State of the Women

When I was in the states this month I got the chance to meet with a lot of think tanky folks who have been sources and friends for years. One of the groups, Asia Society Policy Institute, even let me talk to young professionals for an event they do called AsiaX, which is supposed to a series of “less boring” talks. I opted to chat about something I wish I had more time to really delve into here, which is the state of women in South Korea and Japan. These are highly industrialized, future-oriented countries, who are holding themselves back because their women don’t have the full range of options in the economies as men do.

Sometimes I Respond To Email

Because I lack discipline and any real “life structure,” my email habits are rather capricious. I either respond RIGHT AWAY or I phantom respond. That is, I will BELIEVE I responded but what really happened was I wrote a response in my head but never actually committed it to something anyone could receive. BTW does everyone talk to themselves a lot? I feel like I talk to myself as much as John Nash as depicted by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, like when he was becoming full-on schizophrenic.

This morning a self-described tech industry exec wrote to say he mentioned me in his blog post, and was that okay? It turns out we had an email exchange back in 2014 when I was covering the tech and culture beat. The topic was the lack of diversity and women in computer engineering. (I had been writing a lot back then about the alarming gender and racial disparities in tech.) He had emailed me to say that the engineering team at his company was overwhelmingly white male but the problem was “nearly impossible” to change. I don’t remember what I wrote back but he did.

I know this because of the SHOCKINGLY FLATTERING post he wrote about it. I mean, seriously, I could not have made this up because if I were to make up a situation in which I helped someone out, I wouldn’t make is sound this nice because it wouldn’t be believable.

“I have not always been the greatest advocate for women, but I am learning. In 2014 a reporter from NPR, Elise Hu, had written a series about a lack of diversity in tech.  At the same time I was actively hiring and trying to fill the role with women. That said, I had gotten resumes from something like 50 candidates and roughly 47 of them were white men. What was I supposed to do?  How could this be my fault?  How could I be accountable? I reached out to Elise and pointed this out to her, thinking it was definitive proof that myself and people like me were off the hook.  
 
She wrote back in a little over an hour. She said many smart things, but asked me simply who had taught me to program?  The answer was my uncle.  She then carefully explained to me that white men were often teaching other white men to program and there in lies the problem.  They were sparking interest in computers in young white men, and doing nothing to spark an interest in more diverse populations. The cause of the pipeline problem was outside of academics.   
 
This resonated with me because it is my belief that while you can learn a lot about technology in academics, applying that knowledge successfully often requires direct one on one mentorship. The pipeline is our responsibility because we have the knowledge and even though we might not be academics we can still spend our time mentoring and sparking the interest in more diverse populations.  The problem is not caused intentionally, but simply based on normative behavior and pre-existing relationships.
 
We are accountable. Until that moment, I thought the best thing I could do was simply stand out of the way and avoid being biased as much as possible. Essentially be passive. It was again a strong and intelligent woman who changed my thinking, and taught me that it is everyone’s responsibility to play an active role in change.”

First, GO STEPHEN!

Second, the lesson of this is that sometimes the exchanges with strangers who write you can seem really mundane and perfunctory. But if you can offer your time or thoughts, they could potentially make an impact or have quite a ripple effect.

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On Liz Plank’s Pod… To Talk Gender Issues

Spoke with Vox’s Liz Plank about the boxes women in my region are forced to fit into and the consequences and questions that flow from that. Thanks Liz and producers, for having me on!

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Campaign 2016

Trump backyard sign in West Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Tony Webster.

Trump backyard sign in West Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Tony Webster.

We are witnessing this weekend an exodus of Republican party leaders from Donald Trump, their nominee for the highest office in the land. The floodgates broke open after an 11-year old video leaked in which Trump’s saying predictably horrifying things about women and basically bragging about his previous sexual assaults. That he just “grabs them by the pussy,” he says, and kisses women whenever he wants, because “when you’re a star” you can get away with it. He is aided and abetted on that tape by all the men who were with him on a studio lot’s bus, and in particular by the known bro, television host Billy Bush.

Why now? Trump’s attitudes about women were long known (a case of marital rape, calling women “slobs” and “dogs,” saying breastfeeding is “disgusting” and a whole slew of nose-cringing comments). So were his other attitudes, that actor Josh Gad laid out succinctly:

“We screamed until we were hoarse that calling Mexicans rapists, banning people based on their religion, not disavowing Klan members, calling women fat and disgusting, dishonoring POWS and Purple Heart fallen soldiers, and making fun of the disabled was not only unpresidential but unbecoming of a human being. And most importantly, for eight years we have sat astonished that a political ascension could be gamed out of questioning the birthplace of our first black President.”

All of this has been clear about Donald Trump. Why abandon him now? It seems one answer is, because these GOP leaders have people in their personal lives that are affected by the hatefulness of his speech and the sexual assault he’s advocated. One thing we are hearing a lot from Republican lawmakers and officials now is the “I have daughters” line, or “I have a wife.”

This need for proximity to a person affected by an injustice in order to believe in it is really eating at me this weekend. Our elected representatives are not chosen to just represent their families or their personal experiences. And if they’re only going to take stands based on that, there are entire groups of people and experiences that would never benefit from justice: What if you don’t know a poor person? Or disabled person? Or someone without health insurance? Or a Muslim? Or an immigrant? Or a refugee? Do the injustices affecting them not matter?

“The existence of your neighbors pain is not dependent on your belief in it,” actor and activitst Jesse Williams said. And it comes up again and again in a time of serious racial strife and division in America.

