Sandy Keenan at the New York Times wonders “Are Students Really Asking?” for affirmative consent. Her premise is that talking about how we want to have sex is some new legal imposition. Whether they support it or not, most of her interviewees see it this way too. The affirmative consent debate seems to turn on whether communicating about sexual desires and boundaries is asking too much, killing the mood, or even necessary when ‘alternatives’ like tacit consent exist.
As a queer person (never mind as a sexualities scholar), all of this straight consternation makes me giggle. Silent sex just isn’t possible for us. Same-sex encounters, group sex encounters, encounters involving kink, and encounters involving trans and gender nonconforming people all tend to necessitate discussion between people about what they do and do not like and want before and during sexual activity. For us, much of the communication affirmative consent asks for is routine (which is not to say that LGBTQ folks don’t experience sexual assault and rape–we do).
There’s no obvious sexual script to follow in queer sex (e.g. “man pursues woman, begging to put his penis in her vagina”). Even what may seem like the most obvious case—sex between two gay men—is not obvious. The majority of sexual encounters between gay men in the US don’t involve penis-anus penetration but they usually involve 5-9 different sexual behaviors that occur in over 1,300 unique combinations. Even with anal sex, we still have to talk about who wants to “top” and “bottom.” So for us, communicating about what we want is less of a strange new requirement imposed by decree—Keenan’s word—of state legislature or university president than a normal matter of course.
Lest you write us queers off as weird and complicated, straight sex isn’t as simple as Hollywood would have us believe. Research on women’s orgasms by Elizabeth Armstrong, Paula England, and Alison Fogarty shows that straight college students also perform a wide variety of sexual acts in a wide variety of combinations. And, importantly, they highlight how un-communicated sexual expectations among straight partners lead to misunderstandings, unsatisfying sex, and even sexual assault.
One of the men Keenan interviewed was initially defensive, as if affirmative consent were an attack on men categorically as sexual abusers of women. Again, from my queer perspective this seems a bit silly. When two men have sex, we still need consent, and it has nothing to do with one of us being a “vulnerable woman” or the other being a “predatory man.” Even in heterosexual encounters, men are sometimes assaulted by women (albeit less often than the reverse). This highlights the real target of consent campaigns: people who feel entitled to sexual activity without regard for their partner’s willingness. (Entitlement and willingness are, of course, deeply gendered.)
I’m not trying to say communicating about sex is easy at first or doesn’t need to be learned/taught. But it’s really not so strange or new once we step outside strictly scripted heteronomative roles—roles that are too narrow even for most straight sex (let alone things like pegging). Likewise, concerns that consent campaigns are an attack on men only make sense within those narrow sexual scripts as well. If queer sex has taught me anything, it’s that communication, far from being an onerous burden, is a part of the fun.
Often, when we see improvements by all (be it in educational attainment, income, health, etc.), we overlook the fact that gender or racial gaps still persist or have even gotten worse. There has been much attention given, and rightfully so, to all of the progress that women, and black women in particular have made. But, what about where women stand in relation to men? Or where black women stand in relation to white women? If significant gaps still persist, can we be satisfied with the progress we’ve made? Or is there still work left to be done?
As a young black woman, sociologist, and researcher at an economic policy think tank, I am particularly sensitive to this and make a point to address these issues in my work at CEPR (Center for Economic and Policy Research). It’s part of the reason why I began my Young Black America series of reports that strive to answer the question, “What’s going on with young blacks today?” An important goal of the series is to explore the intersection of race and gender while tackling the issues facing young people today.
The first reportin the series found that there is positive news on both the gender and racial dimensions in regard to high school completion rates. After decades of mostly stagnant and depressing numbers, both women and men have seen marked improvements in high school completion rates since 2000. Furthermore, throughout the entire period I looked at (1975-2013), women overall have achieved higher completion rates than men.
