Nice Work

No nice work today.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/87/Face-angry_red.png

angry face. source: Wikimedia Commons, Henrike

This was a terrible, horrible, lousy day, brought to you by our 5-4 Supreme Court decisions in the Hobby Lobby case and Harris v Quinn. My response: Keep your hands off my body…and my union!

The cases in short:

  • Hobby Lobby: Agreed a private firm could claim a religious belief on the part of the firm as a basis for denying several kinds of contraception in the company’s health insurance coverage.
  • Harris: Determined that some public sector workers could opt out completely of union fees as well as dues, even as they benefit from the union contract.

Off my body: Amanda Marcotte writes about the Hobby Lobby decision at RH Reality Check: “Hobby Lobby is Part of a Greater War on Contraception.” Though there are all those qualifiers to the decision even in my short description above, Marcotte says, “Make no mistake: they are coming for your birth control.” At Salon Elias Isquith offers highlights from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s “fiery dissent” including, “The exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would…deny legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage.”

The focus on birth control–nothing else–is just creepy, and it still shocks me when I read people saying “why should we pay for your sex?” Comments on FB and twitter have been flying. Sociologist Jennifer Reich–who just published Reproduction and SocietyAn Interdisciplinary Reader--said

Never in my life did I think the Supreme Court would rule in such a blatantly politicized way. Religion only applies to birth control, not other health issues other people might need and that others might resent. Having said that and now reading the decision–and spending all my waking hours thinking about vaccination mandates and personal beliefs–it is also clear the government was mistaken in ever allowing any organizations to exercise a religion-based opt-out. If health is a right, who you work for should never have been the criteria for getting what you need. Such a disheartening morning.

Off my union: Jennifer’s outrage over whose rights are asserted (businesses) and are not asserted (workers) brings me to the Harris decision. The Harris v Quinn case  (as Nick Bunker explains here) “centered on the ability of unions to require workers covered by collective bargaining agreements to pay fees to the union.” The decision, which abrogates those fees, may lead to even more decline than we have already seen in unionization.

Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld have shown how the historic decline in unions contributes to the rise in inequality since the 1970s. Public sector unions–I’m a proud member of one–have not declined as much as private sector unions, and this is relevant because the Harris case pertains to public sector unions. Meanwhile, a greater proportion of  women are in public sector unions than private sector unions. CEPR’s Nicole Woo wrote here last week that strong  unions are good for women…and good for families, too. Her column covers her recent paper from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, which highlights just how valuable and important unions are to women. Weak unions are bad for many (and in many ways), but for today I’m thinking about how a decision weakening unions, especially public sector unions, is a blow to women workers.

A really bad day. Not nice at all.

Nice Work

Unions: A Way for Feminism to Overcome Its “Class Problem”

Welcome to guest poster Nicole Woo, director of domestic policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, discussing their new study  “Women, Working Families, and Unions.” alt

The Nation sparked a robust discussion last week with its incisive online conversation, Does Feminism Have a Class Problem?, featuring moderator Kathleen Geier, Demos’ Heather McGhee, the Center for American Progress’ Judith Warner, and economist Nancy Folbre.

They addressed the “Lean In” phenomenon, articulating how and why Sheryl Sandberg’s focus on self-improvement – rather than structural barriers and collective action to overcome them – angered quite a few feminists on the left.

While women of different economic backgrounds face many different realities, they also share similar work-life balance struggles. In that vein, the discussants argue that expanding family-friendly workplace policies – which would improve the lives of working women up and down the economic ladder – could help bridge the feminist class divide.

A growing body of research indicates that there are few other interventions that improve the economic prospects and work-life balance of women workers as much as unions do. A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which I co-authored with my colleagues Janelle Jones and John Schmitt, shows just how much of a boost unions give to working women’s pay, benefits and workplace flexibility. Photo Credit:Minnesota Historical Society

For example, all else being equal, women in unions earn an average of 13 percent – that’s about $2.50 per hour – more than their non-union counterparts. In other words, unionization can raise a woman’s pay as much as a full year of college does. Unions also help move us closer to equal pay: a study by the National Women’s Law Center determined that the gender pay gap for union workers is only half of what it is for those not in unions.

Unionized careers tend to come with better health and retirement benefits, too. CEPR finds that women in unions are 36 percent more likely to have health insurance through their jobs – and a whopping 53 percent more likely to participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

Unions also support working women at those crucial times when they need time off to care for themselves or their families. Union workplaces are 16 percent more likely to allow medical leave and 21 percent more likely to offer paid sick leave. Companies with unionized employees are also 22 percent more likely to allow parental leave, 12 percent more likely to offer pregnancy leave, and 19 percent more likely to let their workers take time off to care for sick family members.

Women make up almost half of the union workforce and are on track to be in the majority by 2025. As women are overrepresented in the low-wage jobs that are being created in this precarious economy – they are 56.4% of low-wage workers and over half of fast food workers – unions are leading and supporting many of the campaigns to improve their situations. In an important sense, the union movement already is a women’s movement.

