This is What Happens When a Woman Writer Asks for Money

This article was originally published by Quartz on June 7, 2017.

Over the past few years, I’ve written a number of commentaries and op-eds related to the work I do in my day job, as a public opinion researcher. Unlike many freelance writers, I don’t rely on the income I earn from publishing my work. In fact, when I first started writing for media outlets, I was pleasantly surprised the first time a publication offered to pay me.

Over time, I learned that although less experienced writers sometimes take a few non-paying assignments to build up their portfolio, compensation for writing is the industry ideal. I say ideal rather than norm because despite the many editors and publishers with integrity who recognize that labor should be compensated for in dollars, not exposure, there are more than a handful who don’t follow this norm. They consider including the link to an author’s Twitter page at the end of her article reasonable payment.

Usually, when I submit a piece or pitch to an editor, I ask about pay, but I have also granted outlets permission to publish my pieces for free. The few times I have, the editors—usually of small newspapers or blogs—explained, with kindness and humility, that they could not pay freelancers, and that they completely understood if I wanted to take my work elsewhere. Because I could afford to, I chose to donate my work, to reach new readers.

When I submitted an opinion piece to an editor at a small local newspaper in Connecticut, I didn’t expect payment. After the editor accepted my piece and said nothing about money, I inquired if the newspaper pays for op-eds. I asked this out of principle—because I believe that people should be compensated for labor, and because I believe women in particular should ask for what they’re worth.

The editor wrote back saying that they do not pay writers. “Frankly,” he added, “because of the mention of money, I will not run it now. Thanks for your interest.”

Shock doesn’t even begin to describe my reaction to his e-mail. The shock quickly turned into anger when I realized that this editor had essentially retaliated against me for asking if I would be paid for my work. I sent an e-mail back that said:

“Writers are well within their rights to ask if a company using their work will pay them for it. Frankly, to discourage me from asking and penalizing me for it is not only unprofessional, it is unethical.”

I published the screenshots of this conversation on Twitter and received an outpouring of support from writers and editors all over the world who recognized the blatant injustice of what happened. I also sent a longer response back to the editor as well as the newspaper’s leadership, in which I argued that the editor’s behavior is symptomatic of larger problems plaguing in the media industry—the issue of fair compensation and transparency.

“This incident is a microcosm of broader issues that plague the writing and journalism communities,” I wrote. “While some outlets genuinely cannot afford to pay writers, they still recognize the dignity of writers’ labors, and treat them accordingly and respectfully. Professional news organizations and editors who value integrity will be transparent and upfront about their payment policy. Certainly, they will not pull an article when a writer simply asks if an outlet pays for pieces.”

What happened made me think about broader attitudes toward women writers and equal pay issues. Women workers everywhere (not just writers) are blamed for the pay gap because they don’t ask for money as often as men do. Women are told to “lean in,” to chase that raise or promotion before their male colleague snatches it with his masculine confidence and entitlement. Some women do not follow this advice for fear that speaking up would make them seem too aggressive or unlikeable. My experience would suggest they are, devastatingly, correct. And even though I didn’t actually ask for money (I asked if I would be compensated), the worst thing that could possibly happen in this scenario did happen—I was punished for speaking up. I did not want this point to be lost on the paper, and included this in my e-mail:

“Women in the workplace have a hard enough time as it is asking for what they deserve, and your editor’s reply is a perfect example of why that is. It sends the message that if you ask for what you’re worth, you won’t get it, and in fact you may be punished for asking in the first place. So don’t ask, stay silent. Is that the message the [newspaper] wants to send to women? Imagine if I was a 22-year-old just starting her career and received [the editor’s] reply? I would be terrified to ever pitch an article again!”

A few days after I sent this e-mail, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief tweeted at me to call her. I did, and we had a polite but somewhat vapid conversation about what happened and what the newspaper plans to do in response. She began the conversation by telling me “no one had any bad intent.” Somewhat bewildered by both her vagueness and implication that the incident was a misunderstanding, I respectfully but firmly explained that the incident was not about intent, but the events that took place: The editor pulled my article because I asked about money. Later that evening, I wrote her an e-mail elaborating:

“And I’m not sure if I made clear over the phone, but I strongly believe the editor should be held accountable for his behavior, whether that means he is fired, suspended, or penalized in some other way. It seemed like you may believe he just ‘said the wrong thing’ and didn’t intend harm—I want to make it clear to you that it was what he DID that was wrong, which was to pull my piece because I inquired about payment.”