But, what I found most interesting was what happens when you throw race into the mix. In 1975, 88.7 percent of white women between the ages of 20 and 24 had completed high school with either a high school diploma or a GED. During that same year, the rate for black women was only 76.9 percent, for a black-white gap of 11.9 percentage points. Since then, white women have maintained this sizable advantage, which averaged about 11 percentage points through 2000. In 2000, the completion rates for black and white women were 79.0 percent, and 90.6 percent, respectively.
Fortunately, since 2000 there has been a significant convergence in completion rates for black and white women. The completion rate of black women has increased 10.4 percentage points since the turn of the century, reaching 89.4 percent in 2013. During the same time, the completion rate of white women increased at a slower pace and stood at 94.5 percent in 2013. The result was a much smaller black-white completion gap of 5.1 percentage points – 57 percent less than the gap in 1975.
Closing achievement gaps should be an important part of any economic agenda. While a lot of attention is given to racial and gender achievement gaps separately, the double burden of being both a woman and a racial minority can present a unique problem for black women.
So, yes, we should take a moment or two to celebrate these accomplishments. The high school completion rates of young women are at their highest ever, and remain higher than the rates of men. Although black women still lag behind their white counterparts, this gap has been trending downward for more than a decade and hopefully will continue to do so.
But as we all know, in order to realize racial and gender economic equality, education is just one piece of the puzzle. Increases in high school completion rates are important because they widen the pool of potential college entrants and graduates – with a college degree becoming increasingly necessary in today’s economy. However, even a college degree doesn’t guarantee labor market success, as my former colleagues Janelle Jones and John Schmitt at CEPR have shown. We must not ignore issues of racial and gender discrimination, or other structural issues that are at the root of many of the economic problems we face in this country. Subsequent reports in my Young Black America series will address these and other issues facing young blacks.
Cherrie Bucknor is a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. She is working on a year-long series of reports on Young Black America.@cherriebucknor
Here’s a graph, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.
The story the WSJ tells is about the descending steps of income for post-BA degree recipients by “tier” of the institution from which they graduated. The tier captures how elite the institution is considered. This article by Joni Hersch at Vanderbilt is the basis of the article.
Follow the red bars (for men) across from left to right, as the WSJ suggests, and you see inequality. Follow the yellow bars (for women) across from left to right and you see the same pattern of inequality. What makes the higher tier graduates “worth more”? The discussion of it asks us to consider that the value added might not pertain to explicit “merit,” but rather other kinds of cultural “merit” that produce those distinctions. Stuff like where your parents vacationed or what your taste in wine is. This is an important topic of examination.
Meanwhile, the red and yellow bars within each tier demonstrate a whopping gender gap. And that gap is left unremarked. When we look at a graph like this without putting this larger gender inequality up front, we inure people to categorical inequalities, and it makes it easier for readers to persist in seeing such inequalities as natural. Which is, by the way, the root of inequality. Seeing it as natural.
It reminds me of this graph from a recent briefing report about an end to the stall in progressive gender attitudes. What I see is that there’s no convergence. The gap persists. And that isn’t natural.
Tina Pittman Wagers is a clinical psychologist and teaches psychology at University of Colorado Boulder. She just survived a heart attack.
I am new to this role as a heart patient. My heart attack was five weeks ago, and I am getting the feeling that I have just begun down the confusing maze of angiograms, CT scans, EKGs, medications (and lots of ’em), heart rate monitors, cardiac rehab classes and blood tests. Indeed, even the phrase “my cardiologist” is one I never thought would pass my lips. Here’s why: I am 53 (we’ll discuss the significance of this age in a moment). I am fit, active, slim, haven’t eaten red meat for about 20 years and am a big fan of kale, salmon and quinoa, much to the chagrin of my two teenage sons. I live near the foothills in Boulder, Colorado, where I hike with my dog and often a friend or two, almost every day. I had completed a sprint triathlon two weeks before my heart attack. Ironically, this event was a fundraiser for women with breast cancer – it turns out that heart disease kills women with more frequency than breast cancer. But, hey, who knew?
