The subject of why there have been no women presidents has come up a few times in the past couple of months. It first came up around Presidents’ Day in February, and most recently when Hillary Rodham Clinton announced her candidacy.
Raising a 7.5 year old daughter, it results in me giving explanations using broad generalizations that are easily digested and understood by someone her age, yet fully knowing that the issue is overwhelmingly much more complex and, in a word, disheartening. Rightfully so, she is confused and downright surprised by the current and historical state of affairs. I tend to agree; it makes no sense.
I did the math. Here’s how old she will be for presidential elections in the coming years:
2016 – 9 years old
2020 – 13 years old
2024 – 17 years old
2028 – 21 years old
This means that, at least for presidential elections, there are 13+ years until she can vote.
And when I think about that, I wonder what she and her peers (of both genders) will witness during the intervening years. Will she see more women throw hats into the ring or the same thread of hesitancy? Will she see arrows aimed at gender instead of ability? Will she see women candidates’ outfits discussed more than their politics, especially when compared to their male counterparts? Will she see the bar set unreasonably and unfairly higher for women? Will she see words like “feminist” and “equality” hurled like barbs? Will intelligent, assertive women candidates be pegged as bitches, yet equally smart, ferocious men be called strong leaders?
As we enter this next presidential race, I hope that we—the adults—start changing the dialogue when we discuss candidates and their campaign platforms. Whether we’re talking about women or men, let’s say things like, “I don’t like his/her stance on _______” rather than “I don’t like him/her”. Or maybe we support our opinions with things like, “I think his/her track record with ________ would make him/her a strong/weak president” rather than “He’s/she’s a liar/moron/thief (or worse)”. Let’s have intelligent and spirited debates and dialogue about all of the candidates, but support them with reason and fact (to the extent that we can extrapolate that from the media), not mere gender bias.
Assuming all other things are equal, I want my daughter to witness women being given the same respect and opportunity to win as men. I want her to be encouraged and intrigued by women entering the race, rather than jaded and confused by how they are ultimately treated and discussed and vetted. I want her to ask the pointed questions about why or why not someone might be an ideal leader. I want her to believe that, in the end, people do not vote for or against a candidate solely based on gender.
These children of ours—our boys and girls—they are watching, and they are listening. No matter how you intend to vote, how will you talk about the candidates?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
It’s so interesting how far the pendulum swings sometimes, isn’t it? In less than ten hours I’ve gone from being amped up about seeing some photographs of strong women leaders that I admire, to hearing, with much disappointment, on the playground this morning just how far some people have to go when it comes to how we view and talk about girls and women.
Last night, 10PM, on the couch
While reading the April 2014 issue of Vanity Fair, I was struck by how inspired I felt after seeing the seventeen women noted in the photographic piece, “Lean In, Lead On.” Some of my favorite women were there, including Elizabeth Warren and Jane Goodall. I was happy to see the wide spectrum of ages, much less the diversity, both in race and professional background, of these women. I especially loved how they asked us to “bend the knee to the quiet bravura of Jane Goodall and Alice Waters, who have been leading by example for decades . . . .” I liked that particular description because it not only shows that there is something to be said for measured stamina in this kind of leadership, but that it does not have to be bold and loud to be effective. In fact, I think this might be my new favorite phrase. As an introvert myself, and as the mother of a young girl who also seems to veer more toward introversion, and is sensitive in ways that are seemingly profound, these kind of women make tremendous role models.
This morning, 7:50AM, on the playground
M was off on the monkey bars, completely by herself, but a huge smile on her face. It doesn’t seem to matter to her that she can only go from the starting point to the first rung—this is the essence of why I love her so much. She doesn’t get discouraged that almost everyone else who comes along to take a shot at the monkey bars can now go all the way across. M can still only do one. But it doesn’t get her down. It’s not a competition for her. At the sweet age of 6.5, this is how I want it to be. As I was standing there watching her from afar, I saw her take a tumble when she jumped down from the first rung. Sometimes, if she gets hurt or falls like that, it is an instant trigger for tears. I think mainly because I’m still on the periphery with the other parents; I don’t think she’s like that when I’m not around, but it’s hard to say. Where some kids might just pick themselves up and get back on, she can still give a good wail if she bangs a leg or jams a finger on the way down. But today, no tears. She laughed off the temporary bang-up and got back on.
As I was standing there watching her, this conversation then ensued with the mother of a boy in M’s class:
Parent: Wow! She’s always all smiles!
