Monday, April 20, 2015

Let toys be toys

Normally I boycott overly-commercialized holidays, but during the last winter holidays season I visited a retail location of a well-known chain of toy stores to buy gifts for my three-year old nephew and one-year old niece. I had no idea what I was going to buy, but I kept a mental checklist of the attributes I wanted the toys to have. First, they couldn’t promote violence. Second, they had to be educational as well as fun. And, most importantly, they had to be as gender-neutral as possible. I’m sure that sounds simple enough, but I ended up spending at least five hours combing every inch of that store over two trips. The entire store was divided into “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys” sections, and the degree of sexism on display was shocking -- and more than a little disappointing.

I’m sure that my nephew will feel the pressure to “play like a boy” -- and my niece the pressure to “play like a girl” -- soon enough. But I desperately didn’t want to contribute to it. For my nephew’s gift, this meant I skipped over any toy that would (a) glorify violence/war, or (b) suggest that some professions were exclusive to men. I was particularly mindful of (b) because I thought that one day the toy might be passed down to my niece, and I wouldn’t want her to feel conflicted by playing with a set of firefighters, for example, if all the firefighters were male, or the box only had a picture of a group of boys on it. I also wanted my nephew to have figures of female characters because I didn’t want him to feel as if there was anything wrong with that, and I thought it may help him practice empathy.

My requirements eliminated around 99.9% of the products on the shelves for 3- to 5-year olds. I’m sure Fisher-Price, Disney, Lego, etc., have some of the best focus group testing operations in the industry, but surely 3-year old boys don’t innately want toys so fundamentally different from 3-year old girls, or vice versa. I could barely believe what I was seeing in 2014.

Ultimately, I decided to compromise by buying my nephew seven small Playmobil build-a-figure packets. Four of them were “boys’” figures, and could be assembled to create male figures. These were sold in blue packaging. The other three were “girls’” figures, and were in pink packaging. Obviously.

Everything aimed at girls was in pink. Everything. The toys as well as their packaging. The girls’ toys sections are simply walls of pink shelves. Of pink princesses, pink pretend make-up sets, pink pretend cooking sets, or pink fashion design sets. “Boys’” Legos are multicolored. “Girls’” Legos were various shade of pink. Originally, Hasbro’s Easy-Bake Oven was green, yellow and orange. It turned gender-specific pink in 1993. The message was pretty clear: Every color other than pink is okay for boys. No color other than pink is okay for girls. And most disturbing of all are the aisles of infant dolls -- presumably so that your female toddler could get a jumpstart at training for motherhood.

Thus, buying a gift for my niece proved a lot more challenging. After my first sweep of the store, I decided to check on Amazon if there were any books or toys aimed at girls that encouraged science experiments, or encouraged them to become something like an astronaut. There weren’t any. I then checked the store for any children’s book with a female protagonist that wasn’t about being a princess or having a tea party. There weren’t any. However, they were all pink.

At the end, I settled on buying my niece two books. One was a story about anthropomorphized planes, and the other about anthropomorphized crayons. That’s right -- I decided that I would rather her aspire to be like a crayon rather than like how any of the so-called girls’ toys would brainwash her to be.

Perhaps I took this a little too seriously, but these are the types of things I find important. I do recognize, however, that these sentiments are not shared by many. For example, the childrens toy company Fat Brain Toys originally refrained from gender-specifying their products, but started to separate the toys by gender after customers overwhelmed them with requests to do so.

The long-term societal consequences of gendering childrens' toys has yet to be researched in depth, but what is clear is that play does affect childhood development, and how the products children use are marketed affect how others see children's gender, as well as how children see their own gender. It seems to me that taking gender out of toys would likely positively affect play habits. Research shows that toys typically identified as “feminine” were associated with promoting physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skills; whereas, toys identified as “masculine” were associated with excitement, violence, and competitiveness. Although the violent aspect of boys’ toys may be controversial, studies have shown the moderately masculine toys better develop children's physical, cognitive, academic, musical, and artistic skills. Moderately feminine toys typically encouraged more passive learning.