My heart attack happened while I was swimming across a lake in Cascade, Idaho. I was about a quarter mile into the swim when I found that I couldn’t breathe, and was grabbed by an oddly cold and simultaneously searing band of pain about three inches wide across my sternum. My husband, Ken, was on a paddleboard nearby and helped pull me out of the water, and started paddling me back, stopping to allow me to vomit on the way back to shore. If you’ve never been on a paddleboard, it may be hard to imagine the balance it takes to paddle relatively quickly and keep the board from getting tipped over by the unpredictable movements of a heaving passenger in the midst of a heart attack. Suffice to say that I am grateful for Ken’s strength and balance in innumerable ways. An hour later, I was at a clinic in McCall, Idaho, where an astute ER doc was measuring my heart rate (very low) and heart attack-indicative enzyme called Triponin (rising) so I won an ambulance ride to St. Luke’s Hospital in Boise, Idaho. I received excellent care there, queued up for an angiogram the next morning and was diagnosed with SCAD: a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, and, fortunately, a relatively mild one. Twenty percent of SCADs are fatal. Furthermore, I have none of the typical risk factors for heart disease, like high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol.
I do have one of the main risk factors for this kind of heart attack, though: I am a woman. Eighty percent of these heart attacks occur in women. The average SCAD patient is 42, female and is without other typical risk factors for heart attacks. The current thinking about SCADs is that they are not as rare as originally thought, but are under- diagnosed because they happen in women who don’t look like typical heart patients.
Another related factor: I am menopausal. The majority of SCAD patients are post-partum, close to their menstrual cycle or menopausal – all times in women’s lives during which we experience significant fluctuations of sex hormones. Up until five days before my heart attack, I had been on low doses of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), in an effort to vanquish the hot flashes, sleep disruption and cognitive fogginess I was experiencing. I suppose HRT might have also represented an attempt to hang on to youth, in a youth-and sexuality-obsessed culture in which the transition to menopause often means a dysregulated and sweaty march into irrelevance.
Since I had my heart attack, I’ve spent a lot of time (and money, but that’s another column) interacting with professionals in the cardiology world, trying to figure out what happened to me, and how I can avoid having another SCAD – the rate of recurrence in my population is about 20-50 percent. I have encountered some lovely people, but almost all of them are baffled about what to do with me. I am atypical, as they inevitably explain, but the medications, the treatments, the rehab programs that they have to offer are designed for typical patients. So, that’s what my doctors try, but there is a lot of “voodoo vs. science” as one cardiologist explained, because science doesn’t have the answers to my questions. (I would add that there is a cardiologist, Dr. Sharonne Hayes at The Mayo Clinic, who is doing a lot of the research and seeing the patients who’ve had SCADs. I hope to meet her one day. I imagine a scene something like my 13-year-old self meeting David Cassidy, only in an exam room in Rochester, Minnesota– it’ll be just that cool.)
One of the factors that contributed heavily to my medical predicament was no doubt my menopausal and HRT status. The American Heart Association points out that lower estrogen levels in post-menopausal women contributes to less flexible arterial walls, clearly a factor in SCADs. The question then arises: how might HRT help prevent another heart attack? However, as anyone who’s even scratched the surface of the HRT world, there is a lot of conflicting data about who should use HRT, who shouldn’t, what the benefits and risks are, and what the differences may be between different formulations and methods of delivery of HRT. One study, the Women’s Health Initiative study, was a large study started in the early 1990s, and was a valiant attempt to gather data about the effects of HRT on women’s health, including cardiovascular health. Unfortunately, the average age of the women in this study was 63 – 12 years older than the typical age of the American woman hitting menopause and considering HRT, so the results have been criticized for their poor generalizability to newly menopausal women. The research on HRT since the WHI study has been scattered, often contradictory, and hard for the average woman to access.
