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President Grandma and the Shrill Working Mothers

Women are just more emotional than men. Have you heard this statement before? I sure have. Much like, “Like a girl,” it seems to have a negative energy surrounding it. It is never said like, “Wow, women are so much more emotional than men,” but more like, “ugh, women are just so emotional.” It belongs in the same pile of crap as statements such as, “Women aren’t as tough as men,” or, “Women don’t have a thick enough skin,” or, “How will she make good decisions when she is on her period?” Or maybe even the dreaded, “She is a mother. How will she do her job and be a mother?” Yes, we have probably all heard something along these lines in our lives, if not directed at us, then in mainstream media stories, or from friends or family members who have experienced it. Example: Charlie Rose asks Bill Clinton on “CBS This Morning” whether Hillary would rather be a grandmother or president of the United States. Excuse me, what? Would Hillary rather be a grandmother or the president? How about both? How about all of us smart, capable, working women would rather you not ask fluffy, idiotic, useless questions about how our dedication to our families might impact our work. Sorry, I had to rant for a second, but seriously…come on with this shit. In my experience, women who are dedicated to their careers are perfectly capable of doing amazing things in their jobs AND being good mothers. Or grandmothers, sisters, daughters, friends, aunties, cousins, wives, and the multitude of other roles they play. Women who want to make it work, make it work. Women are great multi-taskers, way better than men (I have lots of anecdotal evidence to support this).   The way Mr. Rose asks the question about Hillary, with a gentle, sweet intonation and tilt of the head, is so saccharine sweet it makes me want to barf. (If you want to see for yourself check it out here – I am particularly loving how Bill almost chokes on his drink)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/24/bill-clinton-hillary-clinton-grandmother_n_3981223.html

The way Chuck dances into the question is almost an admission that the question is completely insulting. It makes it seem as though he is conveying, “I am not really saying she cannot do both, but we want to know how a woman is going to do the extremely difficult task of being president while her daughter is raising a child, because that means she will be a grandmother and she couldn’t possibly be a grandmother and run the country.” Has anyone EVER IN THE HISTORY OF BROADCAST MEDIA asked a man who was running for office (or thinking about running for office), “How will you manage to be a dad and a public official!” No. Because it doesn’t even cross our minds that a man’s familial connections might interfere with his ability to be a strong leader. Now a woman, that is another story. Is it possible that a woman, with estrogen coursing through her body and her brain clouded by emotions, could be a strong leader when the going gets tough? (In case you haven’t noticed, this is dripping with sarcasm). This notion that women are too soft, too meek, too tied up in familial roles to thrive in high powered careers, is completely outdated and not supported by any concrete evidence. And, it makes me want to barf (wait…I said that already. It is worth repeating. Barf.)

In my own life, having children has made me way more efficient in my job. That is really just a more formal way of saying I have limited time to fuck off. Basically, I have no time to fuck off, and have to get the most out of every minute of my workday. Additionally, when I do have time with my boys, I have to be present, engaged, and fully embrace the limited time I have with them. In that way I cut down on the time I waste worrying about work when I am with my kids, and the time I waste worrying about my kids when I am at work. When I spent a summer working part time at a large petroleum company (I won’t say which one, but it is LARGE), I witnessed men standing around drinking coffee shooting the shit every single day, for hours at a time. I never once saw a woman engaged in this nonsense. Why?   I suspect it is because by and large working women are at work to get shit done. They often have kids to get home to at the end of the day so they buckle down and get shit done. I am sure there are exceptions, but in general I see men wasting time at work more often than women. It might have something to do with the fact that they don’t necessarily have to be home at a certain time to be with the kids, or maybe it’s just that they feel it is accepted to need to work late, but to working mothers working late can feel unacceptable. Even with all that coffee drinking and shit shooting men get paid more than women do, on average. They must need the extra cash for all that coffee.

I believe whole heartedly that children, boys and girls, benefit immensely from seeing their mother as an independent, self sufficient woman who has a fulfilling career or other passion that sometimes takes her away from the home and the family. Kids, Mama has a life outside of this house and it is important to me. Get used to it. But it also might be important for kids to see Dad spend more time at home, or at least for them to get the sense that being home is a priority. Just like it is accepted for Moms to be the ones to rush home for kid duty, it is generally accepted that Dads will be at work late more often than Moms. I know there are cases in which this is reversed, but even when Mom is the breadwinner, kids want Mom home. If Mom has to go out for some reason, after work hours, kids balk. When it’s Dad, kids seem fine with it. Kids are pretty honest, saying it like it is, and the truth is, Moms are just expected to be less engaged with work and more engaged with kids.  But spend too little time at work and a woman risks the criticism that she cannot be both a good mom and a good career woman.

A couple of days ago a friend of mine posted an article on Facebook, an opinion piece from the NY Times. It was written by Tara Mohr (see link to her website in my links at right), and is entitled Learning to Love Criticism (see article below).