I was reminded of Ohio Senator Rob Portman’s change of heart on same sex marriage a few years ago. He changed his position at the lobbying of his son, who is gay. While it’s good for gay people that someone in power changed his position to their side, the reason why he did it is worth interrogating. Matt Yglesias wrote on this topic back then:

“But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally? Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don’t just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy.”

When I went on a slew of tweets about this subject last night, one person responded by saying, we’re only human. And that’s true. It’s easier to have compassion and empathy for those we consider our neighbors and our friends. But that then drives another point and theme I’ve been turning over and over again in my head this election year: The critical need to be nearer to those, have more conversations with, collisions with, friendships among those who aren’t like us. We’re in a period of resegregation in America, by many quantifiable measures. And that is only making it harder for people to have empathy for those who look different, talk different, have different backgrounds.

It was a bit of serendipity then, that I found this quote in my old notes from philosopher John Stuart Mill from back in 1848. It’s truer now than it was back then, I think.

“It is hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar … Such communication has always been, and is particularly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.”

I hope we all do some soul searching when this election is over in a month. But the work of trying to better understand each other and care for each other is a long, something difficult slog. I don’t know that humanity has any other choice but to do the work.

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What I’m Reading: SF Struggles, Vonnegut on Marriage, Manly Startups

This morning my new pal Om Malik tweeted out his list of what he’s reading, a list he’s been sharing for quite awhile. I find it really enjoyable, much like I love receiving friend Sean Bonner’s newsletter. The missives are basically his delightful stream-of-consciousness with reading that guides that consciousness.  I used to do some link roundups on this here blog, but have largely abandoned it. I think I’ll try and start it up again. A few of the pieces I read today:

Is San Francisco New York? (New York Magazine, with writing from San Francisco Magazine)

The team at my favorite magazine ever got the help of San Francisco Magazine writers to write a series of dispatches from SF, a city whose tech-boom-2.0-fueled identity crisis seems to foreshadow the kind of struggle America is about to have in a few years. I love the little vignette about ‘founder hounders’ — ladies who seek out tech company founders just before their company’s IPO. Absurd.

Journalism startups full of white men (The Guardian)

The Guardian’s Emily Bell calls out this era of white-men-led news startups, i.e. Nate Silver, Ezra Klein, Glen Greenwald. “The new micro-institutions of journalism already bear the hallmarks of the restrictive heritage they abandoned with such glee,” she writes. Nate Silver recently responded, admitting that 85 percent of his applicants are men and “that worries us.” He follows up by saying, “We’re hiring the best candidate for the position,” which worries me. Because “best” is subjective, and if you extend this defense too far, you could fall into believing a meritocracy myth that is so pervasive in the mega-gender-unbalanced world of tech. I’ve written about that before.

Kurt Vonnegut on Marriage

When a couple has an argument nowadays, they may think it’s about money or power or sex or how to raise the kids or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though without realizing it, is this: “You are not enough people!” A husband, a wife and some kids is not a family. It’s a terribly vulnerable survival unit.

This makes a tremendous amount of sense, especially in the face of studies recently that show our expectations of our spouses are higher than ever, which makes marital satisfaction lower. Conclusion: Our spouses can’t be — and shouldn’t be — our everything. I maintain that the key to success in my own marriage is the tremendous amount of freedom my introverted husband gives me to party hard with — and seek connection with — people-who-aren’t-him. h/t Sean Bonner

 

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What Nora Ephron Said in 1996 About Having It All

Here’s what the late Nora Ephron said in her 1996 commencement address at Wellesley College. Amazing how everything old is new again. (Emphasis mine)

This is the season when a clutch of successful women—who have it all — give speeches to women like you and say, to be perfectly honest, you can’t have it all. Maybe young women don’t wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind.”

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Thinking Through The Atlantic’s “Women Can’t Have It All” Essay

I love being a girl, and especially being a bro-girl, as some of my guy friends consider me. (Some also use terms like “chick with a dick,” which is less cute, but I understand the notion.) But I am not a boy. That became piercingly clear this year, when I was confronted with an unexpected job offer just a week after learning I was (also unexpectedly) expecting.

Suddenly, I had to consider the oft-discussed clash of career and family. Whether to stay at my entirely satisfying job at NPR, where I knew I’d be guaranteed certain paid leave and other flexibility because I am no longer “new” here, or whether to try a new challenge at a place where I’d have to prove myself as a baller whilst growing larger and inevitably unavailable during maternity leave.

I decided to stay at my job for many reasons that have nothing to do with family, but I can’t deny that I did have to consider the whole work-life balance issue for the first time. I sort of bristled at even being faced with the notion.

It’s my grandma at age 87. She’s a heroine to many, including me.

 

I come from a line of ceiling-breaking women; my grandmother, after fleeing China during World War II with her brothers and sisters, was one of the first female legislators in Taiwan, and a working mom (a high school principal) since the 1940’s. She says she never thought much about job versus family, because she considered both her service to society-writ-large and her obligation to her husband and three children as part of the natural order of things. She believes that really loving and caring for your family didn’t necessarily mean doing all the diaper changing and cooking, but that being a rockstar earner and a role model was just as valid a way to care for your kids.

Consequently, my mom didn’t love being raised by “help.” She says some of her most formative memories from childhood were with the servants and driver, and not with her mom, who was busy with work-related meetings and dinners on most evenings. My grandma has never apologized for what she had to do, and (in something we’ll discuss later in this post) Asian culture makes having several servants at home to help far more affordable and culturally-ingrained than here in the US. Continue reading →

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