What is success anyway?

I’m reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book Unfinished Business at the moment. You might remember Anne-Marie Slaughter; she was the one who wrote that famous article in The Atlantic titled ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’. The title of her book refers to the feminist revolution, which she argues isn’t finished yet. And I do agree, there is still work to do. Despite so much progress having been made for women, gender equality still hasn’t been achieved. I mean I come from Finland and Finland is considered to be one of the most gender equal nations in the EU (and in the world for that matter) although it is also one of the most gender segregated. However, although Finland is one of the most gender equal countries, there are about 25% women in top management positions and about 27% on corporate boards. The question is, is that gender equality?

I’m actually working on a paper at the moment with a set of interviews of gender equality workers in Finnish organizations. These workers have lead projects in their organizations to make them more gender equal. What I’m finding is that there is a lot of gender fatigue in Finnish organizations today. People don’t really want to talk about gender equality anymore; they think it’s a non-issue. The result is complete disinterest in whatever it is these gender equality workers have to say. No outright resistance; they’re not rude and people generally know what’s politically correct. No, it’s just total indifference, which is worse in a way. I mean if resistance comes in the form of indifference, it’s really hard to fight. You don’t really know what you’re up against. And not only that; it kind of makes the gender equality workers and what they do invisible and that’s just awful.

One of the reasons behind the gender fatigue we see in Finland is that people think that since things are so much better for women in Finland than in many other countries in the world, we need to just give it up and be happy for what we have. Well, I find it hard to argue with people who say that, it’s hard to make them see. But the fact of the matter is that if we say we shouldn’t keep striving for gender equality because we have it so much better compared to others, it’s like saying that we shouldn’t bother about high quality education in schools because in our country children at least get to go to school. Ok, so I’m not sure that was a very good comparison, but you catch my drift.

But back to Unfinished Business. One of Slaughter’s main arguments in her book is that we will never achieve complete gender equality until we start valuing care work. It is women who continue to do the brunt of care work in society – both in countries like Finland and elsewhere. And as long as women continue to be the main carers in society, this will come in the way of having a career on the same terms as men who don’t have as difficult a time juggling work with having a family. As long as this is the case, women will just not be able to have it all.

But if we start to value care work, Slaughter argues, if we start to value also other things than paid work and objective and traditional definitions of success, only then will men also take on other responsibilities and roles in greater numbers. This, in turn, will make it possible for all – both men and women – to care for a family (which is important!) and to have a career without feeling like they’re on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

When Slaughter had her crisis and quit her high status, sought-after, dream job in foreign policy to go back to her university position, she says “I was forced to confront what was important to me, rather than what I was conditioned to want, or perhaps what I had conditioned myself to want.” And that’s the thing. That’s what women who opt out do. They start questioning the objective definitions of success, and they create their own subjective definitions instead. They realize that maybe the high status, high salary, corner office and company car really aren’t what will make them happy. Like one woman in Lisa Belkin’s column ‘The Opt-Out Revolution’ said, the raises and promotions may have meant a successful career, but they didn’t necessarily mean a successful life.

So maybe that’s what we should all do. Maybe we need to think about what success is for us. I mean what it really is, not what we think it should be or what others say it is. What exactly is it that makes your life successful?

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Don’t sweat the small stuff

My father passed away a few weeks ago. We were close and I miss him terribly. This is the first time I’ve lost someone this close to me and although I’ve lost beloved grandparents and other people from my extended family, it’s just different when it’s your parent. The grief is acute and physical and it just feels hard to comprehend.

But it really puts things into perspective.

I think about all the people I’ve met during my journey from the business world to academia. The people I’ve talked to about opting out, whether casual discussions at parties or conferences or interviews I’ve conducted for my research. A common denominator for all opting out stories is that something has happened in these people’s lives – a crisis of some sort – that has helped or pushed them to take the step and make a real change instead of just talking or dreaming about it.