Me: Yes, usually. It’s great! But sometimes, like just now when she falls off, she might start crying. So I was just watching her to see whether that was going to happen since it can make or break a drop-off in the mornings, ha-ha!
Parent: Yeah, well that’s because she’s a girl.
Me: Well, I don’t know about that. I think it’s because she’s a sensitive soul and has been like that for a while. It’s so nice to see the sun, no?
I stood there trying to take in what she just said to me, waiting for the school bell to ring. I was astonished that this mother, obviously a female, would make such a stereotypical declaration (to another woman) about a girl. I was sad that she has a son who might be growing up in an environment where sensitivity—or, let’s be real, tears—is only expected from girls, as a rule. I was flabbergasted that assigning traits and characteristics by mere gender is still a thing that some parents of this millennium continue to do, much less openly so. I was trying to reconcile how we can have a list like the one in Vanity Fair and then pigeonhole girls on the playground simply because of their XX chromosomes.
Knowing that there are often reported differences between boys and girls doesn’t help either. That’s the problem with the studies: they forget the outliers and, in my opinion, end up perpetuating unhelpful or unnecessary stereotypes. They also don’t take into consideration the cultural reinforcement of stereotypes rather than the truly innate differences. It all makes me want to re-read Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain.
The gender assumptions and prejudices just don’t sit well with me anymore because now there is someone more at stake than just myself. Yet, at the end of the day, I am completely uncertain about how to handle them when confronted in the parking lot or during schoolyard chit chat with people I hardly know. Ignoring these statements doesn’t seem right, at least not if I want to see some forward progress. But confronting someone or getting on a soapbox in these venues doesn’t seem quite right either. So what’s the solution? I’m not sure yet. My only hope is that through even small push backs like mine this morning, it will help others at least take a pause before declaring someone’s child is (or is not) a certain way simply because he is a boy or she is a girl. Maybe that will be my quiet bravura.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
This past Sunday, I read “Playing by the Rules”, written by Fiona Murray (Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, November 3, 2013). Ms. Murray is clearly a smart woman. After all, she is the Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and associate dean/co-director of the MIT Innovation Initiative. You don’t get those gigs by being a slacker.
But a particular piece of the advice she gave in the article has left a bad taste in my mouth. In her piece, which offers a few bullet points of advice to young female entrepreneurs seeking competitive venture capital money, she said this:
How can young women connect with investors when their target (if Boston VCs are anything to go by) is male, mid-40s, married with two kids? This suggestion might seem frivolous, but here is my pragmatic view: Learn to talk sports if you can’t already. . . . Talking sports creates a mutual social space and enables the VC to see how you think and form opinions in a different realm.
The basis for her advice seems to be data that identifies sports as a means of social bonding “in the male-dominated private equity world.”
Now, I’m no entrepreneur and do not work in the world of private equity, but as an attorney, I certainly know what it’s like to work in a high pressure, and still very male dominated field. I’ve seen firsthand how the attitudes of the many players—other attorneys (on both sides of the “v.”), clients and even judges—can sometimes shift if they have to interact with a female attorney, especially a young one. It can be very uncomfortable. And yet despite that, I strongly believe that unless you are already a bona fide sports fan (which I am, to a degree), advice like this only devalues, if not erases, the female perspective in these kinds of fields. Though, admittedly, with the World Series Champs at our back door, it is hard to find anybody, male or female, who is not a sports fan right now.
To illustrate my point, let’s suppose that it wasn’t Professor Murray writing this piece, but a similarly well-regarded male professor. I imagine that there would be at least a small bit of outrage to hear a man telling women to start watching sports in order to get along better with or get the attention of the guys. To me, it is equally jarring to hear it from another woman.
Or, think of it this way: instead of telling young women to start watching sports, why doesn’t Professor Murray advise the male VCs to start boning up on what’s trending in this season’s handbags and shoes? I’ll tell you why: because it not only sounds ridiculous, but it is entirely based upon a sexist stereotype, much like the sports watching advice that she is giving women. Despite what her research shows, I think we all know enough men in their 40s to know that sports is not the only thing they are capable of discussing, so let’s start giving them some credit too.
Moreover, the very subject that she advises us women to get comfortable with is also male dominated in and of itself. I am going to go out on a limb and guess that she is not suggesting that women start watching teams from the NWSL or WNBA in order to engage in some lighthearted banter before the big pitch. This is supported by the fact that women’s sports are so woefully underrepresented in the media, and therefore also in discussion, that most men would not be that interested anyway.
