On “Having It All”

Second Shift

Marissa Mayer’s ascendency to the helm of Yahoo! while seven months pregnant has caused a media stir. Mayer’s comment, “my maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it,” has drawn criticism that she’s setting an unreasonable “Superwoman” standard for working women, and that she’s capitulating to anti-family corporate norms.

I am elated that Marissa Mayer makes a gazillion dollars and is the CEO of a major company at age 37! I am disappointed that there’s a press frenzy about her baby bump. It’s not news when male CEOs take two-week vacations, so why so much focus on this? But since it’s in the news, I’m a little sad to see Mayer nodding to male-centric family leave norms, but hopeful that she’ll pioneer better norms for women in the future.

Mayer’s situation and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent Atlantic article have reignited the debate about whether women can “have it all.” Yes, women can “have it all” — balancing a paid job and kids — if they are wealthy, have a position of significant power, or have a partner who will equitably share the burden of childcare and housework. But a better option is to reconsider the sexist premise that women must excel in both the private and public spheres to be fulfilled. Men are assumed breadwinners, but standards for being a “good father” are incredibly low compared to expectations for “good mothers,” and fathers are given more slack in the workplace than mothers.

Women now comprise half of the labor force, and 4-in-10 are mothers who are the sole or primary breadwinner, but the idea of “having it all” is only applied to women because of sexist societal scripts that women will procreate and will be the primary caretakers of children. When is the last time you heard a man fretting about “having it all?” These gendered expectations place an undue burden on women to work the “second shift,” and rob some men of the opportunity to develop a deep bond with their children and create stronger relationships with women as egalitarian domestic partners. (Sharing housework makes men happier!).

The persistent assumption that parenting is “women’s work” is borne out with data showing that women who work full-time outside the home perform twice the child care and three times the housework as their spouses who work full-time. This gender gap causes 40% of working moms to always feel rushed compared to 25% of working dads. Stress is the norm for many of the 13 million single parents in the U.S. who are disproportionately female (84%) and women of color.

So how can we “have it all” without pulling our hair out? One way is to be wealthy. Mayer’s net worth of $300 million means she can afford lots of help, most likely from other women, and can hire a pediatrician and other baby professionals who can accommodate her busy schedule.

Another way to “have it all” is to have gain sufficient power within the workplace to set your own schedule. People in the highest echelons of corporate America have the flexibility to decide when and how they work, but only 3% of CEO slots and 14% of executive officer positions are held by women. A critical mass of female leaders could bring an end to anti-family corporate practices, but women’s gains in corporate and political leadership have recently stalled and even reversed, so this won’t happen anytime soon.

For most women who aren’t wealthy, corporate titans, our best option for “having it all” is to find a partner who is able and willing to share the burden of child rearing and housework. Based on the statistics above, these partners are few and far between. Women who identify as feminists do less housework per week than non-feminists, but men who are married to feminists do the same amount of housework as men married to non-feminists. In other words, it’s not enough that you’re a feminist. Your partner needs to be one, too.

Perhaps the best way to “have it all” is to recognize that working full-time inside and outside the home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Contrary to societal fairy tales about parenting, having children actually makes us less happy. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert finds that parents are happier eating, exercising, or sleeping than they are caring for children. “Looking after the kids is only marginally better than mopping the floor.” Using survey data, Sociologist Robin Simon reports that “Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers.” Economist Arthur C. Brooks‘ research shows that people with children are 7% less likely to report being happy than those without children. In short, having children leads to less happiness.

The purpose of this post is not to criticize women or men who choose to have children (although societal pressure makes procreation virtually compulsory for women). Moms have it hard enough already. As Sociologist Lisa Wade points out, “the U.S. government fails to support our child rearing efforts with sufficient programs (framing it as a ‘choice’ or ‘hobby’), the market is expensive (child care costs more than college in most states), and we’re crammed into nuclear family households (making it difficult to rely on extended kin, real or chosen). And the results are clear: raising children changes the quality of your life.”

