Friday, June 29, 2007

Transformation vs. Assimilation

I've just noticed a very interesting thing. Generational differences have had a much larger impact on work environments than the large influx of women into the workplace ever had. When I give speeches, when I hear from my children about their workplaces, when I listen to the questions working people ask and the issues they care about, I realize that work has changed utterly in response to the attitudes and demands of people under 35. It's routine for people in once-formal workplaces to dress as if they were bar-hopping or heading to a baseball game rather than going to work. The definition of "working like a dog" isn't what it once was even in sweatshops like law firms and investment banks. A surprisingly large number of working people can be found "available" on gchat during business hours. My website gets most of its hits during business hours, and I'm sure it's not alone. Everyone seems to feel Friday afternoon is for leaving early or, if you do stay in the office, for doing something other than work.

People in post-baby-boomer generations seem to feel none of the pressure - internal or external - to conform to the traditional definitions and requirements of work institutions founded by white men in the 19th or early 20th centuries and maintained largely by same up to and including today. Younger people have stamped their mark on these work institutions indelibly and apparently without a lot of sturm or drang. Women, on the other hand, particularly in the years just before and after I joined the work force in 1979, felt strong pressure - internal and external - to conform, to fit ourselves into the establishments in which we were determined to succeed. Instead of obliviously being who we were and expecting the organizations to assimilate us, we engaged in various versions of trying to remake ourselves in the traditional white male mode. Dressing for success (if you'll forgive the expression), denying, resisting or trying to keep under wraps traditional female activities like marrying, having kids, looking sexy, giggling, crying and so forth, taking sexual harassment in stride, never "going to lunch" but always "going to a lunch meeting" - most of us thought the price of success was being as much like men as possible. Even I, someone who has never been much of a panderer or an appeaser, didn't understand for years that my differences were competitive advantages I could use, differentiators that helped me far more than they hurt me. And to this day, even as they wear their stilettos and flip-flops to the office, women worry about being considered slackers or somehow frivolous or unprofessional if they don't approach work like men

How interesting - and eye-opening - that younger generations are apparently oblivious to the ways in which people with old white guy attitudes disapprove of them. Younger generations aren't ambitious in the same ways. They have different goals for their careers and a different definition of both where work fits in their lives and what they're willing to compromise. They evidently have no problem insisting on a work/life balance that would be the envy of anyone who worked in these environments 30 years ago. They change jobs frequently and don't worry about gaps in their resumes. In fact, they seem to assume the availability of more manageable work schedules and to consider opting out altogether if they don't find them to be a more attractive and acceptable option than knuckling under to traditional models - an eye-opener all on its own for career women still fretting about looking like slackers if they ease off a 2200-billable-hour-per-year pace while they bear children or manage families.

And all this blithe younger generation assuming has had a huge and very visible impact on how companies operate. Upper management may still look pretty much like it always has, but it now worries in a big way about offering work/life balance, ongoing education, concierge services, onsite day care (for kids and even pets), and a wide array of other b
enefits designed to appeal to the actual workforce (and not just the people with wives at home to handle all of life's non-work-related vicissitudes).

Of course, the under-35 crowd can enjoy the attitudes and freedoms it does thanks in no small part to the paths blazed by those of us who came before and the ones before us who first broke into the once all-white, all-male domains. Still, I have to hand it to these new generations - they have transformed the look and feel of the work world in a way that career women, even after a much longer time horizon, still have not.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Tao of Hair

Why is it one of the immutable truths of the universe that the instant you make an appointment to get your hair cut, your hair starts looking fabulous? If you hadn't made the appointment, would it continue to look raggedy in the way that prompted you to decide to get it cut in the first place? Are your locks trying to protect themselves and stay on your head via renewed beautification? If so, how do they know you made a haircut appointment? Or is the sudden gorgeousness a sort of nostalgic mirage, prompted more by the brain than by any follicular self-preservation instinct? Does the brain have some objection to haircuts? The phenomenon doesn't occur with other dead body parts - make a manicure or pedicure appointment and your nails will continue to look unkempt until you've kept said appointment. Decide to use your lemon sugar exfoliating body scrub (Bigelow Chemists - a delightful product) and your skin won't instantly smooth and glow on its own. Eyebrows just get worse once you notice they're in need of shaping. But the hair on your head can't seem to help itself from transforming into something wonderful within moments of the making of a haircut appointment. It's a mystery.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Whose Rules Are These?

