Where the girls weren’t

Writing

A million years ago, back in 1978, I showed up at the Harvard Crimson in the fall of my freshman year to try out for a slot on our storied school paper. Joining me for the first Crimson “comp” of our college lives were maybe a dozen other eager young would-be reporters. Among their names: Bill McKibben, Jeff Toobin, Nick Kristof, and David Sanger.

I recall only two other women—though there may well have been more—and none of us would scale the journalistic heights attained by what is, in retrospect, a remarkable percentage of our male peers.

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means—or doesn’t. After election to the Crimson‘s News Board, I rarely ventured back. I recall feeling generally disaffected. One of my few clear memories is of a football whizzing over my head as I typed toward deadline. I don’t recall any intentional or explicit sexism.

So what happened?

Were the women of my Crimson era victims of discrimination, of a non-congenial (if not hostile) work environment? Or were we simply less focused and ambitious or maybe less talented? Or is the whole thing a statistical fluke that means exactly nothing?

My answer: I really can’t say for sure. There are, however, clues.

As recently as 1977—the year before I entered college—two-thirds of Americans believed that “it was much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family,” Stephanie Coontz wrote earlier this month in a New York Times piece on why, fifty years after publication of The Feminine Mystique, women aren’t showing more zeal about moving into the full-time workforce. It’s a cultural attitude that feels deeply familiar from my Indiana childhood and which, along with the ongoing absence of structural supports for women seeking to balance work and family that Coontz describes, likely accounts for much of the under-representation of women throughout the workforce.

That said, I’ve always been deeply skeptical about the notion that numbers tell the whole story, a skepticism honed over several years as Harvard Law School’s de facto point person on women’s issues. (I graduated from HLS in 1993 and practiced law for a few years before gravitating back towards writing, eventually winding up as then-Dean Elena Kagan’s special assistant for communications.)  A 2005 speech I drafted for the dean acknowledged the undeniable fact that “women are not assuming leadership roles in proportion to their numbers” but also noted some possible non-discriminatory explanations.

Most intriguing to me was a tantalizing finding by a Harvard Law School student working group that women’s reasons for choosing law as a career differed from those of men. “Compared with men, women were more likely to choose ‘helping others’ (41% v. 26%) and ‘advancing ideological goals’ (24% v. 15%) and less likely to choose ‘high salary’ (32% v. 44%),” the group concluded in its February 2004 report.

So what are we to make of this? Well, I don’t have a comprehensive answer, but I can tell you what I made of it. My main takeaway wasn’t (and isn’t) that the world needs more female corporate law partners (though I certainly have no quarrel with you if that’s what you’re after) but that we need to place a far higher value on work where the primary goal is to make the world a better place. We need to value teachers, social workers—and public service lawyers—more, not to find new and better ways to steer them towards corporate work if that’s not where they want to go.

None of this, however, really speaks to the world of writing and journalism, which regardless of your gender, has never been a route to riches. While fewer women of my era may have made it to the New York Times, I think we can safely rule out avarice as the reason.

I should also be clear that I’m not saying Crimson women of my era did not go on to be highly successful in highly demanding jobs–investment banking and corporate law being two examples. And a handful of women of my college era did go on to successful writing careers–though with once exception, more on this below, none achieved the brand-name presence of those guys I comped with in the fall of 1978.

If I were to take a stab at guessing why women of this time and place–Harvard, the late 1970s–may have struggled to gain purchase on the writer’s path, I would probably start with the unconscious belief that our concerns—and our stories—didn’t really matter, a belief no less powerful for being unrecognized. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most well-known female journalist of my Crimson generation—Susan Faludi, one year ahead of me—made her name with a book that focused on the hitherto unrecognized “backlash” against women. And just yesterday, I was struck by how Crimson classmate Nick Kristof (and his wife Sheryl WuDunn) make a related point in the introduction to Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide:

“[W]hen we began reporting about international affairs in the 1980s, we couldn’t have imagined writing this book. We assumed that the foreign policy issues that properly furrowed the brow were lofty and complex, like nuclear nonproliferation . . . . Back then the oppression of women was a fringe issue, the kind of worthy cause the Girl Scouts might raise money for.”

