Making the world better for boys too

My idol, Professor Mirjam Kalland, had a column in my local daily newspaper last week. She wrote about boys and girls, about gender structures and about how we value and treat people differently based on their gender. She wrote about gender discrimination and about how this affects both boys and girls as they grow up. Her column struck a chord with me because this is what I am always saying. Although a lot of people don’t realize it, gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it’s a societal issue. It’s about men and women, about boys and girls, about the wellbeing of all.

There is research that shows that gender norms and structures, while still being discriminatory towards women, are not good for men either in a number of ways. One of the ways is men’s health. Gendered structures and norms affect men’s physical and mental health negatively. For example, suicide rates are, as we know, higher among men than women.

I think of this as I watch my son grow up. I have a girl and a boy, both are smart, sensitive, inquisitive, social beings and it pains me when I see how they are treated differently, for no other apparent reason than their gender.

I remember when my son was a lot younger, and nervous about going to the dentist. We have found a wonderful dentist, to make going as easy as possible and I had been taking my daughter there for a couple of years at least before I went with my son. Both the dentist and his assistant were always very kind and patient towards my daughter, making sure not to do anything until she was ready. As a parent you feel so grateful to people who are kind to your children.

Imagine my surprise when I went with my son. He needed the same time and patience, but what he got instead was a snide comment from the assistant (who was female, in case that matters), to be quiet and open his mouth so we can just get this over with and go home.

This was the nurse who had been treating my daughter completely differently for years, and when I came in with a much younger child who was nervous, but calm and polite, and was wondering what was going to happen, like his sister had often wondered, the response was be quiet and open your mouth. I’m pretty sure there was no other reason than that he was a boy and you don’t coddle boys. “How are they otherwise ever going to become men?” Have you heard that before? I have and all of a sudden, I was experiencing it too.

Well, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I see how little boys are treated differently than girls all the time. I’ve witnessed it at my children’s day care (which, for the record, was a wonderful place). I’ve seen girls hurt themselves and how they’ve been hugged and soothed, rightly so. I’ve seen boys hurt themselves, and handled kind of roughly when they’ve been picked up off the ground, even when they are crying. I’ve seen a little boy laughed at by a grown-up at day care when he hurt his genitals, because that was kind of embarrassing and I guess laughter just came more spontaneously than a hug.

And this is in a country that is considered one of the most gender equal in the world, where day care workers have degrees in early childhood education and care.

Well for my son, the gendered treatment continues. He is much older now and very much aware of what is going on around him. He is still sensitive, and one of the most empathetic people I know, and he sees how he and his friends get treated differently than girls in school because they are boys (again, I need to stress, he goes to a really good school).

He says boys are damned before they even open their mouths. He’s frustrated that the worst is often expected of him before he has even done anything. That he is told to be quiet when he has a question and expected to be rowdy, even though that really hasn’t been his tendency. He knows that people often don’t even realize that this is what they are doing – that they don’t necessarily do it on purpose – but the term that comes to my mind is self-fulfilling prophecy. That is how boys will start acting if that is all that is expected of them.

So no, I don’t think gender equality is a women’s issue. I think it is everyone’s issue. I think gender equality really would make the world a better place. For both girls and boys, men and women, and everyone else too!

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How do we design technology that actually enhances our quality of life instead of making us lonelier?

I’m reading a book* about iGen at the moment. iGen is the generation of kids who have grown up with the Internet, computers, smart phones and the like. In other words, my kids’ generation. It’s fascinating reading and they are a remarkable generation in many ways. They are tolerant and sensible and instill hope for the future, at least for me personally. I like the book’s approach, the way it says their values and ways of life are not good nor bad, they just are. I like that because we spend so much time judging iGen kids and comparing their ways to the reality the rest of us had when we were the same age, even though the realities they deal with now are completely different from what ours were in many ways.

One thing that strikes me though, yet again, as I read about those who are young today, is the issue of loneliness. They are a lonely generation, and as research has shown in a number of different countries, loneliness among young people today is a huge and rising problem. And one of the problems is, of course, social media. I think no one is surprised by that.

While social media is supposed to connect people, it has especially young people meeting online rather than face-to-face. They have friends who they socialize with, but due to many reasons, they mostly socialize with them on social media platforms. And, as may also not come as a surprise, chatting on social media does not fill the same function as meeting in person. Humans need relationships, we need intimacy and closeness. We experience connections on a deeper level when we meet and have conversations with people in person, which we just don’t do in the brief chats and messages we exchange over social media. These deep connections provide meaning and a sense of community that we as humans all need.

Not only that, research has also shown that even when they are at home with family, iGeners will often rather be alone in their rooms on their phones with their doors closed, than be with the rest of the family. So even though loved ones may be there on the other side of their bedroom doors, they are still often alone.