And it’s true, a crisis or traumatic event may propel a person to make a change as well as trigger some serious soul searching. If everything goes well (and this is important because let’s not romanticize crisis here; we have to remember that a crisis is no walk in the park and some people don’t recover) it may trigger personal growth and create a feeling of authenticity. As a woman I’ve interviewed said, “ You just don’t waste time on anything that doesn’t matter anymore.”

I’m finding that I can really relate to that right now. I just can’t be bothered sweating the small stuff. Intrigue at work? Not interested. Disagreements and misunderstandings? Can’t be bothered. Students who complain? I refuse to let it get to me. Really though, I’m dealing with more important stuff in my life right now.

And although I’m sad, I’m also finding that I quite like not getting fazed by what’s not important. I feel like I see things more clearly. I just hope it lasts and that I continue being able to put things into perspective. Although I suspect as time passes I will gradually slip back into getting stressed over work and deadlines like I usually do. Because that’s life, nothing is constant and opting out isn’t forever, it’s cyclical.

I wish I could put perspective in a jar and then in the future, when I need to, breathe some in and not sweat the small stuff again.

Julia and me, Part 2 (and some thoughts on being a (bad) feminist)

The other day I was having lunch with a colleague and we were talking about how torn we both sometimes feel between having to be a good feminist and just wanting to be there for our children, without having to overthink whether or not we’re setting a good example. In many ways I do think I am a good role model for my children. I work with something I am passionately interested in and I regularly lose myself in this work, which admittedly often frustrates them. I hope I’m teaching them by example to dream big and work hard.

Like many women who have opted out and in, I also organize my work so that I can be there for my children when they need me, which feels both important and meaningful. For example, I work out of my home office several days a week and I have a lot to say about when and where I work, so I really am around when important things happen in their lives. One thing that I am especially proud of and that makes me very happy is that my children tell me that they can really talk to me about anything, and I believe one reason they feel that way is that I am actually around when they need to talk.

But also like many women who opt out and in, one of the results and perhaps downsides of organizing my life to better accommodate my care responsibilities, is that, as a result, I can take even more responsibility for childcare and household chores than I would if I had a job that kept me out of the house all day every day. So while women like me are able to better combine different areas of life, it really doesn’t do much for gender equality in the home sphere, nor in the work place to be honest. At least not in the short run. And being the gender scholar that I am, this bugs me a little.

Well, as my colleague and I were talking about this, we came to the conclusion that yes, it’s good to be a good feminist and set a good example, but we (women) also just need to give ourselves a break sometimes. Strange as it may sound, we are actually only human.

So I felt especially comforted when I stumbled across a book by Roxanne Gay called Bad Feminist. Gay is an academic and a feminist, but she calls herself a bad feminist because she just can’t seem to live up to the somewhat unrealistic expectations she argues many feminists place on women. She writes, “For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choice.” So in order to be a good feminist and a good example to other feminists, we have to always make the right decisions, always have the right opinions, and never slip up and God forbid do or say anything unfeminist. Well, we do. We slip up all the time. According to Gay, feminism should be about supporting equality in whatever way we can and do, and it is better to be a bad feminist than no feminist at all. And to be honest, like many other women I am often too hard on myself, so I feel pretty grateful towards anyone who gives me a break and permission to be human.

One feminist who I really admire is Julia Kristeva. As I’ve mentioned before, I became acquainted with her work while working on my doctoral thesis, and there was something about her take on issues like feminism and feminine identity that really appealed to me. Her approach to womanhood differs from that of many other feminist theorists, who, in turn, have accused her of being an essentialist (believing in traditional concepts and ideals) and just unfeminist in general. And she is neither. One reason she is seen as something of a threat to the feminist movement is that she has introduced the body to the feminist debate, and argues that motherhood is, in fact, “at the crossroads of biology and meaning”. The reason this doesn’t appeal to many other feminists is that they worry that bringing the body and motherhood into the debate could easily be misconstrued and used to argue that a woman’s calling is to have and care for children and that her rightful place is in the home. I want to be perfectly clear here and say that neither Kristeva nor I believe that. On the contrary, Kristeva recognizes that not all women even want to be mothers. But to be fair, I can also understand what it is feminists are afraid of.

