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In her new book, ‘The XX Factor,’ Alison Wolf examines the rise of the working woman and why the beauty advantage has a real impact on office politics – except in the few cases where it’s a hindrance.

Just the other day, at a London event, I heard a well-known female columnist singing the praises of a recent program on the BBC. There had been three economists discussing the latest dismal news, she said, all women, and the moderator was female too. “And they were all so nice and polite and kept saying how much they admired the others’ work. Not like men would be at all.”

Well, maybe. Perhaps the producers just failed to find a good cross section of economic opinion that evening. Two weeks after that conversation I was at a symposium in Amsterdam. There were three economists on the platform, all male; and the moderator was male as well. And they were all very nice and very polite and they all kept praising each other’s work as well.

There is some much-publicized evidence that “women don’t ask” for a high starting salary, a raise, a promotion, in situations where men would. There is also well-publicized research suggesting that, in specially staged competitive environments, women are more likely than men to shy away from competition, and men to embrace it. There’s evidence that higher testosterone levels lead to greater risk-taking and, on real trading floors, are associated with greater success. And then there is a whole wealth of evidence showing that boys tend to be much more physically aggressive and openly competitive than girls in the way they play, and in their liking for teams, games and keeping score.

It is this sort of research that leads some people to argue that women will never break through glass ceilings without special help; and others to speculate that, if there had been more women involved in finance (“Lehman Sisters”), the banking crashes of 2008 would never have happened.

Yet overall, the evidence from psychology is—as so often—surprisingly mixed. Women don’t always hold back in mixed company; and even when the men are clearly competing harder, the absolute differences are not always as large as you might imagine from the headlines. As for “not asking,” being less aggressive at work, more risk-averse: yes, the evidence suggests there are male–female differences, and yes, they may be hardwired. But we also know that young men and women these days earn the same, like for like. So even if there are these differences, they don’t seem to be having any very serious effects.

On balance, young women today probably benefit from the sexual signals and sexual dynamics of the mixed workplace. And certainly all the successful young women I interviewed for this book were attractive too. That wasn’t my intention: my interviewees were friends of friends, colleagues of colleagues. But every single one was slim and groomed, with good hair, good skin and good clothes. I would also bet a lot of money that, if I’d been interviewing their male counterparts, I’d have found almost exactly the same thing: maybe a couple of exceptions, but no more than that.

Being good-looking, being slim and radiating good health are all sexually attractive. But the signaling involved goes well beyond the sexual, because the things to which men and women respond are not random sexually or otherwise. They have bedded down in our species because they are signs of a general “fitness.”

People with certain characteristics are likely to make good mates because they are more likely to be healthy, long-lived and successful. They seem likely not just to breed but also to keep the children alive and well. But as humans, our adult lives are about a lot more than reproduction and giving the impression that you are a good bet as a parent. In these other parts of our lives first impressions also matter. In order to do well, we need to convey to other people that we are competent, trustworthy, superior, someone they want to hire and have around. One of the ways we do it is through the characteristics associated with sexual attraction; things that other people respond to automatically, but for good reason.

That is why signaling is not just directly sexual, but general. It is an important part of why beauty pays, and good-looking lawyers earn more. And it is why appearances, and the responses they evoke, don’t fade into irrelevance once a professional woman hits her late thirties. As we can infer from a peacock’s tail.

Peacocks’ Tails and Costly Signaling

Upriver from London, the Thames boasts a succession of manicured riverside pubs. On sunny days, you can drink in the company of Thames Path walkers, owners of small boats, waterbirds, and, at my favorite, peacocks. The cocks stroll around among the drinkers and the peahens, displaying their extraordinary tails on a regular basis. They also fly up to the pub roof, to make their ugly calls. If you only ever saw the birds on the ground, you wouldn’t think such flying was possible; and in a world of fast-moving predators—wild cats, foxes—these tails seem crazy. Which is why they have fascinated evolutionary biologists from Darwin on.

Darwin deduced that, way back, peahens started to prefer mating with males who had large showy tails. This meant that the larger the tail, the more offspring a peacock was likely to have, and over time tails got bigger and bigger still. But why would dowdy, sensibly camouflaged peahens prefer this to a lean, mean fast-flying bird? “Costly signaling” is the answer.