So what is the net result of this arguably demeaning advice? In effect, that sports talk is not “social space” that is genuinely “mutual”, at least not for those of us who do not want to waste time becoming familiar with a part of culture that ultimately does not interest, inform or motivate us in our business pursuits, much less for personal or social reasons. To me, to engage in this behavior—especially when the advice seems so one-sided—is nothing short of selling out our own individuality and what we bring to the deal, pitch or argument, largely because it ignores the female point of view. It is also not a far leap from those girls (and I was one of them) who pretend to like a certain band or talk in a certain way just so the guys will notice them. We tell our young and teenage daughters not to stoop to that level—just be yourself!—so why would we accept the opposite advice as adults?
I’m sure part of the reason for my bitterness is because I am the mother of a young girl who, at least right now, shows zero interest in sports. Yes, she’s only six, but already I can see that the sports culture is so ingrained in the lives of many around her, and there have been some minor social consequences as a result of her opting out. I am completely OK with her rejection of sports, both now and if it continues. But what I am not OK with are business models that seem to still give females, particularly young, inexperienced professional females, the larger share of work when it comes to getting ahead, especially when it comes with the added cost of being something they are not.
My hope is that by the time my own daughter reaches the age group addressed by Professor Murray, that we will no longer see such one-dimensional advice. I refuse to accept the premise that in order to get ahead, or just plain even, with the men in our fields, that we have to continue to cater to those men who are either stuck in the dark ages of gender inequality or who cannot move beyond their sports-driven social limitations. Even if it means pushing against what the current research shows many of our male counterparts like to talk about, we have a place at the conference room table too, and our voice and what we like to talk about counts just as equally.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
This post is written in honor of Women’s History Month.
About a month or so ago, M came home a tad miffed because “Boy X” in her class told her that she couldn’t help clean the lunch tables because she was a girl. To those not “in the know”, getting to clean the lunch tables is a “big kid” opportunity in her class, designated to the 4 and 5 year olds. It’s a big deal to them because it’s considered
a way to show the 3 year olds who’s boss a privilege. But apparently only at school. This fervor for wiping down the table does not seem to translate at home.
At first, I laughed to myself because I was thinking that it would have made me more upset if Boy X told her that she had to do it because she’s a girl. But then I realized he was telling her that she couldn’t do something because he apparently thinks or was told that boys can do certain things that girls can’t. Knowing that M sees the household tasks split pretty evenly and free of 1950’s gender stereotypes around here—like when I put windshield wiper fluid in the car and snake the drain and my husband does the dishes and laundry—I could see where she would be confused.
And she must have caught me in a less than sugar coating friendly mood, because my response to her was, “Well, next time Boy X tells you something like that, you tell him that girls can do everything boys can do AND have babies too!” (I admit that I conveniently left out the part about the transgendered man that had a couple of babies a few years ago…but if Boy X knows about this and uses it in his defense, then I am going to have to meet his awesomely open and liberal parents!)
Considering that her teacher noted in M’s journal that M cheekily used this refrain a few weeks later, I guess the message got through to her, or at least gave her the confidence to stand up for herself and feel equal.
But this weekend I realized just how much further we still have to go in giving girls and women equal treatment and coverage (though the topic is already familiar ground). While I was upstairs in the kitchen, I overheard the following exchange between M and her dad, who were playing downstairs:
(NCAA tournament game is on the TV in the background; she’s watched portions of a few hockey games on this TV in the past few months—it is the only sport that she’s ever shown any interest in watching, and this is the TV we use to watch sports—so she really only associates this TV with hockey and I can see why this question crossed her mind)
M: Daddy, can girls play hockey?
M: Oh. Are they on another channel?
See that? She’s already clued in that the hockey she’s seen (Bruins) has been male players only. She hasn’t seen any women or women’s teams. I know some women’s teams exist, like NCAA or USA Hockey, but let’s face it, they’re not getting the attention that professional (NHL) men’s hockey does.
While the Internet does make coverage of these games more available than cable TV, isn’t that essentially the same as the gender wage gap that STILL exists (according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 college educated women’s earnings were only 74.1 percent of college educated men). In other words, we can sit at the table, but we just can’t have as much of the pie.
And she knows it. She already senses the void and unequal treatment.
We can debate the merits of letting TV coverage acting as the benchmark or barometer for gender equality as a whole, much less as a way to portray various women and girls in media and entertainment to children. And my head is not in the sand such that I think that gender equality will trump profits via viewership and sponsorship in mainstream, male-dominated professional sports.
But if a 4.5 year old can detect a difference or feel left out in some measure, then we all should take notice. I know I did.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz.
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