Category Archives: Gender and Sexuality

At Google, Tim Armstrong Was Sued for Demoting and Firing Employee Pregnant with Quadruplets

When CEO Tim Armstrong blamed “distressed babies” for proposed benefit cuts at AOL, here’s what he didn’t mention: While a sales executive at Google in 2005, he was the subject of a lawsuit by a former employee, Christina Elwell, who alleged he demoted and fired her because she could not travel during her high-risk pregnancy with quadruplets.

Elwell went to work for Google’s sales force in 2000, and in 2003 was promoted to national sales director, a position in which she managed the North American sales force. She worked from the company’s New York office. Her boss was Armstrong, then Google’s vice president for national sales. According to Elwell’s complaint, before her pregnancy, he praised her in a meeting as having made a “significant contribution” to Google’s preparations for its initial public offering.

In April 2004, four months before that IPO, Elwell told Armstrong she was pregnant with quadruplets and would not be able to travel by plane due to complications. He was concerned, but she reassured him she was eager to resume travel after giving birth. In May, Elwell miscarried two of her four fetuses. A few weeks later, Armstrong allegedly called her into his office and showed her an organizational chart in which her position would be eliminated and she would be demoted to the operations department, with no management responsibilities. He allegedly told colleagues he was moving Elwell because she could not travel.

Elwell proposed that she instead take a position as East Coast sales director, in which she would be able to travel by train and car. Armstrong rejected that idea and filled the job with a male employee whom Elwell had recently hired. Then, on June 4, 2004, Armstrong allegedly called Elwell into his office and told her she was a “HR nightmare” because she had talked with colleagues about her concerns regarding her pregnancy and employment status at Google. The following day, he called her at home and fired her, saying he had “a gut feeling” it was the right thing to do, in part because she had “spoken to others” about the situation. (Remember when Armstrong impulsively fired a guy in the midst of a conference call last year, with 1,000 employees listening in?)

Google determined Elwell had been improperly fired and rehired her in a low-level operations position, in which she claims she was given work comparable to that of a summer intern. She filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She subsequently lost a third quadruplet and delivered one baby. After her maternity leave, Elwell went back to Google in January 2005, but when she learned she would not be able to return to her former position on the sales force, she left the company.

It all sort of puts into perspective Sheryl Sandberg’s cheery anecdote about lobbying Google for “pregnancy parking” at its California headquarters, doesn’t it?

In 2006 a federal judge moved Elwell’s suit into arbitration. Her attorney met with Google’s lawyers in 2007 to discuss a possible settlement, but the company’s lawyer allegedly responded, “These people are not settlers.”

Sources with knowledge of the case say the parties did eventually reach a settlement via arbitration, which was fairly financially advantageous to Elwell, and which the parties are barred from discussing publicly. AOL senior vice president for corporate communications Peter Land says, "We can’t comment on the lawsuit because it had nothing to do with us." The company points out that Working Mother Magazine has named it a top 100 company for working moms.

A woman who answered the phone at Elwell’s Manhattan home told me she was not in and took a message. Leah Schloss, director of marketing at Elwell’s law firm, Sullivan & Worcester LLP, says, “We are not able to discuss this case.” I have also reached out to Google. I will update this piece when and if I hear from additional sources.

Michelle Obama Has Always Leaned In

Michelle Cottle has written a Politico Magazine piece about Michelle Obama, called "Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama became a feminist nightmare." 

Cottle writes that Michelle has "always" prioritized the domestic sphere over the public, political one, thus enraging feminists. But that's not true. First, there are the basic facts of Michelle's biography, many left out of this piece. When Michelle and Barack met, she was his boss in the law firm where he was a summer associate. She worked full-time until her husband began his presidential run. She earned a lot of money. 

On the campaign trail in 2007 and 2008, she spoke movingly about how fear had led the United States into an ill-advised war in Iraq. Shortly after the inauguration, the first couple visited a Washington, D.C. public school. When Michelle asked the children what they wanted to be when they grew up–and one little girl cried out, "First lady!"–Michelle responded, "It doesn't pay much."

