Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Quick Links

It occurs to me that I am leaving this weekend to visit my parents and I have completely forgotten to make any arrangements for the cats. Frantic phone calls to pet-sitting services will now ensue, right after I clean out the ol' news reader.

* Larry Summers (remember him?) gets holla-backed in this article on women in science that does what Summers should have done before opening his mouth, but didn't: Asks actual women in science what they think the problem is:

“The reality is there are barriers that women face,” said Kathleen S. Matthews, the dean of natural sciences at Rice, who spoke at the meeting’s opening dinner. “There are circles and communities of engagement where women are by and large not included.”

Organizers of these events dismiss the idea voiced in 2005 by Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard, that women over all are handicapped as scientists because as a group they are somehow innately deficient in mathematics. The organizers point to ample evidence that any performance gap between men and women is changeable and is shrinking to the vanishing point.

Instead, they talk about what they have to know and do to get ahead. They talk about unspoken, even unconscious sexism that means they must be better than men to be thought as good — that they must, as one Rice participant put it, literally and figuratively wear a suit and heels, while men can relax in jeans.

Refreshingly, no mention of little girls preferring Barbies to dump trucks is made.

* "Holiday Stress Pushes Women to Comfort Eating:" Isn't there some article like this every December? More than one usually, too. I'm 37 and I know I have been reading variants of this article for at least 20 years. They start in November in the rag mags with titles like, "Get fit NOW to avoid extra holiday pounds!" and continue into January with "Eight simple exercises to trim away holiday fat" and the like. Not that women ever get a break from hearing about their gross bodies, of course, because come March it's time to whip us into shape for swimsuit season, and as the summer progresses we're continually reminded that it's "never too late" to drop a size or two, and before you know it it's November again and, ladies! Watch out for those holiday pounds!

You know, I am almost tempted not to read this article at all, because I am pretty certain that no one mentioned therein is going to suggest having men handle more of the holiday chores, or simply opting out of the excesses of holiday planning, or anything that might be effective or make sense. I told you, I've been reading this same article for years. Well, let's see what we've got anyhow:

Even in families where fathers play a bigger role in parenting, child caring and household work, "women tend to often still do more of the planning, do more of the nurturing, do more of the social and family organization" for the holidays, said Gordetsky, an assistant professor at the Tufts-New England Medical Center's Comprehensive Family Evaluation Center.

. . .

Women have to take care of themselves if they are to be able to take care of others, Gordetsky said.

Among the healthier methods experts recommend to cope with the holiday stress are opting for less elaborate festivities and saying no to that serving of delicious roast beef, lasagna, chocolate or chilled glass of white wine.

Yeah, that's about how I called it. Options remaining unexplored, because they're not as much fun to prescribe to women as that old standby, "Deprive yourselves:"

1. Not really giving a shit and rolling with the seasonal weight fluctuation. Who wrote about this recently? Oh, right: Hugo Schwyzer. If you ask me, Hugo's got the right idea. But that wouldn't make much of an article, would it? "Women: Don't sweat the extra pounds; you can take 'em off later." BO-ring!

2. Not feeling obligated to keep up with the Joneses: One woman interviewed admits that she cares more about decorating and holiday preparations than her husband does, so despite her 70-hour-a-week job, she ends up doing the bulk of it. These articles always have to find at least one woman like this so that the fellas can say, "See? You do this to yourselves!" Ignored in this line of thinking: The pressure on women from the advertising, retailing, and entertainment industries to do it up right.

3. Encouraging men to pitch in: So you like getting ready for the holidays more than he does? Ask yourself: What activities does he like more than you do, that you nonetheless participate in with him equally? A partnership includes give and take. If you've done any giving this year, it's time to take.

* "Breast Cancer News Brings a Range of Reactions:" Mine, I think, would be along the lines of "take this Prempro and shove it," but I understand that for some women menopause is a violently rocky ride. Still, see if you can spot the invisible hand at work in this one. Does a doctor urge Prempro on a patient before she's even entered menopause? Does another doctor provide free samples to a patient who's already stated she does not want hormone replacement? Are either of these doctors women? I'm not telling! You'll have to read it yourself!

* "Policy on Morning-After Pill Upsets Chile:" Aw, poor Chile! Saying anything more about this will only raise my blood pressure. Next!

* I see I have saved my favorite for last: "Chick Lit, the Sequel: Yummy Mummy."

Hold on, I gotta write a letter real quick.

Dear The New York Times:

Please have the author of that headline shot.



Now where were we? Right: Same place we always were, with women being defined by motherhood. Turns out you're only playing grown-up if you don't have kids:

Now that even an avatar of youth [Bridget Jones] has reached this milestone of adulthood, it raises the question whether chick lit, the genre that Bridget’s creator, Helen Fielding, all but invented, will finally grow up.

