Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Open Season

Earlier this week, Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times wrote a mean-spirited and apparently unprovoked article attacking both Janet Hanson, the founder of 85 Broads (the global women's network named after the Goldman Sachs office at 85 Broad Street in New York, where Hanson worked), and women's networks in general. Kellaway's article arose from Katie Couric's recent interview of Hanson, and Kellaway also took a few swipes at Couric while she was at it. Leaving aside the bullying and cheap shot aspects of Kellaway's article, and rising above beating her at her own game by taking the cheap shots back at her that she left wide open in her article, I want only to say that I continue to be dismayed that women can be so hard on one another.

There's a scene in A Merger of Equals where Jane and her friend, Liz, talk about how bewildering and sad it is that women are so often combatants warring over what is the "right" way to be a woman instead of the natural allies we should be. I'm older than Jane and Liz, and I've been marveling in a dismayed way about this for years. Whether it's a patronizing and patriarchal desire to define women (the subject of a previous post) or an attempt to aggrandize or justify one's own lifestyle by denigrating different choices, it seems there is always someone around to take shots at women. We have enough to deal with given how the world works; seems to me we shouldn't be making it harder for one another.

Slamming women's networks, as Kellaway's article does, serves no purpose other than to hurt women - by potentially turning both women who need it and women who can provide it away from the support that networks can offer, by pandering to people who are intimidated and threatened by aggregations of women, and by perpetuating the notion that women are nothing but feral cats always at each other's throats. Of course we have to stand on our own feet, as Kellaway writes, but no woman has to (or should) be an island. Being allies and helping one another succeed, which men have done for centuries, is absolutely essential to achieving equality of opportunity and status and also to feeling enfranchised and powerful, one of the key ingredients of achieving success. We should absolutely aggregate for the purpose of supporting and learning from each other. And, even more absolutely, we should stop taking shots at one another. Cheap or otherwise.