Costly signaling is behavior that is very costly in terms of resources—time, energy, risk or, in humans, money—and also conveys information that has potentially big returns for the signaler. For example, a huge tail takes energy to grow and maintain, and handicaps and endangers its owner. But a peacock with a fine tail therefore proclaims that he is physically a fine, strong and fit specimen who can easily cope with all these demands. And is a desirable mate.

Among nonhuman species, signaling is all about mating and choosing a good parent for your offspring. Among humans it goes much further. We are also interested in choosing people for a much wider range of activities. However, the basic problem is the same. There is a lot about people that we don’t know and we are trying to evaluate their future potential as well as their current worth, as employees, employers, trustees, political leaders.

This is even harder in today’s large and complex human societies than it was in the small groups of our hunter-gatherer past. One reason why there is such intense competition to enter a select few of the world’s universities is the signal that their degree certificates send: not about “reproductive fitness”—that is, the likelihood you’ll produce top-quality offspring—but about your intelligence, application and general fitness for top jobs.

Certificates, however, only take you so far. A lot of human signaling remains face-to-face, whether it’s for elected office, the CEO’s suite or just the good graces of someone you want on your side at work. There, first impressions take in physical attributes, but also the way you dress and behave, and what these seem to say about your backstory…

The XX Factor by Alison Wolf

Research on beauty confirms, time and again, that in the labor market, men benefit or suffer just as much as women: for example, as we saw earlier, male lawyers with good looks gain just as much as good-looking female ones. This seems puzzling at first, since women place much less weight on appearances than men do when choosing husbands: fecundity matters less to women, resources more. However, as we have just seen, signaling by humans goes well beyond specifically sexual encounters. We see physical characteristics as evidence of underlying quality; we like to be among the successful and able. And we definitely like to think that the people we hire are from the top half of the distribution.

Talking about “beauty” makes people think of facial features, but that is only part of it. Body weight and height also matter. Of course, there are individual exceptions; but tall men do significantly better in the labor market than shorter ones, after controlling for education, class, race and general health. And it is not just the very short who suffer a penalty; men in the whole bottom fifth for height are significantly affected. People associate height in men with strength, energy and resources, which is why short male politicians often wear stacked heels; and the labor market data indicate that our perceptions translate into concrete advantage.

Obesity, meanwhile, is bad for your earnings as well as your health, especially if you’re a woman. In laboratory studies, people claim they won’t discriminate against the obese, and then go ahead and do just that. Labor market data for the US and the UK confirm that obese women really suffer for their weight, even more than men do for their height.

This isn’t just because obesity is more common among the poor, although it is. The finding holds true even after controlling for education, family background and health. Obese white women earn a lot less on average than their otherwise-similar peers. I suspect this goes well beyond aesthetics and signals of fecundity. In modern societies, which value slimness and sport, an obese woman is “read” as someone who has little self-control or ability to stick at something difficult (like exercise or a diet). This is then generalized into their likely value as an employee.

All of this helps explain why, in 2010, “of the 16 female United States senators between ages fifty-six and seventy-four, not one has visible gray hair; nor do 90 percent of the women in the House of Representatives.”

Academic lawyer Deborah Rhode, who pointed this out in her attack on the “beauty bias,” finds it demeaning verging on despicable. But these women are behaving in a rational and sensible way. As rising UK politician Liz Truss explained to me: “In politics, one’s gender is quite an important factor in the way people look at you. If you’re an analyst or an accountant, the output is the set of accounts, the report. Whereas if you’re a politician the output is the person. Your physical appearance is more important, the way your voice sounds, your backstory, all of those are important in a way they’re not in many other careers. And the initial impression is very strong.”

Initial impressions are critical for undecided voters on the eve of an election. They are critical on the campaign trail. In the UK system, they are critical in getting your party’s nomination. Local branches of the major parties decide on their candidate at selection meetings at which shortlisted contenders speak and are quizzed. Your performance at such a meeting and the image you project decide your fate.