The answer appears to be yes. In 2006, new books by a host of writers associated with chick lit — Laura Zigman, Jane Green, Emily Giffin and Sue Margolis, among others — featured heroines with babies, former 20-something singles who had settled down with Mr. Right and swapped their stilettos for Bugaboo strollers. Similar tales are scheduled to appear in 2007, including “Shopaholic and Baby” by Sophie Kinsella, “Momzillas” by Jill Kargman and “The Infidelity Pact” by Carrie Karasyov.

Although many female authors aren’t happy about it, the term “mom lit” is used in book reviews and on blogs to describe fiction in which the experience of motherhood, perceived with something of the same rueful spirit with which Bridget and her sisters regarded men, is the central drama.

I have to be honest: I have never read chick-lit. No, wait! I read one--I picked up this in the airport one day. But I don't think books you buy in airports should count. Desperate times call for desperate reading choices, you know?

Anyway, if you want to know my number-one thing I hate about the child-having/child-free debates that occur online, it's this: The assumption that women who are without children are less than adult, frozen in immaturity. And that assumption goes so deep you can even get it from other feminists. Here's one recent example from a discussion at Feministe. The commenter, Kate, is responding to a child-free woman who tried to explain the gulf that broke open between herself and her friends who became parents:

If you have no dramatic turning point in your life over the span of 10 years, then I’d say you need to get out and take some more risks. Also, just it might be healthy to just accept the fact that people grow apart as they grow older. Like momma told you every year on the first day of school, you’ll make new friends.

I’m sure you’ll find a whole posse of like minded anti-change agents hanging at the local pub, holding onto the illusion that they are entitled to live lives of unending fun and carefreeness, otherwise known as immaturity and irresponsibility.

Just to warn you though, as one gets older, substances usually are required to retain the illusion. Alcohol is widely popular and is famous for its properties of keeping people stuck in early adulthood for the rest of their lives.

Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, about this repulsive remark reminds me of the attitudes towards women expressed by several members a certain online women's group with which I clashed recently. And it's happening not there, but at a feminist blog.

So what have we learned? We've learned that if you don't have children and you have difficulty adjusting to the lifestyle changes of your newly be-childrened friends, you've earned yourself a lecture on growth.

And now to figure out what I'm gonna do with the damn cats. (The boyfriend's already up visiting his family, so just dumping them on him isn't an option.) Wish me luck.


Anonymous said...

There's more going on than just the baby=maturity thing. There's lots of pressure to procreate, and I think this is just one goblin out of a whole dark army of arm twisters. I'm going to pretend this issue is in a vacuum anyway.

I think that:

1. Getting married causes many people to mature.
2. Having a child causes many people to mature.
3. Many people do not find maturity any other way and have trouble imagining finding maturity any other way.
4. They might have a point.

Some folks find maturity through some "dramatic turning point" other than marriage and babies, but I wouldn't be surprised if they're in the minority. Marriage and babies is the maturation agent available to pretty much everyone, and lots of people can relate to it. Some people might find maturity without a "dramatic turning point," but I'd describe that as outside my experience. Some might say that maturity itself is outside my experience, and you'd hardly have trouble believing that about an anonymous commenter, but bear with me. I'm not really clear on where Teh Maturity comes from, but the "dramatic turning point" theory sounds plausible to me. If that's not really the case, then maybe I am not as mature as I think (and I'd hardly be alone in that boat). That people assume that having one's own family is the only way to get the maturity one so desperately needs strikes me as just one level down from my own assumption that outside forces are necessary. Until somebody sets us straight (any psychologists in the room?), I figure we're entitled to our opinions.

Whether maturity really is something we need or really does make one a better person is a topic I'm not touching. Regardless, that assumption is also at work here: old people who are not adults are inferior.

What irks me about the "you must have a child or you are a child" assertion is less the assertion itself (after all, I was recently called a...let me see if I get this right..."cock smooch") and more the way it's applied. I think that finger gets wagged at women a lot more than men. (It occurs to me as I write this that maybe that was your point. If so, excuse my density.) There's something wrong with me if I'm gray but not grown? Whatever. Call me a child if you like. Sticks and stones. But the chicks are expected to grow up, and the boys will be boys? Too many standards. I do not approve. I don't want my son and daughter to live with those attitudes around them. After all, they're only children.

Sorry about the long comment. Good luck with the cats.

John said...

"Instead, they talk about what they have to know and do to get ahead. They talk about unspoken, even unconscious sexism that means they must be better than men to be thought as good — that they must, as one Rice participant put it, literally and figuratively wear a suit and heels, while men can relax in jeans."

Sorry, Ilyka, but I have to call bullshit on this one. Now, women who want to climb the ladder to dean (meaning that in effect they no longer do science), they certainly have to put on the skirt and heels. Because they are basically business people without money. But when you are mixing up auqa regia to clean your viscometer, you don’t wear nice clothes, and if you do you are looked at as a non-team player who doesn’t want to get your hands dirty.

