014 is as absurd as it is dangerous. Picture all the female contestants on “The Bachelor” without heads. Imagine female models on catwalks without heads. Now picture your female coworker without a head, or prominent female leaders — Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton or Janet Yellen — without heads.

By cutting out the head you are immediately saying her personality and brains aren’t important in the slightest. We are just interested in her body. It doesn’t matter who she is,” said Lauren Rosewarne a professor at The University of Melbourne who writes, researches and comments on sexuality, gender, feminism, the media, pop culture, public policy and politics.

In effect, choosing to describe this disconcerting development as a “trend” belies the seriousness of the injustices being perpetrated and further demeans the individuals or groups who are being treated with contempt. Women are reduced to objects for consumption, to be used and thrown away. (more…)

Manly Musings

Colorism, Gender, and School Suspension

By: Tristan Bridges and C.J. Pascoe

Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Color Purple, coined the “colorism” term to define: “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on the color of their skin” (here: 290). Colorism occurs when groups of people are discriminated against in systematic ways on the basis of skin color alone.  The differential treatment results not simply from being recognized as belonging to a specific racial category, but from the values associated with the actual color of someone’s skin.  And it is one way that social scientists have looked at inequalities within as well as between racial groups.

Some of the social scientific findings that provoked more research on colorism uncovered skin color-based disparities within the criminal justice system. Research has shown, for example, that skin color affects the length of time people are sentenced to serve in prison, the proportion of their sentences that they do serve, and the likelihood of receiving the death penalty.  This research has less often focused explicitly on intersections with gender inequality.

A recent article in Race and Social Problems by Lance Hannon, Robert DeFina, and Sarah Bruch—“The Relationship Between Skin Tone and School Suspension for African Americans”—addresses these intersections centrally. They analyze the relationship between race, skin color, gender, and the school suspension.  Similar to what research on criminal sentencing has shown, Hannon, DeFina, and Bruch found that darker skin tone was significantly related to the likelihood of being suspended in school.  African American students with darker skin had a higher probability of being suspended than those with lighter skin.  But, upon closer investigation, they discovered that that finding was primarily driven by the fact that skin tone has a much larger impact on African American girls than on African American boys.

suspension colorism graph

(more…)

Bedside Manners

Caring for Cardiovascular Disease and Diabetes, Why Gender Matters

Valentine’s Day is not the only reason to think about hearts in February, a.k.a. American Heart Month.  This guest-post on women’s heart health by Chloe E. Bird, Ph.D. — senior sociologist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School — discusses findings from a recent RAND pilot study.*  In our email exchange, Chloe emphasized, “…please don’t assume that you, or the women in your life, are too young to be concerned.”

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High-quality routine care for both cardiovascular disease (CVD) and diabetes is at least as relevant to women’s health and survival as it is to men’s.  Yet evidence suggests that women continue to face gaps in even low-cost, routine aspects of care.

File:BigPinkHeart.jpg

CVD is the leading cause of death for women, as well as for men. More than one in three adult women has some form of CVD.  In fact, since 1984, more U.S. women than men have died of CVD, and 26 percent of women over age 45 die within a year of having a recognized heart attack, compared with 19 percent of men. Diabetes is a major cardiovascular risk factor, and it increases risk of CVD more so in women than in men.

Despite improvements over recent decades in care for CVD and diabetes, evidence suggests that the care women receive—and their health outcomes—continue to lag behind those of men, even for routine care such as monitoring and control of cholesterol. Although the American Heart Association’s “Go Red for Women” campaign and efforts by Sister-to-Sister and WomenHeart have done much to raise awareness among both women and their clinicians about CVD, there is still too little attention devoted to preventing heart disease in women.

Part of the problem is that quality of care is not routinely measured and reported by gender. Conventional methods of measuring quality of care focus on average “quality performance scores” across the overall population. Separate assessments and reporting by gender are rare, so the care received by women is generally assumed to be equal to that received by men, despite evidence to the contrary. As a result, the quality gap in care remains largely invisible to individual women, providers, payers and policymakers, even among those seeking to improve women’s health and health care. In cases where gender gaps in care have been monitored and targeted, such as in recent initiatives by the Veterans Health Administration, marked reductions in gender disparities in CVD and other types of care have been achieved; though some gaps persist.