Education and skills can get women only so far. It’s a conundrum that women have surpassed men when it comes to formal schooling, yet women have made little progress catching up on pay. Many women who do everything right—getting more education and skills—still find themselves with low wages and no benefits.

With unions already playing a central role in helping to meet the needs working women and their families in the 21st century economy, anyone concerned about the well-being of women should also care about unions.

Mama w/ Pen

Do Fathers Matter? An Exchange with Paul Raeburn

9780374141042_p0_v2_s260x420If you’re still looking for that perfect, think-y Father’s Day gift for the dads in your life, or a beach read for those who (like me) crave research packaged in narrative, science journalist Paul Raeburn’s Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked is the book to get this year. No father’s rights stuff here. Instead, it’s a heavily researched and highly readable story of scientific discovery–an overview of what psychologists, geneticists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, and sociologists are finding about the role of fathers in their children’s and families’ lives. Raeburn writes for The New York Times, Discovery, and Scientific American and pens the About Fathers blog over at Psychology Today. He’s the chief media critic for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT and a father of five.

I’ve watched Paul painstakingly compile the research and craft the narrative for this book over many years. His aim in writing it is not merely to publicize and popularize the new science of fatherhood, itself a worthy goal; he’s also invested in helping fathers—and their families—understand how fathers can be better at what they do. Here’s how our exchange went down. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Paul and I are both members of The Invisible Institute, a NYC-based authors group.)

DS: Moving beyond understanding fathers as sources of authority and economic stability in their lives of their children, you look at how new studies of the unexpected physiological links between fathers and children, from conception into adulthood, are forcing us to reconsider our assumptions and ask new questions. What are the key takeaways here?

PR: I was surprised to find so many biological links between fathers and their children, beginning during pregnancy, before fathers have even met their children.images

One example of the profound connection between fathers and their fetuses is that fathers’ hormones do a dramatic turnaround when fathers’ partners become pregnant. Testosterone falls, and prolactin–yes, men have this nursing-related hormone–rises. The thinking is that this profound biological change changes men from competitive mate-seekers into more nurturing fathers.

And the connections between fathers and their children continue. Brain scans of fathers during their infants’ first four months have found striking increases in activity in the prefrontal cortex in response to looking at pictures of their infants or hearing them cry. The brain regions that changed seem to be associated with fathers’ motivations and moods and their involvement with their babies. Infants are sculpting their fathers’ brains to make fathers better able to respond and take care of them.

And as children grow, similar connections continue to exist.

DS: You’re a father of five. Is this book personal in any way?

PR: In this book, I wanted to collect the research on what is known about fathers and their contributions to their children. I mostly avoided personal recollections, because I think it’s important that we distinguish the facts–the scientific findings–from our personal feelings and impressions. I did, however, break from this rule on occasion, when I found I couldn’t resist saying something about my father or my children.

DS: What was the most interesting finding you unearthed from looking at the research on dads in the animal kingdom?

Screen shot 2014-06-13 at 7.52.49 AMPR: I was surprised to learn how much humans and laboratory animals–even mice–resemble one another. Neuroscientists are using mice to find the circuits that govern fathers’ behavior, and they are doing it with mice for two reasons. One is that most human research subjects take a dim view of being sacrificed at the end of an experiment and have their brains dissected. Another is that mice’s brains are remarkably similar to humans’ brains. Both have the same structures and similar circuitry. If a discover is made in the brains of mice, it’s highly likely that the same thing is going on in humans.

DS: Research on mothers and mothering abounds. Why, do you think, we still know so little, relatively speaking, about the role of fathers in children’s and families’ lives?

PR: It’s hard to say for sure, but I think one reason is that psychologists in the 20th century became fond of a theory that excluded fathers from child development. Developed by John Bowlby, a British psychologist, this theory–known as the attachment theory–held that the bonding in the first days and weeks of life between mothers and children was essential for healthy child development. Fathers did not appear anywhere in this scenario.

If fathers were not important–which is what most psychologists believed–why bother studying them? I think this must have changed when a psychologist-father was nuzzling one of his kids, or rolling around on the floor, and caught sight of himself in a mirror. In that eureka moment, he might have said, “My child seems to be enjoying my company. Perhaps I matter after all!” And the rest was history.

DS: If you could suggest a research study, from any field, to continue what you acknowledge as the incomplete investigation of fatherhood writ large, what unanswered questions or quandaries would you most wish to resolve?

PR: I would like to know more about single-father families, and families with stay-at-home dads. On June 5, 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that the number of fathers who do not work outside the home rose to a high of 2 million in 2012. “High unemployment rates around the time of the Great Recession contributed to the recent increases, but the biggest contributor to long-term growth in these “stay-at-home fathers” is the rising number of fathers who are at home primarily to care for their family,” Pew wrote.

I’m eager to see what we can learn from those families about fatherhood more broadly.

I also think gay and lesbian families have a lot to teach us. They are not as constrained by gender stereotypes as some of us, and they are inventing parenting roles anew. A recent study, for example, provided the first evidence that gay men’s brains change in ways similar to the ways mothers’ brains change when they have a baby.