None of this is specific to women. Elderly Chinese male politicians all have black hair because it’s dyed, not because the Chinese don’t go gray. But signaling and first impressions have very particular implications for women, because looking young and looking healthy, with gleaming hair and clear skin, are prime female signals.

If you’re a female politician, you don’t try to look like a would be topless model. But you do, for very good reason, try to look slim, healthy, attractive and reasonably young. The US senators who worry about gray hairs are not trying to attract mates; their ages are matters of public record, and they are interested in power and influence, not reproduction. They know, however, that age in women is not associated with power and fitness: it is the wrong signal and not one they want to emit. And I bet none of them is obese, either.

 

Excerpted from The XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World by Alison Wolf. Copyright © 2013 by Alison Wolf. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.


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Today, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization will announce a partnership with Getty Images, one of the largest providers of stock photos for ads and editorial outlets. The “Lean In collection” has over 2,500 images of modern-looking women being doctors, having tattoos, and tending to children without literally juggling them.

a69bc655cShutterstock/Nina Malyna 

Stock photos of women, especially “career women” or “working mothers” are notoriously sexist and often just bizarre. The classic compilation “Women Laughing Alone with Salad” from Edith Zimmerman at The Hairpin illustrates the problem pretty well. More recently, The Cut compiled stock images of “feminism,” which include photos of big-breasted women wearing boxing gloves, climbing ladders in heels, and holding power tools. If you search “feminism” on Shutterstock, another lead provider of stock images, photos of women shaving their imaginary beards appear on the first page of results.

3b82f2342Shutterstock/Vikulin

Obviously, it’d be great to have some more realistic options. Sandberg hopes the Getty partnership will help change the way America views women. She told The New York Times, “When we see images of women and girls and men, they often fall into the stereotypes that we’re trying to overcome, and you can’t be what you can’t see.” The Lean In collection features photos of stylish working women (even older women!) and young girls using computers. It also includes images of men caring for children. While the models are all conventionally attractive, they’re not exclusively white.

The partnership is typical of Sandberg’s non-profit organization: it fights open sexism and a portion of the proceeds go right back to Lean In. Feminist Twitter is already on board.

Lead image by NotarYES via Shutterstock. 

By Allie Jones at thewire


When asked who is responsible for taking care of the Christmas tasks – almost every time the woman of the family say they do the work.

With only three shopping days left before Christmas, there’s a lot to get done. But who does it all, and do men do their fair share?

New research finds that women are bearing much of the work this Christmas – much more than men.

Those who are married or single but living with a partner are asked, firstly, who is mainly responsible for a series of Christmas tasks. In every case except one (doing the washing up), more women say they are responsible for the work than do men.

69% of women say they send out the Christmas cards, while only 12% of men say the same. Buying the presents is split female to male by 61%-8%; doing the food shopping by 54%-13%; and cooking the Christmas dinner by 51%-17%.

Christmas housework

If everyone was telling the truth, the percentage of people saying their partner does the work would be the same as the percentage of partners saying they do the work themselves. This is not the case, however: much of the time men are less likely to say their partner does the work than women are to say that they do it themselves, and more likely to say they spread it out evenly between them.

Couples are also asked who drinks the most (39% of men say they do, compared to only 14% of women) and who falls asleep first on the day itself (38% of men, 13% of women).

Chrstmas moments

Men only seem more altruistic when it comes to presents: 34% of men say their partner gets the most expensive presents compared to only 9% of women, and 28% of men say their partner gets the most presents compared to 5% of women.

Some have complained that it is the media that perpetuates the idea that women should do all the work. Last Christmas 600 people complained that a festive TV campaign was sexist. The advert showed a harassed mother swamped with festive preparations, and ended with the line “Behind every great Christmas there’s mum”.


Did you know an estimated ten percent of Executive Chefs in the U.S. are women? Hot Bread Kitchen’s stated mission is to leverage the buying power of the food industry to create professional opportunities for low-income immigrant women. While that is true, our secret agenda is to change the gender dynamic of the culinary industry and get more women in the kitchen. To help advance our secret agenda, we launched the Women Bake Bread Scholarship program on Crowdrise.

