Friday, January 30, 2015

Why women continue to be underrepresented in STEM

Getting more women in America to pursue an education and career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) remains challenging, despite years of various efforts aimed at boosting the number of women in these fields. With the White House pointing out that women earn 33 percent more in STEM than in non-STEM positions, and have a smaller wage gap relative to men in STEM jobs, one would expect a recruitment and retention problem to be nonexistent. Why are women still balking at becoming scientists and engineers?

On the "Women in STEM" page of the Office of Science and Technology Policy's website, a quote by President Obama floats above a photo of molecular biologist Lydia Villa-Komaroff. The quote states:
One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent…not being encouraged the way they need to.
But, wait. Another quote adjacent to Villa-Komaroff's photo mentions the prejudice and discouragement she overcame. Which is the main issue: lack of interest or gender discrimination? More importantly, why have years of initiatives and campaigns failed to ameliorate the problem?

One possible reason, apart from two possiblities already mentioned, and thus unaffected by established initiatives, is that social conditioning to be perfect makes women abandon STEM courses in college. Women tend to leave tougher-graded, lucrative majors when they receive bad grades, while men do not. Also, many men seem to think women get discouraged too easily upon entering the workforce. However, their advice to women often reinforces gender roles and stereotypes, belittles women's technical skills, and ignores reports of sexism.

Motivational news articles like this one seek to counter discouragement and lack of interest below the college level, pushing young women to follow through. However, interviewers often gloss over the "prove yourself" trials and teasing by male classmates. Women are often vulnerable to discouragement precisely because of implicit biases. Certain STEM fields are associated with natural brilliance, which is erroneously thought to be a trait women cannot possess. Many people are socialized to believe that women succeed based on hard work, and that men often succeed based on an additional in-born intellectual talent. It becomes clear that perceived lack of interest and discouragement are often the product of society's refusal to reject outdated, sexist beliefs. An earlier post on this blog shares that perspective as well.

Beyond any self-discouragement steering women away from STEM programs or jobs, reports of sexism show that aggressive discrimination exists in these fields. No television ad campaign, college career counseling, or increase in salary can persuade one to stay in such a toxic culture. A recent survey of 557 female STEM researchers revealed that 93% of the white respondents experienced gender bias. Unsurprisingly, it was worse for women of color, with the entire 100% saying they reported experiencing it. Furthermore, racial stereotyping seems to be prevalent. Latinas are regularly mistaken for janitors and called "crazy." Black women are expected to be assertive, but not "angry." Asian women get push-back if they do not act traditionally feminine. Finally, one-third of the surveyed women had perceived being sexually harassed at work.

When many men have difficulty believing gender bias exists in STEM, and racial stereotypes seem slow to die, initiatives such as the White House's will not meet their goals. Thrusting the burden onto women, yet again, to overcome all obstacles with tenacity is a myopic and losing strategy. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Femvertising: feminism as a marketing tool

To gain an edge on competitors, companies feel pressure to stand for something more than the product they are selling. In the past decade, companies have started “femvertising,” seeking to speak to women and feminists through their advertisements. This trend makes sense considering that women account for 85% of purchasing in the United States.

Dove was one of the earliest companies to join the femvertising movement, with its real beauty campaign in 2004. The campaign seeks to widen the definition of beauty beyond the unattainable definition generally put forward in the media. I remember when I first saw these Dove commercials as a 14-year-old, I thought “wow, this is different.” Since then, the company has launched subsequent campaigns aimed at rethinking portrayals of beauty in advertisements.

Observed alone, these ads seem to step in the right direction, celebrating beauty of all forms rather than only the stereotypical portrayals otherwise found in the media. However, the company that owns Dove, Unilever, also owns Axe—the company that sells toiletry products to men, primarily using the hypersexuality of women as a means of selling its products.