That they did write the book—and that it’s become a national bestseller—is one of many heartening signs that things have, and continue to, change. The fact that I’m writing this piece is another. When I look around, I’m struck by the number of women writers with whom I’ve crossed paths, most of whom are seven to ten years younger than I, who have managed in remarkable ways to tie their personal experience to larger concerns and trends. My law school classmate Susan Cain, author of the bestselling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is a wonderful Exhibit A.  There’s also former law firm colleague KJ Dell’Antonia, who now heads up the New York Times wildly popular Motherlode blog; cyber pal Marci Alboher, who draws on her own life experience in the just-published Encore Career Handbook; occasional New York dinner party companions Pamela Paul (a New York Times writer and editor whose first book, The Starter Marriage, grew out of her own failed first marriage), Annie Murphy Paul (whose books include Origins, which delves into the cellular beginnings of life through the lens of motherhood), and Deborah Siegel, memoirist and co-founder of She Writes, an online community for women writers. There are likely many more whose names escape me at the moment.

Years before I turned to blogging and writing essays like this one, I had a reasonably successful, if short-lived, career as a suspense novelist.  Getting a book deal was a huge thrill and yet, when I was honest, I had to admit that the actual writing of these books wasn’t all that thrilling. For years, I took this to mean that I wasn’t really cut out for writing. And then a chance remark turned everything around. I’d just described my “ideal day” as part of a small group exercise at a Harvard Business School program for women. This vision involved waking up in the country, having coffee, then turning to my writing.

“But I had that day, and you know what? I wasn’t all that happy,” I concluded.

One of my listeners gave me a reflective look: “Maybe you were writing the wrong thing.”

Note: This piece was revised on March 8, 2013 with the addition of paragraph 12, intended as clarification. 

What makes work work?

Hot Chocolate Run for Safe Passage mugOn the first day of my new job, I reached into an office cabinet to take out a coffee mug and, to my surprise and delight, emerged with one that carried the logo for Northampton’s annual Hot Chocolate Run for Safe Passage.

As regular readers know, I’d just left my beloved Northampton – a western Massachusetts college town where I’d hoped to put down roots – to take a job in Boston. I’d participated in the Hot Chocolate Run several times myself, and picking up this mug—on my very first day!—struck me as crazily serendipitous, you might even say, a sign.

Over time, however, I’ve come to see it as something else: A reflection of the fact that I’d landed in a simpatico workplace culture.

The coffee mug incident wasn’t the only clue. There was also the fact that, when I interviewed, the two future colleagues with whom I had lunch were both Buddhist meditators. The fact that my department head took time off from work to campaign for her (and my) candidate before November’s election. The fact that I love my colleagues’ distinctive scarves and ear rings. I could go on.

Much advice about career transitions focuses on the what—on figuring out what you want to do and then finding a place to do it. Do you want to take cases to trial? Do you want to write about food? Do you want to counsel women in crisis? Do you want to teach kids?

Yes, it’s important to have a sense of what you want to do—but I’ve found that it’s equally (or more) important to consider the where and the how.

I love to write. Whether I’m working on a Plan B Nation post (like this one) or a speech about health care, I tend to lose myself in the process of putting words together—to enter that state of absorption famously described as flow.

But that isn’t to say that I’d love any job that involves lots of writing—and speaking from experience, I can tell you that I would not. My current job isn’t the most prestigious I’ve ever had, and it’s not the most high-paying. It is, however, overall, one of the more satisfying.

So what accounts for job satisfaction? Over time, I’ve come to identify the qualities that matter most to me, which incidentally, can all be traced directly to workplace culture.  Here are three examples:

1. Autonomy

I’m far from alone here—lots of research suggests that autonomy is critical to on-the-job satisfaction. (One interesting recent study found that high-level leaders have less stress than those lower on the corporate food chain, with researchers hypothesizing that this counter-intuitive result stems from the fact that the higher-ups have more control over their lives.)

