Category: Feminism and Gender

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Individualizing v. Generalizing

Thanks to Dan for inviting me to blog this month. I’m looking forward to it.

I’ll start with two pieces in the NY Times Sunday Magazine this week that raise interesting questions about individualization versus generalization and the struggle for equality for women and people with disabilities.

In Creature Comforts, Rebecca Skloot reports on the difficulty faced by people with disabilities seeking to use a variety of animals to assist them in day-to-day public life. In doing so, she identifies the inevitable tension between the individualized inquiry required by the ADA and the urge (and sometimes need) to generalize. The people maintaining public spaces, including those who use those spaces, want bright lines about which animals are permissible service animals, while the ADA requires that they accommodate individuals with disabilities and their individualized needs.

Similarly, in The Senator Track, Lisa Belkin comments on the difficulty that women (including Caroline Kennedy) face when they seek jobs after taking what she calls a “mom sabbatical.” Belkin claims that we need to redefine “experience” so that “what you do, and think, and produce, and change all count—even if none of your activities take place in an office, where you enjoy a title and a salary.” This call for individualized inquiry, however, butts up against the simplicity and utility of generalization; in short, working in an office with a particular title serves as a general proxy for a group of skills that Belkin would have employers examining on an individual basis (e.g., ability to run meetings, to arrive on time, to manage accounts, etc.).

The fight for individualization over generalization is a worthy one. In setting up the equality struggle in this way, however, both pieces miss an important component of the battle: longstanding and entrenched biases. In the disability context, our perceptions and judgments about the suitability of certain animals for public accommodation are undoubtedly intertwined with our biases regarding difference (and our definitions of “normalcy”). It will be much easier, I expect, to get people to accept, for example, horses as service animals for the blind than it will be to get people to accept a parrot as a service animal for a man prone to psychotic episodes. Similarly, the difficulty faced by women who take time out of the traditional work force to provide care for family members is as much one of stereotypes as it is of a more neutral inclination to generalize. I’m reminded here of research by sociologist Shelley Correll and colleagues at Cornell on the motherhood penalty (for a recent review of the research the work in this area, see Stephen Benard et al., Cognitive Bias and the Motherhood Penalty, 59 Hastings Law Journal 1359 (2008)). This research suggests that a woman seeking to reenter the traditional work market will have to overcome stereotypes that her male counterpart will not. Imagine a mother and a father who each picks up a child from your neighborhood school, Monday through Friday at 1:30 pm. You bump into each one and engage in conversation; which one do you expect will have an easier time convincing you (through subtle signals or otherwise) that he/she is engaged in workforce-related activities between 9:00 and 1:00?

Spar on “One Gender’s Crash”

Reflecting on a risk-mad Wall Street, Debora Spar argues that a finance sector less dominated by men would have been more responsible: “Whether it be from a protectiveness born of biology or a reticence imposed by social norms, women may be less inclined than men to place the kind of bets that can get them in real trouble.” Her insightful piece reminded me of conservative thinker Reihan Salam’s proposal that gun laws recognize differing propensities for violence among men and women:

The idea of treating women and men differently offends our understanding of gender equality at a deep level. But treating women and men as though they are identical—as though women are as violent, dangerous, and abusive as men—isn’t treating them equally. Rather, it is pretending that ignoring their deep differences is the best policy, even if that means that people will die or suffer as a direct result.

Given that “women . . . account for only 17.9 percent of corporate officer positions and none of the chief executive positions . . . at Fortune 500 finance and insurance companies,” the recovery could be a long way off.

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 realself.com, 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.

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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.”

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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 doppjuice.com, 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.

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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.