Axe commercials generally show scantily clad women with stereotypical “perfect” bodies fawning over men who use Axe shower gel. Some commercials end with the slogan “The cleaner you are. The dirtier you get.” The different messages the Dove and Axe commercials send is a harsh reminder that companies are in the business of selling products, and they do so by capitalizing on trends that interest buyers.

When questioned regarding the hypocrisy between the advertisements for the two products, a spokeswoman for Dove said that each brand “is tailored to reflect the unique interests and needs of its audience." Essentially then, Dove markets female empowerment to women because only women are interested in empowering women. Axe is not marketing female empowerment to teenage boys and men, because the company believes they are not interested in it. Although the idea behind the real beauty campaign is a good one, perpetuating the stereotype that men are not interested in the empowerment of women—or giving up on getting them interested in it—seems to run counter to the intent of the feminist movement.

Should we be asking more from companies that promote feminism in their advertising? I believe we should. By running the real beauty campaign and simultaneously airing Axe commercials, Unilever turns the ideas of feminism and female empowerment into mere commodities, just as it turns the hypersexualization of women into a commodity. Instead of merely putting forward ideas for the sake of selling a product, companies that promote female empowerment in their advertisements should practice what they preach.

Ultimately, an increase in femvertising is a welcome and positive change. If nothing more, it can show girls that traditional female stereotypes are bogus and that it's okay to be a career driven woman or to have hips. And, studies show that women are responding to these advertisements. In a survey this year by SheKnows, 52% of women said they have purchased a product because they liked the way that the company portrayed strong women in its advertisements.

While I celebrate the increase in female empowerment in advertising, further changes are necessary in advertising and more broadly, all media. I hope for a day when advertisements featuring strong females becomes commonplace, when it is no longer noteworthy that such commercials exist. Not only advertisements directed at women, but directed at everyone—including men.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Is the freezer really women’s liberator? Part I: The hype: The freezer can keep our dreams alive. Right?

I was excited when my phone rang. My college friend Michelle always cheers me up. In my mind, this woman is living a life worthy of envy. She landed her dream job as an investment banker at one of the world’s most prestigious firms. She owns an impeccably decorated condo in New York, a closet full of designer clothes, shoes and handbags, drives a fancy German sports car, and takes regular vacations to exotic locations. She’s an amazing cook, runs marathons, volunteers for two different charities, and has a very active social life. She is brilliant, ambitious, vibrant, gregarious, and incredibly kind. She is the type of human being that I would want my own daughter to emulate. My hypothetical daughter, that is. And that brings me to the subject of Michelle’s call:
Michelle: Should I go to an egg-freezing party?
Heather: Michelle! You can’t be serious?
Michelle: My good friend Veronica just froze her eggs and she said it wasn’t that bad. I have been so focused on my career that I let my biological clock expire. I am 35 and single; I am running out of options! You must be thinking about this too?
She’s right. I think about it a lot. I’m not obsessive, yet, but it is a major concern. Women’s fertility window is limited. We are born with all the eggs we’ll ever have. We are most fertile in our early-to- mid- twenties, then our chances of getting pregnant drop dramatically in our early thirties, and by the time we reach forty our fertility rate is just 3%.

So, Michelle’s story is all too common. It’s a story I share. As we all have tried to take advantage of the opportunities to attend college and have a career that our grandparents, and maybe even our own parents, didn’t have, we are encountering a problem. As we work hard to make a name for ourselves in the workplace, our biological clocks are not waiting for us. Thus, an advancement in science like egg freezing is big news.

Egg freezing has been widely covered in the media. In March 2013 Glamour magazine ran a story  titled “Now That Everyone’s Freezing Their Eggs…Should You? The author described how with celebrities like Kim Kardashian undergoing egg-freezing, she decided it was time to get on board. Similarly, in June 2013 Cosmopolitan headlined an article asking “Freezing Your Eggs—Is This What We’re all doing Now?” The piece was written by Sarah Elizabeth Richards, an outspoken advocate for egg freezing whose op-eds urging women to freeze their eggs have run in the The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Richards has detailed how between the ages of 36-38 she spent $50,000 of her savings to freeze 70 eggs in the hope that they will help her have a family once she is ready. 