But what strikes me is that even though social media may exacerbate loneliness among iGeners, possibly even cause it, it isn’t really social media as such that is at fault. Social media is just technology that we humans have developed. It is how we have designed and defined it, and how it has been programmed to be used that is the problem.

The same goes for AI (artificial intelligence). Many feel threatened by it, and worry what it may or may not do to our lives. But the fact is, that it is we humans who decide what it should be and what it should and should not be able to do. The threat is not social media, it is not AI, it is how we humans decide to define and develop it.

There is so much happening in society now. Life as we know it is being redefined as we speak, and we need to make sure it is done in the right way. Social media can be great. AI can change our lives for the better in uncountable ways. We just have to make sure that it is developed to do so, and not to harm us and our wellbeing.

So instead of having social media designed to isolate us and make us lonely, as it seems to be today, how about we design technology to bring us together rather that to keep us apart? How about reinventing social media so that we actually interact with each other more in person and not less? How about using technology to actually enhance our quality of life, and not isolate us and make us lonelier?

This is for all you programmers and developers out there. Please design technology to be the resource it could really be.

*iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant and Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What That Means for the Rest of Us) by Jean M. Twenge, PhD

What is important to you and when do you draw the line?

I had great plans for this blog post. I had a really good idea and I’ve been meaning to write it down for the past week and a half. It’s been almost two and a half weeks since my last post and for a blog where my intention has been to post weekly, that is a pretty long break. Especially since a person I met about half a year ago, whose opinion I really value, said to me after she checked out my blog, “I just have one criticism, I wish you would post more often.” That was a huge compliment, it meant that she really liked my blog. But it also made me feel pressured to actually try and be more active.

So that has been going through my head too, that and this idea that I have been meaning to write. I have just had too much to do, but have still also felt guilty about not getting my act together. Which is ironic, because this is my blog, which I write on my terms, about whatever it is that I want. No one tells what to write, or when or how to write it. This pressure I feel is all me.

Does that sound familiar?

It’s like when my son went from being a baby to being a toddler. One night, I was sitting on the edge of his bed at bedtime, looking at his window thinking that I really need to get him new curtains. He had baby curtains and I somehow had the notion that he needed kid curtains instead. I was sleep deprived, overworked and just overwhelmed in general, but still couldn’t stop thinking about how I really needed to get my act together regarding his curtains. It was eating away at me until I one day realized that the boy doesn’t even know he has curtains. His curtains were not hampering his development or cramping his style in any way, so why was I worrying about this? So I instantly stopped.

This example might seem ridiculous to you, but it is illustrative of how much of the pressure we have we actually inflict on ourselves.

Even at work. Yes, I know that corporate cultures can be very inflexible and stifling and there are certainly pressures that others put on us. But there are also things that we think we have to do or can or cannot do which actually aren’t things anyone has actually expressively said or taken a stand on.

Like the woman I met about a year ago who was working at a male dominated IT company when she went on maternity leave. They wanted her to come back to work earlier than she had planned and participate in meetings, and she wanted to do it too but was worried about how she was going to be able to do so with such a young child. I mean, she couldn’t take the baby with her to work. None of her colleagues had children and they were all male so that was just out of the question. Or was it? She finally realized that no one had actually said she couldn’t bring her baby to work, so she asked if it was okay, and it turned out that it was. She brought the baby with her to the meetings and nobody even blinked.

What she thought was impossible wasn’t.

But back to my blog. As I sat down to finally write it, I realized that I just didn’t have the energy. Writing about what I had planned to write about would have craved pulling out a few books and checking some facts and I have neither the time nor the energy for that right now. And since no one even knows about these plans of mine, much less expects me to write them down, why on Earth am I stressing about this?

When you have too much to do, you need to focus on what’s important. We’re not very good at that in today’s society, but sometimes you just have to draw the line.

We all need down time and the amount of work or pressure we can or should handle is very individual. You can’t compare yourself with other people; just because they can do something in a certain way, doesn’t mean that it works for you.

We have to remember to also take the down time that we need, regardless of what other people are doing, and not feel guilty about it. Because if you don’t take care of you, how are you ever going to be able to accomplish all the things you want to? If you become too exhausted or overwhelmed to carry on, it really isn’t going to help anyone anywhere in any way.

So, take care of yourselves and don’t think you have to do it all. Think about what is really important to you and focus on that instead.

Colleagues are people too

I had lunch with a friend a couple of days ago and she told me about some weird stuff that had been going on where she works. Gossiping on a level that even school children would balk at. Kind of like when you say someone is acting like a four-year old but also know that a four-year old would know not to act that way.