Greater gender equality in the childrens’ toy market is long past due. There is no reliable evidence showing that there are innate differences in how male and female children want to play, and limiting how children play based on their gender can only serve to reinforce gender inequality as the next generation grows up. I’m not necessarily saying that the entire toy baby doll industry needs to go away, but if it plans on sticking around, it shouldn’t be financially supported in entirety by our society’s irrational compulsion to force young girls to playact as mothers/nurturers. And it shouldn’t only be a “girls’ toy.” A good way to start this process would be by organizing toys by function, rather than gender.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The real consequences of the “second shift.”

I few weeks ago, my mother called me and she was clearly upset.  After a few minutes of questioning, she revealed that she’d just gotten off the phone with my father.  With my graduation quickly approaching, she had started organizing a party to celebrate.  Apparently, she had described her progress to my father and he did not respond well.  When she told him she planned to have the party at the house, he insisted that she start over and think of something else because the house was too messy.  Fortunately, we were ultimately able to resolve the issue without my mother having to start from scratch. 

But this isn’t the first time my parents have had this fight and it likely won’t be the last.  My parents have always fought over the cleanliness of their home.  To be fair, the dishes never seem to get done, the groceries don’t get put away, the mail sits in piles on the counter, and there is always laundry to do.  

But what it really boils down to is an issue of expectations.  Like many women in this country, my mother is expected to do it all and do it well.  And as a result, my mother essentially works two full time jobs.  This phenomenon has been referred to as the “second shift.”  Even though today’s women spend more time in the paid economy, they are still expected to complete most of the domestic responsibilities and chores. 

By now, it is well-documented that working women do more housework and child care than working men. This is what we call the "second shift": Men and women both go off to work, but it's women who come home to a whole other job.
According to the most recent American Time Use Survey, women spend nearly twice as much time engaging in household activities. 
On an average day, women spent more than twice as much time preparing food and drink, almost three times as much time doing interior cleaning, and four times as much time doing laundry as did men. Men spent more than twice as much time doing activities related to lawn, garden and houseplants, and doing interior and exterior maintenance, repairs, and decoration as did women.

More information and charts about household activities can be found here.

And with these expectations, comes criticism and backlash when they are not met.  Like many women, my mother is still held responsible for nearly all of the domestic work despite working full time.  And, like many women, she is criticized when some of these things fall through the cracks.   

The fact of the matter is that, even with men starting to pick up some of the slack, women are still pulling more weight around the house.  And as a result, women are experiencing the extra stress, frustration, embarrassment, and hurt-feelings that come with this expectation/criticism cycle.

So what can we do to help these women?  What can we do to try to put an end to the second shift?

First and foremost, we need to continue to recognize the double burden placed on women.  We need to acknowledge that more is asked of women in our society and women are expected to “rise to the call.”  Admitting that most women cannot “have it all” – at least not without help – will help reduce the pressure so many women feel to be perfect. 

But to really help women out of this double bind, we also need to challenge the underlying causes – differences in socialization and cultural expectations – and rise above the misconceptions that women are naturally inclined to household tasks or innately care more about them.  We need to recognize that “housework isn’t a debt wives owe to their husbands, nor one that husbands owe to wives.” 

For my part, I will continue to support my mother as much as I can.  I will let her vent.  I will commiserate with her.  I will help her when things start to slip through the cracks.  And I will use my position as the smart-mouthed, liberal, feminist daughter to challenge the expectations that are placed on her – one awkward conversation with my father at a time. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

How to land the job: intelligence, skill and makeup?

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a female colleague who was on her way to a job interview. She asked me, “Do you think my makeup looks okay? It’s not too much is it?” We went on to talk about how difficult it can be to find the right balance when it comes to makeup. Female interviewees want to wear makeup, because they think potential employers will view them as put together. Meanwhile, they don't want to wear too much makeup, because this could make the potential employer think they're an "incompetent diva."

A study found that wearing enough makeup (but not too much) increases people’s perceptions of a woman’s competence, likeability and trustworthiness. In fact, the study found that perceivers who view a female face with makeup make inferences about what it may signify about the user’s personality, intentions, or character.