In an examination of gender gaps in cholesterol screening among adults in one large California health plan who had been diagnosed with CVD or with diabetes, we found larger gender differences on average in care for CVD (5 percentage points) than for diabetes (2 percentage points). Although the gaps may appear small among the 30,000 CVD patients and 155,000 diabetes patients whose care we examined, they translate into a significant number of women who were not screened, but who might have been had they been men.

We focused on screening because clinicians agree that CVD and diabetes patients should receive annual screenings for high LDL cholesterol.  Such screening is also the first step in assessing quality of care.  Moreover, research on disparities in care often finds that gaps in screening are associated with larger gaps in treatment and poorer intermediate outcomes.

In our study, gender gaps in cholesterol screening varied geographically and favored men far more often than women. Among CVD patients, there were gaps favoring men in 79 percent of counties. In 35 percent of counties, those gaps were moderate (from 5 to less than 10 percentage points) or large (at least 10 percentage points). In 12 percent of the counties there were small gaps (from 1 to less than 5 percentage points) favoring women. Among patients with diabetes, which has not traditionally been viewed as a man’s disease, there were moderate gaps favoring men in 17 percent of counties and small gaps favoring men in another 40 percent of counties. In contrast, there were large gaps favoring women in 4 percent of counties, moderate gaps in 2 percent, and small gaps in another 12 percent.

Lessons from areas with the highest quality of care and from areas with the fewest gender disparities can motivate efforts to improve care and reduce disparities. Mapping quality of care at specific geographic levels and focusing on the areas of interest to specific stakeholders may prove to be essential to efforts to tackle disparities efficiently and meaningfully.

Without gender-stratified reporting of quality of care, gender gaps are invisible and intractable. Such reporting is essential if health plans, health care organizations, and policymakers are to ensure that overall improvements in care narrow gender gaps.

Health plans should use gender-based analysis and mapping to address gender gaps and to motivate improvements in care, treatment and outcome measures. Similarly, analyses of pooled data from multiple health plans could be used to assess gender disparities in care for CVD and diabetes for managed care patients and determine whether the size and patterns of disparities differ across plans.

Closing the gender gap is crucial if women are to benefit equally from improvements in care for CVD and diabetes.  At the same time, focusing on gender gaps can inform a broader discussion of the prevalence and burden of CVD in women and the need for improvements in prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

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*For more information, check out the online report and videos of her presentation and other researchers’ talks from RAND and UCLA’s recent women’s heart health event.

Nice Work

What do we gotta do to get some family and medical leave for all?

FMLA21: did we get more than a foot in the door in two decades?

Over 20 years ago Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, and President Bill Clinton signed it into law two weeks after his inauguration in 1993. Remember the optimism? Under the FMLA a qualified employee can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a sick family member or for pregnancy, newborn, newly adopted, or for care of a new foster child. In a good-news bad-news sense, one of the notable features of the FMLA was that it was gender-neutral: men and women equally had no funding for their job-protected leave for up to 12 weeks per year. Otherwise, this policy for helping families has been the weakest compared to other rich countries. At the time, the FMLA was the “foot in the door” for improving the situation of working families. A hint for how FMLA is doing today was offered by Girlwpen’s Susan Bailey earlier this week.

So…how’s that foot in the door now? Several recent studies offer new tools for analysis. In “Expanding Federal Family and Medical Leave Coverage,” economists Helene Jorgenson and Eileen Appelbaum investigated who benefits from FMLA using the 2012 FMLA Employee Survey conducted by the Department of Labor. About one in five qualified employees has used FMLA leave within the past 18 months, according to a new Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) report. The authors found an extensive amount of unmet need for family and medical leave.

Several key limitations of the FMLA mean that, in practice, the law doesn’t apply to a large share of the workforce. The FMLA does not cover workers in firms with fewer than 50 employees. As a result, 44.1 percent of workers in the private sector (49.3 million workers) are excluded from protected leave for caring for their sick or vulnerable relations. The FMLA also excludes employees who have been at their current job for less than a year or have worked fewer than 1250 hours in the past year.

Not everyone with needy kin works in mid-to-large size firms nor has regular employment. So, those limits on access to FMLA do not affect everyone equally. Young workers and Hispanic workers had lower rates of eligibility than other groups. Education level was the strongest predictor of eligibility. People with less than a high school degree were 13.6 percentage points less likely than those with “some college” to have access to unpaid leave for family and medical concerns. Meanwhile, those with a college degree were 10.7 percentage points more likely than those with some college to have access to FMLA leave.

