The Real Reason Women’s Careers Stall (Hint: It Isn’t Laundry)

Originally published in WBUR’s Cognoscenti

If I see another headline or stock photo that blames women’s pay gap on the fact that working women have to do the laundry, I’m going to vomit.

Sorry for the intense reaction. But it happened again the other day: Another study came out that parsed the complexities of career advancement, the tangled web of decision-making and cultural norms that has led us to this place of systemic inequality. And in the internet retelling, it all got reduced to the image of a woman in unfashionable business clothes, gazing sadly at a laundry basket and a pile of Legos.

I won’t name the news outlet that selected this gem, because it’s hardly the only one. And I won’t blame Sheryl Sandberg, who, in her “Lean In” days, popularized a professor’s crack about how the best thing men could do for women’s advancement was “the laundry” — a great half-joke that, a couple of generations ago, might have been true.

Yes, we can still calculate the gaps in domestic workloads — five hours for me, three-point-seven hours for you! — and the studies in question found some inequalities. But blaming husbands, or laundry, is reductive and outdated. Worse, it’s a distraction. Sure, career advancement is easier for women with stay-at-home spouses or bottomless pools of expensive help. (I’m looking at you, Ivanka.)

But the real, persistent reason for women’s stalled careers isn’t the fact that there’s laundry to do, or carpools to run, or homework to assist with, or any of the other obligations that fill so many people’s hours in those too-brief years of full-on family life. It isn’t even that we lack the right volume of paid leave policies and childcare subsidies. It’s that the currency of success in too many office settings — face time, meeting attendance, the ability to drop everything on a dime to conform to the packed schedules of the C-suite — is out of whack with modern reality, for both genders.

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The Strange Psychological Power of ‘Fox and Friends’

Fox and FriendsOriginally published in Politico Magazine

It was a typical Tuesday in March, and President Donald Trump was getting hammered by the press. One of his signature campaign promises, repealing Obamacare, had just collapsed. The Republican co-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, investigating ties between Trump associates and Russia during the 2016 campaign, was under fire for a secret meeting on the White House grounds. And Gallup’s recent poll numbers showed Trump at 36 percent approval, a historic low for a new president.

But Trump was starting his day, as usual, with “Fox & Friends,” where the world looked decidedly sunnier.

Here was an ultrasound image of his ninth grandchild, in utero. His meeting with women business owners, described in glowing terms. And his enemies defanged: According to the hosts, it was Hillary Clinton’s cronies—not Trump’s—who had the problematic Russia contacts, prompting Trump to tweet: “Watch @foxandfriends now on Podesta and Russia!”

Trump’s cozy relationship with “Fox & Friends” has become one of the great curiosities of his unusual presidency. A well-known cable TV devotee, Trump has found inspiration for his Twitter timeline in various programs—but none so much as Fox News Channel’s 6-9 a.m. talk show. A man with access to the highest levels of the national security apparatus regularly uses this gabfest as an unimpeachable source of information, most notably when he spawned a mini diplomatic crisis by repeating an unfounded theory—delivered by a Fox News analyst from a “Fox & Friends” armchair—that the British spied on Trump on behalf of the Obama administration.

It’s not hard to understand the show’s appeal. While the rest of the media frets and wails over Trump’s policies and sounds the alarm over his tweets, “Fox & Friends” remains unrelentingly positive. It’s pitched to the frequency of the Trump base, but it also feels intentionally designed for Trump himself—a three-hour, high-definition ego fix. For a president who no longer regularly receives adulation from screaming crowds at mega rallies, “Fox & Friends” offers daily affirmation that he is successful and adored, that his America is winning after all.

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The perils of the PTA

Originally published in Zocalo Public Square

Here’s a quick quiz for anyone who has ever had kids or grandkids or nieces and nephews in school: Can you name all of the fundraising items you’ve purchased from the PTA (or whatever acronym represents your committee of ruling parents)?

I can. Over the years, for the sake of my children’s enrichment, I have ordered gold-standard wrapping paper, reusable polyurethane bags, various types of overpriced produce, several mugs embossed with childhood art of questionable quality, and a decidedly non-miraculous miracle sponge.Curtis Richardson

Most working parents I know have a love-hate relationship with the PTA, that benevolent oligarchy in yoga pants. PTAparents are cliquish and relentless, but hard-working and sincere. And ultimately, they’re not the ones to blame for all of the needling flyers, fundraising packets, and soul-crushing suggestions that if you don’t buy gourmet grapefruit, the field trip to the petting farm won’t happen, and everyone will be sorry.