But wearing makeup incorrectly can have detrimental effects. High-contrasting makeup made testers conclude that the woman was more “untrustworthy.” The study noted that people might get a poor impression if the woman wears the wrong color or texture that “isn’t enhancing...natural beauty.” There is also a general idea that if a woman is extremely pretty or too glamorous, then she must be dumb. Women have to be careful not to look too good.

Not only do women spend time and money on makeup (by the way, the average woman spends $15,000 on beauty products over her lifetime), but they must also be sure not to use too much or too little. If you are too glamorous, you’re untrustworthy, oh, and you're probably dumb. If you don't wear enough makeup then you very unprofessional and likely incompetent!

Magazines and newspapers today publish articles instructing women on the proper workplace makeup balance. One recent article was entitled “Must-Follow Beauty Rules for Getting Ahead at Work: Do you have CEO aspirations and 6-figure dreams? Discover the beauty tips to help you get there.” So there are certain beauty techniques a woman must follow in order to be a CEO. I knew I was missing something! The article described the proper makeup tips and stylings for many “types” of career women:
The Artsy Entrepreneurs: “Sexy and a bit undone…still be yourself, but an enhanced, even more empowered version of yourself…”
The Jet setting CEO: “Very feminine…"
The Low-Maintenance Professional: “When you’re in a position of authority, you can't have too much fun with your look…you don't want to send the wrong message to male clients…[a]t the same time, you can’t look 10 years behind.”
Sexy but a bit undone? Not too much fun, but not 10 years behind? I’m no makeup expert, but I don't understand what this advice means when I'm applying makeup.

The average employer or potential employer now wants women who wear just the right amount of makeup. And why shouldn't they? Requiring women to use makeup and other enhancement techniques was recognized as legally acceptable in the workplace. In 2006, the Ninth Circuit held that Harrah’s “Personal Best” policy requiring female employees (no similar requirements for male employees) to have “teased, curled or styled” hair, wear makeup (including lipstick) and nail polish was constitutional! The court found that there was a legitimate business justification for the casino’s policy, and therefore the policy did not impose an unequal burden on males and females. The legitimate business justification, however, has nothing to do with utility in completing job functions. Instead, it is entirely about fulfilling the female beauty standards perpetuated in society.

As a female employee, I usually choose to wear makeup to work. However, there are times when I choose not to. Sometimes my eyes become irritated when I wear makeup for long periods of time, and I’ll go without wearing it for a few days. Similarly, I know other women who wear contacts, and choose to give their eyes a break by wearing glasses and going without makeup. There are also women who simply choose not to wear makeup. My peers and I still dress in the appropriate business attire for the position and look presentable. Should we be punished because we don’t have makeup on? I guess the answer to that question depends on the employer’s policies. 

The explicit and implicit requirements for women to wear the right amount makeup in the workplace is part of the larger female beauty standard prevalent in our society. Women, even in their jobs, are expected to meet this standard on a daily basis. So much so that some women feel inadequate when they don't wear makeup. A study of 1,300 adult women found that 44% have negative feelings about themselves when they are not wearing makeup, including feeling self-conscious or unattractive.

Daniel Hamermeash, an economics professor at University of Texas, who wrote the book Beauty Pays, said that it makes sense that makeup makes women more likeable: “I’m an economist, so I say, why not? But I wish society didn't reward this. I think we’d be a fairer world if beauty were not rewarded, but it is.” For a discussion on different responses to employer makeup policies, see Making a living, makeup and a blurry line.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

I'll smile if I feel like it

I keep a pair of headphones in my backpack, in my purse, in my car… just about everywhere. While I do really enjoy music and podcasts, the headphones serve a different purpose than just providing me with entertainment. I always put them in when I’m walking around solely to avoid catcalls. It’s become easier to drown out the individuals and their heinous commentary, rather than hearing it and allowing it to put me in a bad mood. While I’ve been harassed on the streets more times than I can count, this particular line enrages me every time:

“Baby, why don’t you put a smile on that face? You’d be a lot prettier with a smile.”