Here's Kellaway's article:
Let's stand on our own feet - not other women's shoulders
By Lucy Kellaway
Published: February 26, 2007
Two weeks ago a middle-aged brunette called Janet Hanson was interviewed on the CBS evening news by Katie Couric, the middle-aged, blonde newscaster.
The item was all about women helping each other to be more successful and its focus was a network founded eight years ago by Ms Hanson called 85 Broads. The name is a laboured pun on the HQ address of Goldman Sachs where she used to work, and initially the network consisted of her "gal pals" from there. Now it is much broader and includes 16,000 women of the "most exceptional women on the planet" who are "going to be the greatest leaders the world has ever seen". They are going to be this by networking, which, says Ms Hanson is all about learning how to "stand on each other's shoulders".
Over a pot of tea, Ms Hanson told Ms Couric her own story: how depression and then breast cancer had spurred her on to help other women. The camera kept flitting to Ms Couric, nodding empathetically. "So, this isn't just about careers, it's about how to cope with - life?" she volunteered, misting up, thus giving a whopping, prime-time plug for Ms Hanson and her network. Yes, its founder whispered, voice hoarse with gratitude.
Back on the 85 Broads website, it's payback time, and now Ms Couric is riding on Ms Hanson's shoulders. "Katie Couric ROCKS! . . . " writes Ms Hanson in her blog. "She's an incredibly warm and beautiful woman . . . she deserves the unanimous support of smart women all over the world." She notes that Ms Couric had been getting some stick for bad ratings on her new evening slot and urged all members: "IF EVERYONE TIVO'S THE CBS EVENING NEWS WE CAN MAKE KATIE NUMBER ONE!".
The image of these women on each other's shoulders makes me want to tell them to get down at once, before they do someone an injury. Why does Katie deserve the unanimous support of all smart women? Surely she deserves to present the CBS evening news only if she is good at doing that, and if viewers like watching her. Otherwise someone else should be asked to do it instead.
And why is Ms Hanson allowed on national television if she cannot say anything more sensible than: "Women cannot succeed unless they leverage each other's massive intellectual firepower"?
The trouble is that the merest mention of women's networks seems to turn intelligent women into politically correct, acquiescent fools.
This is because the very idea of these networks is so contradictory. Do they exist to give women opportunities not allowed to men? To do so is discrimination, and there are (rightly) laws against that. But if the networks don't help you get jobs then why would you want to join one? I have been to quite a few women's networking events and can tell you that they are both dull and tense.
The prevailing impression is similar to ante-natal classes, though without the promise of a baby at the end of it. There is the same supportive we're-in-this-together atmosphere that is made less supportive both by being compulsory and by the competition that lurks not far beneath the surface. Successful professional women want to compete with other successful women. There is nothing wrong with that. There is something wrong with pretending they don't.
I had a long chat with a friend last week who is a member of a senior women's professional network. She described it as a witches' coven, where the air was filled with bonhomie laced with spite. At the crack of dawn the next day she sent me a panicky e-mail begging me not to quote her - fearing that her fellow networkers might do something truly nasty to her in the girls' toilets.
Perhaps it is the tension, this fear of offending the sisterhood, that makes women say such daft things about these networks. Visit the website of WACL - an exclusive club of 140 of the most senior women in advertising and communications in London. On its website is a little box that allows you to select the background colour on the website - pink? apple green? - presumably so that it can match your handbag.
"WACL puts you in touch with wise and sassy women who are as happy to share their experiences as their lip gloss," says Sarah Gold, MD of an ad agency.
Not only is the word "sassy" loathsome, but sharing lip gloss is not a good idea as it spreads germs. And as for sharing experience, I fancy that can be overrated, too.
Yet it is this sharing of experience that is the stated benefit of most female network clubs. Endlessly women are expected to want to hear the career histories of successful women, and to learn from them. "Attending events like this are terrific opportunities to learn and grow personally and professionally," goes a testimonial on the 85 Broads website.
But I've listened to many women's experiences at formal events and I've never grown an inch in any direction. They are worth hearing if told in a funny and interesting way, which they generally aren't. The female role models who do these things all the time have recounted their stories so often that any truth or freshness is long gone.
Yet such is the appetite to hear women's experience that even I sometimes get asked to speak at these events. I usually tell them the truth: that my gender has been a great blessing to me in my career. Being born female was the single smartest thing I ever did. They don't seem to agree, but as they are supportive women they smile politely and scurry off home afterwards.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Say It Ain't So, Oscar

I stopped watching the Oscars about five years ago. I used to love the telecast, and I'm not sure whether I changed or it changed, but it all got so self-congratulatory that I just couldn't stand it. Now, though, I'm annoyed that I can't exclaim, "I am never going to watch again!" in protest over the recent awards for Best Screenplay. Two years ago, I was astonished to learn that Sideways won. I thought the movie was truly, truly terrible - pretentious, not credible from a plot or character standpoint, difficult to watch except for Virginia Madsen, who was lovely, and, all in all, more like a parody of a bad HBO special than anything else. Reasonable people can differ on the film, I suppose, but it's hard to understand how this mess won a writing award. A consolation prize, maybe?

Then last year Crash won the screenplay award. Great subject matter, some great acting, but incredibly sophomoric writing. In fact, one of the reasons I was so impressed by the acting was the banality of the lines the actors had to overcome. The consolation prize theory got blown to hell when Crash also won Best Picture. Adding insult to injury, Match Point was also nominated in the screenplay category last year, if I remember correctly. Now there's an intelligent, snappy script (even if the credits didn't include the acknowledgment to Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy that they should have).

It's hard to believe that things could actually get worse, but last night the downward trend took an alarming plummet (not unlike the one Al Gore shows we could relatively easily achieve in carbon dioxide emissions at the end of An Inconvenient Truth, which I watched instead of the Oscars). The screenplay award went to Little Miss Sunshine, one of the stupidest, lamest movies I have ever had the misfortune to see. Oh, there was some wonderful acting pretty much across the board, and those kids were charming, but this thing played like a silly sitcom. Like it for its dysfunctionality, if you must, or for the beautiful change in Greg Kinnear's expression when he first rebuffs, then quietly accepts Alan Arkin's sympathy for the failed business venture, or for that great bit where the boy writes the girl the note that says "Go hug Mom." But a writing award? I don't think so.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Time and Space and Snow

