Monday, June 25, 2012

Why Do Women Want to "Have It All?"

Last week, former State Department director Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic piece "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" spurred a flurry of internet discussion: there was a nice response on why "having it all" is the wrong thing to be striving for (see the Salon response) amidst many other responses (see the NYT summary and Joanne Wilson's response).  This discussion brings up the valid point that the set of desires of "elite women*" may be unsatisfiable.  The main problem is that the outdated expectation for a woman to pair with a socially "stronger" man does not necessarily create professionally supportive relationships for ambitious women.

The assumption that the man needs to be professionally superior leads to situations in which the woman will spend more time thinking about the family.  A mentor once made the provocative statement that that if I did a startup, I would no longer be able to find a man who I respected.  When I asked why, he said that I am "biologically wired" to look for a "stronger man."  After a fair bit of self-reflection, reading about evolutionary biology, and talking to both men and women, I concluded that this "stronger man" business is based on societal constructs left over from a time when society did not allow women to provide for themselves.  I have encountered quite a few men whom I respect who have also said they are willing to make significant sacrifices towards having a family, including staying home if necessary.  I am not saying that ambitious women can only be with less ambitious men, but they should be aware of the topography of the choice space and the tradeoffs that different choices entail.

Professionally ambitious women must also make a choice about what they want to optimize: it is likely that women seeking both "power coupledom" and supportive relationship will be disappointed.  It seems that part of the desire to be part of a "power couple" is based on expectations from the days when a women did not work and a woman's success was based on how "well" she married.  In those days, ambitious men did not expect to find equally successful women: they looked for a supportive woman.  Women should be able (and allowed by society) to make this choice as well.  Women should realize that while it may be the ideal to find a successful man who is also has the bandwidth to be supportive (professionally, emotionally, etc.), this is unlikely as the selection pool can become quite small.  We can be quite happy, however, if we choose to optimize for one or the other with no illusions about what we are giving up.

It is important for a woman to realize that if she wants a "stronger" man, she should have expectations about the tradeoffs she is making.  This does not mean, however, that all women with careers must make these tradeoffs.  We have been given one view of what it means to "have it all" and it is our responsibility to question and redefine this for ourselves.

My friend Yao inspired this post with the following comment:"I wonder why women always think they must be the ones to give up their career for kids and not their husbands."

* I acknowledge that these discussions are highly heteronormative and have a relatively small target demographic.  Everything I say probably applies only to young, urban, highly-educated, heterosexual American women.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why I Go Out

My friend Neha sent me this piece Why Go Out, in which Sheila Heti compares going out (to bars, clubs, parties, and the like*) to a cigarette habit, discusses the merits of being alone, and concludes that social interaction may be a necessary evil. While I agree that people should be honest with themselves about why they go out (to fill voids; to avoid knowing themselves), going out can provide more than just a quick fix for the voids they may be trying to fill.

I agree with the idea that being with people makes you addicted to being with people. I have found that when I have been surrounded by people, I feel more lonely when I am alone. When I have a roommate, I desire social interaction more than when I live alone. I find it important to spend time alone in order to establish the equanimity of being alone as a home base. Spending much of the week "out" certainly gets in the way of self-reflection, self-knowledge, and self-friendship.

Going out is more than a quick fix for me: it is an important part of my character development and well-being. Because of the public persona I find it important to maintain, going out forces me to act happy and carefree. Going out gets me out of my head and keeps me in practice of making small talk. It makes me realize I am not the only person in the world and that my problems are irrelevant to most people. I often feel more confident, happy, and agreeable after being out than after spending time alone or even with a close friend.

Establishing a productive framework for going out takes commitment. The more you go out, the more you get invited out, and the more people you meet. This makes you more statistically likely to attend better parties and have better friends, based on whatever definition of "better." A couple of years ago I established the rule "always go out" for weekend evenings. This has caused dramatic improvement in not just my social life but also my productivity: I am feel much happier and more creative now. Everybody wins.

And so I go out, not just out of habit, but to establish habits that bring more human connection and happiness. Yes, I would sometimes rather be at home, but it does not mean that being home is better for me.

* The "going out" Heti talks about seems to describe a specific kind of going to bars to drink and to pick up people. I also find that fairly empty and depressing; I can see how it can be addictive. As a graduate student in Cambridge I am lucky to have found the "party circuit" of grad students who go out and are also nice and interesting people. Being able to so easily "go out" among friends is not the norm.