In 2008, I began Hot Bread Kitchen out of my home as a baking job training program for immigrant women. As a former United Nations policy analyst, I had travelled the world researching migration patterns, while eating my way through each countries’ local dishes. Everywhere I travelled, I saw women standing over stoves and communal ovens, women cooking for their families and feeding their communities.
Upon my return to New York, my appetite for these regional dishes didn’t fade, but my ability to find them did. When I ate in local restaurants, it was always men in the kitchen. Where were the women? Did they forego their culinary heritage and skill upon immigrating to the U.S.? I realized that the answer to these questions was no, but they were instead selling food in the street or cooking in people’s homes.
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Accessing formal, living-wage positions in food manufacturing often eluded immigrant women because of their unfamiliarity with the English language, lack of formal training, or the absence of professional networks. As a result, immigrant women are the most vulnerable sector of the labor force, paid less than native women or foreign-born men and often abused in the workplace. Hot Bread Kitchen overcomes these barriers to entry by providing paid, on-the-job baking and English fluency training, coupled with job training services. By placing women in management-track positions in the food industry, we are helping them to build economic security for their families—but job placements are also part of our master plan. By placing and promoting immigrant women in leadership positions in the food industry, we are undoubtedly shifting the traditionally male-dominated nature of the business of food in the United States.

Support our now not-so-secret agenda by donating to the Women Bake Bread Scholarship program. Each week, we will release new prizes, like secret supper clubs and private cookie baking classes to help incentivize donors. Our goal is to raise $100,000 by October 30, 2013 so we definitely need the support of the GOOD community to give a damn, donate, and spread the word.

Want to be the next superhero? Aim for a career in science and technology. Natalie Portman and Marvel Comics have teamed up to start the Ultimate Mentor Adventure, a program for high school girls interested in STEM programs. Portman was moved to participate after acting as an astrophysicist, Jane Foster, in the movie Thor and its sequel. The girls who are selected will be paired with a mentor in the science field and will participate in behind-the-scenes events. Forms and videos can be submitted until October 20. Instructions are available on Disney’s site.

via NerdApproved


More stay-at-home mothers have gone back into employment in the past two years than in the previous 15 combined, an official study suggests, in the wake of controversial Government reforms blamed for undermining traditional families.

Almost 200,000 women in two-parent families with dependent children have re-entered the workplace since 2011 compared with 185,000 who went back to work between 1996 and 2011.

The increase – the sharpest in a generation – comes on the back of changes to child benefit which saw the Government accused of forcing middle-class stay-at-home mothers back into employment and the failure to implement tax breaks for married couples.

Campaign groups who support the right of parents to care for their children at home said the figures effectively destroyed David Cameron’s promise that he would lead Britain’s “most family friendly Government” ever.

They said it bore out fears that the Coalition policy was driven by an “agenda” which sought to “separate mothers from their young children”.

A study published by the Office for National Statistics shows that the number of working mothers has soared to record levels with large majorities even of those with young children now going out to work.

It shows that the total number of women with dependent children in the workplace has leapt by almost a fifth since the mid 1990s, when comparable records were first kept.

Overall the number of working mothers is up by almost 800,000 to 5.3 million since 1996.

The number of married or cohabiting mothers in the workplace, has jumped from 3.8 million to 4.2 million since 1996 – an increase of 384,000, with the majority returning to work under the Coalition.

Laura Perrins, a former barrister who is a leading figure in the campaign group Mothers at Home Matter, said: “I would say the Government have absolutely failed to be in any way family friendly.

“They don’t seem to understand what family friendly means – they think it basically means separating mothers from their young children.

“The Coalition are more interested in ideology and the gender politics of getting more mothers back into work than being family friendly.

“They have dedicated themselves to separating mothers from their young children. The needs of children are completely ignored.

“One of the reasons why things have got to where they are now has got to be the loss of child benefit – for many families that loss has got to be made up somewhere.

“We have always said that there was more at work than getting the deficit under control, this has been very agenda driven, it is about getting mothers back to the workplace, probably to increase GDP.”

Justine Roberts, founder of the website Mumsnet, said: “We do know that people are feeling more and more squeezed so in that sense it could be there is a feeling that either you can’t afford to stay out of the workplace because of the effect on their future prospects or just simply that you need to go out and earn more money.”