From CEPR’s “Expanding Federal Family and Medical Leave Coverage” (Feb 5, 2014) by Helene Jorgenson and Eileen Appelbaum.

 

Have there been improvements in the past two decades? Another recent study from CEPR and the Center for American Progress, “Job Protection isn’t Enough: Why America Needs Paid Parental Leave,” by Heather Boushey, Jane Farrell, and John Schmitt, points to no. Analysis of data from the Current Population Survey over the past 20 years revealed two key things: First, women take leave way more than men despite the gender neutrality of the policy. Men have increased from a very low rate, but the ratio in the last five years studied is about nine to one. In addition, over the past two decades there has been essentially no change in women’s rates of leave-taking.

Also, per Boushey and colleagues, guess who is most likely to benefit from leave? Women with college degrees and those in full-time jobs. Commenting on their statistical analysis, the authors state, “Better-educated, full-time, union women are more likely than their otherwise identical counterparts to take parental leave” (p. 12). Not everyone can be in a job that qualifies them for FMLA leave; however once qualified, not everyone has the financial security to use that leave.

These authors—like Jorgenson and Appelbaum—applaud the FMLA and the opportunities it has provided to qualified workers—but their data show that the 1993 Act did not generate a cascade of family-progressive policies for men, women, and families. But one can hope. Jorgenson and Appelbaum demonstrate that a policy that reduced the firm size from 50 to 30 and reduced the hours worked in the past year from 1250 to 750, an additional 8.3 million private sector workers would be eligible for family leave under FMLA.

There are some pretty great examples of places in the United States where better family leave policies have been put in place and have worked well. California passed a paid family leave act in 2002, and after twelve years, the program has been highly successful. Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman reported in 2011 about the social, family, and economic benefits of the program. Washington State passed similar legislation in 2007 but it has been help up since then. New Jersey did so in 2008, and Rhode Island’s law was implemented in January 2014. Another review of the California paid leave program demonstrates the growth in uptake since its initiation, but reports that uptake continues to be low because while the leave is paid one’s job is not protected.

We just celebrated 50 years of the Civil Rights Act. Last year we celebrated 50 years since the Equal Pay Act. Retrospectives on such landmark legislation includes successes as well as persisting shortfalls. We are at 21 and counting with FMLA. These studies remind us that with FMLA we need to do more to have more success than shortfalls.

GenderLab

Why I Still Love GoldieBlox

GB_Box_BT002_v1_r1

If you care about smart toys or if you don’t live under a media rock, then by now you’ve heard about GoldieBlox, the girls engineering toy. Maybe you read about it here at Girl w/Pen. Maybe you saw the viral video about the toy that parodied the Beastie Boys song, “Girls.” In the video, three girls set off a Rube Goldberg machine and aim to take over the world. The only problem was that the Beastie Boys said thank you by suing GoldieBlox. Then the toy got critiqued left and right—too pink, too princessy, too wrong for “stealing” a Beastie Boys song. Well now, no matter how you felt about the toy, you likely saw their new ad while inhaling nachos during the Super Bowl. GoldieBlox won Intuit’s small business Super Bowl commercial competition which means they essentially won 4 million dollars, the amount equivalent to make and then screen a commercial during the Super Bowl.

And that means that GoldieBlox really just became a household name.

This commercial puts GoldieBlox, a small start-up toy company that wants to, as they say, “disrupt the pink aisle,” at your local toy store, back on top. And to make matters even better, days ago GoldieBlox’s “Spinning Machine” won the People’s Choice and Educational Toy award of the year at the 14th annual Toy Industry Association (TIA) Awards. Debbie Sterling, GoldieBlox CEO, invented one of the first engineering toys for girls. She shares her challenges in her TEDX talk: her path as a female minority in a Stanford engineering program, a woman inventor in the big business androcentric toy industry, and as a female entrepreneur in booming Silicon Valley. Sterling’s vision as an entrepreneur, and the ideological work of the toy, are the reasons we wanted her to help us open a new gender center, the Cassandra Voss Center, on our campus. So this Fall, we became the “Midwest launch” of GoldieBlox.

What did that mean? Debbie Sterling and VP, Lindsey Shepard, spoke on our campus and taught us how to engage hundreds of kids with GoldieBlox when we created a toy zone in our Center. St. Norbert College was also among the first colleges to include the toy in their curriculum. As Assistant Professor of Education, Chris Meidl, said when he introduced the toy in his class on “Play,” “No matter any other criticisms about the toy itself, the clear message delivered is that girls can build too. And that is a message worth being heard, for girls and boys, for women and most importantly for men.”

