Control

(Tied for third most read. Reposted from January 2, 2015, see original here)

I find opting out a fascinating topic, which I suppose is to be expected, as this is what I wrote my PhD about. But what is perhaps more interesting than the things about society, culture, and expectations that propel people to opt out, is what it is they choose to do instead – what they opt in to. The new solutions they create and the lifestyles they adopt potentially tell us a lot about how people want to live their lives and how they want to work, what they think is important, and what it is that makes them tick.

In a world of quick fixes and short-term wins, where the constant downsizing means no one is safe, and where it isn’t unusual that people change jobs every or every second year, I’d say knowing what makes people tick in order to figure out how to get them to commit to any goals, not to mention long-term goals, is pretty strategic.

Considering all the great technological breakthroughs and how cutting edge many corporations are in their fields, it’s actually quite surprising that they just haven’t kept up when it comes to career models and work solutions.

When people opt out they opt in to a number of different lifestyles and types of work. While they basically all opt out of the same thing – the corporate models and ways of working that leave them stressed, exhausted, and without the ability to create a coherent narrative of their lives and work – they opt in to a myriad of different ways of living. Some downshift and move to less hectic areas, some don’t. Some make a complete career change and retrain in another area, some don’t. Some leave the corporate world altogether, and some don’t. Some start doing research, like me, and some become entrepreneurs. The point is, just like we are all diverse with our own personal preferences, people opt in to a way of living and working that is right just for them. Maybe that is the point, through their opting out journeys they create ways of life that are tailored to their personal needs and don’t follow some corporate norm.

There is, however, one thing that is the same for everyone who opts out and in: control. In their new lifestyles, those who opt in, create a lifestyle where they have more control over their time and thus over their lives. This control gives them a sense of coherence and authenticity, and it allows them to do what they love, to lose themselves in their work, without the stress of not knowing how to make time for all their other responsibilities. It seems that control (corporate leaders, pay attention now!) is actually the key, the secret behind how to engage and commit people.

And knowing this, it’s frustrating to see organizations that, for example, have a policy for working off-site, but when asked about it admit that they don’t usually allow their employees to do so, because how can they then be sure that they actually work (yes this is true). We have all these policies like flexible time to make life more flexible and manageable, especially for employees with care responsibilities. But research has shown that flexible time actually makes us feel like we have less time. So all these policies strike me as window dressing without actually changing the way we work or making an impact on our lives. Instead of measuring how much we work – quantity – how about focusing on what we get done – quality? Who cares where we work and how we do it if we get the job done? The thing is, while it shouldn’t matter to our employers (results are results, right?), it matters a great deal to us. We want to have more control over how we work, when we work, and where we work. That really shouldn’t be too much to ask.

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It is the courage to continue that counts

The other day I found out that my post-doc research project was rejected by yet another foundation. I sometimes think that we academics must be gluttons for punishment since this is what we choose to put up with again and again. My husband suggested that I frame the letter of rejection (see my previous post Temporary setbacks for more on framing letters of rejection), except there was no letter of rejection to frame. It was one of these foundations that only lets you know if you do get funding. If you don’t, there’s nothing, no letter, and definitely no feedback regarding why you didn’t get the funding, or what you could do to improve your application.

Well, since there was nothing, I decided to hang an empty frame on the wall of my office instead, which I did, and I find it strangely empowering. I have a beautiful, empty, oval frame over my desk and it reminds me that no matter what setbacks I experience, they are just temporary and they don’t define me. They aren’t going to stop me from getting on with my life and doing whatever it is that I want to do.

While I was hanging the frame, I happened upon a post-it note among the papers on my desk, on which I have apparently jotted down the following quote some time ago:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.”

– Winston Churchill

How appropriate. I stuck it in the middle of the empty frame.

So I will leave you with these words as I take a break over the next few weeks. I won’t be completely silent though; I’ll be reposting my four most read posts since I started my blog. These posts have by far accumulated the most views, so hopefully you’ll enjoy them! I’ll be back at the beginning of August!