But being a mother and having given birth to two children, I can certainly appreciate Kristeva’s thoughts. Although I am a strong believer in that we are shaped and conditioned by socially constructed societal norms and expectations (i.e. we are taught to believe that women are the ones who are best equipped physically and emotionally to care for children, which really isn’t true, men are just as good given half the chance), social construction still doesn’t seem to quite adequately explain the entire mothering experience. Giving birth and becoming a mother is a powerful physical and biological experience. And there is a bond between mother and child that goes beyond gendered expectations and norms.

So maybe, like Roxanne Gay, I am also a bad feminist. Or maybe, just maybe, being a bad (read: human) feminist is what makes me a good one?

Guilt, care, and time with loved ones

I was in Glasgow last week at the BSA (British Sociological Association) conference and as a result my head is spinning with plans and ideas for my research. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting lots of interesting people and have had some really good conversations. But as I sit here and reflect over the conference there is one thing that sticks out in my mind, and that is the word ‘guilt’.

It’s not that I or anyone else was feeling especially guilty at the time, although who knows, that is at least not what we were talking about. No, it came up as a recurring theme when talking about women, work, careers, and mothering.

Now I admit that I have a somewhat unhealthy guilt complex. I sometimes joke that if there is anything that I could possibly feel guilty about, I do, and if there is absolutely nothing to feel guilty about, I do anyway. I know this is completely irrational and I have gotten better at not feeling so guilty all the time.

One thing that seems to connect women, whether or not they have a career, whether or not they have children, is that they, or rather we, feel way too guilty about too many things. I know I probably don’t need to spell it out, but I will so that you know you’re not alone. Here are a few things that you possibly and probably often feel guilty about:

Not being with your kids enough; not being at work enough; not spending enough time with parents/friends/family/loved ones; not getting enough done; not being a good enough mother/daughter/wife/friend; not being attentive enough to others’ needs; not being ambitious enough; not exercising enough; not giving the kids food that is nutritious enough; not monitoring their screen time enough; and not getting enough done although we’re doing all of the above to the best of our ability (yes, really, to the best of our ability, stop beating yourself up) and feeling guilty about it too, which also takes a lot of energy.

I could go on, but there really is no point. The point I wanted to make when listing all these things, is that if you recognize any of these you will know that you are not alone, because unfortunately, this is something I have found in my research: women tend to think it’s just them. That every one else is doing fine, and many women ask themselves, why can’t I handle it when everyone else seems to be able to? The thing is, we’re just really great at keeping it together and putting on a brave face.

So why is this, you ask, why do we feel so guilty? Well, it’s complicated, but the main reasons are cultural and structural. With cultural I mean the way women are brought up and the gendered ideals prevalent in society. And with structural I mean the way we organize society, they way we define work, and the way we continue to put most of the care responsibilities on women. These two are very closely linked.

While women are taught to have it all – a family, a career, and to participate in public debate and policy making – we are also making it difficult for women to do this because of the contradictory messages we send them about femininity and what it means to be a good worker, citizen, woman, and mother. Simply put, women get extremely mixed and contradictory messages regarding what it is that they need to live up to.

Despite gender equality initiatives, which include encouraging men to take paternity leave and participate more in childcare, the change has been and is extremely slow, and women continue to be mainly responsible for care in society. Childcare is also actually only a small part of all the care done in society. Although we mostly think and talk about stressed and sleep deprived mothers of small children when we talk about care, we have other care responsibilities too. Not only are women mainly responsible for childcare, they are also mainly responsible for other care, like caring for elderly parents, spouses, or other ailing relatives and friends. And even though care is often outsourced, someone still needs to manage and coordinate it, and either way it can be draining and emotionally very difficult. Talking to a good friend and colleague at the conference, it really started to dawn on me how much women organize their lives and their work around care. This is also true for the women who opt out. A big part of their narratives, whether or not they have children, is about the people in their lives and the relationships they want to nurture, which the career they opted out of left very little room for. It may seem obvious, that we want to and should be there for the people who are important to us and need us, but this is just not the way work is organized. Very little room is left for care, which is one of the main reasons we tend to feel overwhelmed.

