Category: Feminism and Gender

Vanity on Hold? Or More Important than Ever?

vanity.jpgNot all the spending deferred during the Great Recession will be missed. Cosmetic surgery sets up a rat race of positional competition for better appearance, with dubious objective benefits. Natasha Singer suggests that many may now be “putting vanity on hold:”

“In Orange County, where plastic surgery is a part of their culture, doctors told me business is down 30 to 40 percent,” said Thomas Seery, the president of, a site devoted to reviewing vanity-medicine procedures. “That tells me something is fundamentally changing there.”

Even a few celebrities, those early adopters of appearance technology, have started to deride the plasticized look that sometimes accompanies cosmetic interventions, a harbinger perhaps of a new climate of restraint in which overt augmentation seems like bad taste.

However, Rhonda Rundle (on the Wall Street Journal’s cosmetic surgery beat) suggests that those hooked on appearance enhancement may merely be scaling down, rather than breaking, the habit. Appearance competition can be vital to getting ahead–or merely staying in place:

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Marketized Health Care = More Costs Piled Onto Women

Robert Pear’s piece “Women Buying Health Policies Pay a Penalty” describes one more sad side effect of efforts to make health insurance coverage more of a market:

Insurers say they have a sound reason for charging different premiums: Women ages 19 to 55 tend to cost more than men because they typically use more health care, especially in the childbearing years. But women still pay more than men for insurance that does not cover maternity care. In the individual market, maternity coverage may be offered as an optional benefit, or rider, for a hefty additional premium.

To the extent insurance spread risk, we’d see less of this. But as market forces subvert that function of insurance, we should expect any group with higher-than-normal costs to bear higher-than-normal burdens–even if they have no control over such costs.

The market may do some magic, but it can’t reward women for the burden of childbearing. It can’t combat (and it may well promote) the continuing wage disparities between men and women. So to the extent we rely on it to distribute vital human goods, we settle into a system where women alone have to take the career hit childbearing entails, and often get saddled with a disproportionate share of responsibilities for children’s upbringing–and on top of all this they have to pay more for health insurance!

Aware of such trends, Prof. Elizabeth Schiltz wrote a superb article entitled “Should Bearing the Child Mean Bearing All the Cost? A Catholic Perspective on the Sacrifice of Motherhood and the Common Good” (in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 15 (2007)). In our upcoming presidential election, it’s fascinating to see how seriously one candidate takes this problem–and how eagerly the other would continue to segment risk pools.


Gilbert’s & Sullivan

TrialbyJury.jpg Recently, I had the good fortune to attend a performance of “Trial by Jury” put on by a combination of groups to benefit a local counseling center. The cast included a number of my colleagues: Jarrod Wong and Brian Landsberg were jurymen, while Jay Leach tackled the role of Edwin, cad/defendant.

For those of you unfamiliar with the musical, it is a comedy about a lawsuit for breach of promise to marry. Amidst all of it may be masquerading a serious point (besides lampooning the lecherous judge and the sanctimonious jury members). At one point, the plaintiff professes her profound love for the defendant (so that the damages will be higher), while the defendant testifies that he’d make a terrible husband and thus is eligible for an abatement:

I smoke like a furnace –

I’m always in liquor,

A ruffian – a bully – a sot;

I’m sure I should thrash her,

Perhaps I should kick her,

I am such a very bad lot!

I’m not prepossessing,

As you may be guessing;

She couldn’t endure me a day.

Recall my professing,

When you are assessing

The damages Edwin must pay!

To his credit, my colleague Jay refused to sing these lyrics (full text & karaoke here), instead choosing to substitute “I will not kiss her / I’d rather diss her,” which, while somewhat sounding more like a “rap” version certainly got the point across without those troublesome domestic violence references.

While these colleagues can really sing (McGeorge’s got talent!) maybe Gilbert and Sullivan today would be bloggers – diverting and entertaining, sometimes throwing in a clever turn of phrase, lampooning those who most need it, and making a serious point from time to time.

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Gender Equality’s Top Ten

1030719_people_3.jpg Along with, presumably, the rest of Yale Law School’s alumni, I received an e-mail yesterday afternoon from Yale Law Women (YLW), a student group, listing the “Top Ten Family Friendly Firms.” This is not the first time that YLW has put together this list, but as far as I’m aware, it’s the first time they’ve sent it around to all alumni. YLW lays out the rationale for the list as follows:

YLW believes that the Top Ten List will be a catalyst for substantive change. Firms now have an opportunity to compare their policies to those of their peers. Practicing attorneys can use the List to advocate for improved work-life balance, and current law students can better assess their future employers.

