Nice Work

Here’s a graph, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.this picture

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.

gender attitudes by sex
from Cotter et al. 8/5/2014 at The Society Pages.

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.

Tina Pittman Wagers finished a triathlon six weeks ago.
Tina Pittman Wagers finished a triathlon seven weeks ago.

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.

gender attitudes by sex
From Cotter, Hermsen, and Vanneman’s CCF brief using a composite of gender attitudes from the GSS.

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.

From Pepin's Gender Revolution Rebound - Youth Edition
From Pepin’s Gender Revolution Rebound – Youth Edition

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.

Youth Gender Attitudes_Figure 1Wait, 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.

Youth Gender Attitudes Scale_Figure 2In 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.Youth Gender Attitudes by Sex_Figure 3

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. Youth Gender Attitudes by Mom's Education_Figure 4Speculatively, 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?

Anxiety about how we are doing sexually is not new! But still creepy after all these years. (1926 Ad from WikiCommons)
Anxiety about how we are doing sexually is not new! But still creepy after all these years. (1926 Ad from WikiCommons)

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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.