That said, I suspect autonomy is more important to some of us than others. For me, it’s really important, and my most difficult professional experiences have been in workplace cultures where this creates tension. (“I feel like I’ve spent the year trying to keep you in the box, and you’ve spent the year trying to get out,” one supervisor ruefully remarked many years ago.) I could be writing the coolest thing in the word, but if I’m being micro-managed, I’m not going to be happy.

2. Balance

I don’t care how much I like what I’m doing: I don’t want to do it 110 hours a week. For that reason alone, I was never going to be happy in the sort of firm where I spent my first two years after law school.

It’s no secret that in the post-Recession world, work has gotten more demanding, as layoffs and increased “efficiencies” create more work for those who remain. Still, while I roll my eyes at suggestions that employees simply need to do a better job setting limits, the issue of balance is a real one. If you’re unhappy at work, is it because of what you’re doing or is it because of how much? And if you’re lucky enough to have some choice: How much is it worth to you to have time to dedicate to other parts of your life? For me, it’s worth a lot.

3.  Mission

A shared sense of larger mission–such as the one that infuses my work at Harvard School of Public Health—is a through-line, enriching good days and giving meaning to the inevitable minor slumps. In my experience, it’s also more likely to lead to warm workplace friendships—which themselves have been found to correlate with job satisfaction and success.

Even Cal Newport—an outspoken critic of the “follow your passion” school of decision-making—discourages people from taking a job they think is useless or actively bad for the world. His reasoning is partly pragmatic: If you feel this way, you’re probably going to have a hard time sticking around long enough to build up the sort of career capital that you’ll need to move forward long-term.

* * *

In 2011, as the Great Recession ground onward, I found myself scratching my head over a New York Times article with the headline “Maybe It’s Time for Plan C.”  The piece recounted the stories of several people who traded steady jobs for entrepreneurial opportunities, launching businesses that included a Greek food stall, a wedding planning business, and an online ceramics store. As Newport might have predicted, it wasn’t long before they were overwhelmed. “I preach to my students to make time for themselves, to treat their bodies as vital instruments. Now I’m lucky if I get that a few times a month,” said a marketing professional turned Pilates instructor.

But here’s the curious thing: Only one of the people interviewed regretted their decisions. While the piece didn’t offer any explanation, I have an idea. Even harder than working for yourself is working in an alien culture. If that was their alternative, these choices make total sense.

What workplace culture qualities are important to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

The Audacity of Hopelessness

Head in Hands

Last summer, I came across another of those darkly hilarious post-recession job search stories. In this particular installment, one Taylor Grey Meyer lost it on a sales manager from the San Diego Padres, an organization to which she’d applied for a job no less than 30 times. After the standard radio silence response to her applications, she received an out-of-the-blue email alert to an “opportunity” to attend a job fair hosted by the Padres for the bargain price of $495.

And that’s when Grey–whose previous experience reportedly included an internship with Major League Soccer–went a wee bit berserk, firing off an email described by the sports website Deadspin as “one of the great emails of our time.”

“After careful review, I must decline. I realize I may be burning bridges here, but in the spirit of reciprocity, I would like to extend you a counter-offer to suck my dick. Clearly, I don’t have one of these, so my offer makes about as much sense as yours. But for the price you’re charging to attend the event, I’m sure I would have no trouble borrowing one.”

Not surprisingly, her response proceeded to go viral, and—as Deadspin wrote—“perhaps, on balance, it wasn’t the worst move in the world. Meyer has already received one note from a sales office, asking her if she’d like to come in for an interview.”

All of which got me thinking about the job search process in the wilds of the Brave New Normal – and how the best strategies sometimes emerge only after you’ve given up.

My own experience—though far less jaw-dropping—provides a case in point.  One of the standard pieces of advice to anyone who’s gone through a layoff is to downplay the layoff part and up-play what you’ve accomplished. That’s pretty much how I rolled in the beginning. I kept busy! Volunteered! Updated my resume! Then, after a year or so, I ran out of steam. I started to feel a bit defeated. And also a bit defiant. Which explains my decision to write publicly about being unemployed.