This is not the first time we’ve seen law firm rankings employed in an effort to diversify the legal profession; last year, Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession released a report card on diversity in law firms (about which Frank Pasquale blogged here). While I find their goals noble, I wonder how successful these “listing” tactics are; i.e. do top 100 law firms really improve their diversity efforts in response to student generated lists? How far can studying and publicizing this problem take us? Will the “best and brightest” law students listen to their consciences rather than their wallets when choosing firms? With those questions in mind, I was curious about two apparently novel tactics that YLW is using: rewarding, rather than shaming, and actively distributing the list.

Instead of focusing on shaming those at the bottom of the list, YLW released only the Top Ten firms’ names and results (though I couldn’t find these results on the website). This approach is likely to be more appealing to the law firm audience, but I query whether rewarding will inspire more change than shaming. The reward tactic also gives law students who would work only at the most family-friendly firms a convenient short list (with, for example, only two New York law firms, including my former firm, Debevoise & Plimpton). But there are often other factors that influence the job search (for example, I chose Debevoise because of their international arbitration practice, and I’m not sure their absence from a “family friendly” short list would have altered that decision). And the “reward” approach leaves the calculations for policy comparison up to law students looking for jobs with or lawyers already working for firms outside the “top ten”, based on information that may not always be readily available.

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The Cultural Contradictions of Jenny Craig

I was astonished to learn that the number of TV shows about weight loss has ballooned to seven this season. Alessandra Stanley’s superb report on them catalogs the cultural contradictions they’re a part of:

Americans are goaded into ever more drastic and extreme expectations of physical perfection on prime time, while their path is mined with Double Croissan’wich specials at Burger King and Olive Garden “Tour of Italy” triptychs (lasagna, chicken parmigiana and fettuccine Alfredo). On “Today” a homily on sensible dieting from the Joy Fit Club is followed by instructions in a following segment for hibiscus margaritas and churros — deep-fried, sugar-dipped Mexican crullers.

On the WE network’s show “The Secret Lives of Women,” a tribute to three women’s hard-won journey to extreme weight loss is interrupted by an ad for Baskin-Robbins Oreo sundae. It’s a world of contradictions bracketed by all-you-can-eat breakfast at Applebee’s and pay-as-you-go gastric bypass.

Anyone who’s read Benforado/Hanson/Yosifon’s work on the situational pressures toward obesity probably won’t be surprised by these juxatpositions. Nevertheless, they’re a strikingly intimate example of what Daniel Bell might have termed the “cultural contradictions of capitalism.” The donut factory may forbid its workers from smoking in order to lower its health care costs, but its profit margins depend on big sales to the 65% or so of the population that is overweight or obese.

The market has given us these shows primarily because they offer a chance to feel like we’re doing something about the problem without actually doing much. As Stanley notes, “Mostly the visuals feed complacency; as overweight as a viewer may feel, he or she surely will never fall this far into the potato chip abyss. And if the morbidly obese people on screen can drop 100 pounds, then even the chubbiest kid on the couch can fit into a swimsuit by summer.”


The Use and Misuse of Social Science (herein of “verbal violence”)

In his most recent post, Frank links to his approving reference to Ben Barres’s claim that “When faculty tell their students that they are innately inferior based on . . . gender they are crossing a line that should not be crossed –the line that divides responsible free speech from verbal violence.” So does my last post, suggesting greater variability in results on math tests based on gender amount to such a claim? Are those who say such things asserting that women are inherently inferior at mathematics?

No. I don’t think so.

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Making the Blogosphere More Welcoming for Women

Given Nate’s post today and my earlier one on Ben Barres’s work, I found this article on the BlogHer conference interesting. It observes a persistent gender imbalance in online life and suggests the conference may be helping to solve it:

Over and over, women talked about the importance of the community at BlogHer. Sarah Dopp, who works in the technology industry and keeps a blog at, said she had come for “a big hit of inspiration.” Since attending the conference two years ago, she said, “My writing is better, my blog is better, I’m more connected.”

Ann Bartow has done a lot to increase that sense of community within legal blogs; here’s a good listing of women law professors’ blogs that may be occluded by the ranking tools now standard in the blogosphere. I agree with Ann that these ranking tools have many biases, but as with so many other rankings we’re familiar with, it’s very difficult to opt out of playing the game they foist upon us.