Because I have two kids, a sister and lots of friends in wintry Midwestern locales, my attention still tends to be drawn to headlines like “Heavy Snow Pummels Wisconsin” and “Blizzard Socks Plains” (a particularly hilarious combination of words that deserves attention all on its own). I read these headlines and find myself thinking, “How can it still be winter back there? It’s lasting forever!” It takes a conscious act of will for me to remember that it’s only February. I know the date (those of you who continue to worry that I might transform into Howard Hughes can settle down), but my concept of February doesn’t include sunny skies and temperatures in the 60s and 70s. I’m sorry to sound like one of those good weather gloaters (and even sorrier to have turned into one), but my apparently entrenched Midwestern standards of time and climate tell me it's April or May, not February.

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of time and the possibility that it can overlap itself. I’m enthralled by movies like Back to the Future, books like A Wrinkle in Time, and even articles on the space-time continuum (which I don’t really understand, but find fascinating nevertheless). I like the idea of time as a loop or a double helix or some other shape that's not a straight line. And the notion that the past and the future might exist at the same time as the present, and that each might have the potential to affect and be affected by the others, is very appealing to me.

Now I’m realizing that my own personal perception of time is also far more dependent on my surroundings than I would have guessed. Like everyone else, I know that time moves like a snail when I'm bored and like a bullet train when I'm captivated. But who knew that physical surroundings could make the passage of two months feel more like the passage of four or five? I've been busy so far this year and I'm not at all bored, but 2007 feels far older than two months.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Customer Disservice...Again!

There’s no disputing that I’m exquisitely (and perhaps insanely) attuned to this problem, but the crappy operating policies and almost complete lack of customer-focused service provided by most companies/people are just unbelievable to me. This week, I've had to deal with four of the service providers to whom I pay actual money. (Ok, my life isn't as complex as it once was. Perhaps the reason this is bugging me so much is that I now have more time to allocate to getting excited about it.) In one case, the service provider took more out of my bank account than it was authorized to take. In two cases, I had a question about a request or requirement that made no logical sense. In the final case, I requested a simple change to an existing service that required no thought whatsoever on the part of the service provider – just a quote (yes, I was trying to give them more money) and a few keystrokes on a computer. In all four cases, the first response was neither prompt nor responsive. All four elected to tell me what the situation was – basically, they repeated my question. So I did the same. An additional day down and additional raveling of my already not very tightly knit patience for this sort of thing.

With two of the four, there's no way to get back to the original responder because they have those silly and infuriating automated mechanisms that deliver your question to some customer service pool. (It makes my head hurt to think about what such a pool might look like – is it a huge roomful of untrained, cranky personnel clacking away on corporate computers or a vast global network of untrained, cranky independent contractors hunched in isolation over their own PCs?) Anyway, each time you get a new person. Sometimes, the new person reads the original correspondence and sometimes, evidently, not so much. With these two, I'm still in the question/response circle 4 days later.

One of the illogical companies actually resolved the matter satisfactorily on the second try. They get the prize, I guess. The fourth, a small company with whom I had to follow up twice after getting no response for over 48 hours (on try 1) and 24 hours (on try 2), despite the fact that I want to buy an additional service (and have been a next-day payor of all previous bills), now tells me that the simple change won't be done until next week – over a week from request to completion caused, almost certainly, by their unresponsiveness.