The first piece I wrote for Salon on the topic of unemployment was published with the provocative headline “Even Harvard Couldn’t Protect Me”—capitalizing on the irony of my educational pedigree—though my real point was something quite different: That navigating unemployment requires tremendous inner resources, far more, in my experience, than what’s needed to navigate success.

Like Grey’s, my writing elicited a range of responses—from withering accusations of self-indulgence to heartfelt words of support.  (I still cherish one defense: “Does Salon have no standards at all?” my supporter rhetorically asks, quoting an especially virulent attacker.  And then goes on to answer: “Obviously not. If they did — most of the first few letters in response to a Gutman piece would be moderated into oblivion. The fact that they allow their excellent authors to be harassed by the nation’s under-medicated tells us all we need to know (and more) . . . .”)

While my Salon essays on unemployment didn’t lead to a job right away, in retrospect they were a first step on the path that got me there. The essays led to Plan B Nation, and this blog—along with being hugely gratifying—kept me visible to people in a position to hire me. One of these was a former Harvard colleague who reached out last summer when an opening came up in her department. (A side benefit: When I interviewed, there was no need to explain my time out of the workforce. They already knew my story. It’s how I had come to be there. ) I was hired and started work last September. Things are going well.

Let me be clear: When I talk about the benefits of hopelessness, I don’t mean despair, which is never ever helpful. What I’m talking about is being open, a topic I’ve explored many times before. The danger of hope is that it can tie us to a very specific iteration of a very specific story at a time when we’re far better served by staying alert to opportunities in whatever form they take. The more wedded we are to a specific outcome—the more we narrow our sights—the harder it may be to craft a fulfilling life with the materials at hand.

I don’t know what’s happened to Meyer since last summer—I shot off an email to her via LinkedIn this morning but haven’t yet heard back. The best clue I found was a “Public Figure” Facebook page where her photo (she’s a lovely blonde) tops the following tagline: “Taylor Grey Meyer had already been rejected by the Padres over 30 times before she got an email from the baseball team that was the last straw.” No sign of regret. No apologies. What began as an F U moment seems to have become a personal brand.

It Takes a Village to Bake a Loaf of Mark Bittman’s No-Knead Bread in the Happy Valley during a Time of Climate Change

In honor of the impending blizzard, I’m re-posting these memories from the October 2011 Snowpocalypse, when I was living in Northampton, MA. This essay first appeared in the Hampshire Gazette (and later on this blog).

The Little Bread-gine That Could

The Little Bread-gine That Could

When the snow started to fall, I was playing a card game with the Baskinettes. Which isn’t really surprising, since this is how I’ve spent a good bit of the past year, something between an honorary aunt and slow-on-the-uptake peer.  (“I’m going to deal the cards instead of you. That way, it will be faster,” a seven-year-old Remy once airily informed me.)

“Do you think I should head home now?” I asked the Baskinettes’ father, aka my friend Hosie.  The snow was coming down faster, in huge wet clumped flakes.

Hosie looked out the window and shrugged. “I don’t think you have to rush.”

And indeed, he was right.  Back home a few hours later, safe and warm, I decided to do some baking. For weeks, I’d been meaning to make New York Times food guru Mark Bittman’s magical no-knead bread.  With 10 minutes or so of hands-on time for an artisan-quality loaf, it’s a recipe easy to love. The only challenge is finding the 14-hour window needed for the dough to rest. But I had plenty of time now. I expected a quiet weekend.

The dough was just starting to rise, when I got my first inkling my night might not go entirely according to plan.  My cell (only) phone rang (cricket chirped). It was the eldest of the Baskinettes, 16-year-old Ezekiel.

“We don’t have power.” The voice was aggrieved  “I’m. So. Bored.”

Still, freakish as this seemed—and by “this” I mean the weather, not teen protestations of boredom—I wasn’t all that worried. I live in a neighborhood where utility lines are safely lodged underground. We rarely lose power out here. Also: It’s October!  I glanced at a clock: almost time for bed.

