Nice Girls

I’m perpetually grateful to have a stable job that I love. I’m good at it and feel recognized and valued for the work that I do (and I’m fairly compensated, which really spikes that job happiness indicator all the way up). I have ample opportunity for professional development, and I’m encouraged to take advantage of all the workshops and conferences that come my way.

Recently, I’ve been attending a series of workshops for “Women Leaders” and they’ve left me feeling… less than impressed. After every session, I leave feeling like we didn’t have a truly nuanced conversation. The most recent one involved me sitting at a table being told the myriad ways in which millennials (ie: me) are lazy and self-involved. That’s a tired, baseless argument and doesn’t in any way help a group of women succeed in the workplace.

At one of these workshops, someone suggested we all read the book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. The woman who suggested it was quick to point out that the title is jarring but promised it was full of really useful advice for us. I was skeptical, but I borrowed a copy from the library. The subtitle, 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make that Sabotage Their Careers sums up the entire book. It really is just 101 “mistakes” followed by advice on how to correct our behavior. And the “mistakes” are things like having a dish of candy on your desk and not wearing makeup.

We need to reframe the conversation. Instead of focusing on the 101 (101!) ways women should be, we need to address the underlying cause of gender discrimination in the workplace. Because I can promise you that hiding jolly ranchers in our desk drawers and switching to a $30 tube of mascara isn’t going to solve it.

I work in IT, and it’s as stereotypically male and casual as you might imagine. I’m often the only woman in a meeting, and definitely the only one in a skirt. It’s easy for me to discard this book and its laundry list of required changes, because I work in such a supportive and generally laid-back environment. My boss evaluates all of us on the merit of our work, not the extent to which we do or do not wear colors that flatter our skin-tones. I’m lucky because in my team, that doesn’t matter. I know it matters in a lot of places– I don’t want to discredit that. But I also know that reinventing ourselves as Professional Stepford Wives is like slapping a bandaid on a bullet hole. (Ugh, Taylor Swift, your silly lyric is invading my life.)

Even though I generally don’t have to worry about these things in my job, I’m not immune. A few weeks ago, my boss was checking in and said, “You’re doing a great job. Although… people find you very intimidating. They know you’re extremely competent but in general, yeah, you intimidate people.” Instead of feeling completely empowered… I totally freaked out. Even though he went on to say that he thought it was a good thing and I could use it to my advantage, all I was hearing was that people didn’t particularly like me. And I hated that!

I can’t decide what about me is intimidating in the workplace and how concerned I should be about it. I refuse to modify my speech patterns or ‘feminize’ my ideas/comments/requests in meetings, even though I know that makes some dudes bristle and I see most women at my office doing that. Or maybe it’s my resting bitch face? I can’t help my face! Or maybe my shyness is being interpreted as bitchiness?? Ugh!

I pressed my boss and it turns out that the men I work with think of me as a pal. We’re all work buddies. It’s actually the women in various other departments who think I’m a big ol unlikable weirdo. And I’ve found myself wondering if I should tweak things about myself—maybe if I don’t point out ways we can be less sexist (omg, we do NOT need to dye the lemonade BLUE because it’s a baby shower for a boy) people will think I’m more fun and less of a killjoy? But should I even care?

I think that if we want to change the system, we need to do it by being ourselves. Nice girls can and should get corner offices. We need to stop buying into the narrative that being feminine is a barrier to success. Because if we keep telling each other and ourselves that, it only reaffirms that narrative. So if you’re a nice girl, keep being a nice girl. If you’re a badass bitch, keep being one. (I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, by the way.) We need to let our work be judged on its value and merit– our workplace expertise should take precedence over our ability to be experts at accessorizing. I think we all need to start articulating exactly that, instead of trying to change 101 aspects of ourselves and hoping that works.

The People and Places of Mother’s Day

The idea of Mother’s Day is lovely. A recognized holiday to celebrate the women who birthed, raised, and loved us- what could possibly be more pleasant? Unfortunately, this holiday and all the marketing around it assume a specific kind of maternal relationship- one that lots of folks simply don’t have. Not being able to or not wanting to celebrate Mother’s Day can be pretty painful in light of all the attention and significance we put on the day.

I imagine this day can be particularly painful if you’ve always wanted to be a mom, and things didn’t or haven’t worked out the way you hoped they would, if you have a difficult relationship with your children, or if motherhood wasn’t part of your life plan. If you have a complicated or a wonderful relationship with your mom, if you have many mothers, or none at all, know that you’re doing just fine. It’s not weird or abnormal to have a ‘non-traditional’ family structure. Nobody is judging you for having a life that doesn’t mirror a greeting card. Nobody worth a lick of your time, anyway.

Image of the word 'Mom' wherein the 'o' is the sign for female.

Modern Girl Blitz 365 Ways of Feminism #313 (Mom Edition)

I’m enormously lucky to have a sparkling enigma for a mother. Once, I asked my mother what she had wanted to grow up to be when she was young. No amount of prying could change her answer, “All I ever wanted to be was a mother.” I used to think this was direly anti-feminist. Had she really never aspired to be anything other than my mother? And what does that mean now that I’m grown and we live thousands of miles apart? Now, I realize that the only anti-feminist thing is my assumption that motherhood is inherently anti-feminist. That’s absurd.

When I graduated college, I didn’t understand why my mother was so desperately, almost hysterically proud. I’d always been great at school. I was a little insulted by her tears- had she really thought I was going to fail out? Then, I stopped being a self-centered twit and realized that my graduation had very little to do with me. Everything  my mom has done throughout my life, working three or four jobs at a time, often sacrificing her own well being, has been for my sisters and me. My mother should have walked across a stage and collected a diploma when she was 22, but her life didn’t turn out that way. So, when I did it (at 21, she’ll want you to know) it meant more than accumulating the requisite credits. It meant that we were strong women, women who could change our circumstances, women who could achieve. And that’s practically the definition of feminism. Every thing I’ve accomplished in my life, every thing I feel proud of, all of it happened because of the investment my mother made in me.

My friend Flannery writes truly lovely poems. She has a series about a woman who becomes a house. I think about those poems, and the way Flannery reads them sometimes. “Only a woman,” she says, “can be a person and a place.”  My mom wanted, more than anything else, to be a place for her children. We may be grown now, but she’ll always be that place for us. My sisters and I are lucky to have a place with our biological mother, but it doesn’t really matter that she happened to birth us.

Maybe the woman who is your place is another member of your family, is a friend’s mother, a teacher, a mentor, a historical figure, an author. Maybe the woman who is your place is a man. Maybe your dad is your mom. Maybe you are your place; you are the strong woman in your life.

If Mother’s Day is a painful day for you, know that it’s not truly about which uterus you came out of. It’s a day to celebrate the places we’ve been, where we are now, and where we’ll go. Those places might hurt, they might never stop hurting.  On this Mother’s Day, let’s take a moment to celebrate our people and places, the sites of love in our lives, and all the people and places who came before us, forging the feminist way. Because truly, how lucky we are to be here at all. How lucky we are to be people and places perched precariously as we are on the precipice of here and there.