Follow Paul Raeburn on Twitter @dofathersmatter and read more about his work at www.paulraeburn.com

Image (mouse): Flickr, Rick Eh?

***

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your ink

We are not damsels in distress; let’s not wait for the prince to save us

This week we are happy to feature a guest post from Jocelyn Hollander. Jocelyn Hollander is a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon whose work focuses on gender and women’s resistance to violence.

The new Miss USA, Nia Sanchez, has been roundly criticized this week for daring to advocate that women learn to defend themselves against violence. As this argument goes, any anti-violence strategy that focuses on what women can do to keep themselves safe is women-blaming. Instead, we should focus all our resources on preventing perpetrators from assaulting women. As one Twitter user wrote, “Hey Miss Nevada- how about instead of woman learning to protect themselves, men learn to not rape women?” (@CaitCremeens, June 09, 2014)

In an ideal world, this would be the right strategy. We would teach perpetrators not to commit violence, they would see the error of their ways, and poof! Violence against women disappears. And if a few perpetrators remain unconvinced, well, we’ll teach bystanders to intervene, and they’ll step in to stop these assaults.

But we do not live in that world. Feminists have been trying to convince perpetrators not to assault women for more than 30 years now, and these problems are still with us. Perpetrators frequently isolate their targets before assaulting them, making bystander intervention dicey, at best. Research on frequently-used prevention strategies finds that most of them either haven’t been systematically evaluated or simply don’t work. While the focus on perpetrators is long overdue, we can’t rely on it as our only strategy for preventing violence.

Moreover, even if perpetrator-focused prevention strategies did work, they would take time to be effective. Many of these strategies rely on major changes in social and interactional norms, and this kind of change is a slow (and usually incomplete) process. If those are our only strategies, what are we asking women to do in the meantime? Suffer through sexual assault while we wait for the knights in shining armor to save them? On my college campus of 25,000, even if we were to implement a prevention program that would be completely effective at the end of one year, 625 women would be sexually assaulted in the meantime. Is that really acceptable?

Women have been told for years that they are weak, that they are vulnerable, and that they need to look to someone else (fathers, boyfriends, husbands, the police, the state) to protect them from violence. When we say that perpetrator-focused strategies are the only legitimate approach, we inadvertently reinforce these stereotypes. What if instead we acknowledge that women are strong and smart enough to protect themselves, rather than waiting for someone else to rescue them?

In the 1970s, women who were tired of waiting for the social system to change took matters into their own hands, developed feminist programs of self-defense, and taught them to thousands of other women. These same programs have recently been shown to be highly effective in preventing sexual assault. Self-defense training is effective, it is immediate, and it is empowering to women.

These programs have been widely misunderstood. Empowering self-defense classes do not simply repeat the tired old advice (don’t walk alone, don’t drink too much, carry your keys in your hand) that reinforces women’s fear and vulnerability and constrains women’s lives. Rather, they help women develop the awareness and verbal skills to stop assaults before they begin – and if that fails, to powerfully resist. They give women more choices, not fewer. Yes, ending sexual assault is not women’s responsibility. But advocating self-defense training is not victim-blaming; it is a realistic strategy for a world in which sexual violence is very much still with us, and will be for the foreseeable future.

I have a young daughter who will soon be growing into adolescence. I am not willing to wait for the day that perpetrators to stop attacking, or that bystanders intervene. I will work tirelessly toward those goals, but in the meantime, I will teach her the skills she needs to protect herself, so that she can act on her own behalf, rather than waiting for some savior-prince who may or may not arrive – and if he does, may or may not be willing or able to save her. I will hope for that ideal world, but in the meantime, I will teach her to save herself, and her sisters. That, to me, is real feminism.

Manly Musings

New Masculinities Blog! – Masculinities 101

This month, we invited Cliff Leek to discuss a new collaborative blog he and some of his colleagues put together that deals with issues of men and masculinities: Masculinities 101.  Cliff is a graduate student in the Sociology Department at Stony Brook University and writes extensively (for academic and popular audiences) on issues of men, masculinities, and inequality.

By: Cliff Leek

cropped-img_0214_edit2Masculinities 101, founded by four graduate students in the Department of Sociology at Stony Brook University, is an online forum for scholars and activists working on issues related to men and masculinities. The blog seeks to create a space in which academic and activist voices can be heard and the two can learn from one another. The editors actively seek to foster dialogue between scholars and activists around contemporary issues related to men and masculinities as well as gender and feminist theory.

The blog features bi-weekly posts from up-and-coming and established scholars, as well as from activists working on the ground. The posts seek to generate conversations about gender, race, sexualities, and class by drawing connections between social science research and everyday life. Additionally, the editors of Masculinities 101 contribute a “week-in-review” every Friday. The week-in-review recaps and highlights current events, activist endeavors, and recently published scholarly work.

Masculinities 101 hosts scholars and activists with diverse interests. Among the blog’s writers are experts in disabilities and embodiment, culture and sports, education, gendered violence, and men’s activism. Some of the most popular posts on the blog include an analysis of the gendered politics of meat consumption, representations of masculinity in comic books, and a letter by a scholar-activist to a 13-year-old boy.