What kills me is that ALL these so-called service providers pride themselves on their so-called customer service. Their responses are all liberally peppered with boilerplate apologies for "misunderstandings" and "our failure to answer your question promptly, accurately and to your satisfaction." They all plainly understand what the goal is and they reiterate it in writing every chance they get (ultra-annoyingly, when we're on round 3 or more of Q&A). But they have instituted absolutely nothing in the way of operating policies, training for their beleaguered people, technology or other ways of assuring that they actually provide what they claim to offer and what they know their customers want. Worse – two of these companies have, apparently in good faith, asked me for testimonials to endorse their “superior products and customer service.” They are so far from superior it isn’t even funny. Do they not know the difference? Are they maybe figuring that all you have to do to make something superior is call it so? Or is it me? Does “below adequate” now suffice for “superior” in all but a handful of service settings? Maybe my problem is that I’m lucky enough to be dealing with one truly superior service provider at the moment and the contrast is just too great.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Unadjusted Expectations

I've been very gratified since I launched my website by the number of visitors who show up each day. (My site has one of those cool dealies that counts unique visitors and tells me how many times each page gets hit.) I've been even more gratified to watch the daily number of visitors keep trending upward. But one thing is mystifying me and, if you want to know the truth, bugging me a little. Although 51 people have clicked on the Contact page so far this month, only three have actually used the page and contacted me. Ok, I understand that the goal is traffic to the site vs. communication with me, but I can't help wondering what all those people who clicked on Contact were thinking. If you are one of them, consider throwing me a bone, would you?

Sunday, February 18, 2007


I read a relatively neutral post about abortion this morning, then plowed through some of the blizzard of anything-but-neutral comments on the post. Underlying the legitimate differences of opinion on a topic as polarized as abortion was the usual thread of "women aren’t people with rights in the same way as men or, for that matter, fetuses." Why have people (men and women) always apparently believed they have the right to dictate who and what women are, as if we’re one thing vs. many things or as if we can’t simply exist, but need to be defined by someone else, and narrowly at that?

The commentary I just read was less about the pros and cons of abortion or the legislative policies thereon than it was about defining women as, take your pick, selfish, careless, sexually promiscuous barracudas blithely having abortions without a second thought or selfless incubators without independent will or rights (or intellect) who, in both cases, need to be protected against themselves, judged, legislated against, damned – anything but educated, then left alone to make decisions for themselves like actual human beings. The judgmental slamming was universal – and just as vitriolic in the comments signed with female names.

The definitional rhetoric should be about options, opportunity, dismantling of gender-based barriers, merit, and choice. Instead, it seems more often to be a matter of dictatorial pendulum swings. Once we had to stay home and be nurturers whether we were suited to that or not. (Think shirtwaist dresses and tranquilizers.) Then we had to be hard-driving professionals living up to our full potential. (Think eschewing everything traditionally feminine and beating men at the game of being men.) In both cases, the dictation, regardless of source, was all about lack of choice – as if the only way to express that not all of us are suited to the wife/mother role were to put every single one of us in dress-for-success clothes and send us off to work, or the only way for some women to choose something other than the traditional female roles were to transform all women into the power-suit-clad equivalent of men.

Equality for women is having an awfully hard time keeping its head above the water of vested interest, one-size-fits-all thinking, and the entrenched right – perhaps the out-and-out responsibility – people seem to believe they possess to define women. If you ask me, what we need to insist on is the freedom of self-definition.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Palatable TV

It takes a lot to get me to start watching a new TV show. For one thing, I prefer to read. I like to create my own mental pictures. For another, so much of what’s on TV is so lame. About eight or so years ago, I basically stopped watching new shows. For a brief period before we got TiVo, I stopped watching TV altogether (except for football, which I can’t give up, despite several attempts, the most recent on the heels of the disastrous refereeing mistakes of two seasons ago). The shows weren’t great and the commercials just made me angry. They were so stupid and sexist – vis-à-vis both men and women. Women were portrayed as maids, mommies or sex kittens; men were portrayed as morons with more testosterone than is really reasonable. Luckily, TiVo came along and made it possible for me to watch TV commercial-free. I haven’t watched anything in real time for years.

Anyway, thanks to my no-new-shows policy, we totally missed the first two seasons of The Sopranos. So many people recommended it, though, that we decided we might be missing too much by not watching it. (A rudimentary knowledge of pop culture always comes in handy.) We spent a weekend watching those first two seasons back-to-back on DVDs. It was amazing to get so steeped in a show and its characters. We felt as if we were in the show – we locked the doors, eyed each other suspiciously, decided our neighbor was probably in the Witness Protection Program, wondered if the crossing guard on the corner worked for the FBI, and ate Italian food for several days.