An entire industry has arisen around the practice. EggBanxx formed in February 2014, claiming to be “the first national network of doctors who offer egg freezing for fertility preservation and makes egg freezing affordable with easy, convenient financing.” Eggbaxx is the company that is hosting the egg-freezing cocktail party by friend Michelle was invited to. EggBanxx has been featured in Time, Bloomberg, The Huffington Post, and even the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.

Another popular website, Eggsurance, was founded by Brigitte Adams after she attempted to freeze her eggs at age 38 and was frustrated about the lack of information. Eggsurance claims to offer “no nonsense egg freezing information and community in one place” and it too has received its fair share of press attention.

By and large the narrative about egg freezing has been similar and positive: freeze your eggs in order to extend your biological clock, give yourself peace of mind, and free your career. Sarah Richards called egg freezing “the best investment [she] ever made.” I have to admit, egg freezing could be a game changer. As Richards put it,
Amid all the talk about women ‘leaning in’ and ‘having it all,’ the conversation has left out perhaps the most powerful gender equalizer of all—the ability to control when we have children.
For all our discussion about gender equality in the workplace, the reality is that women’s fertility declines with age and thus women have to consider child-bearing during their peak career building years. Thus, on the one hand, allowing women to freeze their biological clock could lead to real gender equality in the workplace by allowing women to focus solely on their career building in their twenties and thirties, with eggs in the freezer for when their career is established, their income is sufficient, and they have found a mate. On the other hand, egg freezing encourages women to put their careers above childbearing when the science doesn’t support that there will be a high likelihood of success with such a process. 

The truth is that egg freezing technology is relatively new and is not endorsed for women who wish to delay their fertility for social or career reasons because the long terms effects and success are unknown. In Part II of this series I will explore the science, cost and statistics behind egg freezing to help us understand whether egg freezing is really the great equalizer it appears to be. As I told my friend Michelle, I see the allure, and I completely understand why a single woman in her mid-thirties might consider it, but the jury is still out on whether it’s safe and effective in the long run.

Monday, January 26, 2015

State of the union: the (hidden) cost of childcare in 2015


In President Obama’s State of the Union address, he highlighted several issues related to gender equality, including maternity leave, equal pay, and affordable childcare. In focusing on affordable child care, he referred to it as a “must-have,” and specifically discussed giving middle- and low-income families a tax cut of up to $3,000 per child, per year. Given some of the ways in which the lack of affordable childcare adversely affects women and their access to the job market, the concrete policy President Obama presented was rather encouraging.

From 1990 to today, the rising and unaffordable cost of childcare has reduced from 42% to 32% the number of US families able to pay for childcare. Meanwhile, the annual cost of childcare can range from $5,496 to $16,459 for an infant, and $4,515 to $12,320 for a 4-year-old. While for upper- and middle-class women, the rhetoric surrounding childcare is on
e of choice – i.e. choosing between staying at home to care for their kids or sending them to high-priced childcare – for single and low-income mothers, there is no such choice.

Many women in single- and low-income households cannot afford to stay at home to care for their children. And when more than 40 percent of mothers are unmarried or split from their partner before the child is 5 years old, affordable childcare is even more clearly a necessity. Unfortunately, equality feminist rhetoric of workplace empowerment, choice, and equal opportunity only marginalizes those most in need of childcare – low-income families who cannot afford childcare and need to have one spouse stay at home. In the case of childcare, this strand of feminism represents only a fraction of privileged women's position.