If that's not embracing the "Lean In" ethos, I don't know what is. A FLOTUS with a wry take on her transition from a $316,000 per year job to that of an unpaid figurehead? That's not the Michelle Obama we see in Cottle's portrait. Nor do we see the woman who went on a speaking tour to federal agencies to support the stimulus, and who pushed hard behind the scenes for health reform.

And to be fair, that's not the Michelle Obama that her husband's political advisors are most eager to show off. There has been a concerted push to portray Michelle as the "mom in chief." At times, it has rankled. 

But what's most problematic about the Politico piece is that although Cottle acknowledges race, she doesn't at all address what leading black writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Melissa Harris-Perry have been talking about for years: that Michelle Obama's focus on portraying herself as an exemplary mother is, in and of itself, somewhat radical, in a country in which the black family is openly pathologized as dysfunctional.

There's another, point, too. The supposedly "soft" issues Michelle has embraced, like healthy eating, exercise, and college-going, are ones that disproportionately affect the black community. Her partnership with Wal-Mart to address inner city food deserts didn't really take off, but at least Michelle helped put this problem on the national agenda.

The first lady role is infuriatingly fluffy, but that isn't Michelle Obama's fault. 

For more on these issues, check out this dialogue on black feminism between Melissa Harris-Perry and philosopher bell hooks.

The New New Fatherhood

Screen Shot 2013-07-02 at 2.33.45 PMThe old "New Fatherhood" was about mainstream, middle-class American men redefining masculinity to encompass spending more time talking to, playing with, and caring for children. Today at the Daily Beast, I write about the New New Fatherhood, as depicted by the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson in their important book Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner CityThe study is a follow-up to one of the books I recommend most often: Edin's Promises I Can Keep, which pretty much demolished the myth of the "welfare mom."

The new book questions the stereotype of the "deadbeat dad." It describes how low-income fathers love and yearn to spend time with their children. But instead of seeing "quality time" as an add-on to the traditional expectation of the father as provider — as in the New Fatherhood ideal — single dads in economically depressed neighborhoods have argued that quality time and emotional connection are a fair substitute for earning and contributing financially to a child's core needs. This is the New New Fatherhood.

I write:

"The problem with this vision of 'doing the best I can' is that it really isn’t good enough. It leaves all the most difficult responsibilities of parenthood, financial and disciplinary, up to mothers. Edin and Nelson conclude that 'lower-class fathers have tried to bargain for a wholesale reversal of gender roles,' in which dads are the 'soft,' emotional parents and moms are the tough, pragmatic ones. If this were true, however—if poor fathers were becoming traditional “moms”—they would be living with their children and performing all the domestic labor involved with their care and feeding. This, of course, is not the case. In Edin and Nelson’s study, the vast majority of single dads are noncustodial parents and seem to prize buying their children ice cream or watching TV with them—the fun stuff—over helping with homework or taking them to doctor’s appointments.

Make no mistake: this isn’t only a poor-people’s problem."

Read the whole piece.

The Woman Upstairs and the Pedagogy of Love

Screen Shot 2013-06-07 at 11.36.40 AMLike, I think, a lot of women readers, I have lately been discomfited by Nora Eldridge, the protagonist of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Nora is pushing 40, single, and childless. She has several close friends, throws fun birthday parties, and makes “serious” art in her spare bedroom. She is also a devoted caretaker of her elderly relatives, and quite good, even excellent, at her elementary school teaching job. Nevertheless, Nora’s placid life is disturbed, from the inside out, when she becomes obsessed with the Shahid family, an artistic, intellectual couple and their precocious young son, who is in Nora’s third-grade class. The Shahids represent for Nora all she has missed out on: marriage, motherhood, and a career in the arts. She stews in a jealous rage toward these people, even as she attempts to attach herself to them; to vicariously experience a life so much richer and more satisfying, the book tells us, than her own.