I've had a potential blog post kicking around in my head for the last week or so, prompted by questions I got at a recent speech from working women, some of them already mothers, some just projecting ahead, about feeling guilty by reason of being a working parent. I've confessed before that I don't experience guilt properly, but, even so, I'm realizing that these questions - which are as inevitable during a speech that touches on work-life balance as are the mystified looks on the faces of the men in the audience - reflect a perceived conflict over having a career and children that is both a uniquely female characteristic and really rather quixotic.

Don't get me wrong: I'm sure men worry occasionally about whether they're spending enough time with their children, and I'm equally sure they sometimes feel as if their work-life ratio is out of balance. But I seriously doubt that there are many men, if indeed there are any, who worry that they're doing the wrong thing by working when they have small children. Whether for traditional reasons or because they're simply wired differently, men expect to work and be parents simultaneously. For that matter, for reasons of economic necessity, so do the vast majority of the women in the world. It's a peculiarity of well-educated, affluent women to feel the need to define career and motherhood as separate, non-interlocking spheres and to feel conflicted about trying to cram both into one balanced life.

If you think about it logically, there are about 4 years after the birth of a child when the child needs full-time care, another 5-6 years of intense, if part-time, supervision, and then 8-9 years of loving oversight. I feel comfortable as a child-raising veteran in saying that it is not possible to devote one's full time and effort to raising children - they're simply not around enough. As infants, they spend a lot of time asleep and as older children, they spend a lot of time in school and with their friends. And that's how it should be. Kids are not trophies for their parents. They are independent human beings, and the goal in raising them should be to guide them in becoming happy, civilized, self-sufficient contributors.
They are not, and should not be viewed as, substitutes for a career.

It seems to me the questions about guilt - and indeed the feelings of guilt - are misplaced. They have more to do, I think, with an overly romantic definition of motherhood and a conflict in the working mother's mind about her career. A wonderful mother I know who is also a high-powered and very busy professional used to tell me often that she felt guilty and wondered whether she was doing the right thing by her children. At dinner one night, as she fretted about this, I realized that it was all bullshit - she was the kind of person who would have left her career behind in a heartbeat if she really thought it was harming her kids. Her problem wasn't that she actually felt guilty about having such a full life. It was that she thought she should feel guilty and was conflicted about that. From her own mother, from the media, from some of her colleagues, every message she got was that she had to be failing as a mother by reason of her fancy career. She refused to buy into that, but felt guilty instead - as a sort of penance for having it all.

Who defined motherhood for upper middle class educated women as stay-at-home, full-time, and entirely incompatible with a job? Do even stay-at-home moms actually have nothing in their lives but their kids? Of course not - a woman wouldn't be much of a mother or a human being if she had no other interests, activities or concerns. So isn't the problem really more a confusion of career goals, maybe even a lack of passion for or commitment to career or a worrisome suspicion that career goals are somehow unwomanly? Being a working parent requires accommodations in how one approaches one's career - and, from pregnancy through child-raising, being a working mother requires more accommodations than being a working father. Moreover, traditionally male work institutions (i.e., practically all professions and businesses) were set up and are maintained with the working-father accommodations more front of mind than the working-mother accommodations. It's hard to find balance as a working mother in a professional or business career.

But that is not a reason to opt out or to feel guilty. It's more properly viewed as a reason to opt in, to change institutional realities so as to ease the experience for working mothers, to figure out what works for you and your family and go for it, and to quit letting other people push you around.
There's no one right way to be a mother or a career woman, any more than there's one right way to be a father or a career man. It's your life. If you want to stay home and raise kids, do it. If you want to be a working parent, do it. But what a waste of time it is to feel guilty about failing to exemplify some half-baked media-induced notion of what a real mother or businesswoman is.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Ah, Summer

I remember from my working days that things quieted down significantly on Fridays during the summer. Some people didn't come to work at all; most showed up, but moved at a leisurely pace and spent more time catching up than making forward progress. It was a good day for a long lunch or, if you were feeling virtuous, for cleaning up your office. Evidently, that trend has continued and accelerated, if such an active word may be used for such a languid phenomenon. I've noticed that email now slows to a crawl by late Thursday afternoon and on Fridays behaves pretty much like raindrops in the desert, which is to say it spatters occasionally and mostly ceases to occur. Interestingly, my website gets lots of hits on Friday afternoons - is that one of the things people are up to while they're not emailing?