Summer reading plans

As spring has gradually turned into summer, the world seems to be slowing down a bit. I notice that instead of focusing on my writing like I should be, at least for a few more weeks until my summer holiday starts, I find my mind drifting and I’m distracted by the blue skies (okay so they’re sort of grey today, but still), the fragrant flowers, and the chirping birds outside my window. The words of one of my so called opt outers echo in my head: “It’s so much about being efficient… I don’t know if that’s the life I want to live.” So with my body, mind, and soul longing for lazy summer days, I thought I would share with you some of my summer reading plans.

Since the work of a researcher never ends, I will start with academic books. I have a couple of books on masculinities on my desk that I’m looking forward to digging my teeth into (not literally): Men’s Lives by Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner; and The Gender of Desire: Essays on Male Sexuality by Michael S. Kimmel.

The reason these are on the top of my list is that I have just embarked on my postdoctoral research project on men opting out and these books represent a door to a whole new world that I can’t wait to start exploring. I could intuitively understand what was going on as a woman studying women, but the situation is different now.

The concept of masculinities is relatively recent in gender studies. While focus has typically been on women, it is only during the past decades that researchers have started to explore different types of masculinities. So let me tell you about Catherine Hakim, who developed Preference Theory, which many of you may have heard of. She argues that the main reason women don’t reach top positions in any great numbers is their preferences. That is, according to her, many prefer to focus on family rather than on a career. Now I have dedicated many blog posts to why it just isn’t that simple, that there are a multitude of forces and reasons beyond preference that hold women back or have them ‘choose’ one thing over another, so I won’t go into that now.

But relevant to the study of masculinities, Hakim also argues that the reason society is patriarchal (that is, mainly men have the power) is that women are so diverse in their preferences and therefore make lots of different choices, while men are basically homogeneous, that is have very similar interests. Let me run this by you again just so that you can take this all in: she argues that women are diverse and men basically all want the same thing (and no, she is not talking about sex, at least I don’t think so). I mean really. Men aren’t all the same. They don’t all want to live their lives the same way. They don’t all share the same dreams. Just like women are a diverse group – just like there are many different femininities – there many different masculinities too. And in case anyone is still unsure of where I stand regarding this: no, I don’t agree with her.

Next on my list is Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World by Cecilia L. Ridgeway. This book is apparently one of the most important contemporary books on gender, and it supposedly tackles big questions in an accessible way, so I’m looking forward to that. This book is relevant for my research on how opting out can lead to greater gender segregation. For that I’m also going to acquaint myself with the literature on silences – on what’s not said. Women who opt out often insist that their decision was completely their own, that their husbands (if they are married) have said that they will support them no matter what they decide. However, what is becoming all the more clear to me as I go through transcripts of interviews, is that while many of the husband say they support their wives, they don’t actually do very much to alleviate their wives’ situations. They generally don’t take a more active role at home so that their wives might feel less overwhelmed. They basically do nothing, except of course provide moral support (and financial support if their wives end up quitting work altogether, but that’s not what I’m talking about here). So through their silences and non-actions they are actually saying quite a lot. Perhaps not consciously, but still. So I need to know more about that.

But my summer is of course not only going to be about work; I plan to mix in a lot of novels as well. I love novels and I basically devour them whenever I can (which is all the time). I have just ordered a copy of The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker, which I’ve heard is wonderful. And I discovered Kim Thúy a while back; I read her book and really enjoyed that, so I’m going to read Mãn next. Also, I’m waiting for Go Set a Watchman* by Harper Lee to be published in July (yes, it’s a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird!).

If you have any books to recommend, I would love to hear from you. I constantly need more good books to read!

* http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24817626-go-set-a-watchman

Reflections of a blogger

Today I’m celebrating my 30th blog post. It’s about seven months since I started blogging, and it both feels like yesterday and as if I’ve had this blog forever. One thing is for sure though; I never thought I would ever become a blogger. There is something about being that public, and about being publicly private, that I found both off-putting and scary. You know, while being worried that no one was going to read my blog, I was also pretty worried that someone was actually going to read my blog.