What’s so bad about Nora? It’s not, as some reviewers have implied, that she is unlikeable in a way female characters ought not to be. The problem is that Nora is a stereotype. Messud has written her as a minimally-updated (Nora has a job, after all, and a sex life) version of a nineteenth century Old Maid: a caricature made nearly revolting by her alone-ness; a sort of leech on the breast of (re)productive womanhood. This is perhaps most deeply, disturbingly felt in a scene in which Nora, with only a moment’s hesitation, crawls into bed to cuddle with 8-year old Reza Shahid, acting “so like his mother,” almost leeringly enjoying the affection of another woman’s “beautiful” child.

Perhaps these characterizations bothered me all the more because Nora is a public school teacher. The founding thinkers of the American Common Schools movement, Horace Mann and Catharine Beecher, explicitly conceived of teaching as a job for spinsters. Teaching could ease the stigma of being unwed. It allowed single women to “homemake” inside the classroom, caring for children, just as the Calvinist God supposedly predestined all women to do. Historians call this the “pedagogy of love”—the idea that it is more important for female teachers to act as surrogate mothers to their students than it is for them to actually impart academic knowledge. Of course, many great teachers are warm and caring. But the sexist assumptions behind the pedagogy of love are so problematic—they have been such a barrier to rigorous public education, and to the professionalization of teaching—that it is disturbing to see these ideas reproduced so unquestioningly in the novel. Beneath her carefully cultivated professionalism, Mrs. Eldrige, it turns out, is really just a frustrated, barren woman.

And Messud traffics in another outdated 19th century conception of the female teacher: that she is good at her job because she is, herself, childlike. We know from Nora’s first-person narration that she considers herself stuck in the “dutiful daughter” stage of life; she is consumed by her own housewife mother’s disappointments and expectations, and more interested in deciphering her parents’ marriage than in taking the risk of being in a long-term relationship herself. In a weird inversion of reality, Nora had left a high-paid, jet-setting consulting job—money and prestige hadn’t mattered to her—to study art and then become a teacher. (In real life, of course, people do Teach for America and then go work for Goldman Sachs or McKinsey, rarely the other way around.) When a mother of one of Nora’s students “says that I get kids, part of me puffs up like a peacock, but another part thinks she is calling me crazy. Or that, at the very least, she’s separating me from the tribe of the fully adult. And this, in turn, will explain…why I don’t have children of my own.” Nora confirms the thesis. “I’m like the children,” she admits. “My motivations and my reasons aren’t always clear.”  

Irrational, unpredictable — even obsessed and crazy, under a surface of stable independence. That is Messud’s vision of the single, childless woman. It made me sad and scared and angry. Sad for Nora. Scared to ever become like her. And angry on behalf of all the single women leading impressive and rewarding lives, who have to confront these stereotypes day in and day out, and who might expect something richer, and more unexpected, from one of our leading novelists.

In Defense of Daisy

DaisyAh, Daisy — the glamorous, self-absorbed cipher at the center of The Great Gatsby. She has come in for a lot of hate from critics of the book and film. Richard Brody judges actress Carey Mulligan "overmatched by the part." Ester Bloom says Daisy is "a drip." Critisizing Fitzgerald's novel, Kathryn Schulz argues the Daisy/Gatsby/Tom love triangle is "psychologically vacant." She accuses the author of making a "travesty of his female characters–single parenthesis every one, thoughtless and thin," thus ignoring the vibrant women's movement of the 1920s. 