The ongoing debate about whether women can “have it all” will cease when we collectively reject the false premise that women need to work outside the home and have children to achieve real fulfillment. This social script is sexist and simply inaccurate. According to the data, women without children are the happiest, followed by moms who work outside the home, then stay-at-home moms (who are more socially isolated). But forget this data. The lower relative level of happiness for stay-at-home moms is no doubt a reflection of our society’s devaluation of this occupation. If we properly valued homemaking, parents would make $96,261 a year, men would work in the home as much as women, and the state would better support this important part of our economy.

The larger point here is that women are being set up by gendered cultural scripts that tell us we have to break our backs in both the public and private spheres to be fulfilled. If we choose to have children, it should truly be a choice and an informed one that eschews the myth that children automatically equal happiness. If we choose to pursue a career and not have children, we can be better prepared to deal with social pressures meant to make us feel like we’re “missing out.” And if we choose to “have it all,” mothers can approach this challenge with greater clarity about the resources and teamwork needed to minimize the personal toll.

This discussion has centered around the choices of privileged women, but many women don’t have the luxury of choosing between kids or paid work. Therefore, it’s vitally important that we pursue the larger projects of de-gendering parenting, valuing homemaking, and making workplace practices family friendly. Only then can women and men truly exercise choice in crafting their life paths.

Sexual Objectification, Part 3: Daily Rituals to Stop

This is the third part in a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects. (Part 1, Part 2).

This post outlines four damaging daily rituals of objectification culture we can immediately stop engaging in to improve our health.

1) Stop seeking male attention. Most women were taught that heterosexual male attention is our Holy Grail before we were even conscious of being conscious, and its hard to reject this system of validation, but we must. We give our power away a thousand times a day when we engage in habitual body monitoring so we can be visually pleasing to others. The ways in which we seek attention for our bodies varies by sexuality, race, ethnicity, and ability, but the template is the “male gaze.”

Heterosexual male attention is actually pretty easy to give up when you think about it. First, we seek it mostly from strangers we will never see again, so it doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of life. Who cares what the man in the car next to you thinks of your profile? You’ll probably never see him again. Secondly, men in U.S. culture are raised to objectify women as a matter of course, so an approving gaze doesn’t mean you’re unique or special. Thirdly, male validation through the gaze doesn’t provide anything tangible because it’s fleeting and meaningless. Lastly, men are terrible validators of physical appearance because so many are duped by make-up, hair coloring and styling, surgical alterations, girdles, etc. If I want an evaluation of how I look, a heterosexual male stranger is one of the least reliable sources on the subject.

Fun related activity: When a man cat calls you, respond with an extended laugh and declare, “I don’t exist for you!” Be prepared for a verbally violent reaction as you are challenging his power as the great validator. Your gazer likely won’t even know why he becomes angry since he’s just following the societal script that you’ve just interrupted.

2) Stop consuming damaging media, including fashion, “beauty,” and celebrity magazines, and sexist television programs, movies, and music. Beauty magazines in particular give us very detailed instructions for how to hate ourselves, and most of us feel bad about our bodies immediately after reading. Similar effects are found with television and music video viewing. If we avoid this media, we undercut the $80 billion a year Beauty-Industrial Complex that peddles dissatisfaction to sell products we really don’t need.

Related fun activity: Print out sheets that say something subversive about beauty culture — e.g., “This magazine will make you hate your body” — and stealthily put them in front of beauty magazines at your local supermarket or corner store.

3) Stop Playing the Tapes. Many girls and women play internal tapes on loop for most of our waking hours, constantly criticizing the way we look and chiding ourselves for not being properly pleasing in what we say and what we do. Like a smoker taking a drag first thing in the morning, many of us are addicted to this self-hatred, inspecting our bodies first thing as we hop out of bed to see what sleep has done to our waistline, and habitually monitoring our bodies throughout the day. These tapes cause my female students to speak up less in class. They cause some women to act stupidly when they’re not in order to appear submissive and therefore less threatening. These tapes are the primary way we sustain our body hatred.