Listen buddy. It’s Wednesday morning, I haven’t had coffee yet, and I’ve already been working for 3 hours. I’ll smile if I feel like it, okay? Not to mention, who are you to tell me when I should and should not smile? (Note: Cartoon-like steam is flowing from my ears by now. Sigh).

I hate these encounters but I know I’m not alone. In 2014, the organization Stop Street Harassment conducted a national survey, which found 65% of all women had experienced street harassment in their lifetime. The survey also found that 86% of women who experienced harassment said they had been harassed more than once and around half of these women were likely to experience such harassment by age 17. Additionally, the results exemplified that street harassment is not ubiquitous and disproportionately affects women, low-income individuals, LGBT people, and people of color.

These statistics terrify me. And seriously, what’s the point of catcalling anyway? As someone who has never engaged in catcalling, I actually do not know. While I’ve heard some say it’s a compliment (heavy sigh), most say that street harassment is about power and control, in addition to a manifestation of societal discrimination like sexism and homophobia. It’s no secret that street harassment has always been an issue individuals face and acknowledge – others often tell their own stories of being catcalled and relay various anecdotes relating to stranger sexual harassment, too.

In addition to these personal anecdotes, street harassment has recently become a huge focal point in the media and social campaigns. Organizations, like Hollaback, have been created to give individuals the power to fight street harassment. Hollaback has created an international community of individuals who are speaking out about their street harassment and others who are simultaneously supporting them. With Hollaback, individuals can share their stories with recent encounters of street harassment (and place them on a map) while others can click “I’ve Got Your Back” under each story to show their support. Other interesting campaigns are also taking place, such as the placement of street signs in New York City. More than fifty signs have been placed around the Big Apple and they read “NO Catcalling at Any Time” in a street sign-like manner. The campaign hopes to build awareness and create dialogues surrounding feminist issues, such as catcalling. Cue the applause!

My personal favorite project comes from an artist who has taken to street art. With her art series, she places portraits of women in public places with captions thatspeak directly to the offenders. She notes her project speaks to the issue of street harassment, which affects women worldwide, and puts women’s voices and faces to the issue in the exact place where they often feel uncomfortable. The best part about her art series? It is entitled “Stop Telling Women to Smile.” Seriously, please stop.

While people and organizations seem to be fighting the catcall, unfortunately not everyone seems to be getting it. And even though the media and various campaigns have been helpful in bringing greater awareness to this issue, it’s clear we’re still a long way from where we need to be. Women shouldn’t feel degraded and disrespected from simply walking down the street. And I shouldn’t have to wear headphones everywhere I go to avoid it.

To the man who whistled and called me sexy yesterday while I was riding my bike, did you really think I was going to turn around and come hang out with you? To the guy who yelled “Daaaamn, girl” out of his car window last week, what did that accomplish for you? To the men who tell me to put a smile on my face, do you really think that is actually going to put a smile on my face? To all these strangers, I say: My name is not baby, sexy, or any of the other adjectives you can come up with. I am not outside for your entertainment. And, PLEASE, stop telling me to smile.

Inclusivity in feminism

For several years, we have been witnessing men and women in the public eye denounce feminism, proclaim themselves feminists, or attempt to define what feminism means. See this previous post. It gets confusing for individuals who begin learning about gender equality through the media. The misconception that feminism must either be completely inclusive or preemptively exclude certain groups is especially difficult to untangle.

I am not sure when feminists were first attacked for not being inclusive, but the attacks have continued. The insistence that every viewpoint be included is contrary to the goal of equality. Men who feel entitled to women's bodies and women who support misogyny are not victims of feminist hostility. Shaming the movement for not incorporating their views is a perpetuation of the wrong interpretation of feminism's objectives, and it signals a backlash. Furthermore, it can often serve as a tactic to make feminists sound defensive. The common opening statement that feminists do not hate men seems to be necessary because some people are lead to believe that white male privilege can coexist with equality.