Why do we know so little about women and heart attacks, why they happen, what the symptoms are, and what we can do about hormonal factors that contribute? A big part of the problem is that, until the National Institute of Health (NIH) Revitalization Act in 1993, researchers largely excluded female humans from their studies. NIH has just this year (2014!) decided to use a balance of male and female cells and animals in their research. Up until now, 90 percent of the animal research has been conducted on males. Animal research, which is often a precursor to clinical trials in humans, has been missing out on vast pieces of investigation related to the female body. I am living (fortunately) proof of the fact that the delays in including females in research have translated into significant gaps in clinically relevant knowledge related to women’s health. Well-meaning physicians and practitioners only have the “typical” approaches to try with their “atypical” patients. Why this appalling delay to include female subjects? Because female rodents as well as humans experience menstruation and menopause, which are frequently considered dysregulating nuisances to many scientists. As a consequence, we have an enormous amount of catching up to do in order to understand what factors affect female bodies and health problems in different ways than our male peers.
Emma Watson gave a great talk last week to the UN about feminism meaning equal access to resources. One of the most important resources we have is scientific knowledge that can be applied to responsible, effective and efficient clinical care. Let’s hope that women can start to be understood as typical research subjects and patients, not as inconvenient, fluctuating, atypical anomalies.
The gender stall is dead. Last week a Council on Contemporary Families online symposium provided new data suggesting that the stall in progress on gender egalitarian attitudes and behaviors has ended. Evidence has accumulated, and a stall in attitudes that started around 1994 may have turned around after 2004.
Long live the gender stall. Here’s what gets me. The change in attitudes is not due to men and women becoming more similar in their attitudes. Under gender egalitarianism (ideally) you wouldn’t be able to predict someone’s views based on their gender. But… in the graphs here, there’s no hint of gender convergence. The figure on the left from Cotter et al., shows that people are at a higher level of approving of gender egalitarianism. But, men and women are the same distance apart. For young people, in Joanna Pepin’s figure (right) on youth attitudes, the same pattern appears.
Pepper Schwartz and I have written about this abiding gender gap when we talk about the moving target of the sexual double standard.
Women and men have more sexual partners now than in the past; even so, they have consistently different levels of when they get negative reputation effects for their activity. Indeed, that gender performance issue comes out in Sassler’s brief in the CCF symposium. Yes, there’s no longer a gender-neutral-housework-means-less-frequent-sex for more recently joined couples. But… heterosexual couples in which men do most of the housework (less than 5 percent of the sample) have sex less often. (Who’s counting, anyway?)
Youth stalled too? Younger generations—millenials in particular—are at a much higher level of egalitarian attitudes than others. But… in the Cotter analysis, younger generations’ support for gender equality isn’t increasing—they just started at a higher level. The trend is flat. Like there’s a ceiling or something.
Joanna Pepin, at Representations of Romantic Relationships, wondered about the younger generation, and analyzed similar attitudinal questions in the Monitoring the Future survey of high school seniors from 1976 until 2012. (Her column is cross-posted here at Girlw/Pen, too!) She finds that high school seniors mostly have high levels of the egalitarian attitudes Cotter focused on.
Except for one area. When asked what they think of the statement, “it is better if a man works and a woman takes care of the home,” students disagree with this less and less. In other words, they are not as likely to reject traditional gender roles as young people in the past. They dropped by 10 percent in the past 20 years (from 70 percent disagreeing to 60 percent disagreeing). While they are at 90 percent agreement that women should be considered as seriously for jobs as executives or politicians, Pepin speculates that for millennial “women are viewed as peers in entering the work force, but continue to be responsible for labor at home.”
I’ll stick with my “But…” focus. There are some systematic catches to the whole rebound story: no gender convergence, persistent gender stereotypes on the domestic sphere, and I suspect these are linked. So, like Joanna Pepin, I’ll keep looking. And I won’t confuse change with progress until I see more convergence and fewer signs of sneaky essentialism. (For more background, see David Cotter and colleagues’ brief, “Back on track?” on changing attitudes and my overview of all four pieces in CCF symposium.)