In her piece in California Magazine, Tamara Straus quotes Arlie Hochschild’s assertion that American capitalism is in part to blame for neglecting childcare as a prominent social and gender equality issue—by embracing empowerment, capitalism has sidetracked caregiving. As a result, childcare becomes a hand-me-down issue, from men to women, and from high-income women to low-income women. Straus blames the lack of affordable childcare as a reason the feminist movement is dwindling:
We don’t have an affordable, taxpayer-subsidized system of infant-to-12 child care that levels the playing field for all women, their partners, and their children. What we have is elite women (and men) blathering on about choice, and billionaire executives passing themselves off as role models for working women, while refusing to acknowledge, let alone celebrate the women who help raise their children and manage their homes.
At the end of the day, choice rhetoric, which seems to be touted by equality feminists, only speaks to the experiences of privileged working women and neglects the experiences of low-income women. So in turn, the materialization of President Obama's remarks on affordable childcare presents great potential in leveling the playing field for low-income women, and perhaps even revitalizing the feminist movement.

Are you a feminist?: A definitional problem with feminism (Part I)

"Are you a feminist?" has become one of my least favorite questions - worse than "have you checked your grades yet?" or "what are your plans after graduation?," which for a 3L in her final semester of law school is saying something.

To be fair, the question has always seemed a bit strange to me. When I was growing up, feminism was a given in my family. I was surrounded by women who defied stereotypes and embodied the equality and empowerment norms that I associate with feminism - my mother excelled in the banking industry, my grandmother was an ordained minister, and two of my aunts owned their own businesses. With these women as my examples, I grew up believing that I could achieve anything I set my mind to. Because feminism seemed so normal to me, it was (and sometimes still is) hard for me to believe that some people don’t consider themselves feminists.

So when this question started our first class session, I wasn’t entirely pleased. Merely asking the question seems to include an implicit challenge to feminism’s continued existence and relevance in our society. As I listened to my classmates' answers, I thought about why we even have to ask that question, especially on the first day of a class like Feminist Legal Theory. It’s 2015 after all? Shouldn’t it be obvious? What value could the answer possibly have?

It seemed so obvious to me: Of course we would all consider ourselves feminists! There is still so much to be done to empower women and to achieve equality between the genders. Despite it being 2015, despite women having achieved so much in even in just the last 50 years, we have not yet achieved equality. From an empirical perspective, women still struggle to achieve parity. The most recent Global Gender Gap Report suggests that we won’t achieve gender parity in the workplace for another 81 years. While we have achieved near parity in educational attainment and health and survival rates, economic and political participation continue to lag behind.  But even where we have significantly reduced or even closed the gender gap, say in economic participation or education in the US, women continue to face barriers to social and legal equality.

And then it hit me…the question may seem strange and even asinine given the facts, but the answer still matters to our discussion of feminism and Feminist Legal Theory. The question just opens the door – it seems to me that it’s the answer and its justification, the “because…” statement that follows the answer, that we really care about.

Our exercise in the classroom helped me conceptualize this idea, but it has become even clearer to me as we consider the many, often competing, strains of feminism. Like the differing theories we have begun to study, there were similarities and common elements to our reasoning, but we each had our own ultimate version of feminism (if we were even willing to call it that at the time).

Our distinct answers and justifications made clear to me that feminism has a kind of self-definitional problem – there are so many strands, so many theories from which individuals can pick and choose characteristics. We can all be feminists, but each have a different conception of what that means.

And maybe that’s why that frustrating question still matters, at least in our academic setting. Perhaps we have to first acknowledge and seek to understand each other’s conceptions of feminism in order to have a meaningful discussion and get to the ultimate issue of achieving equality.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Upper versus working class women

So far this semester, I have observed a recurring theme of discussion in our Feminist Legal Theory classes: the ostensible divide between upper and working class women. I have thought about this concept prior to taking this course, and I have ultimately decided that the divide between upper and working class women is real. Recognition of this divide has to underpin one’s analysis of gender inequality and the struggle for gender equality. In other words, the division should be analyzed and understood for the sake of constructing effective means of attaining complete gender equality.