Along with absolute inclusion, the idea that certain groups are automatically excluded from feminism is misleading. The media continues to segregate important issues into narrow "women's interest" columns. As pleaded in this opinion piece, hastily putting sexual assault and equal pay in forums created for women is doing a disservice to the public. Feminism has become more inclusive, but it can require reshaping visions of the movement to overcome subtle repression. An additional divisive controversy involves transgenderism. Transgender individuals are not accepted by a small minority of cisgender women who have been labelled TERFs. TERF stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist," and can be a derogatory term. However one stands on transgenderism, I think arguments about women's experiences and identities do not preclude a tolerant larger feminist movement. Not everyone is required to agree on what privileges are borne by whom; working toward dismantling hate and discrimination allows earnest supporters a seat at the table. The details of each person's past should not stop anyone from working to eliminate the caste system that metes out privileges and oppressions according to gender.

Currently, the tricky area when drawing feminism's boundaries is choice feminism. While supporting women's rights to make choices, must we necessarily protect all choices? Some actions are undoubtedly harmful to others' lives. In contrast, some choices (such as abandoning the gender binary in certain settings) seem benign or unduly subject to harsh criticism. The preceding article link laments: "So say it with me: Not everything a feminist does is a feminist act." As politically conservative women and individualists claim the feminist umbrella, should we clarify what feminism endorses? In a reach to gather support, proclaiming almost everyone a feminist makes articles like this sound prematurely hopeful. But when equal pay needs to be enforced, or we must discuss prostitution or pornography, I doubt it will be easy to announce agreement. So, what do you think? Are certain choices or groups inherently excluded from feminism? Is today's feminism too inclusive? Anita Sarkeesian's recorded speech at the All About Women 2015 conference is below for additional consideration of this topic.

Women are twice as likely to retire in poverty

Women receive more college degrees than men, and comprise nearly half of the United States workforce. More than two-thirds of families in the U.S. depend all or in part on a mother’s income. But the wage gap remains, and its effects are far reaching. Women in the U.S. make only 78 cents for every dollar that their male counterparts make. Over a lifetime of working and trying to plan for retirement, this loss in potential wages adds up.

The long-term effect of this wage gap is staggering. U.S. women are almost twice as likely as U.S. men to retire in poverty. While retired men live, on average, on $27,000 per year, retired women live on about $16,000 per year, about $11,000 dollars less than their male counterparts.

So, why the retirement discrepancy? First and foremost, the gender wage gap. When women aren’t making as much money as their male counterparts, they aren’t able to save as much. This affects both savings and social security benefits for women, since these benefits are based on overall earnings.  Less income also means less ability to contribute to a 401(k) or Individual Retirement Account (IRA).

Closing the gender pay gap would increase the wages of 59% of women. In attempts to remedy this problem, Senator Barbara Mikulski proposed The Paycheck Fairness Act which would make it illegal for an employer to pay a man and a woman performing the same job different wages. This practical bill aimed at fighting sexism passed the House of Representatives in 2009, but was blocked by Republican filibuster in the Senate in 2014.

A second major reason that women have less for retirement is that on average women work 12 fewer years than men. This disparity arises primarily because of caregiving. Women are more likely than men to take time off work to take care of their children, sick spouse, or aging parent. In fact, two-thirds of caregivers are women.

When Social Security benefits are based on the top 35 years of earnings, if a woman worked less then 35 years, the years of no earnings (for example, while caregiving) count as part of the basis for social security benefits. These years recognize no earnings for women who performed caregiving functions, thus bringing down a woman’s lifetime average (and her overall social security benefits). In fact, estimates from a Society of Actuaries study suggest that the wealth of a woman can fall by $303,800 when she takes on caretaking responsibilities during her lifetime.

One proposed solution is the issuance of a “Caregiver Credit.” The Caregiver Credit could be given to workers who have reduced work for caregiving reasons. This would go toward the individual's Social Security benefits, so they wouldn't be punished in the years that they are caregiving. Although a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives, it hasn't moved forward.

While women have made strides in the workplace toward gender equality, there is still much to be done. The above statics expose the enormity of the problem that still remains. Improving wages for women seems to be the best starting point, and is especially important since women who reach age 65 are projected to live 2.5 years longer than men of the same age. With a 14% longer retirement for women, savings and benefits are vital for women. For a discussion on the economic benefits of closing the gender wage gap, read this post.