I don't think so. Daisy isn't awful, she is trapped and scared — and that is how Mulligan plays her, timidly. Raised a debutante in Louisville, she is expected to marry as a teenager, and she does, to the alcoholic, racist, chronically unfaithful Tom Buchanan. Daisy hasn't had the chance to go to college, or travel the world in the army, as the male characters have. She has a baby before she becomes an adult, and thus is hardly prepared to be an attentive mother. If there are opportunities out there for Daisy to live a more exciting, fulfilling life, she is only dimly aware of them. Is it any wonder she idealizes her first, adolescent romance, with a sweet young officer? Her brief affair with Gatsy is probably one of the only things Daisy has ever done fully by choice. Look at her wrists, bound by diamond cuffs. She is shackled by her own privilege. When she finds out her newborn is a girl, she can only hope the child will turn out to be "a beautiful little fool." Why? Because Daisy is smart enough to know how awful her predicament is, as an old money daughter and wife with few culturally acceptable options for independence. It would be easier, she thinks, if her own daughter could be simple-mided; if she could accept the role she was born into without coming to understand its severe unfairness. There's a reason why, in the film, director Baz Luhrman keeps drawing our attention to Daisy's massive diamond engagement ring. She has been acquired by Tom and is weighed down by men's expectations for her. Even Gatsby is in love with a chimera Daisy more than the real woman; as he tells Nick toward the end of the book/film, he wants her because she has always been "a nice girl;" the kind of girl who could help him his advance his climb from poverty into the upper class. 

Some of the most powerful feminist depictions in art are the ones that show us how bleak life was for women before feminism, or for women who couldn't or didn't embrace feminist ideas. (Think: Anna from Anna Karenina or Lily Bart from House of Mirth. Even Betty from "Mad Men.") By design, all the characters in The Great Gatsby, male or female, are sketches; archetypes of the most cynical, materialistic slice of a cynical, materialistic, lost generation. Nick Carraway could be any Ivy Leaguer with writerly pretentions who gets a job on Wall Street. But I've always found Jordan, Nick's unrealized love interest and Daisy's best friend, one of the more intriguing people in Gatsby. She is a golf star — a famous female athlete! Jordan, with her boyish name, is optimistic and fun-loving; unlike that pitiable, delicate flower, Daisy, Jordan has a life.

In the end, when Daisy runs away with her brutish husband, there is little question that she has made the "right" choice. Marrying a gangster who loves her for her respectability wouldn't have solved her problems. Poor Daisy. She might be a bit of "a drip," but it's not because she's bad at heart. She is the representation of every woman entrapped by beauty, wealth, and femininity. She is a tragic, utterly conventional, child bride. 

Feminism, Child Development, and the Legacy of Shulamith Firestone

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 9.28.13 AMLike a lot of other people, I was riveted by Susan Faludi's New Yorker report on the work, life, and death of Shulamith Firestone, a Second Wave feminist theoretician and organizer whose name I knew, but whose legacy I was barely cognisant of. Faludi deals beautifully with Firestone's repressive Orthodox Jewish upbringing, her struggle with schizophrenia and social isolation, and the unfinished business of her particular brand of radical feminism, which declared that "pregnancy is barbaric" and childbirth is like "shitting a pumpkin." Those notions are shocking and perhaps ridiculous, but I nevertheless found insight in Firestone's observation — decades before Judith Warner's Perfect Madness and Elisabeth Badinter's The Conflict – that the increasing fetishization of childhood in the developed world has brought with it an unrealistic set of burdens on mothers, just as women finally earned the right to full lives beyond the domestic sphere. Describing Firestone's classic, The Dialectic of Sex, Faludi writes:

The book’s longest chapter, “Down with Childhood,” chronicled the ways that children’s lives had become constrained and regulated in modern society. “With the increase and exaggeration of children’s dependence, woman’s bondage to motherhood was also extended to its limits,” Firestone wrote. “Women and children were now in the same lousy boat.” The argument drew the appreciation of one notable feminist, which must have pleased Firestone. Simone de Beauvoir told Ms. that only Firestone “has suggested something new,” noting how the book “associates Women’s Liberation with children’s liberation.”

In an unforgiving economy with increasing social stratification, affluent Americans, unlike many European parents, obsess about providing their kids with the sorts of intellectually stimulating, resume-building experiences that supposedly prepare one for the rigors of meritocracy. The hours spent signing children up for activities, taking them there, and providing them with educational play and conversation at home are borne disproportionately by women, since mothers still do over twice as much childcare as fathers. And the burden of mothering expectations has gotten heavier since Firestone was writing: While both men and women now work more hours outside the home and do more childcare than they did at mid-century, mothers still spend far more time on domestic responsibilities than fathers do.