So I’m loyal-it’s true. I know the founders personally and heard them speak passionately about their dream of the toy and for girls globally. The toy, though, has come under a lot of critique. When Slate’s holiday gift guide tagline read “Forget GoldieBlox. Buy a Birdfeeder Instead,” I wanted to throw a birdfeeder at my computer screen. The holiday season is, of course, the biggest commercial moment in the toy company year. Slate just kept going with, “First Everyone Loved GoldieBlox. Now Everyone Hates GoldieBlox.” Hate is a strong word and I guess Slate figured that out since at this writing, they removed the above title and have given GoldieBlox a second look under the article, “GoldieBlox: Great for Girls? Terrible for Girls? Or Just Selling Toys?” Well good for you Slate for modifying your backlash after the fact. Sigh. Then when Jezebel recently wrote, “GoldieBlox Means Well But Doesn’t Live Up to the Hype,” I had to weigh in.

I’ve been in Women’s and Gender Studies since I was 19 years old. On the one hand, I welcome and get the onslaught of feminist critique of GoldieBlox that is now coming to a blog near you. On the other hand, I am no ideological purist and I wonder the degree to which critics grasp what it takes to break gender barriers in all these fields—STEM, toy industry, start-up/Silicon Valley culture—and make a toy that has mass appeal. I repeat—mass appeal.

My supportive response really comes from watching the toy work on the ground. I saw hundreds of girls play with GoldieBlox for an entire day. I watched as girl after girl mastered a “basic belt drive,” the first engineering challenge of the game and saw how they interacted with the “bill of materials” that is designed to be especially welcoming to girls—girls who rarely play with construction toys. Debbie made the wheels look like thread spools, the axles resemble crayons, and the belt mimic a thick hair ribbon. A hair ribbon is stereotypically feminine, but it’s likely a girl has seen one, unlike other construction toy parts that can appear off limits in gender-segregated toy aisles. Debbie conducted research for her start-up toy and discovered that girls would frequently turn her prototypes into non-competitive games. In other words, girls needed all the adorable animal characters to spin on the spinning machine or ride the float. Everyone needed to win. So Debbie redesigned the game.

Now as a gender critic, I know that girls are socialized into these sensibilities rather than born into them, but that fact does not make their gender socialization any less real. When my three year old picked up the toy, she gravitated first to the character animals just as GoldieBlox VP Lindsey Shepard had predicted. “The character animals are the way for girls to feel invited into engineering,” said Lindsey who urged us to reach out a hand with, say, Katinka the dolphin, and welcome a girl into play. The GoldieBlox mission is to make engineering as appealing a job for a girl as the pink-collar work that so many girls are still ushered into. Debbie’s basic gender critique in her Kickstarter video asserts a claim in Gender Studies about inequity and representation—engineering is still 89% male, women make up half the population, women and girls need to be building for a better, more inclusive future. Few toys offer such a gender critique which is why GoldieBlox had an initial feminist appeal.

Critics say about the toy: it has pink on it. And the second game is called “GoldieBlox and the Parade Float” where girls partake in dreaded “princess culture” and help build a parade float. It’s all true. The toy has pink on it, but is mostly yellow. Debbie talked about how using some pink was intentional. She aimed for girls to “want to pick the toy up,” in the first place. Debbie said recently to the New York Times, “It’s OK to be a princess. We just think girls can build their own castles too.” The deeper story of the princess float—and I loathe princess culture…I avoid saying the word out loud in my house—is that Goldie’s best friend, Ruby, who is African-American, is actually the winner of the pageant. This fact prizes afro-centric beauty in a racist culture that makes beauty synonymous with whiteness. Now it is certainly more troubling that Ruby is the best friend of Goldie and not Goldie herself. Goldie of the Blox is a white protagonist, a central critique that is rarely mentioned in the feminist response. Though I wonder if Goldie is “Golda,” an homage to Debbie’s Jewish foremothers. The Jewish cultural allowance for smart girls is something Debbie mentions in her TEDX talk. On the ground, watching girls play with the toy, they actually play with the animals in the set which are not necessarily racialized. The question remains: can a toy ever be designed (add books, movies, etc.) with a girl of color at the center? Girls and women are barely represented authentically in mass culture at all, let alone women of color. We know something will have shifted with a girl-of-color is at the center of a story.

