Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sugar, Spice, Everything Nice and Underpaid

It is a classic double bind – we are told that women do not get equal pay for equal work because we do not demand it, yet when we try to negotiate higher salaries in the same way that men do, we are faced with hostility. So while the decision that many women make to accept a first offer without asking for more might be contributing to the 11 percent pay gap that still exists between men and women’s salaries, it is a completely rational decision based on the correct assumption that we will be punished for the attempt in a way that men are not. According to a Washington Post review of research done at Harvard and Carnegie Mellon:

…women's reluctance [to negotiate for higher wages] was based on an entirely reasonable and accurate view of how they were likely to be treated if they did. Both men and women were more likely to subtly penalize women who asked for more -- the perception was that women who asked for more were ‘less nice’.
For example, one study:
used actors who recorded videos of themselves asking for more money or accepting salaries they had been offered. A new group of 285 volunteers were again asked whether they would be willing to work with the candidates after viewing the videos. Men tended to rule against women who negotiated but were less likely to penalize men; women tended to penalize both men and women who negotiated, and preferred applicants who did not ask for more.

So it seems that we are caught in a negative feedback loop – we do not ask for raises because we are punished when we do, yet the scarcity of women who negotiate bolsters that idea that negotiating women are more aggressive than is appropriate for their sex. So what tends to be beneficial for the individual woman (keeping quiet and accepting the initial offer) ends up being harmful for the group as we conform to a harmful stereotype. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon poses the question of what we can do in the face of what seems “an impossible conundrum.” The first answer that occurs to me is that we should be aware of the tendency to punish assertive women and make sure that we are not subconsciously participating in the same behaviors that hurt us. Women and socially conscious men can choose to encourage rather than punish women who seek equal pay. The second part is, of course, to also hold others accountable when they knowingly or subconsciously penalize women for assertive behaviors that would be acceptable in men. Pandagon does offer one more step – collective action when we are able to recognize such examples of sexism. One or two complaints are easily ignored, but as it turns out, there are a lot of women in the world…

Monday, July 30, 2007

Amygdala Balls

I am always a sucker for primate research, and even more so when the lead scientist of a study that sparks my interest is a woman. So today I’d like to draw your attention to the work of Katerina Semendeferi of the University of California. Dr. Semendeferi is comparing the brains of different primate species of varying degrees of social ability in order to understand what allows us to identify the emotional states of others. The theory du jour seems to be that a round-ish region of the brain called the amygdala might be veritable empathy center, evolved to help members of cooperative social groups know which members of the community they should trust, and which should be avoided. So, the next time you are stuck in a conversation with some block-head who tries to chalk up all your insights to some mysterious women’s intuition, perhaps it will help to know that he is in fact arguing that we have bigger, well…

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Shameless Name-Dropping

It has recently been called to my attention that I am absurdly late in congratulating my friend and former teacher on her appointment as Poet Laureate of Virginia. Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda is an author, an artist, a linguist, a beloved teacher, and an example of so many of the things I aspire to be.

Congratulations, Doc!

Friday, July 20, 2007

I should have known better.

Oh, of course. The President's assertion that we will treat detainees humanly was double speak for 'we allow them to be abused.' According to the New York Times, the executive order signed today "allows the C.I.A. to use some interrogation methods banned for military interrogators but that the Justice Department has determined do not violate the Geneva strictures." Exactly what torture techniques we are allowing remains classified, of course, so that the citizens of the United States can feign ignorance and thereby excuse themselves.

Hope having been defeated, we may all now resume our grieving.

Is Bush a Second Innocence Reader?

A day after we post on the sorrow we feel about our country's heinous torture policies, Bush appears to have done something (dare I say) good by signing an executive order banning cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees. According to the BBC, "[t]hese include sexual acts or attacks on the detainee's religious beliefs." Does this mean that there is hope for positive change? Will this executive order this mean anything?

We would like to remind the President that we also requested that rights of trial be extended to the accused and that the United States take a firm stance against rendition and secret prisons.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Disappeared in Pakistan

The New York Times has an article today about women’s struggles in Pakistan to find their disappeared husbands and sons and to make the Pakistani government answer questions about why their loved ones have been detained and if they are still alive. One sentence in the article particularly struck me, “…human rights groups here assert that Pakistan’s security services have been sweeping up civilians and holding them incommunicado without charges since 9/11, when the government forged an alliance with the United States to fight terrorists.” There was a time when I would not have believed any implicit claim that our government had encouraged another country to disappear citizens for any reason. There was a time when the phrase “to disappear” someone did not make since in English, existed only as an awkward translation from Spanish. Tragically, that time has passed. With the establishment of the ‘detention center’ at Guantanamo bay and the surfacing of the infamous ‘torture memo,’ my belief that my country was a leader in promoting human rights has dimmed. I am nostalgic for a time when to call someone a disappeared person made no sense in my culture – it is a term that should be diminishing in relevance, not growing in usage.