Now I’m obviously not saying that we shouldn’t care for loved ones, but we can be aware of how unequal the distribution of care in society is and work on that. And we can think about that maybe we need a society and a working culture that accommodates and makes more room for care and relationships, for both men and women. Either way, women have some pretty unrealistic expectations to live up to, and we need to realize this and we really need to not feel so guilty all the time. It is such a waste of energy.

What is it about mothers today?

I remember being at a dinner party a few months ago and I was sitting with a group of women who were my mother’s age. We were talking about motherhood, work-life balance etc., when one woman wondered out loud why it is that women with young children complain so much now-a-days, why do they think their children are such a nuisance? She was wondering whether people who have grown up in the 70’s and 80’s aren’t used to working hard, if they just don’t love their children as much, or simply don’t like being parents as much anymore.

This is definitely not the case. It is not that mothers or parents don’t love their children as much as they used to, or that they aren’t prepared to work hard.  There is actually research that shows that parents today spend much more time than previous generations playing with their children. There is also research that shows that professional life is much tougher than it used to be and that people work longer days. It may be true that mothers today complain more than before. One reason may be that it is no longer taboo to talk about how hard being a mother really is, and that is a good thing. But there is more to it.

Women today, especially if they are juggling both a career and children, are drawn between the individualistic world of work on the one hand, and the self-sacrificing world of motherhood on the other. The irony here is that both worlds crave 100% dedication and devotion. At work, you are expected to be completely dedicated and available 24/7, and as a mother you are expected to be completely devoted. Simple math will tell you that two times 100% simply doesn’t work no matter how you look at it. But not only that, the past decades have witnessed a professionalization of motherhood where simply being a mother is no longer enough. In addition to being a mother, you’re supposed to also be your child’s nurse, nutritionist, personal trainer, coach, tutor, teacher, child psychologist…you name it. You’re supposed to be well read and if you don’t live up to it all (like making everything from scratch in order to protect your children from sugars and additives etc. while also holding down a fulltime job), all the recommendations and hype going around in the media and on the internet will certainly make you feel guilty, not to mention the pressure we get from each other.  (Have you ever thought about how you present yourself and your life on Facebook for example? There is material in that for a whole new blog post…)

However, women are not only pressured to be perfect mothers, we are also supposed to be perfect women and have perfect homes. I at least tend to get stressed by the lists of things you need to do that circulate. What you need to eat, and how much of it you need to eat every day; how much water and other fluids you need to drink everyday; what kind of exercise you should be doing and how, and how often you need to do that. And while you’re busy remembering all this, you need to take care of your body, make sure to wax and use the right cosmetics, not to mention your hair and nails. Is there enough time in the day to do all this? On top of all that, there needs to be time to work and to be a mother, not to mention a wife, daughter, sister, aunt and friend. And somehow I get the feeling that if we eat and drink everything we’re supposed to, and in the recommended amounts, we would end up over eating.

There is also a greater sense of risk in society today. Through media we can take part of all the catastrophes that take place in all the corners of the Earth and people perceive life as much more dangerous, especially for children, than it was say 30 years ago. We need to constantly protect our children from these dangers, which sometimes can be very stressful, not to mention tricky – like protecting children from seeing horrible things on the internet, or internet bullying.

And on top of that there is of course this whole hectic culture in which we live. The job market is insecure.  With all the restructuring and downsizing no one is safe. What you have accomplished does not really count anymore; you’re only as good as your next thing.

So maybe it’s no surprise that mothers have a lot to complain about. Being a mother in today’s society can really be quite overwhelming.

If you’re interested in reading more about the contradictions of motherhood, see:

Competing Devotions: Career and Family among Women Executives by Mary Blair-Loy (Harvard University Press)

The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood by Sharon Hays (Yale University Press)