Then everything went black.

No big deal, I thought philosophically. I’ll get a good night’s sleep.  Perhaps tomorrow we’ll have power back.

This did not happen.

When I got up the next day, it was really cold.  I flicked the light switch. No response.  No electricity meant no coffee. Something had to be done.

A Facebook friend once asked if the Happy Valley’s vaunted fashion laissez-faire extended to PJs as street wear. “Yes!” came the resounding response. “Totally!  Absolutely!”  It seemed that today was as good a day as any to put this to the test. I yanked on a fleece in the frigid air, grabbed my parka, slipped on boots. Keys. Purse. Money.

And then I remembered the bread.

There it was on the kitchen counter, waiting so patiently.  Heading out the door, I picked up the bowl and cradled it in my arms.

I never pick up hitchhikers, but this once, I made an exception for the bundled twenty-something figure trudging tiredly down Route 9.  He slid into the seat behind me, taking the bread in his lap, glad for the ride and seemingly unphased by his pajama-wearing dough-toting driver. He was bound for the Unitarian Church in town in hopes the service was still on.  We talked about The Great Gatsby, Faulkner and Willa Cather. Then I dropped him at the church and parked my car, my mind once again on coffee.

But while the mood on Main Street was strangely festive, not a store or café was open.  A flannel-clad me paused dejectedly. I was out of luck.  (On the upside, those Facebook friends were right. No one gave me a second glance.)

I love my town for lots of reasons, and one of them is this: When you show up unannounced on your friends’ doorstep, wearing pajamas and bearing dough, you’re likely to be greeted as if you’re paying a totally normal visit.  Once settled in at the breakfast table and fortified with black tea (no electricity meant no coffee grinder, no coffee grinder, no coffee), I explained to my friends Jen and Michael the purpose of my mission.  “I knew you had a gas stove,” I concluded. “So I thought I could bake it here.”  But a gas stove, yes. Gas oven, no.  Again, I was back to square one.

Happily, here in the Happy Valley, hope springs eternal.  A few hours later, up the street, back at the Baskinettes, I had the choice of two gas stoves—and yes, one of them even appeared to have a functioning gas-fueled oven. We set out on a rescue operation, the four Baskinettes and I, trekking back down the snowy hill to collect the dough from Jen and Michael’s.

So far so good.

But not so fast.

There comes a time in every endeavor when by far the most sensible option is simply to give up.  Our Bread Odyssey reached this point when we found, upon arriving home, that the oven on which we’d pinned our hopes was also out of commission.  Is it possible to fry yeast bread? To rig up a stove top oven?  We gave some half-hearted thought to these questions, but clearly we were losing steam.  And then, like some culinary deus ex machina, Hosie’s sister appeared.  Yes, Lucretia had a functioning oven, and yes she would take our bread.

That night, after a largely housebound day trending towards cabin fever, the Baskinettes and I set out on foot for the nearby college campus center, lured by the prospect of heat and light and maybe even vending machines.  It was just around 7:30, but it felt pretty much like midnight. Beneath a sharp white sliver of moon, our shoes crunched through snow.  Still, it was good to be outside, to breathe in the fresh night air.

Then, for a strange frozen moment, I saw us as if from a distance, characters in the opening scenes of a movie that wouldn’t end well. Isn’t this how they always start, those blockbuster disaster films?   An almost ordinary lovely day in an ordinary lovely town.   Kids, families, plans, friends—and then The Thing appears.  (Aliens, terrorists, viral pandemic—you can take your pick.)  At first, no one understands what it is they’re up against.  It’s just a slight cough, or a faint shadow. Or a snow storm in October.

We got power back the next day, two days earlier than predicted. All in all, we’d gotten off easy. Even the shrimp and ice cream in my freezer appeared to have survived the thaw.  Within hours, you could almost feel like everything was back to normal.  Almost but not quite.  Not if you surveyed the piles of tangled tree limbs, leaves green against improbable snow.  Not if you took some time to think about the next logical plot point.