We must do something. Women’s groups and peace groups and all citizens who still believe that the United States could be the country we once imagined it to be, we must find a way to pressure our governments into once again behaving in humane ways, even in uncertain times.

Five Apples a Day

While eating more than the FDA recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day might not give you any extra benefits, it is still believed that eating those five does decrease your risk of breast cancer. The study, reported in Science magazine, was conducted by giving two groups of women previously treated for breast cancer two different recommendations – that they either eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day or more than five. There was no difference between the two groups when rates of relapse were compared. The study has one major flaw, however. Researchers assumed that each group of women followed the recommendations given and did not routinely eat more or less fruit than recommended. The assertion that eating at least five servings helps prevent breast cancer goes unchallenged in the article. More about the link between diet and cancer can be found at the American Cancer Society web site.

Perhaps it is time for me to re-evaluate my usual all sugar, starch and caffeine diet.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Parental Leave

The hypocrisy angers me. In the upcoming election, the term “family values” will undoubtedly be again used by conservative candidates to denote an anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-sex education agenda. While conservative candidates use rhetoric aimed at convincing the American public that they are somehow made pro-family by efforts to limit family planning options, they do little to help make it easy or appealing for women to actually become mothers.

The difference between the United States and most European countries when it comes to maternity and paternity leave makes my stomach sink. Quite frankly, I was shocked when I discovered the difference between the United States and the rest of the Americas in paid time given to working parents. Two friends of mine, one a scientist from Mexico and the other a business woman from Germany, recently pointed out that many expatriates try to avoid giving birth while in the United States, for economic reasons. Their own countries, for example, put mine to shame when leave time given to families is compared. Mexico offers 12 weeks of maternity leave at full pay while Germany offers 14 weeks at full pay and three years of parental leave so that mothers and fathers alike can take time with their children and return to their jobs.

If we are to be a nation that values families, it is time that we question politicians who speak of family values about their views on paid parental leave. Businesses need to guarantee that women will be allowed to be mothers as well as workers, and that men can choose to be good fathers. It is time to bring up some legislation that would bring us into line with the rest of the west.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Another Myth Debunked

In any debate I’ve ever had about the rights of women, anecdotal evidence is invariably offered as support of some outrageous claim that women are “naturally different” from men in a way that makes us less apt in the public sphere or less able to act on our own behalves. Part of the frustration that stems from these conversations is the realization that it is hard to refute these sexist arguments with anything other than contradictory anecdotes, since it is hard to get ethically obtained falsifiable data about your own species. It is notoriously hard to limit the variables in any experiment done on humans and, even in such a case where you could, you would still have to contend with the researcher’s biases. Just yesterday, Casmall advised me that I should just not worry about the more harmless types of sexism, since common stereotypes are just too hard to debunk with logic.

However, researchers at the University of Arizona were not content to let these “harmless” stereotypes go unchallenged. The journal Science reports this month that although “[w]omen are generally assumed to be more talkative than men,” both men and women alike use approximately 16,000 words a day. The experiment seems as though it was easy enough to conduct, and it provided quantitative results. Over the course of six years, men and women were fitted with recorders that essentially tallied the number of words they spoke each day. The results showed that both sexes talk about the same amount. A nice synopsis of the Science article can be found at SEED.

UPDATE: Thus Spake Zuska has an elegant post about how reluctant people are to change their sexist ideas, even in the face Science-worthy data. Apparently, anecdotal evidence (which Zuska loving refers to as the My Personal Experience About the Way Things Are Defense) actually trumps science. Yup, as Z. says:

...some people are unwilling to have their constraints relieved. For those men who are so enamored of the Strong Silent Man stereotype, I wish they'd live up to their self-proclaimed identity and shut up about it already.
Can I get an Amen?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Surgeon General told "Keep Quiet"

Today we are confronted with fresh evidence that the very government agencies intended to protect and inform the American public are routinely suppressing important health-related data in order to bolster certain political positions, effectively trading the public’s well-being for their blind support of contentious and potentially harmful policies. This morning, former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona testified that the administration “…would not allow him to speak or issue reports about stem cells, emergency contraception, sex education, or prison, mental and global health issues.” The office of the Surgeon General thus joins the EPA and NASA in an ever-growing club of agencies being coerced by the executive into doctoring, ignoring or contradicting scientific fact in order to support policies that are contrary to the best interest of public well-being.

