Monday, May 18, 2009

A Word is a Word is a Word. Or Not

Apparently, "balance" is now a dirty word. As in "Balance is a myth."

At first, I was inclined to dismiss this as so much sound and fury signifying nothing, but I can't seem to let go of it.
The dirtying of the word seems to me to contribute to the repulsive notion that women are something other than full-fledged human beings with the ability and the right to manage their own lives - not to mention to focus on what actually matters.

I was informed this morning that in the context of
work-life balance the word has come to mean 50/50, as in "I must spend the exact same amount of time and expend the exact same effort on my family as on my career in order to be balanced."

Obviously, this is ridiculous. A balanced life is just like a balanced story, a balanced diet, a balanced argument. The point of the word is that the thing in question works, it's pleasing, it has the right relative placement of the important and the less important. It does the trick. The 50/50 concept must be read into the word; it is not there as a matter of definition. Moreover, why 50/50? People have more than two things to balance; they have friends, lovers, hobbies, pets, causes and all manner of other activities in addition to career and family.

If the word has come to have this 50/50 connotation, the reason ties directly to the work-life balance conundrum faced by women. Whether adopted by women ourselves with the result that we feel bad about our own balance choices or batted at us at all times by a society intent on insinuating that it is not possible to have both a good career and a good family simultaneously, the whole "balance is a myth" phenomenon is misogynistic and limiting.

Does anyone hear the phrase "balance is a myth" and think first:

--Maybe I better reconsider taking a sabbatical to work on a political campaign?

--How am I ever going to incorporate care of my elderly parents into my life?

--Will it be possible to combine my career goals with being a dad?

I doubt it. I think most people hear the phrase and think either "Good grief! How am I ever going to make this career/being a mom thing work?" or "Women don't have what it takes to do both." The likely impact of this is concern bordering on despair for women contemplating taking on both, and narrowing of opportunities for women in work environments that demand dedication and commitment from their workers.

Neither impact helps women construct and lead full lives. The bottom line is that the dirtying of the word "balance" has a disproportionately negative impact on women and is inherently sexist.

Maybe I should just relax. One of the tried-and-true tactics for re-selling a tried-and-true concept is to make it seem fresh instead of old-hat. If we call balance a dirty word, we can spin a new one that, with any luck, will strike people as perky, appealing, and innovative. A bit sleazy perhaps, but OK. I can live with it.

unintended meanings have been attaching themselves to words, like so many barnacles clinging to the hull of a boat, from time immemorial. The word "choice" comes immediately to mind. So does "working mother," which carries far more meaning than the usual adjective/noun combo. (It continues to annoy me no end that "working mother" is a loaded phrase and "working father" is not a phrase at all.) New nuances and meanings are how language evolves, and the evolution is not necessarily political. Evolution is OK with me, too.

But here's my problem. First of all, this wordplay is silly, in the same way the 60s talk about changing the word "history" to "herstory" was silly. Easily scorned silliness like this doesn't help the cause, both because it lends itself to being mocked and because it distracts our eyes from the ball. The word isn't what's in need of redefinition. Whether you call it balance or something else, the point is that each person has the right and the responsibility to define and then construct for herself a life that works.

Second, the world we live in does not need any help marginalizing women. It does not need any help insinuating that there's somehow a right way to be a woman and that all other choices fall short. Examples abound, be they discussions - in 2009! - of gender as a potentially negative issue when filling a Supreme Court seat,
or the pregnancy of a 66-year-old woman (who is almost without exception referred to as a "career woman" instead of, more appropriately, as an example of selfishness and medical freakery), or a list of great 20th century books that manages to include only 7 books written by women (and to include among the exclusions, if you will, not only Edith Wharton and Flannery O'Connor and Alice Walker, but also the Great American Novel, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird). (Don't like these examples, which, by the way, are all from just this morning? Here are plenty more.)

Even if the intent of throwing a nice word like "balance" under the bus is to empower women, the very separation of women from men in this regard suggests we are somehow not in the same position as men with respect to making our own choices, setting our own priorities, and doing what each of us, in her own wisdom and circumstances, deems the right things to do with her life. Backhanded sexism is still sexism.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Frontiers, Crossed and Crossing

My Twitter and Facebook friend Raul Ramos y Sanchez is the author of AMERICA LIBRE, a novel coming out this summer that is already an International Latino Book Award winner and one of USA Today's 2009 Summer Reads. Raul is thoughtful (in both senses of the word), and his passion for exploring issues of ethnicity in American life, culture and politics mirrors mine for exploring issues of gender. He is always posting provocative questions along these lines, and we have enjoyed stimulating conversations on Twitter, on Facebook, and here on my blog.

(In fact, Raul is the reason I now brave Facebook once or twice a week. The nicest thing I can say about Facebook is that I don't get it. The interface makes little sense to me, I have better ways to stay in touch with people I already know, and all those sophomoric quizzes and applications may well, it seems to me, put the final nails in the coffin of Western civilization (and, for all I know, Eastern civilization too). But Raul's thoughtful conversational prompts are great, and I can't stand the idea of missing one, so into Facebook's shallow, silty waters I now wade. I should also acknowledge, before I close the parentheses on this paragraph, that I recognize I'm standing in a glass house throwing stones when I diss Facebook. Twitter can certainly be sophomoric too, but I've found it much easier to tailor my own experience there. To each his or her own.)