We ended up having a lot to talk about. I have also experienced some pretty low behavior in places I have worked, and it made me wonder: what is it that makes people lose all sense of what is polite and civilized?

We are taught at an early age to say hello, goodbye, thank you, and sorry. When we are kids we learn that it is bad to be impolite, and that bullying and other unacceptable behavior will be punished. But then when we become adults and are put together in an organization where hierarchy, power, stress, and uncertainty play in, we suddenly somehow forget all these things. Or have we simply forgotten that also colleagues are people who deserve to be treated with respect?

This is obviously not the case in every work community, but I have witnessed more adverse behavior during my years of work than I can count. And to put it bluntly, it’s just plain rude.

Lately, when talking about my research, I’ve been asked what a manager should do to create a sustainable work environment that people won’t want to opt out of. There are a number of things of course that one can do to create places where people can work in ways that work for them. However, the first and most important place to start is simply to get to know the people you work with.

Now I’m not talking about team building exercises, I’m talking about really getting to know them. That means sitting down and having real conversations with the people in your team. Asking them about what is important to them, what they think about and, not to forget, how they are doing. This will help you understand where a person is coming from and why a person acts or reacts in a certain way.

But most importantly, it also builds trust. We tend to trust people we know – really know, not just think we know.

Besides, we all have a lot more going on in our lives than just work. Things that happen to us outside of work invariably affect us when we are at work, but often we aren’t exactly encouraged to bring those other parts of us with us to work. We sort of leave our other selves at the door. But being allowed to come to work as a whole person, and not just a worker, can make a huge difference.

Unfortunately, however, a lot of managers don’t seem to want to have conversations like that. Maybe they don’t want to make the time, or maybe they’re worried it might get difficult or ugly. Isn’t it then just better not to know? That answer is no. We need to also have the difficult conversations in order to be able to see each other for who we really are, and in order to make working environments humane.

But most important of all, we need to treat each other with respect. So, if you are one of those people who has forgotten that your colleagues are people too, dig deep down in your memory. What was that again that your mother (or father or anyone else who brought you up) taught you?

When you have nothing to do

I find myself sitting here with time to kill. My job right now is just to wait and it’s taking longer than I thought. I decided to come to a nearby café for a cup of coffee while I wait, but I’m kicking myself for not bringing anything with me to do. I have a lot work to do and I’m thinking I should have planned this better and brought my laptop with me. Or a book to read because that would at least have given me something to do.

But as I sit here at the café table, looking out the window, I have absolutely nothing to do. I sigh because I didn’t bring a pen, so I can’t even write a blog post on the napkin that came with my coffee. The thought of writing a blog post makes me start racking my brain, trying to come up with an idea – any idea – for a post. I draw a blank. Not only do I have nothing to do, I have nothing to say either. I feel completely empty. Except for the hot coffee in my belly of course.

So I sit and look out the window. Cars go by. A couple stands together at a railing, looking down at something below them. One of them is wearing a yellow hood, a fleck of sunshine on this otherwise grey day. But now they walk on.

I pull out my cellphone and check my newsfeeds, but get bored with that rather quickly and I feel dumb for having such a hard time not doing anything. Or I realize that it isn’t even that. It’s more that I feel guilty about not using what should be my working day more efficiently. I’m not using my time wisely.

Even though I know how important time for reflection is. Even though we all need down time for our sanity and wellbeing (although we seldom take it). Even though I know this, believe this, advocate this, and it is part of my research.

It’s just that it’s so hard to unlearn what we have learned. Even if we know that it is the right thing to do.

Then I think maybe that is what I should write my blog post about? Maybe I can just write it on my phone?

So that’s what I do and once again I fail miserably at doing nothing. But I did get some reflection done and the coffee was divine.

Book releases, ketchup and other stuff

It has been so hectic lately that I haven’t had the mental space to write this overdue blog post. I have a lot going on, and as usual it never rains it pours. This is also famously known as the ketchup effect; nothing happens, nothing happens, nothing happens, and then suddenly everything happens at once.

The main thing going on at the moment is the recent publication of the paperback version of my book Opting Out and In: On Women’s Careers and New Lifestyles. I am so happy it is finally available in paperback. I have been waiting for this since the day the hardback was published. True to academic publishing routines, the hardback version is a so-called library version. In other words, an expensive book that most people aren’t willing to pay that much money for. However, the paperback is priced much more affordably and I am so excited that anyone and everyone who has expressed an interest will now be able to get a copy of their own. (It is also available in all the major online bookstores.)

However, my book is not only an academic book. It’s a book that anyone can read, and anyone should read. It’s filled with stories of real women, on real opting out and in journeys. These stories are intertwined with different societal aspects, debates, and phenomena to help us understand what opting out and in really is and how it affects us as individuals.