In an unrelated summer observation, it turns out that 100 degrees in the desert feels cooler than 80 degrees in the midwest. Seems impossible, but we personally experienced it yesterday, having spent the morning in Chicago and the afternoon in Nevada. Maybe reasonable people can differ on this (perception being, after all, totally subjective), but during an admittedly gorgeous week in Chicago we retained at all times a certain dampness that promptly evaporated the minute we got off the plane in Las Vegas. And, as my resident Mr. Science tells me at least twice a week, evaporation is a cooling process.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

All or Nothing

My daughter has always been an athlete. Can't imagine, really, where she got either the interest or the talent, but she has both in spades and being both an athlete and a player of team sports has done great things for her. She's been comfortable in her own skin throughout her life (admittedly, she has great skin, but plenty of other 20-somethings about whom the same can be said nevertheless suffer from poor body image and low self-esteem). She also understands how to excel simultaneously as an individual and as a member of the team. Obviously, this has positive implications for her career as well.

For a non-athlete, I've spent a fair amount of the last 20 years at amateur sporting events. There've been pluses and minuses for me. One of the minuses, slightly disguised, made its way into the softball wives scene in A Merger of Equals. One of the pluses has been the opportunity to notice in yet another setting how differently women and men approach things - and how important it is in every arena to establish common goals and then adopt trust as a guiding principle for behavior.

When my daughter was a young athlete, she played on softball teams that included girls turning cartwheels in the outfield during games. As she got older, the cartwheelers lost interest altogether and fell away, replaced by incredibly intent young women determined to excel. And, boy, did they! Now that she's older still, she plays on a baseball team that includes women from 14 to 46. I got to watch her play last weekend and I realized that in some ways her teams have come full circle. The women who seem uninterested aren't turning cartwheels like their prepubescent counterparts (too stiff, out of shape or lily-livered, I presume), but they're doing the adult equivalent: missing practices, running from base to base in a style that can only be called laconic when they draw a walk or have a chance to advance, choosing not to go for the double play, and so forth. I frankly can't understand why anyone would want to spend a hot, muggy weekend playing baseball on a dusty field, but I'm even more mystified by someone who makes the choice to do so, then shows up and basically dogs it for three hours.

It's also interesting to see how girly some of the management decisions and attitudes are. As my daughter says, guys who are terrible know they're terrible and they either don't join teams or sit on the bench. They may not be happy, but they don't expect to be put in a game when better players are available. Women seem to have some confusion of goals, as if maybe this is more a social club than a baseball team. Even with a team sport, where the goals could not more clearly be playing your best and winning as much as possible, they actually worry about hurting someone's feelings by fielding the best team, talent-wise. The dedicated athletes on the team are frustrated by this wrong-headedness, but even they worry about occasioning drama by suggesting that tryouts or stats are the best way to choose tournament teams, or stating strongly that practices are mandatory if you want to play, or benching players who are having a bad day or consistently refuse to learn that the game is about more than wearing a uniform and considering yourself in a positional silo, resolutely unaware of what's going on elsewhere on the field.

Caring about other people's feelings is a beautiful attribute, but it seems out of place where fielding a baseball team is concerned - as does getting offended or hurt by a talent-based protocol for choosing who will play where (especially when the benchee is not doing what it takes to improve her skills). Would men have this problem? I don't think so. So is it simply about something else altogether for women? Maybe so.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

More Customer Service Woes

The state of customer service must be truly terrible pretty much across the board. I could write a rant about some shocking breach basically every day, and I barely interact with the world at all! To tell the truth, I've been holding back on the customer disservice posts for fear of being boring. But this week has brought a couple doozies that I just can't let pass without comment.

On Monday, I experienced some webmail forwarding problems. From their nature, I was able to deduce that the source was most likely one of two accounts. (I'm pretty impressed by having done this myself.) When I went to the so-called Support Site for Possible Source #1, I was met with the single most outrageous parody of customer service I have ever seen.