Screen shot 2014-06-04 at 11.26.41 AMIn addition to being a blog, Masculinities 101 is sponsored by Stony Brook University’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities (CSMM). CSMM, founded in 2013, is dedicated to engaged interdisciplinary research on boys, men, masculinities, and gender. Masculinities 101 partially fulfills CSMM’s vision to “support and promote research that furthers the development of boys and men in the service of healthy masculinities and greater gender equality” and “to build bridges among a new generation of researchers, practitioners, and activists who work toward these ends.” Masculinities 101 proudly promotes CSMM’s events and often offers recaps of CSMM seminars and lectures.  To pique your interest, below are a few poignant excerpts from posts on Masculinities 101.

Meat and Masculinity: “Animals are commodified and sold in ways that feminize and sexualize their bodies.  Meat isn’t just manly, it’s sexy, literally.  To consume these animal’s bodies is to wield power – to dissect, ingest, and ravage female bodies.  Here, meat eating becomes a symbol, a tool, of patriarchy and oppression.  It is both a reflection of a culture that allows violence against women and a means through which to perpetuate it.” – Ashley Maier

Superhero Masculinity – A Conversation with Artist, Writer, and Comic Book Enthusiast Steven M. Jones: “Expanding characters’ sexualities is only one of the ways in which comic books have challenged social expectations of gender according to Jones.  “From the beginning men wore tights” he joked.  Jones argued that Marvel crossed gendered lines by presenting male superheroes that struggle with deep inner conflicts.  He said, “Marvel created these male characters who experience all kinds of emotions.  They have anxiety.  They have depression.  These are not stoic men.  They have self-doubt.  They’re relatable because they have an emotional life.” – Heidi Rademacher

Guiness, “Made of More” or Just More of the Same: “While the subject of disability is indeed central to the Guinness message, the script itself hasn’t been rewritten in a way that really challenges mainstream disability stereotypes. It fails to articulate an alternative picture to what we often see. TV, film and print tend to make disability into an example of tragedy, misfortune or heroism or use it as a prop to illustrate the strength of the human mind over the fragile body. Such references are for the benefit of the non-disabled majority, to make the everyday reality of disability more palatable for them.” – Tara Fannon

Follow us on twitter  (@masculinities01) and like us on facebook.

You can also contact us via email: masculinities101@gmail.com

Women Across Borders

Reflections on #BringBackOurGirls and the Missing Discourse of Rights

This month, guest contributor Emily Bent looks at what’s missing in girl power discourse. Emily Bent is Assistant Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Pace University in New York City and the Co-Chair of the Working Group on Girls (WGG) at the United Nations, a coalition of over 80 nation and international non-governmental organizations dedicated to advancing the rights of girls around the world. Her work has been published in the Global Studies of Childhood Journal and Sociological Studies of Children and Youth, where her article, “A Different Girl Effect: Producing Political Girlhoods in the ‘Invest in Girls’ Climate” was recently named Outstanding Author Contribution in the 2014 Emerald Literati Network Awards for Excellence.

BBOG_GR_AvatarIt’s been six weeks since the mid-April abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls in Northeastern Nigeria. Despite international attention, public outcries, rallies, petitions, social media campaigns, Google chats, and coordinated military efforts, the girls are still missing—and the world (or at least the mainstream media) appears to have lost interest.

According to Hayes Brown at ThinkProgress.org, Google analytics tell us that while the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls reached peak interest around Friday May 9th, it all but dropped off the radar by the following Monday. As of early June 2014, it appears that we might not be any closer to finding these girls than at the start of the #BringBackOurGirls initiative.

So, where do we go from here? What can we learn from the successes and failures of this political project? And perhaps most importantly, how do we ensure the continued educational safety and opportunity for all of our girls?

We should begin by re-thinking the discursive (im)possibilities of #BringBackOurGirls and the call more broadly to “invest in girls.” Too often, this neoliberal, postfeminist, and girl power discourse gets deployed as the only feasible solution to gender-based inequalities in schools. But if we’re serious about the importance of girls’ education across the globe, then we need to start reframing the following discursive threads:

  1. Let’s start talking about girls’ rights and not just neoliberal girl power.

If we look at popular slogans and arguments for the importance of girls’ education, it is rather striking that the discourse of rights is almost entirely absent. From The Girl Effect’s “invest in a girl and she will do the rest” to Girl Rising’s “one girl with courage is a revolution,” we can see similar messages about the capacity of individual girls to overcome all the odds. Moreover, we understand that the possibilities of her transformation stems from her ability to become “responsible for [her] own regulation,” as Valerie Walkerdine puts it. This neoliberal girl power framework removes the role of the family, community, and government. Instead, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it “encourages girls to take personal responsibility for their successes and failures” inside and outside of the classroom.

