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?

For the love of working from home

I was at another conference last week – the Work2015 conference in the beautiful city of Turku – and I have to say it was a really great conference with excellent papers and presentations and some really good conversation. And yes, I may still be dazzled by the fabulous, designer Marimekko bags they handed out as conference bags, but it really was a great conference.

There was one presentation that was particularly intriguing for me as I have set out to change working culture as we know it; and as I ponder the alternative solutions for work I come across in my research, as well as what it is about these solutions that appeal to people and make them say things like “I could never imagine going back to working the way I did”. This particular paper was by a Swiss scholar who had done a quantitative study of the advantages of working from home, examining the correlation between working from home and work effort.

Previous research has argued that there are advantages to working from home, and the list is actually quite long. It includes flexibility, the ability to plan one’s work according to one’s personal rhythm, less distractions, reduced work-related stress, better work-life balance, higher job satisfaction, and more autonomy. However according to this Swiss scholar, there really hasn’t been a lot of empirical evidence, so this is what she set out to do. I’m not going to go into the details of her regression analysis (mostly because I’m a qualitative researcher and it eludes me) but the conclusion she came to was that working from home leads to greater work effort, and not only that, she also found that when you work from home more often, work effort also increases.

Now as a qualitative researcher, I have to point out that things are seldom as simple as we like to portray them, and when analyzing quantitative variables we also need to understand and critically examine what lies behind these variables and the assumptions we are making about them. In this study effort was measured as the hours a person works beyond the hours specified in his or her work contract (i.e. overtime), and we need to be careful when equating overtime with effort or commitment to an organization, which she was also arguing.

For example, those of us who have worked from home a lot know that some colleagues can be quite suspicious of people who don’t come in to the office daily. People gossip and speculate whether or not you’re really working. I’m sure we have all been conscious of things like when we email people so that they can see that we are actually at our computers like we said we would be, as well as a little (or a lot) longer than we are expected to be. Since most organizations still don’t have much of an established offsite working culture, people who work from home may put a lot of energy into managing others’ perceptions of them. In short, what drives a person to put in the extra hours may not simply be related to their commitment to the organization.

And, related to this, there is also research that shows that more hours don’t necessarily make us more productive. On the contrary, energy levels plummet if we do very long days and it has been argued that we may even get more done if we did shorter days and didn’t get so tired. So longer hours is not necessarily something we should automatically strive for.

So one needs to be a bit careful about one’s assumptions, but still this study is an indicator of something that is definitely worth thinking about. We need to question the belief that a working culture that demands working in an office environment during certain designated hours according to a certain script is the best and/or only right way of working.

As someone who truly loves working in my home office and needs to do so as much as possible for my sanity and peace of mind, I got quite excited about a study that examines the advantages of working from home. But most of all I rejoiced at the mere existence of this study because I can use it and show it to the organizations that have policies for working offsite but also admit that they generally don’t allow people to do so because how could they possibly know they were really working. After all, for whatever reason, this study did show that people who work from home tend to work more.

We need to shatter prevalent but dated ideas of what an acceptable way of working is as well as where it is appropriate to work. But we also need to get better at measuring the quality of work achievements and not just the quantity of the hours put it. By focusing on quality and not so much on quantity we don’t have to be so suspicious of and constantly monitor employees and their use of their time. We can allow and perhaps even encourage them to work wherever they feel they want and need to work, and if I’m any indicator, that might just have a huge impact on the quality of their work, their quality of life, and their wellbeing.

I’m back!

I’m back from my summer vacation and I have a confession to make. I worked during my time off. Why do I feel that this is something I have to confess to? I’m not exactly sure, but I have the feeling that this is generally frowned upon.

The thing is, and now I have another confession to make, I was feeling kind of stuck before I went on vacation. I didn’t get nearly as much writing done during the spring as I had planned, and I was feeling pretty lousy about that. It was a vicious circle; feeling bad about not getting writing done was making it even harder to write. And I have to admit (this is going to be my last confession, I promise), I was also feeling quite frustrated about many aspects of the academic world, so I spent a lot of time thinking about what I really wanted to do with my life. You may think this is ironic for someone who has recently opted out and in, but I beg to differ. Opting out and in is not forever. Nothing ever is.

Well, so I went on vacation feeling less than satisfied over what I had gotten done during the past couple of months, and I brought my laptop with me to the beautiful island where we spend our summers, hoping to maybe remedy that. I had mixed feelings about this but decided to set aside some time for work anyway in order to not feel completely stressed out over everything that hadn’t gotten done.

And boy, am I happy I did. I obviously didn’t do full days, but I did on occasion lock myself in a very peaceful room with a desk and a view to work on a paper that had lately become larger than life. And get this: it was great. It was relaxing. Yes, it was relaxing to work!