I also suggested that, in the spirit of transparency, she might consider adding a payment policy to the newspaper’s website that explains freelance contributors are welcome to submit work but won’t be paid for it. (At the time of publication of this article, no such policy has been posted.)

I may not have been able to impact this newspaper, but publicly talking about my experience seems to have comforted other writers. My original Twitter post including screenshots of the e-mails received more than 300,000 impressions and was retweeted over 1,000 times.

This strong reaction isn’t surprising, as writers know the injustices and indignities associated with asking for what they deserve all too well. And women understand their impossible position: “you have to be assertive, yet not too confident, yet apologize for breathing,” as one Twitter user said in reply to my post.

The responsibility to compensate people who perform labor should fall on the institutions profiting off of said labor. Publications should include policies about writer compensation on their websites with standard rates of pay, and editors should bring up money first.

Some companies have already implemented such policies, because research shows that compensation transparency reduces inequities among women and people of color. These policies need to be more than ideals in the writing and journalism industry—they should be standard operational procedure that unequivocally demonstrates respect for the dignity of writers’ work.

Girls of the Month: Old Saybrook Seniors Spark Conversation About Immigration

For the past few months, I’ve been volunteering with She’s Speaking, a local organization in Connecticut whose mission is “to educate, empower, support and inspire young women to have a voice in our society through the resources of powerful women leaders of yesterday and today.”

One of their new programs is to honor girls and young women who are making a difference in their communities and who are doing bold, brave things. I was privileged to interview 11 young ladies who were honored for their work on immigration. Read about their amazing work and accomplishments below, and check out the original article here.

She’s Speaking is thrilled to recognize eleven seniors at Old Saybrook High School who have been speaking out in their community about a controversial topic: immigration. After reading a book in their Spanish class, the group of all female students were stunned by how much they learned about immigration and immigrants themselves—and much of this new knowledge contradicted some of their prior assumptions.

“Many people come over when they’re young—as girls and boys—and they’re coming to find their mothers who left when they were really young. A lot of people think immigrants come here just to work but they also come to be with their family,” Arianna Heonis explained.

“Some immigrants are brought over as young children and they aren’t even aware that they’re not citizens until they try to apply for college,” Delilah Hallowell added.

Lucy Marinelli explained that contrary to the stereotype of an immigrant as a law-breaking criminal, she was surprised to learn that the crime rate among immigrants is significantly lower compared to American citizens. “We focused on debunking myths about immigrants,” she said.

Armed with and inspired by this new knowledge, the girls conducted additional research and consulted with experts to develop a comprehensive, facts-driven presentation about immigration in America. They considered having the author of the book that inspired their work come in to talk with other students, but decided to speak out about the issue themselves. As Holly Coppes explained, “We realized we could connect more with the school ourselves, as peers.”

The purpose of their presentation was to share facts about immigration with the community to dispel myths and misinformation. As Marinelli explained, “Immigration is a controversial issue that can be so emotional because of the political connotations. But we really wanted to make this presentation nonpolitical and stick to the facts so people could form their own opinions. We wanted to educate the community.”

And educate they did. The group not only presented to their entire high school, but also shared their work with the Board of Education, the Valley Shore Collaborative, and the Shore’s Women League. Once they started speaking out about immigration they didn’t want to stop. Although some girls admitted to having trouble with public speaking in the past, they were able to overcome that fear and felt motivated to keep speaking. As Jillian Hirst recalled, “We were all on this high after the first presentation when everyone is clapping and being supportive. That positive reaction inspired us to do it again! We presented it a few more times and were so happy to see more groups of people who were really moved by what we had to say.”

The girls also reported that since their presentation, their schoolmates seem more comfortable talking about immigration, and some students they had no idea were immigrants came to them for support. “One girl in our school was an immigrant who couldn’t get a social security number and she was about to apply to college. She was really struggling, and she was brave enough to share that with us,” Rory Dunne recounted.

“We made it a more comfortable space for people to talk,” Alexis Parker added.

Although this group of girls learned much about the immigration issue, the biggest lesson they learned was about the importance of speaking out about topics you believe in, even when it’s not easy to do. As Marinelli explained, “You learn the best in uncomfortable situations.” Maggie Smith added: “You should take every opportunity you get to step outside of your comfort zone because you can grow so much.”