Now, there’s The Wire. Wow! We were recently alerted to its existence (thank you, Charlie) and told it was incredible. Turns out we’ve missed four whole seasons, which has led to a gratifyingly tall pile of DVDs on the coffee table. The show is great – really complex and layered and human. It actually has a couple of ironic, interesting, strong female characters, too (something I thought had been outlawed in TV production land). We watched the first episode one night, then watched 6 or 7 in a row the next afternoon-into-evening. As before, it was wonderful to get immersed in another world – much more like reading than like watching TV. Can’t wait to make another big dent in the stack of DVDs and see what happens next – maybe tomorrow. And, for some reason, I made the Ziti al Forno from the Sopranos cookbook for dinner.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Absurdity Redux

I feel I owe this update to everyone who read my February 9 post. The vacuum cleaners got delivered correctly! They were supposed to take 2-5 weeks and instead took 2-5 days, so we can all rest assured that the thank-you site continues to offer absurdity, but, hey, I can give credit where credit is due.

Friday, February 9, 2007


I tend to forget that I have a credit card that racks up "thank you" points when I use it. As a result, I end up with thousands of points that can be used to procure things like vacuum cleaners and restaurant gift certificates and other goodies it's nice to get for free rather than actually pay for. Both my kids recently moved into new apartments and both, interestingly, demonstrated enthusiasm for the idea of a vacuum cleaner. So I thought - thank you points.

I log on today, find I have the usual zillion points and identify a nice ultra-light little vacuum cleaner perfect for someone who still has several additional moves ahead and doesn't want to get over-burdened with things that are hard to carry (like my two favorite such someones). I order one and enter the address. I click on Place Order. All goes well. I order a second and enter the second address. I click on Place Order and this time the thank you screen informs me that my order has been placed and the vacuum will be shipped to me. I don't want any vacuum cleaners, so I look for a way to cancel or modify the order. There is none. I do find a telephone number, though, so I call it. It's promptly answered by one of those voice recognition ladies. She tells me a bunch of things I don't want or need to hear, then starts asking me to "state or enter" info like my phone number, zip code and SSN. I do so. She tells me my point balance (another thing I'm uninterested in, particularly since I have it on the screen in front of me). Then, she tells me to listen carefully to my options. All I want is an operator - a human one, although the voice recognition lady does seem nice - but of course that's the last option. I hit 5. A voice does a little commercial for the thank you site. A human answers and asks to whom he is speaking. This question strikes me as odd since I just entered my entire life story for the voice recognition lady, but I swallow my irritation and tell him my name. Pleasantly. He asks me how he can help. I tell him. He apologizes and calls me ma'am about 12 times (despite having just asked me for my name), but the system is down and there's no way he can help me. No, I can't fix the problem online either. His suggestion is that I call back "in a few hours or tomorrow." I want to swear, but I ask (still pleasantly) if there's a way to bypass the time I spent with the voice recognition lady when I call back. Lots more calling me ma'am (until I can't stand it any more and ask him to quit calling me ma'am), but there isn't. I say goodbye.