People have shown a lot of interest in my work ever since I set out on my own opting out and in journey, when I started doing research and collecting narratives. It makes me feel humbled, but also that what I am doing is worthwhile and important, and that – the feeling that I’m making a difference –has got to be the best feeling ever. To this day, my favorite thing is when people come up to me – friends, acquaintances, or strangers – and share with me their own opting out and in experiences. (To those who sometimes ask me: no, I will never tire of it!)

Because this paperback edition is so important to me, I decided to throw a book release to celebrate its publication. But just like everything else I do, I wanted to do it on my own terms. Instead of inviting speakers and commentators to speak during the event, I decided I want to make it my very own, and do it in a way that reflects me and my journey. I decided to make it a joint book release – art exhibit, because lately my painting has become an increasingly important part of my life and I see it becoming even more so as I continue my journey and navigate my future.

During the past year, my painting has become a second job of sorts, and although I at first felt I had to keep it separate from my research and that part of my life, I’m starting to realize that maybe there are more synergies than I first thought. The painting first felt like a good counter balance to my day job, however now I’ve realized that they also feed each other and are just different perspectives and forms of creative expression. Not only can they exist in harmony, they can also create a whole with countless possibilities that I can still only imagine.

So this book release – art exhibit is a direct reflection of me, what I do, and how I think. Symbolically it also marks another milestone on my journey, and I look forward to seeing where I will go next. Because the fact is, although we like making plans, life isn’t predetermined. You never really know what will happen.

The event will take place in Helsinki on September 24. If you are interested in attending, you can email me at theoptingoutblog@gmail.com for more information.

And if you’re interested in my art, you can follow me on Instagram: @ingrids_silk_painting

Is opting out trendy?

I have a few friends with whom I always have the most interesting and inspiring conversations. I meet them every now and then for lunch, after which my mind is always bubbling with ideas for blog posts, and I was lucky enough to see one of those friends just a few days ago.

This particular friend has also opted out and in. We had a conversation about ‘opting on’ and the blog post I wrote not too long ago. I told her how interesting it has been because after sharing with the world that I myself plan to opt on again, I have gotten so many really positive reactions.

And it’s true, I have gotten comments and messages from people – both from the academic world and from the business world – who have told me how happy they are that I am opting on. Although I’ve been thrilled by these reactions, I also find them extremely interesting. Especially since most of them seem to just be happy in general rather than specifically for me.

I’ve been thinking about what that might mean. I think maybe for academics there is a frustration regarding the way many things work in academia and the fact that someone is critical of it might be intriguing to them. But what about non-academics? They don’t have a bone to pick with the academic system. Maybe it’s just the thought of someone doing their own thing on their own terms and breaking free from predetermined paths that appeals to them?

Judging from the reactions people who opt out generally get from others this is probably true. Many wistfully say that they think the person opting out is brave and that they wish they could do it too, although I speak for many when I say that bravery often doesn’t have anything to do with it when you opt out. Opting out is often just something you feel like you have to do.

So my friend and I were discussing this and suddenly she says that opting out is, after all, quite trendy. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that, but it just seems so strange to me because opting out and in is not an easy thing to do. It isn’t something people do lightly. It’s usually a result of some kind of crisis that pushes a person to make such a big change. Without the push and a feeling that continuing that way they have just isn’t an option, they are generally not able to leap into the unknown, which opting out often is.

Still, opting out is romanticized, especially in the media. We have a romantic notion of what it is like and think that people who opt out do so bravely and happily in order to opt in to their dreams, where they can be the best versions of themselves. Although that sounds wonderful, that doesn’t necessarily provide us with a realistic picture of what is really going on.

So one of the things I came to think of when lunching with my good friend, was that if that is true, that opting out has become trendy, and if it is something that people not only long to do but think that they should do in order to be happy, then that is really quite troubling. Because since opting out is hard, and really isn’t something that most people do just because it is so hard, aren’t we setting people up for disappointment by creating a trend that really isn’t very easy to adopt even if we wanted to?

This actually goes hand in hand with the notion that happiness is something that we should strive for in order to be just that – happy. The problem is that if you search for happiness it is always going to elude you. I want to be happy as much as anyone else, but happiness is the result of other things. It is a result of a meaningful life filled with meaningful relationships and activities.

If we always dream of something else, we will never be happy with what we have. So instead of making opting out trendy, maybe we should rather focus on making being happy with what we’re doing now cool? Just as it is okay to opt out if that is what you need to do, it also needs to be okay to like your job and your life just the way it is.

So on that note, I’m going to stop here. In front of me I have a cup of coffee. The cup was a birthday gift from my husband and it very appropriately says, ‘Love what you do’. Pretty good advice if you ask me.