Because of the limitations of neoliberal girl power, I suggest that we begin using the discourse of human rights to advocate for girls’ education and girls’ human rights more specifically. We have an arsenal of human rights platforms at our disposal. Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees the right to primary education and access to secondary education, while Article 2 protects children from violence and discrimination based on sex, race, language, ethnicity, birth status and so forth. The Beijing Platform for Action, Section L addresses the unique needs of the girl child in the areas of education, health, labor, cultural practices, gender-based violence, political life, and the media among others. CEDAW similarly calls for women and girls’ “human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, [and] civil” life.

It’s time to start leveraging the weight of human rights platforms in the movement for girls’ education. We need to stop telling individual girls to “start a revolution” and “do the rest” and instead, work more collectively to demand that girls’ human rights be respected. Nigeria has signed onto the CRC, CEDAW and Beijing Platform for Action. Why not start holding governments accountable for what they pledge to do for girls in their country? We can’t do this with the slogan of neoliberal girl power.

  1. Girls are more than investment opportunities or economic assets waiting to be “harnessed.”

One of the most troubling aspects of the “invest in girls” narrative is how this discursive move positions girls as objects and economic assets but never subjects in their own right. The justification for educating girls tends to follow a similar pattern; we document all of the good things that happen to a country’s economy and the global marketplace when a girl is educated, but we never speak about the girl as an actual person.

For example, Nicholas Kristof notes in The New York Times that girls’ education “can, in effect, almost double the formal labor force. It boosts the economy, raising living standards and promoting a virtuous cycle of development.” Investing in girls gives us the opportunity to “harness” and “unleash” the potential of girls’ economic productivity. Indeed, Tara Abraham of Girl Rising states, “the benefits have been well researched… and that is the potential we want to harness and unleash on countries like Nigeria.”

I am deeply uncomfortable with the language of investment returns, of harnessing and unleashing. It makes girls out to be something less than human. It denies girls of their subjectivity and human rights and, as Heather Switzer argues, it “empt[ies] girl subjects of agency.” I understand the purpose of this language is to capture investors and convince the international community that we need to pay attention to girls, but there must be a way to do this without reifying girls’ objectification under the auspices of economic development.

  1. It’s time to complicate the picture: education is not the answer and neither is the girl. So, let’s stop saying that it is that simple, because it is not.

In this fast-paced, media-saturated world, I understand the power of a clear, bold message that captures an audience and inspires individuals to take action. But, I think we need to rethink the overreliance on simplistic stories of sociocultural and geopolitical change. It doesn’t happen just because one girl went to school or one person donated a backpack; it happens much more haphazardly than we would like to admit.

Switzer also notes that the neoliberal girl power narrative “reinforces a fundamental (post)feminist development dictum that simply providing school will de facto empower [girls… even when we know] that education is not a gender-neutral public good; schools are not always safe spaces for girls… and female education does not guarantee the fundamental gendered social transformations… required for her to ‘call the shots.’” In other words, girls’ empowerment takes more than a school uniform; it requires buy-in from her family, culture and society, government, and the global community. It is time to get comfortable with a more complicated (and often contradictory) picture of social change and empowerment. Because the solution is a lot less clear than we would like it to be.

#BringOurGirlsBack represents both the tragedy and opportunities created by injustice. I thus see this as a moment to reflect upon what is still needed to achieve girls’ human rights. What do we, as a global community, need to do to ensure that all girls can attend school safely? And what do we need to do to hold perpetrators of violence against girls accountable for their actions, whether in Northeastern Nigeria or Santa Barbara, California?

Nice Work

Carr: The Unexpected Stresses of Summer

Worried Sick: How Stress Hurts Us and How to Bounce BackGuest poster Deborah Carr is professor and chair of the Sociology department at Rutgers University. Her latest book is Worried Sick: How Stress Hurts Us and How to Bounce Back (Rutgers University Press, 2014). I was curious to hear her thoughts on stress and the academic summer, and here’s what she had to say!

For many, summer is a time to exhale, take it easy, and enjoy lazy days at the beach, when one’s toughest decision is whether to read a guilty-pleasure novel or to catch up on back issues of the New Yorker. At least that’s how it looks in the movies. In reality, the gentle breezes of summer often are accompanied by overly ambitious “to do” lists that will never be achieved, and unrealistic (and ultimately disappointing) expectations for family time. Summer is unwittingly a pressure cooker for stress, when our lofty dreams are far removed from reality.

For academics, summer is viewed as the time to finish one’s magnum opus that got left untouched during the school year. Ask an academic what they’re doing this summer, and a nontrivial number will say “finishing my new book.” Although that may be the dream, many (especially working parents) know that uninterrupted work spells can be a rarity, when other duties of summer – like home repairs, child care, and caring for aging parents – emerge. For others, the much anticipated high point of the summer is a family vacation. Despite visions of songs around the campfire and late-night heart to hearts, most of us will experience family vacations in precisely the way we’ve experienced every other family visit – the good, the bad, and the ugly. And as our family members grow older, they simply become amplified versions of their earlier selves. Although the “good news” is that kind and supportive family members grow more so, the bad news is that the cranky control freaks become even more intense.