What we are likely seeing is the effect of the sputnik fallout during the height of the Baby Boomers’ education. Tons of Boomers went into science, and, like all the other Boomers in other fields, they have sat on their arses and blocked the way for everyone else. At the time, more men than women went into science, so among the old guard tenured class, males predominate.

Among the younger orders, I don’t see much evidence of sexism, in fact the opposite, because geeks will welcome female presence in the lab. Certainly among my generation, and even the one before it (I speak of scientific generations in 10 year blocks, about the time it takes to get BSc + Ph.D.), I saw little to no evidence of sexism, except for the kind that keeps a low performing woman on the faculty just to keep up appearances - which, now that I think of it is nastier than blocking someone’s way, but is not the kind of sexism that the Rice dean is talking about. And that was perpetuated by the University administration, not the Chemistry Department.

That is not to say that I saw no sexism - there was one guy who used to buy Playboy along with the scientific journals back in the 1970s. Public mores had changed so that he didn’t do that any more, but you can’t tell me that his fundamental pigishness didn’t come through subconsciously. However, he had more than his fair share of female Ph.D. graduates – most of them mediocre, though. I think talented females caught his vibe and left the group. In any case, he was one guy out of 40 in the department. My wife was in his lab briefly, and one of his lab directors was biased, not so much against women, as against Asians, which is the real reason why my wife left that lab. So pockets of this stuff do exist, but it is not as endemic as that conference makes it sound.

The head of the Chemistry Division of the NSF when I was in grad school was female. She was well-respected by my advisor, who invited her to speak several times. I’ve met her socially as well, since I’ve been in Industry. When she gives talks, she dresses as nice, but no nicer, than males giving talks. When people talk about square wave voltammetry, it’s not like they say “well, she was an average scientist who got lucky” – she’s one of the leading lights of chemistry. She didn’t have to be twice as good to be seen as equal, she was twice as good and she got the rewards commensurate with being twice as good. People recognize her accomplishments for what they are (And aren’t – she didn’t get a Nobel, either, but I’d say the royalties form her patents more than make up for that. SWV was not Nobel-worthy. But it did revolutionize Bio-Electrochemistry). And rather than coasting in the decade or so left after her big contributions were made (as most scientists do), she got into the NSF, and has done a wonderful (and thankless) job there.

An N of 1, as I am sure people will point out, but an N that really refutes some of the statements made in that article, especially as Osteryoung is a Boomer who really did have to fight institutionalized sexism in the 1970s.

As more and more females enter technical fields, this stuff will decrease, what you have to look at is not the point estimate of the trajectory, or even the first derivative, it’s the second derivative that is what’s important here.

I know several (really good) female scientists who looked at conferences like the one described (even back in the early 90s) and sniffed “only inferior scientists have time to waste on crap like that”. That’s a little bit harsh given that the social pressure created by groups like that keep the pigs like the one I described in their places, so that the good female scientists are not hit by a resurgence of sexism, but you can also see the self-selecting sample argument, too.

gennimcmahon said...

I suspect that I would find myself facing an "increasing gulf" if a friend became a Hari Krishna, too. I suggest this to point out that any relationship is strained when one member chooses a path very different from that of the other. In a sense, the ability to continue a friendship despite such events is the true test. That said, I too resent this idea that having children makes women complete, or mature, or better when compared to their incomplete, drooling, childless counterparts. If that were true, then we would likely also notice a marked increase in the maturity and social responsibility of, say, cats who have had kittens in comparison to those who have not. Post reproduction, your cat might gravely announce, "I used to chase birds, but now I have had kittens, it's just too dangerous."

Reproduction is a function of biology. Many people, in choosing to reproduce, choose to also take on certain responsibilities, the excercise of which we deem "maturity." As in, "I can't blow the rent money on cocaine, because I have kids." However, this set of choices is not automatic. I think we see evidence every day suggesting that there are some very selfish, immature folks out there who have gone ahead and reproduced without changing a single habit. Without experiencing any personal growth or increased sense of responsibility. If the theory were true that women who have children are all automatically mature, I suspect there would be a lot of social workers, case managers, emergency room personnel and foster parents looking for work.

ScottM said...

Good luck with the cats.

Your letter to the NYT headline writer is right on.

While I found Kate's lecture annoying (and I suspect context made it worse), her core idea seems reasonable. If you have no dramatic turning point in your life over the span of 10 years, then I’d say you need to get out and take some more risks.

I'd just include a whole lot more things in dramatic turning point-- getting a job, a big promotion, choosing a new field, etc. I still don't agree with it (stability is underrated), but it's a defensible point.

Greta said...

I think as we change in our lives, we tend to be drawn to like-minded people. I had a voluntarily childless couple over for Christmas eve - we get along great - we just don't do camping trips together (that wouldn't be fair to them).

BTW - becoming a mother by giving birth & also the foster route has changed me. I am less immature than ever and love to sit down for a game of Candyland!