When will the outcry come? The NASA chief’s denial of global warming and the EPA’s ambiguous language concerning the air quality in New York impacts us as citizens of the United States. Yet, a Surgeon General who actively suppresses information about emergency contraception and sex education to appease the political unease of an administration that aims to limit access to birth control and overturn Roe v. Wade impacts us as female citizens of the United States. The New York Times also mentions, in passing, that the current nominee for Surgeon General is on the record as refuting scientific fact and logic alike by claiming that homosexual sex is both “unnatural” and “unhealthy.” Will we choose to wait to change this trend of executive hegemony until it has become too dangerous to do so? How do we ensure that there is more transparency in government? How do we best fight to protect our hard-earned rights and liberties?

Monday, July 9, 2007

A Utah Septuagenarian Woman Jailed Over Unkempt Lawn

Quite frankly, this was just too disturbingly bizarre to go unmentioned. The BBC reports that a little old lady was arrested in Utah after being injured by a police officer who was attempting to reprimand her over the state of her lawn. After allegedly hitting the woman in the nose, the officer took her to the hospital and then to jail for resisting arrest. She was later released. She is quoted as explaining that she feels rather “distraught” by the incident and wishes she could “start [the] day over and it would all be different.”

In today’s news, a clear case of societal amnesia

Today two prominent women in the Bush administration once again make front page news, unfortunately under ignoble circumstances. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the BBC Americas all lead with similar front-page stories, essentially informing the public of an indomitable lack of information coming from the White House as our President evokes executive privilege to keep Sara M. Taylor and Harriet E. Myers from testifying on-record before congress about the firing of federal prosecutors for seemingly political motives. If you’ll remember, the last time the Bush administration evoked executive privilege to keep these women from testifying, it was announced that these (former) top aids could be interviewed by Congress, but not while they were under oath and not if any transcripts were made of their testimony.

It would take singularly convoluted logic for the American people to convince themselves that this behavior is indicative of innocence on the part of the executive, for if there was no attempt to bully the Justice Department and all federal prosecutors into following an agenda set by the executive, how can this lack of transparency be explained?

How short our memories must be; for if we could remember the troubles of the generations before us, then surely women living in a fairly free and open society where courts could act apart from political concerns would not help to put an authoritarian, religiously-motivated establishment in its place.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

A Second Innocence

Innocence n. 1. the quality of state of being innocent; freedom from sin or moral wrong. 2. freedom from legal or specific wrong; guiltlessness. 3. simplicity; absence of guile or cunning; naiveté. 4. lack of knowledge or understanding. 5. harmlessness; innocuousness. 6. chastity.


Since the story of Eve and the apple, or perhaps since the myth of Pandora and the freeing of all the evils of the world, the idea of innocence has been linked with ignorance linguistically as well as ideologically, particularly for women. Greeks, Romans, and Christians, whatever disputes they might have harbored, all agreed that women were originally responsible for all pain, sorrow, and tragedy in the world and maintained that an innocent woman was one who lacked knowledge and was free of curiosity. Even as our societies changed in other ways, the ideas of purity and passivity have remained intrinsically linked for women. Both the “natural” virtue of women as well as their “natural” corruptibility have been used by our societies as excuses to keep us silent, powerless, and out of the public sphere.

Yet, thanks to the bravery and activeness of our mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers, the western world has recently become a much freer place for females. Suffrage, the freedom to wed the men of our own choosing, the opportunity to gain an education, and the ability to contribute to society in the way of our choosing are all fairly recent gains. Now that our time has come to work to improve the societies in which we live for our daughters, many of us struggle with the more subtle sexist issues that remain embedded in our society, and even in our own psyches. As we put the final strokes on a new image of femininity, one free of the idea that we must be virginal to be virtuous and powerless to be pure, we must decide what of our ancestors’ view of femininity remains true and what must be re-written. Questions about what it means to be a woman in the west find their way into all arenas of public and private life as we redefine antiquated ideas of dress, professionalism, sex, love, and family. It is to the search for valid answers to all these questions that we dedicate this blog.

We begin with the affirmation of a second kind of innocence, one divorced from the idea of ignorance. An innocence that does not find its basis in a lack of experience, but in an acceptance of our triumphs and failures, an understanding of our own motivations, and in a dedication to improving that understanding and bettering the world for ourselves and each other. As we accept our role as shapers of our own societies, we must not think of ourselves as made guilty through our passion for knowledge and power, but made worthy by our understanding and experience.