So the answers to the GoldieBlox critiques are a bit more complicated. I appreciate critic Deborah Siegel’s more balanced provocatively titled piece, “Is GoldieBlox Trojan Princess, or Trojan Feminism?” I think it’s both. Which brings me back to my point about ideological purity. Why do we keep asking this binary question of “is it or isn’t it” feminist? Let’s step back and take the long view. The truth is I want GoldieBlox to have the same appeal as Bob the Builder or Lego dudes because girls still get nada in girl toy world. Like I teach my students—you can hold conflicting ideas simultaneously and still make a commitment. GoldieBlox is listening. Let’s commit to help them navigate the hyper-stereotyped toy world many of us are resisting by giving them some advice as The Brave Girls Alliance is doing with Lego when asking them to make smart girl Minifigs. I appreciate that GoldieBlox is trying to meet girls where they are. We can find the common ground between these worlds intellectually and maybe we can even find it around play. And even if we can’t, GoldieBlox is about to change play nationally regardless.Goldieblox_Commercial-1

Second Look

Paid Leave for Family Emergencies: Still Missing After All These Years

Just when I manage to climb out of the depressing pit so much of the news plunges me into these days, some new outrageous incident pushes me back down.  My latest ‘back in the dumps’ experience is the news coverage of the young mother fired by Whole Foods in Chicago.  Rhiannon Broschat didn’t come in to work because city schools were closed due to frigid temperatures and she could not find care for her special needs son.  She called in ahead of her shift to alert the store management.

My reaction to the first news about Rhiannon was disbelief.  There had to be more to the story.  Whole Foods cultivates such a wholesome, ‘we-care- about-your-health-and-well-being’ corporate image. They tout their charitable contributions. They refer to their workforce as ‘team members’. Why would they jeopardize their brand  so cavalierly?

I looked for other new coverage, for statements from company officials. Perhaps Rhiannon had been a problem employee? Perhaps the termination had nothing to do with this particular absence? Maybe there were other, more serious offenses?

The answer?  “Well, not really.”

Whole Foods has a point system at stores in the Midwest. An employee is allowed to accumulate five points every six months. ‘Unexcused absences’, (a slippery term at Whole foods, it seems), equal a point and incidences of tardiness equate to varying fractions of a point.  Anyone accumulating more than five points within a six-month period is fired. Rhiannon had accumulated five points prior to the closing of schools that exceptionally cold day. According to Whole Foods they simply followed the policy.  Rhiannon and her supporters insist her shift manager told her she understood Rhiannon’s situation and that the young mother should stay home with her son. Rhiannon assumed her situation fit the definition of ‘excused absence’.

But the real issue is not who said what, but the policy itself and the appalling lack of security and flexibility low income workers confront in the workplace.

Feminists have fought for decades for family friendly policies that reflect the realities of women’s lives. But success in areas of paid family and medical leave is dismal. Two thirds of workers receiving the minimum wage are women, but  is rare for such jobs to offer a even a single paid sick day.  Only three states, Rhode Island, New Jersey and California have legislated paid leave policies. Of course, the higher your salary, the greater your chances of working in a setting where paid leave for family emergencies is employer-provided or negotiable. Rhiannon’s story is illustrative of the larger issue. No wonder over 60,000 people across the country signed a petition demanding that Whole Foods reconsider their decision to terminate her employment.

Last December Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act. The legislation would set up a national paid leave insurance program funded by contributions from both workers and employers—each contributing 0.2 percent of wages. It is legislation that ought to command enthusiastic, bipartisan support. As numerous studies have shown, family friendly policies are not only good for workers, they can have positive effects for employers and the economy. For example, see here,  here,  here and here.

Women are the vast majority of primary caregivers for families and children. Thus it is women who pay the highest price when forced to choose between a paycheck and people we love who need our care. Whether through lost income, or fewer promotions or increased stress, women experience a large proportion of the negative effects a lack of family friendly policies produces. None of this is new news.

The United States is the only nation in the developed world that does not guarantee any type of paid leave. It is also a nation where ‘family values’ receive lots of airtime and political spin. There is no spin that can hide the reality: either many of those in positions of power are terribly ignorant of how the majority of Americans live or they simply don’t care about anyone outside their immediate social circle. Either way, it’s pretty discouraging.  But action can be a good antidote for discouragement. To use language Whole Foods is comfortable with, let’s get on the team—the one working for passage of the FAMILY Act.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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