But she said that the cost of childcare and the state of the job market in recent years were having the opposite effect on other women – with some who would like to go back to work deciding it is not worth their while to do so.

While there have been big increases in single mothers going out to work, after initiatives by successive governments aimed at tackling child poverty, the number of mothers who are married or in a long-term relationship in the workplace has also jumped by almost 10 per cent in that time.

Overall 72 per cent of married mothers now work, up from 67 per cent in the 1990s.

Crucially, the biggest increase among the group has been in the last two years alone when 199,000 more mothers who are either married or in a stable long-term relationship entered the workplace. In the previous 15 year, the figure rose by only 185,000.

The study, which charts changes in the labour market over the last 40 years, also highlights how women who do re-enter the workplace are having to settle for lower wages and lower status than their male counterparts.

The study charts a dramatic transformation in the make-up of the British workforce since the early 1970s, a period which have seen a raft of legislation ensuring equal pay and equal rights, benefits changes and changing attitudes.

It shows that the proportion of men of working age in employment has fallen from 92 per cent in 1971 to 76 per cent this year.

At the same time the proportion of working-age women with jobs has jumped from 53 per cent to 67 per cent – although the majority of the increase came in the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet while the growth of women in the workplace has slowed in the last two decades the number of working mothers has continued to rise dramatically.

The study showed that two thirds of married British mothers with dependent children under the age of three are now working.

The report follows a bruising period for David Cameron’s family policy which, according to a polling study earlier this month, threatens to cost the Conservatives the next election.

Tory backbenchers have been bitterly disappointed by the failure so far to honour a pre-election promise to recognise marriage in the tax system.

There was also anger when the Coalition scrapped child benefit for many middle class households in which anyone is a higher-rate tax payer, even if they are the only earner.

The change, announced in 2010 and which came into force this year, infuriated many stay-at-home mothers who accused the Government of effectively forcing them back to work and someone else to look after their children.

The recent surge in mothers entering the workplace corresponds with the period since the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced the child benefit changes.

There was also anger this year after the Coalition unveiled plans to exclude parents who do not work from new state-funded childcare support.

When Mr Osborne was then accused of patronising women when he spoke out to defend the policy, describing mothers who stay at home to look after their children as making a “lifestyle choice”.


High-profile mayoral elections this year have already proved that the steps to City Hall remain steep for female candidates.

Only one of the nation’s 10 largest cities is run by a woman: Annise Parker of Houston, who faces re-election in November. Just 12 of the 100 largest cities have women in the top job, including Fort Worth, Baltimore and Las Vegas.

This year has seen two notable candidates falling short: Democrats Wendy Greuel in Los Angeles, who made it to a runoff and then lost, and Christine Quinn in New York, who was considered the front-runner for months only to come in third in a Sept. 10 primary.

Next week, Boston voters have a chance:  Charlotte Golar Richie is one of a dozen candidates for mayor in the non-partisan preliminary election Sept. 24.

The political group EMILY’s List — which raises money for female candidates — has endorsed women running for mayor this year in 10 cities, including Minneapolis; Dayton, Ohio; and Tacoma, Wash. But three are now sidelined, including Anita Lopez, who did not make a runoff in Toledo, Ohio.

“To be the chief executive, to be the person where the buck stops, that’s that kind of last hurdle for women in elective office,” says Debbie Walsh of Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics — who points out that big-city mayors wield considerably more power than individual members of Congress. “When you get to those really big cities where when you’re the chief executive you’re overseeing millions and millions of dollars in jobs and a big law enforcement presence, that’s where it seems to be a bit stalled out.”

In smaller cities, women do better. About 17.4% of all city mayors are women, about on par with the U.S. House of Representatives. And the U.S. Senate now has 20 women, an all-time high.

It could be that voters have more trouble seeing women as executives than as legislators, where collaboration, a traditionally female attribute, is more prized. Currently five of 50 governorships are held by women, and there are 24 states that have never had a female governor, according to counts kept by the Center for American Women and Politics.