First of all, what makes the divide between these poles of a socioeconomic bifurcation real? In other words, is this ostensible division simply a false dichotomy as it relates to the struggle for gender equality? I do not think so. This is not a spurious division; it is material, and unfortunately those who concern themselves with eliminating the oppression of women too often ignore it. Point blank, the struggles and immediate interests of upper class women are completely different—and even, at critical times, adversative—from those of working class and impoverished women. In conceptualizing the oppression of colored peoples, I employ the same analysis as I do in this context. Indeed, this is not an unprecedented outlook. During the Civil Rights Era, leading figures often spoke and rallied in terms of the division between the “black bourgeoisie” and the vast majority of black people, the poor.

Upper class women face struggles and seek to fulfill interests that lower class women do not share. For example, upper class women as such strive, and rightfully so, for positions of executive power. Or they endeavor to find means of maintaining a family without compromising their endeavor for financial success. What is more, and perhaps most importantly, upper class women seek economic parity with their male counterparts. In attaining these goals, upper class women can utilize the various organs of the political and legal establishment.

Impoverished, working class women face an entirely different beast. Their struggles stem not only from their exploitation as women, but also from their exploitation as working class individuals. They are oppressed twofold, much like a black worker is oppressed once because he is a worker and twice because he is black. To drive the point home, a black, working class woman is oppressed threefold: once as a worker, twice because she is black, and thrice because she is a woman. Tragically, working class women have no recourse available through the political and legal establishment.

In spite of this division, it may appear that working class women and upper class women can fulfill their separate interests without interfering with each other’s interests. But, nothing could be further from the truth. Ultimately, the cause of working class women’s oppression is enforced by a political and legal system that inherently and necessarily represents the interests of propertied individuals at the expense of the property-less. It follows that for impoverished, working class women to liberate themselves, they must aim their guns, so to speak, at that very state of affairs. However, it is upon this very state of affairs that upper class women base their existence as such. Upper class women seek to better themselves within the confines of this social and economic paradigm. As soon as working class and impoverished women begin to encroach upon this lopsided organization of power, upper class women stand in belligerent opposition. This is where the material division comes into play. Oprah, BeyoncĂ©, Martha Stewart, and Hillary Clinton are concerned with the plight of the majority of women only insofar as this majority’s plight does not threaten their existence as such. In effect, that is no concern at all. Similarly, Jay-Z, Chris Rock, Bill Cosby, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, and practically every member of the National Basketball Association do not care about the struggles of the scrounging and soiled street-corner, Sacramento black man attired in sagging and decades-old FUBU and Sean John. Chris Rock’s famous standup routine all too vividly captures this attitude, and it is analogous to the gender question I have broached.

Through the aforementioned, I hope one can see why the concept of “trickle-down economics” applied to the gender question is absurd. I believe there is no point in me explaining why the very concept of “trickle-down economics” is laughable, considering the contemporary economic depression birthed after decades of that sort of rhetoric. But, do not get me wrong. If upper class women desire to attain positions of unrivaled executive power, more power to them. However, the moment impoverished women, with no stake in that matter become opportunistically utilized in attaining those goals, my conscience will not allow me provide support in the matter.

As we spoke of this issue in class, and as I wrote this post, I thought of a little-known Langston Hughes poem, Madam and Her Madam. I feel that in artistic terms, it captures the essence of my contentions:

I worked for a woman,
She wasn't mean--

But she had a twelve-room

House to clean.


Had to get breakfast,

Dinner, and supper, too--

Then take care of her children

When I got through.



Wash, iron, and scrub,

Walk the dog around--

It was too much,

Nearly broke me down.



I said, Madam,

Can it be

You trying to make a

Pack-horse out of me?



She opened her mouth.

She cried, Oh, no!

You know, Alberta,

I love you so!



I said, Madam,

That may be true--

But I'll be dogged
If I love you!