First, there was a posting on the site about some systemic email problems and several updates about "working feverishly" to correct it. Since the updates spanned a three-day period, I doubt the work was really very feverish - I mean, come on. But, ok, I understand that there can be issues. The last update indicated that the problem had been resolved. My own personal problem had just started (intriguingly enough), so I thought I'd submit a "trouble ticket." (Where do they come up with this gibberish?? Can't we just call a question a question?) The trouble ticket page coolly informed me that if I submitted a trouble ticket and my question related to something I could have answered by reading the online FAQ, I would be charged "a minimum of $50."

I'm not kidding. Apparently, this outfit's idea of customer service includes my wading through - online - pages and pages of techno-gibberish to see if my particular problem has already been addressed and then submitting a free question only if I correctly determine that it has not. This is utterly backwards, obviously; the people who wrote the FAQ are in a much better position than I am to know what the damn things cover and what they don't. It would take them minimal time to point me in the right direction. As the customer, why on earth should I be obliged to
read their stuff and figure out if the answer to my question is there?

I understand that a huge percentage of the questions they get are probably braindead wastes of their time (like "How do I retrieve my forgotten password?"), but is that an excuse for abdicating their customer service promises? I pay this outfit for a service. The home page of their website proudly (and, we now know, inaccurately) crows "Our service and support package includes free phone and email support." I was told about a hundred times during the sales process (usually in response to my questions about the relative priciness of their service) that superior customer service was part of the package. What a complete joke!

Since there was no way I was going to read a bunch of techno-babble or potentially spend $50 plus to get what I felt confident assuming would be a useless or only marginally useful answer (this isn't my first day), I decided instead to go after an answer to the problem from Possible Source #2 (aka Yahoo). Yahoo really has the promised free email support capability and so I sent an email. The answer - which, oddly in this online world, took almost 24 hours to show up - contained a standard paragraph acknowledging the failure to deliver "the service you paid for" and apologizing for causing inconvenience, and then asked me to take a screenshot of the error message (which I'd described in detail) and resubmit. It then included detailed instructions for taking said screenshot. (If I'd asked how to do that, I'd have been in business.) Again, don't they know how their system works? They have my entire life story in the account setup - can't they go into my account and recreate the problem for themselves? Why is this my responsibility?

I wasn't about to start taking screenshots and getting into another of those idiotic email loops. (I've had enough of that lately, as those of you who've read this know.) So I crisply responded with "Never mind. I've decided to switch to gmail." Absurdly, I got another response, another 24 hours later, that was IDENTICAL to the first except this one also had a sentence that said "Eagerly awaiting your response" - not more than a few lines above my "Never mind." I haven't responded to it on the assumption that "Eagerly awaiting" is as unlikely to be true as "working feverishly."

The upshot? Gmail seems to be working fine (bye bye, Yahoo) and when Possible Source #1 next wants money from me, I think I'll let them know that I assess a minimum $50 charge on all outgoing payments.

Sunday, June 3, 2007


It was cloudy here yesterday. That bright kind of cloudy that makes you reach for sunglasses if you get in the car even though there aren't shadows on the ground. The kind of cloudy that in the Midwest still counts as a nice day - no precipitation, not even grayness. But when you've gotten used to brilliant sunshine and a blue sky that is somehow both clear and deep (and the last time you saw clouds was nearly a month ago), yesterday's kind of cloudy puts you in mind of naps and casseroles and never upgrading what you threw on when you first got out of bed. I read a book cover to cover (On Beauty by Zadie Smith, which I'd been looking forward to because her first novel, White Teeth, was amazing and wonderful; this one, not so much), answered a couple emails, thought about and decided against researching some new stocks to trade, thought about and decided against ordering some stuff online, did a load of laundry, grazed the contents of the refrigerator, exchanged fewer than 250 desultory words with my husband, and watched Mermaids on HBO. Put me in mind of the Saturdays I sometimes had in Chicago on snowy December or rainy May days when the sky was dark and the dense clouds appeared to begin about 13 inches above your upstretched arm. Different clouds here, but the same reaction. It was great. Relaxing, refreshing, solitary, largely non-contributory - a nice retreat. And today? The sun is back and so am I.