Though New Jersey Democrat Barbara Buono faces long odds to unseat Gov. Chris Christie in November,  things could change in 2014, Walsh says, when 36 states elect governors and women have already announced candidacies in New Mexico, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Jennifer Lawless, director of American University’s Women and Politics Institute, says studies show that voters aren’t reluctant to elect women to executive office.  But not enough women run, she says. “The issue isn’t that they don’t have the credentials or the background anymore. The issue is that that’s not sufficient to get them to run for office.”

The difficulty of women winning executive branch jobs  “is  something we want to look at and understand better,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock says. For the group, which was formed to get women elected to Congress, spending on candidates in municipal elections means navigating a welter of state and local election finance regulations, she says. “These are tough glass ceilings for us to break.”

In New York, Quinn’s loss revived a longstanding argument about whether female candidates are judged more harshly than men on their clothes and demeanor, fueled by the comment of Republican mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis, who said, “If I have to listen to that voice for four years, I’ll die.” The New York Times reported after her loss that a team of seasoned political women had suggested Quinn pay attention to whether she was coming across as likable enough, and that opinion poll respondents described her, unfavorably, as “ambitious” and “bossy.”

“Nobody who runs for mayor of New York is not ambitious,” Walsh says. “But to be called that as a woman, that is framed as a negative.”

Having a female mayor is a barrier that, once broken, appears to stay that way. While Chicago hasn’t elected a woman since Jane Byrne in 1979, San Diego and Dallas have had three women serve as mayors, and San Jose and Houston have had two.

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is the second woman to be mayor of Baltimore, winning election in 2011 after being appointed to replace Sheila Dixon a year earlier.

“I think that’s sometimes what it takes. You have to be able to see someone in that position,” she says. “Think about what it took when people were wrapping their minds around having a black president. It went from ‘Ain’t no way, never going to happen,’ to now people don’t give it a second thought.”

Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY


The vast majority of Americans, regardless of gender, are never going to serve on a Fortune 500 company’s board of directors. Consequently the gross gender imbalance in board seats is not necessarily something that the woman on the street spends a lot of time fuming about. Nonetheless, the imbalance is striking, and I think people ought to pay more attention to it.

fortune 500 board

The main reason is that here we have a field of American life where I think we can say pretty clearly that meritocracy is not an important factor. Nothing is ever purely about anything, but corporate boards in the United States are about as close as it gets to a pure case of privilege reproducing privilege. The key criteria for serving on a corporate board is to seem like the kind of person who would serve on a corporate board—which is to say a white man of a certain age. But there are no actual job qualifications or performance criteria for nonexecutive directors. So the CEO of the Washington Post Company (Slate‘s parent) is on the board of Facebook, and Al Gore is on the board of Apple, and a former high-level BMW executive is on the board of Microsoft. Yet if you want to put women on your board, this very same open-endedness makes it easy. Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, is also on the Microsoft board. And good for her.

Now my best guess is that women’s underrepresentation on boards doesn’t have huge practical consequences. There is some evidence that more diverse boards outperform less diverse ones, and probably some downstream gender-equity issues would get addressed better if firms had better gender equity on their boards.

But the lack of board diversity is important primarily because it’s a huge tell—and not because it has huge consequences. A company that can’t manage to have half its board seats filled with women simply isn’t trying. Which is to say that the vast majority of large American companies simply aren’t trying. And yet most of those countries would say they think diversity and gender equality are important. But given a fairly simple, straightforward, and low-consequence way of making a statement about gender equity, virtually no firms do it. Most other corporate staffing decisions are a good deal more complicated, and the barriers to gender inclusion may be more real or more robust. But when you see a corporate board that’s not even close to half women—and nine times out of 10 that’s what you’ll see—you shouldn’t trust any assurances you receive about anything else the company is doing.


Are you “too beautiful” to be in the workplace? Can your boss fire you if he thinks your appearance is a threat to his marriage?

The answer, at least according to the Iowa Supreme Court, is “yes.”

Here’s just another obstacle to women’s advancement in the workplace; one of many that we argue create a new “soft war” on women.

Research finds that women are penalized if they are seen as too talkative, too competent, too aggressive, too self-promoting–or, ironically, too passive– too self-effacing or not caring enough.

Now, a court of law on July 12 said you can be fired if your boss thinks you’re too good looking.