I decided to work no more than one hour or so at a time. This was, after all, my summer vacation, and to be honest I can’t really produce coherent academic text for more than that in one go. There were no distractions (i.e. no internet connection) and it was amazing how productive I was in that time slot. And not only that, writing felt fun again after having felt like a chore for the past couple of months. I had almost been worried that I was just going to be a one hit wonder; that I wasn’t ever going to be able to produce anything good anymore.

But now the vicious circle is broken, amazing what a change of scenery can do. After spending an hour or so writing, I felt happy and energized for the rest of the day. I was back and it felt great. So this got me thinking: this is actually exactly how I want to work. I don’t want to have to worry about sitting a full day at my desk in my office. If I’m stuck or if I need to focus my attention on something else, I want to be able to do that without feeling like I’m playing hooky. Instead I’ll happily work when I’m not expected to but when it suits me better. Having said that, I do realize that, being a researcher, I enjoy more flexibility than most. Still, I think I’m on to something. This should not be impossible or unheard of. After all, we have the technology; it’s just the mindset we’re still missing.

What I found personally was that the sense of accomplishment I got from working the way I did this summer really made me feel good about myself. And, interestingly, as I was going over the material for a course on organizational behavior that I’ll be teaching this coming semester, I stumbled across a study that shows that happiness does not lead to productivity, contrary to popular belief. Rather, productivity leads to happiness. Well, isn’t that great; this is what I’ve been saying all along! I’ve quoted her before (see A meaningful existence) and I’ll do it again: as Catherine Sanderson says, if you want to be happy, figure out what you’re good at and find more ways to do it.

Opt Out or Lean In?

(Tied for third most viewed. Reposted from December 12, 2014)

Many people seem to think that leaning in and opting out are opposites – either you lean in, or you opt out. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be either or, you can do both.

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes, “I have written this book to encourage women to dream big, forge a path through the obstacles, and achieve their full potential.” And then later, “I hope they [my children] end up exactly where they want to be. And when they find where their true passion lies, I hope they both lean in – all the way.”

Now that sounds an awful lot like what the women who opt out do. They opt out in order to opt in to a way of life and working that allows them to be who they are and to work to their full potential on terms that work for them.

I have talked to women who have opted out of jobs or career paths that hold them back. Women are still discriminated in the workplace (although now-a-days it’s generally harder to detect than it used to be) and still get bypassed by their male colleagues. I have talked to women who feel they just can’t be themselves in a corporate environment where they have to keep parts of themselves hidden. It’s ok for work to spill over into the private sphere – we’re expected to answer emails when we’re at home with our kids – but ironically it doesn’t go the other way. Women are expected to keep whatever issues they may have at home or with their children invisible in the workplace.

While Sandberg calls on women to lean in and make a difference, many women don’t feel the effort of trying to change a workplace or working culture to suit them and their needs is worth it, nor do they want to take the risk that it may entail. Not only do they think it’s a lost cause, but they are also genuinely worried that it would harm their careers and their reputations.

One might think that they therefore choose opting out as an easy solution, except that opting out is never easy. It’s a path these women have been compelled to take in order to create a working environment where they have more control over their professional lives, where they can work to their full potential, while seamlessly combining work with other areas of life. In other words, they do this so that they can lean in all the way.

All the women I have talked to have been ambitious and have wanted their work to be meaningful. They want to lean in, but on their own terms. After opting out, these women did not necessarily work less, nor did many of them spend more time with their children. The difference was they had more control over how and when they worked, and how and when they were with their children. Having more control, in turn, entailed less stress. It allowed them to feel passionate about their work, and being passionate about what you do tends to automatically make you want to lean in.

So by all means, do both, opt out and lean in!

Who wants balance anyway?

The other day, a friend of mine told me that work-life balance is getting old. That no one really wants to talk about work-life balance anymore. Now, I don’t think that is necessarily true; I find that lots of people still want to talk about work-life balance. But personally, I found my friend’s point of view quite refreshing, because without being able to really put my finger on why, I don’t really want to talk about work-life balance myself. Not that I usually do, but I do regularly find myself dragged into discussions on work-life balance and I always think there is something in these discussions that just doesn’t feel quite right.

I have previously explored how focusing on work-life balance can be problematic when studying women and work. Within feminist research it is seen as problematic because it can lead to the assumption that the only constraint on women’s careers is childcare, as opposed to things like discrimination and gender norms. And indeed, it is often women who search for balance, what with their double shifts. That is, the women who do a full day of work at work more often than not then come home to do another full day of household chores and care responsibilities etc. (See Arlie Hochschild’s book The Second Shift, which although over a couple of decades old continues to be a very good and relevant book.)