I finally caught up with my bread again the following afternoon, now transmuted into a golden cornmeal-encrusted round.  “Was easy enough to bake but seems a little, uh, dense, which is likely because of the lack of warm rise,” Lucretia wrote me on Facebook.  And to sure, when I picked up the loaf, it did seem rather stone-like. But when I cut off a slice and took a hesitant bite, it was amazingly not-too-bad—especially if accompanied by a bit of homemade peach jam.

In the past few months, our little part of the world has endured its share of hardships: a tornado, a hurricane, and now a blizzard, not to mention the all-engulfing global economic maelstrom.  We live in strange and unsettling times. I know this is true. I also know that, whatever dangers we face, there is hope in our human connections. Together, we can grapple with climate change—or make a loaf of bread.  And if you’re going to face the apocalypse, it’s best to do it with friends.

And if you need a soundtrack:

Porridge and Clouds

Bowl of clouds

The first in an occasional series on things I’m thinking about + things that make me think

Back in the 1970s, Radcliffe President Matina Horner made headlines with research suggesting that American women suffered from a “fear of success” that kept them from reaching their potential. While I came of age in that era, I’ve never felt that Horner’s findings spoke to my experience. What I recall isn’t a fear of success but rather a fear of failure.

I was probably around 14 when I decided not to apply for a spot in a highly selective study abroad program for Indianapolis public school students. I didn’t think my French I was up to par. I didn’t think I’d get in. Today, I feel bad for that girl who gave up before she tried. By all accounts, it was a wonderful program. There’s a good chance I would have made the cut. And if not: Who cares?

All of which is prologue to saying that I have since become a fervent proponent of learning how to fail. Being able to cope with failure strikes me as one of life’s most important skills—which is why I devoted a session to the topic in the Living Strategically Seminar I taught this fall at UMass Amherst (and, on a lighter note, why I couldn’t wait to share the very funny Laura Zigman’s “Failure is the New Success!” video some months back).

It’s also why I was so heartened to see teacher Jessica Lahey’s terrific new piece in the Atlantic on why parents need to let their children fail. As Lahey writes, parents who try to guarantee their children’s personal and academic success are doing them no favors. Rather they are robbing them of opportunities to strengthen resilience—to cultivate “the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.” (My friend Jennifer Rosner also reflects on this issue in an excellent piece just published on the New York Times Motherlode blog.)

* * *

The more open we can be about what life should look like, the greater our chance at happiness.

In this spirit, I was captivated by an essay suggesting that the successful marriages of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may include not only the obvious suspects—Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley—but also the pragmatic Charlotte Lucas and pompous Mr. Collins. “Charlotte did the best she could, and if the result is not exactly blinding ecstasy forever after–well, most of us, for the most part, don’t get blinding ecstasy forever after anyway,” Noah Berlatsky writes.

Somehow this got me thinking about the last time I read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which I’d always thought of as a poignant tale of missed opportunities. I was surprised to myself concluding that the life Newland Archer got was precisely the life he needed. (The fact that he never realized this didn’t mean it wasn’t true.)

* * *

The Great Recession gave birth to a subgenre that I’ve come to think of as the Plan B Nation memoir—stories about life after job loss. Food plays an outsized role in many of these—which makes a lot of sense to me given the prominent role it played in my own post-layoff life. Favorites include Dominique Browning’s Slow Love (wherein the eating is followed by a serious diet), Jennifer Reese’s Make the Bread, Buy the Butter (wherein the former Entertainment Weekly book critic reports, sometimes hilariously, on making the things we normally buy—think marshmallows, cream cheese, Pop-Tarts), and guest poster Robin Mather’s The Feast Nearby (wherein I discovered a recipe for winter squash and sausage drizzled with maple syrup with which I became somewhat obsessed for a time).

While my Plan B Nation life has evolved a lot in recent months, I’m still always on the lookout for a good recipe. Here’s one for red velvet cake that I can’t wait to try—via one of my (and possibly your) favorite novelists, Elinor Lipman.