Yet today, one ought to balance this critique with evidence from contemporary child development research, which suggests that some of the practices of preening parents, such as constant "conversation" with even the smallest babies, really do yield cognitive and academic gains that last a lifetime. At the Times, Tina Rosenberg has a fascinating report on Talk Providence, a new program that aims to teach low-income mothers about the benefits of early vocabulary building through regular parental speaking to babies, and conversing back and forth with toddlers and older kids. It's important, however, to balance these expectations for mothers with continued support for childcare and school programs that serve the neediest kids — hence, President Obama's new pre-K proposalI'm skeptical of the claim, made by some vocabulary researchers, that changing parental conversational practices can alone erase socioeconomic achievement gaps. Vocabularly can't make up for the lack of social capital that prevents many poor children from enrolling in the most effective schools and extracurricular activities, or from eating a nutritional diet or living in adequate housing. 

Is Working From Home a Feminist Issue?

I've worked in offices for small magazines, large media companies, and think tanks. So I know there's a lot about office culture that sucks: useless meetings, crackberries that ruin your precious out-of-the-office hours, and sometimes an assumption that whoever stays latest or arrives earliest is working hardest. In New York, there's competitive dressing. In DC, there are old-school dress codes, as if everyone were about to meet with a senator, any minute now! A lot of this is absurd. I'm a huge believer in flex time for office workers. There's nothing about the hours 9-7 that make them especially productive; a lot of us get more done in the evenings, or while fighting insomnia, or at sunrise. And the occasional guilt-free day of working from home is priceless: the quiet, the pajamas, the home-cooked lunch. For new parents, people with chronic health conditions, or people who serve as caretakers for sick or elderly relatives, having the ability to work from home at least some of the time can mean the difference between being able to hold down a job and being forced to quit. 

So I sympathize with those who are outraged over Marissa Mayer's decision to put the kibosh on work-from-home arrangements at Yahoo. It's insulting to employees to suggest that the only legitimate reason to stay home is "for the cable guy," and Mayer does sound like kind of a nightmare boss, counting the cars in the corporate parking lot at 5 pm. Because women tend to disproportionately handle child care and other domestic responsibilities, it is very likely that female employees will be especially affected by Yahoo's policy change. 

All that said, I'm not sure working from home is feminist nirvana.

I'm a freelance writer — a really lucky one, with a book project, an interesting editorial consulting gig, and frequent magazine assignments. I love what I do. But working from home is by far the hardest and least enjoyable part of my professional life. For one thing, it's lonely, isolating, and, at least in my case, challenging for my physical and emotional health. I often get so caught up in my indoor responsibilities that I forget to get fresh air, put on real clothing, take a walk, or talk to other human beings. At The Awl, Ken Layne pretty much nails what this can feel like. 

And here's the thing. For a woman, being stuck inside "the home" all day–a space traditionally coded as female, one that many women hold themselves to high standards to care for–can be especially stultifying. Here are some of the things I can do, in my home, when I'm supposed to be writing my book: Laundry. Emptying the dishwasher. Booking a hotel reservation for a friend's wedding. Cleaning the toilet. Shopping for and preparing a healthy, low-carb, high-protein dinner for my boyfriend and me. (This morning, I've already done several of these chores, and it's only 11 am.)

No one is forcing me to take sole responsibility for these tasks. If I don't do them when I'm "working from home," they will still get done. My boyfriend and I will split them up, or do them together. But here's the thing: It's really hard for me to be at home and ignore my domestic to-do list. I have a voice in my head telling me that until my apartment is neat, clean, and stocked with fresh food, it's perfectly okay to procrastinate on my real jobs, the ones for which I get paid: reporting, writing, and editing. After nearly three years of freelancing, I've learned that I shouldn't work from home more than one or two days per week. I now commute from Brooklyn into "the city" almost every morning, to work at the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. Yes: I voluntarily spend my days in midtown Manhattan, eat lunch at the ubiquitous Hale & Hearty Soups, and dodge tourists in the subway.