But it wasn’t until last night when I was talking to my husband about balance that I realized that the reason I feel sort of bored with this whole concept is that I personally don’t actually really want balance in my life. When looking back at my life so far, the times I have felt most happy and fulfilled have not been times of perfect balance between work and other areas of life. It has rather been when I have been able to devote myself to whatever it is that makes me tick. I want to be all consumed by whatever it is that I find exciting (at the moment that happens to be my research). And then at times I also want to be able to prioritize other things that are important to me, or when I need to, without feeling guilty.

To be honest, my life sometimes feels completely out of balance, but that doesn’t necessarily make me less happy. For example, I tend to write ideas for blog posts on paper napkins in the kitchen while cooking dinner for the kids because that’s often when these ideas come to me; I work on weekends; I typically read work related stuff in bed before turning the lights out; and then there was the time a couple of weeks ago when I had the stomach flu but still feverishly engaged in debate on feminism on social media. I think that would probably not be considered a balanced lifestyle, but who cares, I love it and that’s exactly the way I want it.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that many people feel overwhelmed – I know that I sometimes do – and I know that many struggle to manage all the different areas of their lives. But even though it may seem like it, I don’t think searching for balance is necessarily the answer. Like I’ve said before, people who feel fulfilled usually don’t have issues with balance (see my posts The irony of work-life balance and Control). At least it isn’t how I want to live my life. I don’t just want to keep my balance, I want to love what I do, and I want to look at my life and realize that I am doing exactly what I want to be doing and not worry about whether I am dividing my time equally between work and life. Besides, doesn’t it strike you as a bit backward? Work-life balance sort of implies that work isn’t a part of life. But work is very much a part of life. I want to feel alive while I’m working, and I’m lucky to have work that gives me energy instead of sucking it out of me. But I also want to be able to seamlessly combine all the things that are important in my life, which are my family, my friends, my work, and my hobbies. I mean, what else is there? Oh right, sleep. I do need more sleep.

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.

Saying no

I am in a very good place right now. I’m basically writing full-time this spring, which I love. I’m happy to be involved in so many exciting writing projects with talented colleagues. I’m happy to be doing work that feels meaningful. I’m also happy that, at the moment at least, my professional life allows me the leeway and freedom to really be there for my kids and other loved ones when they need me.

Unfortunately despite all this freedom, or maybe because of it, I also feel a little tired because no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to replicate myself and be in many places at the same time. Nor do I have the magical powers of the likes of Hermione Granger to jump back and forth in time in order to maximize my potential (yes, I have been reading Harry Potter recently). This of course is unfortunate because I also seem to have trouble saying no. Or I think I at least need to get better at it.

This is somewhat ironic since I did opt out and I did manage to say no to a lifestyle that wasn’t working for me. But I have also found that although I have thought long and hard about what my terms are, how I want to work, how I want to live, and what I am and am not willing to give up, sometimes sticking to these terms, or even remembering them, can be difficult. And much of the time, I just get so excited by prospective collaboration, projects, and activities, that I sometimes forget what this really entails time wise. Though, to be honest, that does feel like a luxury problem.

But this issue of not being able to say no isn’t only a luxury problem. It’s also a cultural and societal phenomenon. According to Kevin Ashton, author of How to Fly a Horse – The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery, we are not taught to say no. Actually we are taught the opposite, to not say no, because no is rude, it is, and I quote, “a rebuff, a rebuttal, a minor act of verbal violence. “No” is for drugs and strangers with candy.” However, according to Ashton, the most creative and successful people regularly say no, that’s what gives them time to be creative and successful.

Being taught never to say no is especially true for women and girls. As a girl, I remember being taught how important it is to be pleasant and agreeable. To the point where still today, as an adult and professional, I sometimes feel guilty and worry about disappointing people and letting them down. I go to great lengths to be diplomatic; it has become second nature. I’m sure this is a good trait, but it doesn’t help to be diplomatic in all situations. Especially if you’re trying to assert yourself and get the job done.

According to Gigi Durham, author of The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It, it gets even more complicated. Growing up, girls are taught not only to be agreeable, they are also taught to provide limitless emotional support to others without expecting anything in return. They are taught to attract boys and pay breathless attention to their needs, and as a result they don’t really have any authority to express their own needs and desires, which in turn places them in a submissive position in society.

Yup, that’s pretty bad. And completely at odds with what is expected when building a career. Not only do women have gender stereotypes, glass ceilings and what-not to overcome, they also have to rewire their brains and unlearn these deep-rooted socially taught behavioral patterns.

Well, I need only to look myself in the mirror, because I can definitely recognize this unhealthy ingrained need to be a ‘good girl’, and I also recognize that this is something that we need to shake because it really isn’t getting us anywhere. So to finish, I will simply say, here’s to saying no! Sometimes at least…