And also, I have to admit that at a certain point so many people seemed to be starting blogs that my automatic – and irrational – reaction was that if everyone else is doing it I certainly don’t want to. It’s kind of like when the movie Titanic first came out. Everyone was watching it and talking about it and gushing over all the Oscars it had gotten and I felt absolutely no urge to see it. It’s silly I know, but what do you do? I did finally see it a couple of years ago in Adelaide when they came out with a 3D version, and I did enjoy it, which I never doubted that I would, but that wasn’t the point was it. Funny this semi-conscious need to be unique, which many argue is the essence of this era of individualization in which we live. Although ironically, perhaps the joke’s on us, because it’s also been argued that individualization is just a trend that we strive towards en masse, while we like to think we’re being different.

But surprisingly, since I was so reluctant, I have really enjoyed being a blogger. Although at the same time, I’m quick to tell people that I’m not a typical blogger, that I mostly see this blog as a weekly column. Although what is a typical blogger really? I guess I need to realize that I am a blogger just like any other blogger.

When I started this blog, I wanted it to be a place where I could to talk about my opting out research and make it more accessible to a wider audience, and I also wanted more control over the publicity my research was getting, i.e. what was being said about my research and when. After receiving my PhD I got quite a bit of media attention, all of which was positive. And although nothing of what was written about my research was wrong – I was allowed to check articles for accuracy before they were published – I still felt that journalists generally seemed to choose a similar perspective of opting out to write about, which wasn’t wrong in any way, but which kind of gave a one-sided version of what opting out and my research is about. The story was mostly about how combining work and family easily becomes too much for women for whatever reason, which in turn compels them to opt out and live on their own terms. And that may be true but there is so much more to opting out than that. So I wanted to use this blog to write about and raise discussions on all the different aspects of opting out.

And then I thought, well even if no one reads my blog, it will also be a way for me to accumulate texts on my research, which I could perhaps one day rework into a book. Because although I already have plans to rework my thesis into an academic book, I’m convinced there is also material in there for a so-called trade book, a less academic book that is. And since writing takes time, I need to think about what I choose to dedicate my time to. My supervisor gave me sound advice when I graduated, saying that even though a trade book is possible, writing one is time away from academic papers or articles, which I need to write if I want an academic career. Now, whether or not I want an academic career on the terms that one is expected to have an academic career is another question, and something that I will save for another blog post, but either way I want to keep my options open, so writing and publishing academic papers is what I’m aiming at. But writing two pages every week for my blog is very doable and doesn’t take a lot of time away from my so-called day job, so this seemed like a good plan. Who cares if anyone reads your blog, right?

Well perhaps, but somewhat unexpectedly, I got readers and followers! And not only that, my readers and followers are from all corners of the globe, which is very exciting. So I guess collecting texts is fine, but it would certainly not feel this fun nor meaningful to produce these texts if it weren’t for all of you!

So my original plan was to post every other week. And being something of a risk-averse control freak, I sat down and made a list of topics I could write about before deciding on whether or not I would try blogging. I came up with about 20 topics, which I thought should keep me going for about a year. And this I was going to do whether or not anyone read my blog.

But blogging turned out to be way too energizing to stick to my original plan. Not only did I realize right after publishing my first post, that waiting two weeks to publish the next one would just be impossible. Right then, two weeks felt like a very long time, and I got so inspired by all the comments I got that my mind was bubbling with ideas for new posts. So I quickly discarded my planned timetable, as well as my list of topics, as they seemed boring compared to the ideas I get from comments and discussions.

I sometimes worry that I’m going to run out of things to say. But as my husband says, if that should ever happen, I just need to read more because reading gives me new perspectives and ideas. And it’s true; you have to read in order to be able to write. Also, if worse comes to worst, I’ll just have to set up more lunch dates with my inspirational friends and colleagues, who always give me a lot to think about.

So thank you for being my readers for these first 30 blog posts! I appreciate every question and comment I get, whether online or in person. This is what makes me want to sit down and write the next post pretty much right after I’ve posted the previous one. I truly look forward to continuing blogging, and to writing the next 30 posts, and more!