Anyhoo, Raul asked today whether President Obama will name a Hispanic to the Supreme Court and whether achieving ethnic balance on the Court should even be a factor. I answered that it should indeed be a factor given our current circumstances, which are that there are eminently qualified Hispanic (and female) candidates for Justice Souter's seat. It is not necessary to relax standards to appoint a replacement who is not a white man. Given that, and in light of US demographics, I think achieving ethnic and gender balance on the Court is a completely appropriate goal.

In answering Raul's question, I lifted some ideas and paraphrased some sentences from A MERGER OF EQUALS. I concluded long ago, somewhat shakily, that quoting myself without attribution is not plagiarism. I feel...I don't know, derivative, I guess...whenever I do it, but I do it all the time anyway, secure in the knowledge that no one but I has read, let alone committed to memory, virtually every sentence I've ever written.

Today, however, my character Charlie keeps interrupting the writing I've been trying to do (on another book altogether) with a strong message to the effect that I didn't do justice to the point I lifted from him. So here it is (redacted to delete spoilers, for those of you who haven't yet read the book):

That created the first vacancy on the Executive Committee since the coup, and I felt strongly that we should fill it with a woman.

At the time of the coup, I had regretted that our slate didn’t include any women. But there were none of sufficient seniority at the Firm and we’d decided we had enough to manage without adding the effort of identifying and recruiting someone from outside, then selling her to the rest of the Firm. One step at a time, we’d told ourselves.

There was something about [recent events] that made me feel our “one step at a time” approach, however practical, had been essentially a rationalization. Women seemed to me to be able to handle just about anything, and it started to strike me as shabby that we hadn’t yet managed to handle getting even one into the Firm’s management.

The Firm still had no women positioned for appointment to the EC, although we had made good progress in the last year. I had no doubt that in another year or two several women would be good candidates for the EC.

We considered naming one of them to fill the EC vacancy even if it was premature. A couple were probably strong enough to make their voices heard even without a more established power base. But we weren’t looking to put a woman on the EC just so we could say we had one. The goal was to realize the actual benefits, financial and otherwise, of inclusivity and diversity – and to demonstrate that it wasn’t necessary to relax standards in order to include women.

Putting a token woman on the Committee satisfied neither of these goals. We needed someone with proven leadership skills and either a client base or some other equally credible value to bring to the Firm. All the EC members had strong client relationships; most were (or had once been) group heads and also chaired important Firm committees or held other administrative leadership positions. Naming a woman without these qualifications to the EC would undercut both the purpose behind our stated diversity goals and her ability to feel and act like a full-fledged member.

Because we’d have to look outside to fill the immediate vacancy with a woman, there was a fair amount of discussion at the EC about waiting for the next opening or seeking a woman for the open spot but filling it with the best candidate we found, irrespective of gender. As far as I was concerned, this was just so much bullshit designed to put off diversifying the Committee. I argued hotly that there was no reason we couldn’t find a qualified woman unless we failed to look seriously for one and that we shouldn’t settle for filling the vacancy with another man.

As I said to Raul, I applaud President Obama for taking into account the goal of achieving ethnic and gender balance and developing his Supreme Court candidate list accordingly. As Charlie reminded me, there is no reason we can't find a qualified and diverse candidate unless we fail to look seriously for one.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


I don't understand the impulse toward hysteria. There's also nothing much to like about the phenomenon. Starting with the word itself, which derives from the Greek hystera, meaning uterus, "hysteria" was originally defined as a neurotic condition peculiar to women. With those misogynistic roots, one would think the term had nowhere to go but up.

But no. Instead, hysteria became a social phenomenon, nowhere more evident than in this recent ridiculous mania over swine flu. As I understand it, statistically speaking your chances of contracting and dying from swine flu are significantly less than your chances of choking to death on a ballpoint pen (which 100 people do every year). They are a tiny fraction of your chances of dying in a car accident (43,000 annually) or from assorted gun violence (17,000). "Normal" flu kills around 36,000 people every year. And these numbers are just for the U.S. The swine flu hysteria is even sillier when considered in terms of global numbers.

So what prompted it? Why were/are people with about as much risk of contracting swine flu as someone living alone on a mountaintop all hysterical at the thought of going to school or getting on a plane or eating in a Mexican restaurant? Why were/are they flocking to already overcrowded ERs because they imagine their tummies hurt?

I've wondered about this personalization of peril before. I was doing some work for a company in Los Angeles right after 9/11. For a couple weeks after those horrific events, a few of the people in the LA office - none of whom had been personally affected by the attacks - were "too traumatized to come to work." Was this their way of empathizing? Of honoring the dead? Or was it an exploitation, however unconscious, of someone else's loss? I hate to think it was anything other than empathy - how dishonorable to attempt to make events like those of 9/11 about oneself!

Why join in the hysteria over something that, if you weren't hysterical, you would plainly see poses no imminent threat to you? Does feeling in peril make people feel important? Or maybe it's the opposite; maybe it makes people feel like they belong, like they're part of the community.

If so, too bad the hysterical community in question is such a silly, self-centered and wasteful one. If we could inject all the energy behind the swine flu hysteria into a community bent on improving healthcare for the poor - or, for that matter eradicating gun violence or fatal car accidents - we'd actually accomplish something important and lasting. Not to mention communal.