Joanna Pepin is a sociology graduate student at the University of Maryland. This column is cross-posted with small revisions from Pepin’s blog Representations of Romantic Relationships. She tweets at @coffeebaseball.
The Council on Contemporary Families published a report last week suggesting the gender revolution has rebounded. Using data from the General Social Survey (GSS), sociologists David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman provided an update on their 2011 American Journal of Sociology article reviewing trends in public attitudes on gender. This seemed like a great opportunity to try my hand at replicating and extending their sociological research by looking at American high school students’ gender attitudes. This is an important population to investigate in order to catch young people before they’ve spent time confronting (and perhaps therefore justifying) resistant social structures and adulthood realities the way older people have.
I used data from Monitoring the Future (MTF), a survey given annually to a nationally representative group of American 12th grade students. Three of the four egalitarian attitude variables in the GSS are also available from MTF and are asked in the same manner but with a five-point agreement (rather than four-point) scale: disagree, mostly disagree, neither, mostly agree, and agree. The fourth variable regarding attitudes about female politicians was worded differently than the GSS on the MTF surveys: Women should be considered as seriously as men for jobs as executives or politicians. I have previously replicated Cotter and colleagues’ original publication, so I feel reasonably confident that methodological differences are not contaminating my results.
What is similar. I charted the averages for the four gender attitude questions below. Noticeably, the item on women in politics is an outlier and remains steadily high over time. Agreement that working moms have warm relationships with kids was consistently higher than average agreement in the GSS by about 10%. Disagreement with the statement that preschoolers suffer when mothers work began at about 30% and has risen to around 65% for both GSS and MTF respondents.
Wait, more tolerance for gender stereotypes? Most interestingly, disagreement with the statement that it’s better if a man works and the woman takes care of the home peaked in the 1990s at about 70% and has declined to 60% disagreement by 2012. The question itself sounds so outdated—after all it was written in the 1970s when the GSS and MTF surveys were first begun. And one would expect it to be fully dismissed in a gender egalitarian world, but my results show that fewer young people dismiss it. The pattern is strikingly different than that of the averages for the adult population in the GSS. Today, high school seniors are less likely to disagree with these stereotypical gender roles than the general population. In 2012, 60% of MTF respondents disagreed with the statement compared to about 70% of GSS takers.
In the updated report by Cotter and colleagues, the scale of the combined averages stalled out through the 1990s and early 2000s, but started to pick up again by 2006. However, the youth scale presented below shows a continued stall. From the graph above, it’s obvious that attitudes on women in leadership positions has remained high over time and therefore is not accounting for any changes. It appears that the increase in agreement that men should work and women should take care of the home is offsetting the rise in egalitarian attitudes measured by the other two items.
The gender gap is the same. Following Cotter and colleagues’ report, I also graphed the scale by sex. Similar to that of the adult population, young women persistently show more egalitarian attitudes than young men in the MTF data. These differences also are consistent over time, with both stalling in the early 1990s.
I skipped replicating the gender attitudes scale by political ideology because of the large number of respondents who answered “I don’t know” when identifying their political affiliation. In place of the trends by education (as all of the MTF respondents are currently seniors in high school), I took a look at the scale by their mother’s education. There appear to be no remarkable differences by mothers’ education, and all groups increased their egalitarian ideology over time and showed remarkably similar patterns.
Overall, the high school seniors show some different patterns in gender role attitudes than the greater population. Notably, young people do not show a resurgence in disagreement that it is better for men to work and for women to take care of the home. In fact, they show a reversal. This is especially puzzling given their high agreement that women should be considered for leadership positions. Speculatively, youth express commitment to equality but simultaneously pair these egalitarian attitudes with beliefs about stereotypical gender roles. Women are viewed as peers in entering the work force, but continue to be responsible for labor at home. On the other hand, there does seem to be a persistent increase in youth agreement that working mothers do not harm children.