Mental health researchers have long recognized that it’s not just the presence of negative – illness, job loss, marital spats, traffic accidents – that can impair our psychological health. It’s also the absence of positive, or experiencing less positive than we had earlier hoped for. As far back as 1890, philosopher William James wrote that self-esteem is a result of the balance between one’s actual successes and what one hopes to achieve. More recently, psychologist Alex Michalos’ “multiple discrepancy” theory says that gaps between what we have and what we want are distressing. Psychologist E. Tory Higgins’ “self-discrepancy” theory argues that when there’s a gap between our “actual self” (who we are) and our “ideal self” (who we want to be), depression can result. Yet when there’s a gap between our “actual self” and “ought self” (who we think we should be), guilt and anxiety may emerge. That partly explains the fleeting (though inevitable) feeling of failure when summer ends, and we have not completed our book manuscript, or the long-awaited herb garden remains a dirt mound, or we never made it past the “couch” phase of our “Couch to 5K” fitness dream.

Yet research also shows that most of us overestimate how fun, rewarding, or scintillating an experience will be. The reality simply can’t live up to the dream. Harvard professor Dan Gilbert has documented that most adults are bad at “affective forecasting,” or predicting how happy (or sad) a future event will make them. Even if the long-awaited family trip to the Grand Canyon is joyous, it won’t likely live up to the boundless euphoria we had anticipated. This tendency to overestimate some future encounter is so common that The New York Times Magazine gave it its own name: “tadventure,” or an exciting adventure that doesn’t quite pan out.

Is it inevitable that come Labor Day, we’ll be disillusioned, disappointed, and too despondent to rev up for the upcoming school year? Not necessarily, but it takes some cognitive energy to maintain a positive sense of self. First, avoid social comparisons, or comparing your own accomplishments with others. Many people, especially ambitious types, compare themselves with those at the top of the achievement hierarchy; when we compare ourselves with those at the top, a feeling of self-doubt is inevitable. Second, shed the tendency to “ruminate.” Rumination is continually replaying the disappointing experience in our minds and stewing in our own sadness. Ruminators often intensify their anxiety by fixating on all the things they feel they did wrong.

Third, “just say no” when asked to take on another task that might put you over the edge. Turning down invitations gives us more time to work on the tasks at hand. Saying “no” to an opportunity may lead to that opportunity being passed along to another person who may want or benefit from it more. By “paying forward” a potentially rewarding opportunity, we might also bring ourselves a short-term mood boost.

Fourth, take solace in knowing that as we get older, we’re better able to roll with the punches and each perceived slight or failure takes less of an emotional toll than it did in our younger years. “Emotional reactivity,” or how strongly we feel the slights in our lives, diminishes with age. With age also comes the wisdom that the key to happiness doesn’t lie in adding another publication to one’s CV, or another half-marathon medal to one’s collection. Happiness comes in the process of the pursuit, rather than the end goal.

But changing our thought processes isn’t the panacea. Summer stressors are rooted in major societal problems. Employers forced to run “mean and lean” are demanding more and more work from their employees, under shorter and shorter deadlines. Those lucky enough to have stable jobs often find that their responsibilities spill over into nights, weekends, and vacations. Lack of affordable elder and childcare in the U.S. deprives millions of the safety net that Europeans have long enjoyed. And all the while, the media continue to uphold images of those who “have it all,” and do it all effortlessly. Recognizing that we’re doing the best we can, and focusing on what we’ve accomplished (rather than what we’re still hoping to do) may bring some joy back to our summer breaks.

Nice Work

feel stressed at home? think about workplace flexibility

This week the Council on Contemporary Families released a brief by Sarah Damaske: in it she reports that work lowers people’s stress levels (as measured by the stress hormone cortisol) while at home it is higher. She called for consideration of new work/life balance policies, such as ROWE–results-only work environment. In connection with that I present to you a profile of a Gender & Society study on that topic. I first posted this column in 2010.

Here’s how it works: if you call it a “diversity initiative” or a “work family intervention” or stuff like that there’s the chance that you will see resistance to the project of, well, promoting diversity, or creating a family-friendly work place. On campuses, all the earnest and the marginalized check it out and everyone else goes, “what? Oh, I don’t think I got that email.”

You already know this intuitively, but a study in the current issue of Gender & Society (abstract only) tells the story of a workplace initiative that starts with the notion that framing matters.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota hung out at Best Buy corporate headquarters while Best Buy instituted a program that is not called “let’s try to reduce the sexism in our every day practices at work” — instead it is called “Results-Only Work Environment” (ROWE) : On the ROWE website they explain their project like this:

“Results-Only Work Environment is a management strategy where employees are evaluated on performance, not presence. In a ROWE, people focus on results and only results – increasing the organization’s performance while cultivating the right environment for people to manage all the demands in their lives…including work.”

The program was created by Jodi Thompson and Cali Ressler , and it has gotten positive recognition in BusinessWeek (twice!) and you can also hear about it on a recent NPR segment. It basically involves a flexible workplace.