I really don't want a vacuum cleaner to be shipped to me, so I read some email and some news stories, all the while watching the clock. After 90 minutes, I can't stand it any more, so I take a deep breath and call the number again. The voice recognition lady and I repeat our conversation, I hear the same commercial, and this time a new guy named Mike asks to whom he is speaking. I tell him and ask if the system is back up. He says yes. I explain my problem. In a burst of irrelevance, he tells me they no longer want to use SSNs for security purposes and asks if I could pick something else. I do. He then logs into my account, finds the bad order, asks for the correct shipping address (and is audibly typing it in as I tell him), then asks me to hold. I do. After some ghastly music (but no more commercials), Mike tells me Mary Ellen is on the phone with us. She's a supervisor and she'll handle the address change. I say ok and Mike says goodbye. Mary Ellen says hello and asks me for the correct shipping address. With some amazement evident in my voice, I tell her I just gave it to Mike. She apologizes for the inconvenience (and calls me ma'am). I give her the address and listen to her type it in. (Where did Mike's input go??) Mary Ellen tells me that when I place orders online, "for my protection" I will never be allowed to specify an address other than my billing address. I reply (still pleasantly, although it's killing me) that not 5 minutes before the bad order, I did just that. She assures me that's impossible. I resist asking why there's a button to click that says "Send to alternate address." (Really, could the explanation be anything but ludicrous?) Instead, I assure her that it was completely possible. She says we better check on the other order because, really, it's impossible. She pulls up the other order. It correctly states the alternate shipping address. She's amazed. I'm now trying not to laugh. (My husband, who normally makes this sort of call because I can't be trusted to behave properly, is laughing helplessly as he listens to my end of the conversation.) Mary Ellen gabs for a while about the old system and the new system, assures me that no vacuum cleaners will be coming to Nevada and asks me if there's anything else she can help me with. I say no and we part pleasantly.

I know the odds of a vacuum cleaner coming to Nevada are very high, but my fingers are crossed. All I can think is that I should have bought more expensive vacuum cleaners so I wouldn't have so many points left. I can only hope they don't expire before I have the will to face another redemption.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Driving Me Crazy

What the hell is wrong with people when they drive? As my son put it last summer, Las Vegas is like one big traffic accident surrounded by casinos - or was it one big casino surrounded by traffic accidents? It's actually impossible here to get in your car and go anywhere without seeing at least one fender bender. Weather is almost never a factor, but people seem to have failed to absorb the simple geometry of driving a car. They are literally all over the road. It's not unusual to watch someone make a right on red...all the way across 4 lanes of traffic into the left lane. There seems to be a general unawareness of the meaning of certain standard driving cues, such as lane markings and red lights, and an equal ignorance of the existence of certain standard automotive features, such as turn signals. (Some people evidently consider headlights optional, too, but that's less of a problem in a place with so much neon.) On my way home from the Strip today, I encountered: two accidents; a Hummer (don't get me started) driving 50 mph in the left lane on a highway where the speed limit is 65 and the average speed is 75; two trucks in some sort of "mine is bigger" drag race; the usual complement of people leaving 2-3 car lengths between them and the car in front of them when they stop at red lights; and an infuriated woman in a red Mustang who honked at me (and, when I checked my rearview mirror, was banging her hands on her steering wheel in a frenzy of frustration) when I stopped at a red light. No, I didn't fail to go through the yellow (I know the drill with yellows); the light was already red when I got to the intersection. Short of ignoring it and taking my chances (not only illegal, but a very stupid move when the cross street has 4-6 lanes of traffic streaming by at 35-45 mph), stopping was truly my only option. I kind of wanted to get out and explain things to her, but decided it was ok if she thought I was an idiot. Even assuming I could have explained anything to someone in a frenzy of frustration over having to stop at a definitively red light, really, it's hard to get too worked up over the opinion such a person might have of my driving abilities.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Be Careful What You Wish For

I like answering business and career development questions for people and I love to write, so I figured inviting people to participate in my online Forum would be fun and easy. Well, it is fun - quite fun and gratifying, too, given how quickly questions started arriving - but it's harder than I anticipated. There's a difference between talking in person with someone and writing an answer for posting and public consumption. Context is missing, I guess. I thought I just gave my perspective and my thoughts to people who ask me these kinds of questions when I give speeches. Evidently, though, I don't simply say what I say, drawing on my experience; without realizing it, I must be personalizing my advice. Turns out that even with total strangers, there are cues when we're face-to-face that are missing when all I have is a question. Writing an answer without a face to read is a whole different deal. It doesn't bother me to compose fiction or nonfiction in a vacuum and then send my words out to have what impact they will, but there's something so personal about individual career questions. They are so heartfelt and sometimes they require the asker to be so vulnerable. I want very much to reach the person who has taken the time to ask me a question, to answer her in a way she can hear, relate to and use. I sure hope I'm doing that. And then there are all the other people who will read the answer, people about whom I know absolutely nothing. Yikes!