This case arose when a 33-year-old dental assistant, Melissa Nelson, was fired by her boss, dentist James Knight of Fort Dodge, because he believed her good looks were a threat to his marriage. He said he would be tempted to begin an affair with her.

Nelson reportedly engaged in no improper behavior. It was just that her boss believed that he could not control his own sexual feelings, and so he had the right to deprive her of her livelihood.

This notion would be laughable, except that when Nelson brought suit for sex discrimination, an Iowa district court dismissed the case.

Amazingly, it found that she was fired “not because of her gender but because she was a threat to the marriage of Dr. Knight.”

When she appealed, the Iowa Supreme Court said the key issue was “whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.” The court ruled that the answer was yes.

Similar Case

Appearance was also a factor when a banker sued Citibank in 2010 for firing her because she was too curvy. Debrahlee Lorenzana, an attractive young Puerto Rican woman, was hired to be a business banker at a New York Citibank branch office.

She said her male managers gave her a list of clothing items she was not allowed to wear: turtlenecks, pencil skirts, fitted suits and three-inch heels.

According to her lawsuit, her bosses told her that “as a result of the shape of her figure, such clothes were purportedly ‘too distracting’ for her male colleagues and supervisors to bear.”

After trying to dress more conservatively, which included wearing no makeup, she was told she looked “sickly,” and when she left her hair curly instead of straightening it, they told her she should go ahead and straighten it every day.

She finally got the message that there was no way she could win. “I could have worn a paper bag, and it would not have mattered,” she told the Village Voice. “If it wasn’t my shirt, it was my pants. If it wasn’t my pants, it was my shoes. They picked on me every single day.” (The case went to arbitration; the results were not publicly revealed.)

What’s the message here? Women can’t win. They are constantly inundated by media advertising, telling them that, above all, they must be attractive and pleasing to men. But at the same time, they must be super-competent to succeed on the job.

A woman has absolutely no power to control how her employer will see her. Her behavior can be irreproachable and her competence unquestioned. But if her boss decides he can’t handle his feelings, she’s toast. The onus is not on him to keep his personal feelings under control, which we are all expected to do at work. Why is his concern about his marriage her problem?

‘Classic Discrimination’

Why did an all-male court not recognize that in the Nelson case, the dentist’s behavior was classic discrimination?

Should the law really allow men to fire perfectly qualified women when they perceive a threat to their marriages?

If this precedent is allowed to stand, male managers will be given broad license to fire women for all kinds of reasons. Suppose a male manager is in fact threated by a highly competent female employee who might be after his job. All he has to say, with no proof, is that he feels she’s a threat to his marriage, and so he can fire her. Under this interpretation of the law, she has no recourse.

What if the situation were reversed? What if a female manager felt that her attractive male assistant was a threat to her marriage and fired him? Can you imagine a male court upholding that decision?

Women are expected to keep their emotions in check at work and if they don’t, they are seen as a problem. But men can let their feelings determine their actions, with no penalty. For example, male managers who display anger are not evaluated poorly by their co-workers, but angry women are seen as incompetent and out of control.

Women are being urged to live up to their potential, get as much education as they can and “lean in” to their careers, as Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg puts it in her best-selling book. But new obstacles keep surfacing where we least expect them.

Women can’t keep leaping all these hurdles on their own. The courts need to be allies of women’s rights in the workplace, not just another barrier to their success. We’ll never win the “soft war” unless things change.

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett are the authors of “The New Soft War on Women,” to be published in October by Tarcher-Penguin.


You say there’s a problem getting women into technology? The real problem might be the (some) men.

The tech industry – more specifically the chunk of it located over on the US west coast – has hardly covered itself in glory.

First there was the example of Sqoot, which earlier this week made a rather weak joke in a call for an event called the Boston API Jam: “Women: Need another beer? Let one of our friendly (female) event staff get that for you.” As Betabeat points out, this quite quickly lost them a couple of sponsors. Sqoot said sorry, in a Google doc and on Twitter; the discussion then carried on over to Hacker News, where you’ll find that quite a few commenters … don’t quite get it. Such as this one:

Actually that’s the funny part, this “joke” was in no way belittling women, it’s idolizing them. It was made at the expense of the stereotypical male geek to whom women are otherwise inaccessible. Somehow it was appropriated as being about the female attendees.