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/28/opinion/sunday/learning-to-love-criticism.html?_r=0

Tara writes about a study that looked at workplace performance reviews given to both men and women, that found that managers (both male and female) generally had more negative feedback for female employees, and that much of the negative feedback given to women had to do with their personalities. 76% of negative feedback to women included personality criticism, while only 2% of men’s negative reviews included anything related to their personalities. This is not surprising to me at all. I have written before about the double standard women face at work, and how as a teacher I have felt this double standard personally. If I am tough in the classroom I am a bitch, but when my male colleagues are tough they are considered, well, tough. The study explored some interesting ideas, such as the impossibility of doing substantive work without being criticized in some way, because to make progress sometimes you have to make tough decisions that not everyone is pleased with. I think it is much like parenting in that way – sometimes the troops don’t like the tough love, but it might just be the best thing for ‘em. But perhaps the most frustrating interpretation of the study is that women have to strive to be liked, by everyone, all the time. And when we are not liked, we are supposed to have a thick skin and take it like a man. Wait. What?  Let me get this straight. I am supposed to be tough, but not so tough that people don’t like me, but if someone doesn’t like something I do or say I should expect to be told, and to deal with it without any emotional reaction, but if I don’t have emotions people won’t like me…AAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!! Should I be bitchy sweet or sweetie pie bitch? How about I should be myself and see how that goes? It seems as a woman, being myself is not always good enough when it comes to being liked in the workplace. Being trapped in an impossible situation seems to be a common theme for women across many careers. It is also that way in motherhood, as we strive to make our children happy while simultaneously proving our worth in the workplace.

What is really interesting in Tara’s piece is how she draws a parallel between how women used to need to be friendly to survive (literally), and how being friendly in our work life allows us to survive in our careers. When women couldn’t own property or have money of their own they relied on others in power to take care of them. It helped to be liked. Now, women can take care of themselves, but we are still held to the impossible standard of being liked by all, while still being tough, smart, strong, and able to make hard decisions. Does a male leader have to be liked? No way. In fact, in movies, television, and books, the male leaders are often surly and gruff, with a strong exterior that is hard to penetrate. We never quite know what their emotions are, and it makes them seem formidable and deserving of respect. The women usually wear their hearts on their sleeves and are often portrayed as weepy messes, just trying to survive among all the tough men.

The last part of the NY Times piece suggests that women should learn to accept criticism, not let it bother them, and take from it clues about what our clients or employers need from us. In other words, it is all just feedback and we can use that feedback to our advantage. I agree that feedback, both positive and negative, is extremely valuable in propelling us forward to increased success. Hell, most of the feedback I ever got as a PhD student was negative, but somehow I graduated, published some stuff, and got a pretty darn good job. Trying to break into the world of writing is full of negative feedback (as evidenced by the many rejections I received when trying to land an agent). Look ladies, rejection sucks, criticism sucks, and it is never going to feel good. What we do with it is what really matters, and I agree with Tara on this point. We can rage, get pissed off, let it hurt our feelings, throw up our hands, yell at the people who are criticizing us, run and hide. Or, we can try and find something valuable in the criticism that we can use in our mission to climb the ladder, find an agent, achieve that goal, publish that book, and move forward.

I would add, though, the observation that the statistics from the study are quite striking and should have us all concerned. WHY are women criticized about personality traits so much more than men in the workplace? It can’t be because all women have crappy personalities and all men are just delightful. In my experience women work harder to be liked, and yet, women are being criticized for personality traits more often than men. There is something going on here that is deeply disturbing, and women finding a way to learn from it is only one part of the solution. We should be asking why so many women are criticized about their personality traits. Is this even appropriate for a performance review? Unless your personality traits are interfering with your job performance I would argue, no. Does it truly serve a purpose to tell a woman she is abrasive or judgmental?   How about strident, which means having a shrill, irritating quality. This was one of the words frequently used in the evaluations of female employees. Strident. Shrill and irritating. I cannot think of two more insulting words someone could use to describe a woman.  Shrill and irritating.  I wonder how many men were called strident? How is telling me I am strident, or abrasive, going to help me improve as an employee? It isn’t. These descriptive words are used simply to highlight something negative about a person. “Hey, you are shrill and irritating but you can learn from that and grow in your career.” Really? I don’t think so. You are calling me shrill, and that is a flat out insult. Why do you even want me on your team if you think I am shrill and irritating? Why should I have to find the lesson in that and learn from it?  I just learned that you think I am shrill and irritating, but I cannot change who I am.  Even more shocking is that women managers criticize their female employees’ personalities too! A woman telling another woman she is shrill and irritating, that is irritating. Ladies…where’s the love, the support, the constructive criticism?

And why is it a bad thing to have an emotional reaction to something? Call me crazy (or maybe, shrill), but to me having an emotional reaction means you are human. You have feelings. You have empathy, and sympathy, and you care deeply about other human beings. Aren’t these qualities you would want in a leader? If someone is going to be making decisions about the well being of an entire nation, and possibly intervening on behalf of those who are oppressed or abused, don’t you want them to have empathy, sympathy, and a deep caring for others? Being a tough as nails automaton with limited emotional investment doesn’t make you better, stronger, or more capable. It kind of makes you a jerk. (Oops, sorry, maybe that was too direct.  Just take it and learn from it).

So yes, ladies, feedback in all its forms can be useful. We can learn from the suggestions, observations, and constructive criticisms of our peers, bosses, and mentors. But being called shrill, or abrasive, or judgmental…this is not constructive criticism. This is woman bashing, and serves no professional purpose. If men are going to be evaluated on their personalities in the workplace then fine, bring it on. If personality traits become part of the mainstream career evaluation criteria of both genders well, okay then. But until that day, we as women should expect no less than to be evaluated on our skills, abilities, and performance in our careers.

Is that too straightforward (i.e., barefaced, direct, veracious, outspoken, frank, or guileless) of me? Should I be nicer about it? Maybe say, “pretty please could you find it in your heart to judge me on my merits?” Would it be too straightforward for a man to expect to be judged solely on his skills, abilities, and performance?  Would he beg sweetly for that appropriate type of evaluation?

Well, I’m not gonna beg.  Give me something valuable and constructive that I can use or get the fuck out of my pretty little face. How’s that for shrill?

 

 

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