Choice is complicated

The concept of choice has been central in my research, which is expected, since ‘opting’ as in opting out is synonymous with choosing or exercising choice. In other words, when we talk about opting out, we talk about people who choose to do so. Therefore I decided early on not to include people who have had no choice but to leave their careers due to reasons like burnout. I wanted to study why people who at least in principle have the choice to stay decide not to, what it is that drives them, and what it is that they look for instead.

Early on I also realized that there was more to this idea of ‘free choice’ than meets the eye. The reason I saw this was because as I interviewed women, it became more and more clear that opting out – choosing to leave – was a long and often painful process riddled with crises. So either way, it certainly wasn’t an easy choice.

We live in a time of globalization, individualization, consumerism, and constant reinvention, and the rhetoric of choice today is very strong. As traditions become less important (we no longer have to live or do things in a certain way just because that’s the way things have always been done), we are encouraged to choose things like what we want to do and who we want to be professionally, a lifestyle, and what we want to stand for from a myriad of choices. And we’re encouraged to do this again and again. As Anthony Elliott writes in his book Reinvention, “flexibility, adaptability and transformation have become intricately interwoven with the global electronic economy.” We have to keep reinventing ourselves professionally in order to stay competitive, which is enabled and exacerbated by therapy culture and the instant makeover industry. But not only that, reinvention also fulfills another need: “the lure of reinvention is that it is inextricably interwoven with the dream of “something else”.” This I think really hits the nail on its head. In a time when things really are very hectic and it’s hard to keep up, we long for that something else which is always just out of reach.

So choice is evidently an important concept in contemporary society. But not only that, choice also gives us a sense of agency in a time when there is a lot of uncertainty, a sense that we can control and shape our lives. When we opt out, we like to think that it is completely our own choice, and not that there are factors that actually may push us to opt out.

Ten years ago, Linda Hirshman coined the expression ‘choice feminism’, which represents a belief that women can and should choose whether or not they want to have a career, or whether or not they want to take advantage of the opportunities that feminists have spent decades fighting for. According to choice feminism, a woman can choose not to have a career and embrace traditional gender norms and still be a feminist, if she chose it herself.

But for a career woman with small children, there are a lot of other forces at work. Mothering is so intimately linked to femininity that if you fail at your job, you’re just a bad worker; but if you fail at mothering (or don’t prioritize it), you’re a bad woman. Yes, ouch… So if having it all becomes too hard, that is if having two full-time jobs (first at work and then at home after work) or if trying to do it all simultaneously becomes too much to handle, women will more often than not choose mothering over their careers. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t want a career, it just means that we (society) expect women to be superhuman.

Choice is complicated. It’s not always clear what decisions are based on. Sometimes there are coping mechanisms at work (it may just feel better to believe that a decision was based on free choice) and sometimes a narrative is created afterwards to supply a sense of agency and control. The point is, choices (or should I say “choices”) are the result of both individual wants and needs, and societal expectations and social pressures. Not to mention all the internal conflicts that we all grapple with.

So yes, women do get pushed out to a certain degree: they still get discriminated, they get mommy-tracked, and they take care of more than their fair share of household chores and care responsibilities. But again, it isn’t that simple. In addition to push-factors there are also pull-factors. What I have found is that not only have these women been pushed to make a change, they also experience the pull of a life where they can be everything they want to be, and do it in a way that makes it possible. They experience the pull of a life where they feel that they can be themselves, instead of hiding certain parts of themselves (like their femininity or their children…) to get ahead in their careers. Or perhaps they just simply want a life where they can do meaningful work without succumbing.

Now I have just started my interviews of men who have opted out* and it is still too early to tell, but it will be interesting to see how similar or different their opting out journeys are compared to those of the women I’ve interviewed. What are the drivers that push men to opt out? What is it that pulls them in their new lifestyles? And how do they make sense of their choices? It remains to be seen.

* A very big thank you to everyone who contacted me regarding interviews! It has been most helpful! If anyone else knows of any men who have opted out who would be willing to be interviewed, or if you are a man who has opted out, you can still contact me at theoptingoutblog@gmail.com.