From Patriarchy to Kindergarchy

Joseph Epstein has a characteristically persnickety and insightful essay in the Weekly Standard on the “Rise of the Kindergarchy:”

In America we are currently living in a Kindergarchy, under rule by children. . . . For the past 30 years at least, we have been lavishing vast expense and anxiety on our children in ways that are unprecedented in American and in perhaps any other national life.


When Lyndon Johnson began the War on Poverty in 1965, its most popular . . . program was Headstart, which provided the children of the poor with preschooling, so that they would catch up with the children of the middle class by the time all began kindergarten at the age of five. But the middle class soon set in motion a headstart program of its own, sending its children to nursery and preschools as early as is physiologically possible.

Where one’s child goes to school, how well he does in school, which schools give him the best shot at even better schools later on–these are all matters of the most intense concern. Under Kindergarchy, no effort on behalf of one’s children’s schooling is too extensive, no expense too great, no sacrifice in time and energy on the part of parents too exacting.

Epstein gives many reasons for the rise of the kindergarchy, but overlooks a pretty obvious one: rising inequality, both in schools and incomes. As Republicans Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have noted, recent economic policies appear designed to bring America closer to the income distribution of Latin America–where financial missteps can have a lot more serious consequences than, say, Scandinavia. For less familial angst, we might want to take a look at the policies of Finland, where “even the best universities don’t have the elite status of a Harvard,” and failure to find a good job doesn’t bring with it a chance of spiralling into lack of health and dental care.


Are you an “equal parent”?

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about the age-old work-family balance called When Mom and Dad Share It All. It very much tracks some of the debates and sentiments from my last post on maternity versus parental leave. The NYT article describes three families and goes into significant depth describing how each manage (or don’t) the gendered dynamics of career and childcare. Behind these featured families are statistics such as women doing 38 hours a week of housework on average and men doing 12 (when only the husband is working). This three-one ratio goes down, but only to a two-one ratio when both parents are working — women doing 28 hours a week of housework and men doing 16.

The child care dynamic is even more drastic (and not counted in the housework statistic):

Where the housework ratio is two to one, the wife-to-husband ratio for child care in the United States is close to five to one. As with housework, that ratio does not change as much as you would expect when you account for who brings home a paycheck. In a family where Mom stays home and Dad goes to work, she spends 15 hours a week caring for children and he spends 2. In families in which both parents are wage earners, Mom’s average drops to 11 and Dad’s goes up to 3. Lest you think this is at least a significant improvement over our parents and grandparents, not so fast. “The most striking part,” Blair says, “is that none of this is all that different, in terms of ratio, from 90 years ago.”

I was saddened to hear that little has changed in almost a century??!! Okay, so perhaps moms have “more flexible jobs” than dads do (for reasons of socialization or something else), and therefore can take care of the children more. To be sure, I thought, as a professor, I have much more flexibility than my husband, which explains why I do more of the child care during the week. But wait… , the article explains:

…the perception of flexibility is itself a matter of perception. In her study, she was struck by how often the wife’s job was seen by both spouses as being more flexible than the husband’s. By way of example she describes two actual couples, one in which he is a college professor and she is a physician and one in which she is a college professor and he is a physician. In either case, Deutsch says “both the husband and wife claimed the man’s job was less flexible.”

Yikes! I started wondering how flexible is my job as compared to my husband’s? Who is making it “more” or “less” flexible? Which policies and preferences are preventing us from equal-parenting in the ways this article describes? And then I wondered whether the professor-fathers out there do as much child care as I do — that is, do they perceive their job to be more flexible than their spouses, as do I? I would guess the trend is that more fathers with flexible schedules (as this article documents) are doing more of the child care, but the trend is sadly slow and (also as this article documents) greatly imbalanced still after so much time.

There is more in this article as well … worth a read.

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Maternity Leave Means Fathers Too

A Commissioner at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (the Commission) has announced that effective immediately the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act (MMLA) will apply to new parents of either sex. This means that both mothers and fathers (or both parents in gay marriages) in Massachusetts will be entitled under state law to eight weeks of unpaid leave upon the birth or adoption of their child. (The MMLA applies to employers with six or more employees.)