The UM researchers (including Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen at the Flexible Work and Well Being Center) explain in their article how the focus on results reduced resistance. “ROWE was not presented as a work-family initiative or a gender equity initiative; rather it was strategically framed as a smart business move… [the founders] felt that a gender or work-family framing would lead to the initiative’s marginalization.”

You see, ROWE is about achieving excellence. This isn’t (merely) Foucauldian. This is what any diversity project of any sort is all about, right? ROWE–which has has been adopted by other companies, too–reports a 35 percent reduction in waste and a 90 percent reduction in voluntary worker turnover.

But here’s the other part of the story: The program didn’t reduce resistance completely–especially among men managers. But it created a different kind of conversation because the analysis wasn’t explicitly about gender or diversity or accommodating people with exceptional needs. It was about an alternative approach to  work that relied less on conventions of time use and more on outcomes. The resistance heard by the researchers was to the ways that the program was challenging what’s called the ideal worker norm.

What is the ideal worker norm? Well, you know what it is, it is the way you were brought up to work. You’re there or feel you should be there as much as possible (long hours). You are busy all the time, doing doing doing (look busy!). You are ready to drop everything when someone says there’s a panic (excel at “fire drills”). Thing is, this way of working is (1) not necessary for success and (2) damaging to people’s ability to balance work and other aspects of their lives. Joan Williams writes about the ideal worker norm wonderfully in Unbending Gender (2001). She shows us just how gendered this approach is, as it builds on an outdated model of family life.

By saying (as ROWE does), oh this norm of how we work (excessive hours, fire drills, et c) is a “choice” it says we can make other choices. This means that we can de-naturalize the sneaky connection of men as superior workers (especially men who can hide or evade their other personal responsibilities). And we start to allow men as well as women to make contributions and be achievers in all the domains of their lives.

Nice Work

Boushey: I like Jane Austen’s novels, but I certainly don’t want to live like that

Heather Boushey, Executive Director and Chief Economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, discusses French economist Thomas Piketty’s new book on global economic inequality and spells out its relevance for feminists.

Some months ago, I had the opportunity to read the advance copy of Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the 21st Century. We’ve all heard a lot about the book since then—I’ve counted 700 pages of reviews (including my own). We’ve heard about how Piketty argues that unless the rate of return (aka “r”)  on capital is brought down, below or at least closer to the rate of growth (aka “g”), inequality will continue to rise. Economists have been debating his ideas ever since. But, one thing haunting me throughout the book was a question about what his findings meant for women and, so, inspired by Piketty, I picked up my Jane Austen anthology.

When I started rereading Pride and Prejudice, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for. I very quickly found myself immersed in the tale of Elizabeth Bennet, her sister Jane, and their quest for happiness. Any Austen reader knows that the heroine’s happiness depends on her finding an appropriate mate, and that appropriate is defined as a man with a sufficient stock of capital to provide her with a lifetime of income. For Austen’s heroines, there is always a tension between this economic reality and what her heart wants. She knows that a good income is not the only factor in her future happiness, but she also knows that there’s no happiness without it.

That is certainly the case for Elizabeth Bennet. When I was a young woman reading for the first time about how Miss Bennet comes around to loving Mr. Darcy, I was—as Austen intended—struck by how constraining her life was, and yet how eloquently Austen described her situation. Miss Bennet was smart, capable, and someone who I could imagine as my friend. But, the world she lived in was terrifying. She is constrained by the reality that her life will be defined by her choice of spouse. Feminists laud Jane Austen for elevating the interior lives of women and the economics of marriage markets in the 18th century and for making clear these enormous constraints on women’s choices.

Thomas Piketty points the reader to the novels of Austen and Henri Balzac in order to illustrate how in a period of high wealth inequality young people make choices about their lives based on marrying well, not pursuing professional goals. He uses the example of Rastignac, who has to decide whether or not to pursue the hand of an heiress or pursue a career as a lawyer in order to demonstrate the economic inefficiency of an economy where success depends on inheritance not on developing one’s own skills and productivity. This is what Piketty means when he says that the “past devours the future.”

Source: Thomas Piketty

Source: Thomas Piketty

Piketty’s prognosis for the economy is frightening. Using an enormous amount of data from around the world, Piketty has brought to the fore the empirical fact that income inequality calcifies into wealth inequality. We already have income inequality at the same level as it was at the dawn of the 20th century. Relative to a century ago, more of today’s high incomes are derived from wages than from capital. Piketty argues that, over time, however, the share of income from capital will rise as today’s high earners save a portion of their income and pass it on to the next generation, creating greater wealth inequality in the process. Women should take heed of this.

The 20th century saw enormous forward momentum towards equality for women and racial and ethnic minorities, as well as for children, the disabled, and other groups suffering discrimination. In the United States, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on the color of their skin or their sex. The breaking down of barriers to education and participation in working life has benefited women (and their families) enormously. Mothers are now breadwinners or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of U.S. families. This greater employment and economic participation has also benefitted the economy. For example, Stanford economist Peter Klenow and his colleagues found that up to a fifth of the total growth in the U.S. economy between 1960 and 2008 was due to the opening up of professions to women and minorities. In my own work with Eileen Appelbaum and John Schmitt, we found that women’s added hours of work since 1979 have added 11 percent to the U.S. gross domestic product.