Stopping the body-hatred tapes is no easy task, but keep in mind that we would be utterly offended if someone else said the insulting things we say to ourselves. Furthermore, we are only alive for a short period of time, so it makes no sense to fill our internal time with negativity that only we can hear. What’s the point? These tapes aren’t constructive, and they don’t change anything in the physical world. They are just a mental drain.

Related fun activity: Make a point of not worrying about what you look like. Sit with your legs sprawled and the fat popping out wherever. Walk with a wide stride and some swagger. Public eating in a decidedly non-ladylike fashion is also great fun. Burp and fart without apology. Adjust your breasts when necessary. Unapologetically take up space.

4) Stop Competing with Other Women. The rules of the society we were born into require us to compete with other women for our own self-esteem. The game is simple. The “prize” is male attention, which we perceive of as finite, so when other girls/women get attention, we lose. This game causes many of us to reflexively see other women as “natural” competitors, and we feel bad when we encounter women who garner more male attention, as though it takes away from our worth. We walk into parties and see where we fit in the “pretty girl pecking order.” We secretly feel happy when our female friends gain weight. We criticize other women’s hair, clothing, and other appearance choices. We flirt with other women’s boyfriends to get attention, even if we’re not romantically interested in them.

Related fun activity: When you see a woman who triggers competitiveness, practice active love instead. Smile at her. Go out of your way to talk to her. Do whatever you can to dispel the notion that female competition is the natural order. If you see a woman who appears to embrace the male attention game, instead of judging her, recognize the pressure that produces this and go out of your way to accept and love her.

Stay tuned for Sexual Objectification, Part 4: Daily Rituals to Start.

Sexual Objectification, Part 2: The Harm

This is the second part in a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects. (Part 1).

After nearly three decades, the feminist “sex wars” are back.  This fiery debate from the 1980s pitted radical feminists who claimed that female sexual objectification is dehumanizing against feminists concerned about legal and social efforts to control female sexuality.  Over a decade of research now shows that radical feminists were right to be highly concerned.

The end of the “sex wars” gave rise to so-called third wave feminism that generally celebrates women’s sexual objectification as a form of female empowerment.  It also enabled a new era of sexual objectification, characterized by greater exposure to advertising in general, and increased sexual explicitness in advertising, magazines, television shows, movies, video games, music videos, television news, and “reality” television.

Getting back to the “sex wars” and how radical feminists were right, women who grow up in a culture with widespread sexual objectification tend to view themselves as objects of desire for others. This internalized sexual objectification has been linked to problems with mental health (e.g., clinical depression, “habitual body monitoring”), eating disorders, body shame, self-worth and life satisfaction, cognitive functioning, motor functioning, sexual dysfunction, access to leadership, and political efficacy.  Women of all ethnicities internalize objectification, as do men to a far lesser extent.

Beyond the internal effects, sexually objectified women are dehumanized by others and seen as less competent and worthy of empathy by both men and women.  Furthermore, exposure to images of sexually objectified women causes male viewers to be more tolerant of sexual harassment and rape myths.  Add to this the countless hours that most girls/women spend primping and competing with one another to garner heterosexual male attention, and the erasure of middle-aged and elderly women who have little value in a society that places women’s primary value on their sexualized bodies.

Theorists have also contributed to understanding the harm of objectification culture by pointing out the difference between sexy and sexual.  If one thinks of the subject/object dichotomy that dominates thinking in Western culture, subjects act and objects are acted upon.  Subjects are sexual, while objects are sexy.

Pop culture sells women and girls a hurtful lie: that their value lies in how sexy they appear to others, and they learn at a very young age that their sexuality is for others.  At the same time, being sexual, is stigmatized in women but encouraged in men. We learn that men want and women want-to-be-wanted. The yard stick for women’s value (sexiness) automatically puts them in a subordinate societal position, regardless of how well they measure up.  Perfectly sexy women are perfectly subordinate.

The documentary Miss Representation has received considerable mainstream attention, one indicator that many are now recognizing the damaging effects of female sexual objectification.

To sum up, widespread sexual objectification in U.S. popular culture creates a toxic environment for girls and women.  The following posts in this series provide ideas for navigating new objectification culture in personally and politically meaningful ways.