No, the real problem is a system that has yanked the parent organization from its roots: an advocacy group, founded in the 19th century by women who couldn’t vote, which has successfully pushed for kindergarten, mandatory immunizations, and child labor laws. There’s still a National PTA, based near Washington, D.C. But over the years, many school-based groups have lost faith in its agenda—or decided the dues weren’t worthwhile—and gone independent.

And without a common purpose or an overarching mission, many PTAs have evolved into school-based fundraising machines, largely divorced from the “teacher” part of the name, and generally turned inward. (By the time the country song “Harper Valley PTA” came out in 1968, its clannish reputation had been sealed.)

In the process, PTAs have replaced true community with something that’s essentially the opposite.

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Is day care impossible?

daycare

Originally published in the Boston Globe.

ON THE D.C. dinner-party circuit these days, Ivanka Trump is reportedly pushing her pet project: helping women advance in the labor force. As the president’s daughter chats up bigwigs and members of Congress, here’s hoping she’ll bring up the most fundamental challenge for working families: the impossible economics of child care.

To many new parents, the price tag for child care, a non-negotiable, multi-year expense, comes as a gut-wrenching shock. According to the Care Index, created by the think tank New America and Care.com, US parents pay, on average, nearly $800 per month for full-time, center-based care for children under 5. In Massachusetts, that cost is closer to $1,100 per month, about on par with the median state rent and fully a third of the median household income.

These prices, mind you, aren’t making American child-care workers rich; in 2015, their median wage was $9.77 an hour. Operating margins at day-care centers, meanwhile, have historically been thin. It’s not just some elite group of careerists that suffers the consequences. Two-income households are increasingly the norm, due to economic reality; government statistics show that in 2011, 64 percent of mothers of children under 6 were employed, as were more than half of mothers of infants.

They face a child-care system in disarray, riddled with long waiting lists and general discontent, dragging on economic mobility and sometimes public safety. Which raises a question for Ivanka, and for all of us: At what point should government step in?

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Rooting for Ivanka (maybe)

 

ivanka-1000x723

Originally published in WBUR’s Cognoscenti.

It might be time to root for Ivanka Trump.

Not because Nordstrom dropped her shoe line, or Neiman’s dropped her jewelry, or TJ Maxx demoted her clothing from the most prominent racks. Ivanka will survive these retail tragedies.

It’s the tawdriness that will be harder to overcome.

First, Donald Trump attacked Nordstrom in a tweet for being “Terrible!” to his daughter. Then Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway declared, on Fox News, that Americans should “go buy Ivanka’s stuff.” And suddenly, it was harder for Ivanka to maintain her delicate balancing act she’s managed since this odd political experiment began: Supporting her father while protecting her personal brand.

That she managed for so long is no small accomplishment. Just look at the supporters and surrogates whose images have changed irrevocably over the last two years: Conway, Sean Spicer, Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie.

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This is what we do now

Originally published in WBUR’s Cognoscenti

what-we-do-now

We can start by thinking the worst of people, or we can start by thinking the best of people.

And our instincts, for most of this horrid campaign, have been to think the worst — to see a vote for the other side as a moral failing. My various feeds on Tuesday night, dominated by Northeastern urbanites and media types, were filled with disbelief at the voters who could see the totality of Donald Trump, over the course of 15 months, and still elect him the 45th president.

But if you’re going to ascribe the best motives, instead, to a good portion of Americans, you can think about the presidential election results this way: This race was less a measure of what people wanted than what they were willing to overlook.

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To all the nasty women

Originally published in WBUR’s Cognoscenti

hillary-nasty“Such a nasty woman.”

Toward the end of another long and painful debate, that line from Donald Trump made women sit up on edge, antennae raised. From the start, Trump has built his campaign on epithets and insults, most of them calculated for high entertainment value, like cutesy pet names for a pet you disrespect. “Lyin’ Ted.” “Little Marco.” “Crooked Hillary.”

But this comment felt different — not a winking, scripted pronouncement, but an aside he practically whispered into the microphone as Hillary Clinton spoke, like a secret message to those who understood his code. It was a sign of what happens when Trump is provoked: He reaches down into his id and pulls out something ugly.

And it was immediately taken, by women across America, as a badge of honor.

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