Friday, June 12, 2009

Women are people too

Obviously. But maybe not.

I think of myself as a human being who happens to be a woman. One would think that this is rather obvious but our every day language suggests otherwise.

If women (especially women with children) are just people then why do we not have daddy bloggers or dadpreneurs or daddy MBAs? Why is there no 50 Most Powerful Men in Business or the Gentlemen's Professional Golf Association or "men's issues"?*

Ok - so these are rhetorical question - I understand why but the fact that we are so used to this language pattern is very meaningful.

There are two reactions to this state of affairs. The first (and more common among my childless peers) reaction is to avoid any special labels or preferential treatment by gender. This would include eschewing women's organizations, decrying gender based merit scholarships, and doing everything to reiterate the idea that men and women have few meaningful differences.

I am highly sympathetic to this approach but there are two problems. First, is that it verges on reinforcing the idea that male = normal and non-male = aberration. This would be the panelist at a women's conference who exclaimed "Men don't sit around discussing 'work-life balance'!" (Who cares! I'm discussing it! And btw men like to have lives outside of work too. But again, who cares what "men" are allegedly not discussing???) This woman then went on to encourage us to read Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office (or was it Play Like a Woman, Win Like a Man ... or similar obnoxious title?) Perhaps these books have a more interesting and nuanced message inside but I can not get past the loaded titles. This would also be the fellow female student who in a round table discussion on the meaning of CWiB (our student women's group here at Booth) declared somewhat randomly "I'm not on the mommy track!" (Am I on the "mommy track". What the hell is the "mommy track" anyway?)

But there is a second more important problem with this approach: sans babies gender is a completely useless distinction.** But when it comes to babies gender is makes a huge difference and trying to pretend that you are just like everyone else as a woman with children is a great way to drive yourself to despair. (As I have slowly realized.)

Last year I attended a talk by a very well-known woman (former executive at now collapsing enormo-bank) who responded to a question about family/career issues by first saying "Men cover your ears" and then went on to imply that men would not be interested in this side conversation.

But these are not "women's issues". These are "human issues". Motherhood is a fundamental human experience. I think you can simultaneously stand up for the idea that men and women are mostly similar but also incredibly different without undermining social progress.

This was all a preface to say that I'm finally going to post a series of thoughts on gender and babies over the next week or so that have been rattling around in my head for 2+ years. But don't for a moment think that they are a side conversation! If you are a women, have known a woman (or have never known a woman ;) They are for you.

*A search for "daddy blogger" returns about 4 million hits compared to 20.6 million for "mommy blogger", similar story for the other terms.
**I take the somewhat radical position that there is just as much intra-gender as there is inter-gender variation therefore one cannot make meaningful predictions about intelligence, behavior and career prospects based on gender alone. Do men and women have real biological differences that impact behavior? Yes. But in a civilized society where intelligence is more critical than brute force for professional success, I'm not convinced that it matters.


Anonymous said...

How you kept your sanity with two babies(some in making, some in walking) during your MBA course? I cant imagine.
When people tone down while talking to me because I am woman upsets me. It is as if I cant handle rough conversations. I feel like shouting that I can I can. I am too scared to talk about my family priorities at work because I might get branded as "not-so-career-focussed". It does happen. If a man talks about babies, it adds to their appeal and infact it is looked upon as he has life outside work. If woman talks, it is as if "Oh god, she does not take her career seriously". I also have to work 1.5 times as hard as men to prove that I am hardworking. I dont find fault with any but it looks like these are inbuilt in minds of men(mostly)

Metal said...

Really interesting and insightful post. As a man, I sheepishly agree that I do not think along certain lines highlighted by you. Am glad, you are back in the blogosphere.