This announcement by the MCAD is startling for many reasons. First, it appears that the Commission, has rewritten a statute that is clearly gender-based (“maternity” rather than “parental”) to be gender-neutral. The Commissioner admitted as much when he said the reason for the Commission’s interpretation is to avoid the following problem:

“If two women are married [as is legal in Massachusetts] and adopt a child, then they are both entitled to leave under the [MMLA], and yet if two men are married and adopt a child, they would be entitled to no leave under a strict reading of the statute. That result was troubling to us, and we didn’t think it was in keeping with our mandate by statute, which is to eliminate, eradicate and prevent discrimination in Massachusetts.”

The Commission says it “enjoys broad discretion” and so it is applying the statute to avoid what it considers to be a state constitutional problem. Of course, the Commission must apply the law in a constitutional manner, but it does seem to have taken a radical step in this instance without a notice and comment period that most major legislation (or legislative changes) undergo before passage. As some lawyers have said, it creates significant obligations for employers overnight, which obligations may not be what the legislature has intended.

Second, the Commission’s interpretation of the statute appears to understand the “discrimination” the MMLA seeks to eradicate as discrimination against parents rather than against women. I don’t know the history behind the MMLA, but its title (and language) suggests that the gist of the law was not to eradicate discrimination against parents but against mothers. (The word “female employee” is all over the statute.)

The big question for me, however, as I read this news is whether I care how startling it is and whether instead I should jump for joy that finally FINALLY some official legal body has recognized in a brave (however radical and oblique) way that gender equality requires that fathers/spouses be equal parents of newborns with mothers. I don’t think it a radical idea (although people I mention it to think it novel and curious) that the disparity in child care in our society — where most women are in charge of child care in their household despite more than sixty percent of mothers working outside of the home — is rooted in maternity leave, a gendered leave policy that creates inequality in the competence and expectations for child care. (To be sure, the FMLA is gender neutral and passed under congress’s section five powers as a remedial and prophylatic measure to combat sexism. But the MMLA targets infant child care specifically where as the FMLA covers diverse family relationships. For a quick comparison of the MMLA and FMLA see here.) By interpreting the MMLA in this way, the Commission has given most fathers/spouses in the Commonwealth the right to stay home with their newborn.

I have long lamented the accommodation of maternity leave – not because I think it unnecessary for mothers but because it creates an expectation that mothers (and not fathers/spouses) will stay home with the baby when born or adopted. In addition to providing time to physical recuperate from labor (which for most women takes between two and four weeks), maternity leave (especially for new moms) is a form of boot-camp, teaching women how to care for an infant by forcing the togetherness. Most women don’t know any better than most men how to calm a fussy baby, how to feed a baby, how to swaddle a baby or put her to sleep. These skills are gender-neutral. When do women become more competent than men at these tasks? When they care for their own newborn during maternity leave (or, admittedly, when they have taken a job caring for children or cared for a sibling or friend’s child prior to having their own child). Maternity leave is a three month (sometimes more) “head start” in the child-care department. And this head-start often sets the parameters for child-care duties in the future. At four months when a mother is back at work, that mother is typically better at soothing and dressing and feeding the baby because she has done it so often the past twelve weeks while her husband/spouse was at work. It makes sense, therefore, at the end of the work day, that when the baby is fussy or hungry that she calms and feeds the baby because she is better at it. This is an efficient division of labor. But it also relegates her to the “second shift,” one that mothers have historically complained about, whereby she works in the office all day and in the house all night. And this gendered child care dynamic is entirely avoidable if fathers/spouses became as competent as mothers in the earliest days of their baby’s life. Three months of total immersion in child care is a long time. Ask any parent: the learning curve is a steep one. And when the baby is crying, you want the most skilled person to calm that baby (i.e., the person who can succeed the fastest at the task). This is often the person who stayed home with the baby, and it is usually the woman.

So back to the Commission’s announcement. What it might accomplish if applied to both parents is to encourage them to become equally competent at caring for their newborn at an early enough stage in the parenting relationship to prevent gender inequality in child care in the future. And it sends the message that both parents are crucial to nurturing the child – which is of course true. How will it apply in practice? Does it allow for the possibility that one parent might stay home for the first eight weeks and the other parent for the second eight weeks? Would it allow for both parents to stay home at the same time? Either way, I hope this significantly changes the parental leave landscape in Massachusetts – for the better. It is long overdue that fathers/spouses be expected to care for their newborns as mothers are expected to. I would bet that many fathers/spouses would relish the idea of a three month leave to care for their new child. And I have no doubt that children will be better off for it. I applaud the Commission.