This was possible because we lived in an economy where an individual can succeed and earn a living through developing skills and participating in the labor market. However, if economic success is again increasingly defined by inheritances, as it was in Austen’s day, those who had been excluded will continue to be so. Since wealth is typically associated with a family, not an individual, a family’s economic situation will be elevated over individual achievements. This will hardly be good for gender equality, or equality along any other axis.

As the Piketty mania took hold—it actually hit number one on Amazon.com in the first few weeks after its release–there was only one other woman, besides myself, that I knew of, Kathleen Geier, who published a review of the book. While scores of men debated r, g, and the substitution of labor for capital, women were strangely absent from the debate. I would like to encourage more women, and especially more feminists, to pick up Piketty’s tome and give it a read. It’s a good book and what you learn may be quite important for your and your children’s economic future.

Bedside Manners

Criminalizing Good Maternal Health Care in Tennessee

In honor of Mother’s Day, I ask readers to consider the ramifications of a new law about pregnant women which has dangerous implications for the health of mothers and babies. The author of this guest post, Chelsea Carmona, is a writer and drug treatment activist whose writing has been featured in major media outlets like Time, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and Al Jazeera English. She works for The OpEd Project, a social venture founded to increase the range and quality of voices we hear in the world.

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107729240_3278d325a5_mCan you imagine being prosecuted and potentially incarcerated for taking an FDA-approved, legally prescribed medication – a medication both the World Health Organization and the Institute of Medicine agree is the most effective treatment for your affliction?

Starting July 1st, this is a real possibility for pregnant women in Tennessee undergoing methadone maintenance, an evidence-based pharmaceutical therapy known among experts as the “gold standard” of treatment for opioid addiction.

The bill, signed into law on Tuesday — despite avid opposition from addiction experts, reproductive health advocates, and virtually every major medical association — authorizes the arrest and incarceration of women who use illegal drugs while pregnant.

The law does nothing to expand treatment options for addicted women, but proponents maintain the intention is to help pregnant women struggling with substance abuse get into programs. Considering only 19 of Tennessee’s 177 addiction treatment facilities provide any form of care to pregnant women, this is going to be a challenge.

Targeted women can avoid criminal charges if they complete state-approved treatment, but the Tennessee penal code doesn’t specify what constitutes an “addiction recovery program.” In 2007, the 9th Circuit Court ruled that forced attendance in 12-step programming (Alcoholics Anonymous) is unconstitutional, but this model still reigns supreme in treatment today, leaving methadone maintenance highly suspect.

Advocates for pregnant women share concerns that the widespread ignorance of maintenance treatment could leave pregnant women on methadone vulnerable to prosecution, even though such treatment is widely considered the standard of care for opioid-dependent, pregnant women. The language of the new law does not specifically exempt these women from prosecution, making following doctors’ orders a potential crime.

Sadly, this can’t be surprising to anyone familiar with maintenance treatment. Although advances in science have helped us to establish a more comprehensive understanding of the disease, we have a deeply entrenched narrative of drug addiction in our culture. This new law, which will only scare women away from seeking the prenatal and addiction care they so desperately need, is the result of this misguided and moralistic view.

Opponents of the law also worry that it will result in disproportionate jailing of poor pregnant women and pregnant women of color, particularly those living in rural districts where there is significantly less access to treatment. And they are right to be concerned.

According to The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, even though women fare just as well in treatment as men, 92% of those in need do not receive it. This is in large part due to practical reasons: Women are more likely to live under the poverty line and therefore less likely to be able to afford costly inpatient programs and the childcare services that may be necessary for them to attend.

Women were actually mobilizing to advocate for feminist-based solutions to the problem of addiction as early as the late 1960s, but locating and gaining access to effective treatment is still infuriatingly difficult. Few treatment programs have separate women-only programs, and even fewer offer programs for pregnant or post-partum women.

With the shrinking gender gap in addiction, it’s time we take into account the gendered experiences that occur throughout addiction and cultivate a more compassionate, comprehensive perspective, one that is actually conducive to helping women achieve sobriety.

For example, detailed, individual aftercare is a critical service for all addicts, but it is particularly important for women in using relationships. Women are often introduced to drugs and drug using rituals by a significant other, and rather than causing conflict, the use becomes a way to strengthen the bond. Although treatment stresses the importance of social networks, the loss of a using companion is always difficult — sometimes much more difficult than the loss of the addictive substance itself. By providing feminist-based aftercare — like housing-assistance, vocational counseling, and community development programs — recovering female addicts are much more likely to sustain sobriety and achieve autonomy.

No one supports the use of illegal drugs among pregnant women, nor does anyone wish to see a newborn show signs of neonatal abstinence syndrome, but incarceration isn’t the answer. Instead, politicians should be forming natural alliances with feminist scholars and health advocates so we can collectively address the basic needs of newly sober women. These are the ways to truly celebrate Mother’s Day.