Oh, man. How to explain this? Ah, someone did, almost at once:

Yes … it’s idolizing women … as sexual objects offered as a perk to male coders so that they can serve the men. As a female coder, I’d rather not be offered as a perk to male coders. So, yeah, this is belittling.

Let’s understand it again: being female isn’t a disadvantage in coding. If you have to ask, consider that Ada Lovelace was arguably the first programmer, and that Grace Hopper only, you know, invented the compiler, among other things.

To bring things up to date, the UK has a couple of women making a big difference in our access to coding and data – Emma Mulqueeny, who runs Rewired State, and Emer Coleman, who was very influential in getting the London Datastore opened up and is now working away inside government getting data pushed out in the same way.

But while being a woman in programming isn’t like living under the Taliban, it clearly carries its own frustrations. A link on Twitter to a blogpost by The Real Katie expressed her annoyance as a female coder as being told to “lighten up”:

Let me tell you, I love coding. Been doing it since before I hit puberty. I did it when I barely had the money to keep a server up. I do it on the weekends and evenings, and I’m teaching my kids how to do it. I’ve spent thousands of dollars to go to conferences so I can learn more about it. Why would I ever leave the profession where I got paid real money to do what I love?

In short, I got tired of being told to ‘lighten up.’

This industry is one of subtle sexism. I almost prefer outright sexism, because at least that you can point out. The subtle barbs are usually dismissed as something I need to not care about. It was a joke! Sheesh. Why are you so sensitive?! All I did was make a joke about you needing to be in the kitchen!

There’s plenty more; it is a story of the frustration of being female in a role where gender should be utterly unimportant and yet weirdly is. It’s a sort of background hum of sexism; the sort that can drive people out of promising careers, and leave the “brogrammers” looking at each asking “where are all the women?”

Having read that I followed a tweet by Kevin Marks which plunged me into what seems to me a quite amazing Twitter conversation, where an initial trigger – a video that really objectifies women – leads quickly down a dark path of implications, accusations, excuses, sidestepping and lines like “I have a family!”

It was kicked off by a tweet from @shanley – Shanley Kane – towards Christian Sanz and Reuben Katz, who run a company called Geeklist.

Charles Arthur compiled the whole back-and-forth over at Storify. If you’re male, the real question to ask when you read it, is: how much of this behaviour goes on which you just don’t notice?

The backlash has been quite dramatic – so much so that Katz has quickly moved to apology mode, with a post entitled “public apology” which says:

We never meant to offend any woman and are very sorry as we clearly have.

We did not create the video at question. It was created out of love for Geeklist by a great Woman entrepreneur. Support for her company. Design Like Woah. She makes shirts and made awesome ones for us. She also goes way out of her way to help us ship to our men and women alike globally who love our brand.

They’re trying to take the video down, though it’s complicated as it’s actually owned by the videographer friend of the woman who sells the T-shirts.

Katz continues:

As for our handling of the twittersphere. We could have handled it better. I know Shanley personally, have skyped and emailed her many times and interviewed her for a job at Geeklist. She is an awesome candidate that as a startup I was very sad the timing was not right to work together. Of our 5 person team 2 are women and I am certain they can speak on our behalf as respectful gentlemen in the workplace who create a welcome environment for all. I also own a business with my wife where we have over 350+ women employees. I’ve built my career over 15 years working to make this world a better place for women, mothers, and children.

In my wildest dreams we would never wish to offend any woman. The initial request made sense and we were discussing finding Gemma to take it down, when we got taken off guard a bit by her continued comments. We handled those poorly, but felt we had to defend ourselves. We apologize as well if our handling of the tweets offended anyone.

It’s good that Katz (and, one feels sure, Sanz too) has recognised that they handled the whole thing badly. In some ways this could be looked at as a “brand management” issue – if the person who had complained to the Geeklist duo had been male, how would it have played out?

And meanwhile ask yourself whether there’s really no sexism in computing – or whether the answer to “why aren’t there more women in technology” might have anything to do with the people who are already there.