I will continue to watch the Millennial generation. As noted by Cotter and colleagues, their egalitarianism is high. However, their egalitarian ideology is not consistently increasing over time. I’m not yet convinced that the stall in the gender revolution is over.
It is weird. The evidence from psychology, sociology, economics, neuroscience and history point in the same direction: there’s just not much to the claims of a war between love and lust or that equality in relationships—or even housework—damages sexual desire. Such clarity begs the question, why all the hype and misinformation about sexual disappointments in marriage or committed relationships?
There’s a quick, cynical answer, and I heard it from most people I spoke to when writing my recent article in Psychology Today on Love and Lust. The sex hype is instrumental in fueling anxiety with “How I’m doing?” “What’s wrong with me?” “Am I keeping up with the Jones’s?”
Why do we keep seeing these claims that long-term relationships mean you aren’t having the “best possible sex”? I discussed this with Vanderbilt University sex researcher Laura Carpenter: She speculated, “Is it some version of late modern capitalism gone crazy? Think about it: We are not good capitalists or good consumers anymore if we are committed to our car, house, brand of yogurt, clothes, shoes—and in a culture all about consumerism and desire—why would you not extend that idea—have that expectation about relationships and sex?” Carpenter continued, “We don’t know what normal is. We really don’t–even if merely in statistical sense, much less in the sense of what is good for you or what people desire.”
Who cares what normal is? People hate the imposition of “normal”—but it definitely absorbs attention. When it is in the air they notice it and respond to it. It is irritating to the mind, the heart, the ego.
One (non-sociologist) friend I talked to—a straight married guy with three kids–rolled his eyes about the recent series of sex-can’t-last-in-marriage articles. “Part of the premise is that ‘happiness’ is a never-ending quest for peak experiences–sexually and romantically. Our society conditions us to believe we can achieve and maintain a state of bliss, to have a peak marriage and a peak sexual relationship for decades. That isn’t the way it is, and if that’s how you set your expectations for a relationship then you’re guaranteed to be disappointed. There are valleys and plateaus, and they are based on other things in your life—career, children.”
A D.C. colleague I met during her busy work day—it started early because it was her day to drive her kids to school—was just pissed off by the claim that career couples don’t have sex. That’s not her normal. “You might be fighting or upset or low, for us it has nothing to do with what’s happening in our sex life. I find that is much safer, there’s no keeping score. Some people would say that’s so unemotional—but I think that is what makes it fun!”
The even more cynical answer—given that stories about disappointments with married sex focus on women’s sexual desire or on women’s careers—is that it fuels anxiety about “what’s wrong with women?” It works like a dog whistle: an argument using code that, in this case, signals that women just can’t get have it all—but they are on the hook for it.
One economist pondered, “Are articles like this a way of telling women ‘don’t expect too much from your husband; settle for what you can get; if you’re accommodating and don’t push on the chores you’ll get rewarded’?” She was making reference in particular to coverage of the ASR study on egalitarianism and housework–you know, the study where sexual frequency was associated with whether the housework you did was gender normative. My PT article takes a few steps to putting the ASR study into perspective–including useful comments from study co-author Julie Brines. But here’s how the dog whistle works: the study doesn’t say that couples have lower sexual satisfaction depending on housework, just a tiny bit of difference on sexual frequency. There is no disappointment. Well, that is sort of not true. I’ve been disappointed that we are still talking about this.
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 Society: An 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.
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.
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.
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 experiencingless 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 TimesMagazine 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.
About Girl w/ Pen
Girl w/ Pen, founded by Deborah Siegel, publicly and passionately dispels modern myths concerning gender, encouraging other feminist scholars, writers, and thinkers to do the same.
The views expressed in posts are those of the columnists and do not represent Girl w/ Pen at large.