Granted, I don't have children yet. And if I'm still freelancing when I do, I know my flexible schedule will make parenthood much easier. Yet I have many freelancer female colleagues, a few years older than me, who admit that a big professional challenge is learning to turn off their mom selves and simply get to work (luckily, work they love). They are some of the people who helped me realize that even if you "work from home," you have to work outside your home often, and if that means scrimping for a babysitter, a coworking space, or a $104 monthy Metrocard, it's totally worth it, if you're privileged enough to be able to afford it. 

So here's my tentative conclusion. Flex-time is a feminist issue. Working from home full time? Maybe not so much. And here are some very definite feminist issues: Access to high-quality, affordable childcare. Paid sick leave, maternity leave, and paternity leave. Male partners who pull their weight at home. 

Further Thoughts on the Politics of Unconditional Cash Transfers and the Notion of the “Deserving” Poor

This morning I told you about my new Atlantic article about GiveDirectly, a charity that distributes cash to poor families in Kenya, and allows them to spend the money on whatever they want. The recipients are chosen not because they have demonstrated any kind of favored behavior, like enrolling their children in school, but simply because they are among the poorest people in their rural villages, living in homes made of mud or thatch and frequently going without enough food. They are generally spending their new income on worthwhile causes, like food and weatherproof roofs.

Yet conditional cash transfer programs are more politcally palatable across the world than unconditional ones like GiveDirectly, whether they are pursued by philanthropies or governments. Why? Because, as this beautiful Reuters piece demonstrates, much public policy rests on the assumption that there are two kinds of poor people: the deserving poor and the undeserving. Deserving poor people work, even if the wages they earn are less than the costs of child or health care. They endure cumbersome bureaucratic processes to seek child support from the absent fathers of their children, even if those fathers are in jail, drug addicted, or otherwise unable to provide for their kids. They open college savings accounts, even if they need 100 percent of their monthly income just to cover the costs of housing and food. They attend classes on why it's important to get married.

In the United States, government tells a small group of poor people — typically mothers of young children — that if they fulfill such requirements, they can receive, for a discrete period of time, a small amount of supplemental monthly income. Childless adults and the longterm non-working, non-disabled poor are almost completely excluded from social welfare efforts in many states. 

No matter how much economic research we cite showing that unconditional cash income and savings improve the lives of poor people and their children, it will remain politically difficult to tell taxpayers that we aren't going to require anything from the recipients of social welfare. That's because most of us assume poor people need to learn how to best help themselves. The radical premise of GiveDirectly is that poor people already know, much better than their governments or a charity director, what they need. 

Which assumption is true? Should governments and non-profits use the promise of cash to attempt to train or educate the poor out of poverty? Or should a basic income be understood as a matter of human dignity?

Can Four Young Economists Build the Most Efficient Charity Ever?

It's holiday giving season. Would you donate cash to a poor family, and let them spend it on whatever they wish? That's the radically simple premise of the new philanthropy GiveDirectly, which I report on today at The Atlantic:

GiveDirectly remains an outlier in the development arena, perhaps the only organization that distributes private donations, made online, directly to the poor with no strings attached–no requirement to launch a business or to immunize one's child; no distribution of bed netssolar lanterns, orgoats.

The economics might be sound. But the politics within the non-profit world are more complicated. Niehaus, now a professor at the University of San Diego, says other development experts who have tested unconditional cash transfers are enthusiastic about the approach. The trouble is convincing NGOs to invest in such programs beyond the pilot stages.

"We had conversations with people [in the non-profit sector] who said there was a lot of internal resistance to unconditional transfers," Niehaus told me. "If this works, what are we all here for? Why do we have jobs? There's an industry that exists that tries to make decisions for poor people and determine what's best for them. In some ways, that's the industry I came from. But the value of that hasn't been proven."

Read the whole piece!