**
She’s Speaking congratulates this group of senior girls for their accomplishment and for their courage to speak out in their community and share their knowledge with others.

Thank you to Patty Marshall, Amy Claffey, and the Old Saybrook High School for making this article possible.

Full list of students involved in the immigration project/presentation:
Holly Coppes
Rory Dunne
Delilah Hallowell
Arianna Heonis
Jillian Hirst
Lucy Marinelli
Alexis Parker
Mia Reed
Maggie Smith
Erin Stangel
Heather Uphold

Small business owners in CT overwhelmingly support Paid Family Leave

This morning, my research company, BLS Research & Consulting, released the data from a poll we conducted among small business owners in Connecticut. Conducted on behalf of the CT Campaign for Paid Family Leave, the survey results showed that more than 3 in 4 small business owners SUPPORT the paid family leave legislation currently being considered in the Connecticut Assembly.

Highlights:

-95% of CT SBOs believe it is important for people to have time off to care for a new baby, a seriously ill family member, or recover from a personal illness, and 69% feel it is very important.

-More than 3 in 4 CT SBOs support paid family and medical leave legislation, and nearly half (46%) feel that way strongly. Support holds across the state and among different industries.

-79% of Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA) members polled favor establishing PFML.

-Once SBOs learn more about paid family leave, including how research has demonstrated its benefits for businesses, support climbs to 82%.

When asked WHY they support paid leave, small business owners pointed out that such policies make good business sense, because they improve employee retention, job satisfaction, and productivity. They also believe having paid leave available is the right thing to do, because no one should have to choose between their family and a paycheck:

“I think it’s been extremely important to allow employees the opportunities to spend time with their family during these periods when it’s so urgent to be available. It’s great to come up with some ideas to not further burden already struggling small businesses and allowing needs to be met in this way. Great to see out of the box strategies.” –Medical/Healthcare Industry SBO, Middlesex County

“I support it because it’s important for employees to balance work and life. And as long as its employee funded I’m willing to sacrifice not having them at work during those 12 weeks.” –Professional Services Industry SBO, New Haven County

“We need to be considerate of human needs in this world. Work and money can wait.” –Real Estate Industry SBO, Hartford County

“Because I understand the need for paid medical leave for employees, but as a small business owner it puts a great burden on such a business. This sounds like a good solution that is mutually beneficial to all parties.” –Manufacturing Industry SBO, Litchfield County

“Sometimes, family members get sick and need care. Family is very important and businesses should respect that. A happy employee is a productive employee.” –Educational Industry SBO, Fairfield County

The data is clear: paid leave supports working families, improves worker retention and builds a competitive economy.

About the poll:

On behalf of the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund, BLS Research & Consulting conducted an online survey of 243 small business owners (2-250 employees) in Connecticut. About 82% of business owners surveyed employ less than 25 people.

The survey was fielded May 17th – May 23rd, 2017. The margin of error is +/- 6%.

Respondents were recruited via online panels and from commercial lists of small businesses in Connecticut. The sample includes a broad mix of small business owners from several industries—from manufacturing and construction to educational services and the medical/healthcare industry. Woman- and minority-owned small businesses are also represented.

For more information about this poll, contact me.

For more information on the campaign, visit their website.

What Really Happens When Women Writers Ask For More Money

This article was originally published by The Establishment, May 23, 2017.

Recently, I had a story accepted by the editor of a city paper. Since he hadn’t mentioned pay, I asked whether the publication compensates their contributors. He replied that no, they did not.

Then he said this: “Frankly, because of the mention of money, I will now not run [your article].”
And just like that, my piece was pulled.

We can’t prove, of course, that this editor wouldn’t have treated a male writer the same abusive way, but we can make an educated guess based on existing research that interactions like the one I experienced happen more often when the power dynamic is editor=male, writer=female. In an industry where men serve as gatekeepers, and women are routinely pigeonholed and devalued, it’s hard not to see my experience as emblematic of broader issues.
It’s hard not to surmise that it’s time for the publishing industry to confront some hard truths.

Like many women who work outside the home, I’ve experienced the trifecta of workplace discrimination throughout my career: unequal pay, sexual harassment, and sexist treatment. I recently made a conscious move to freelance work as a researcher and writer, mostly for the flexibility self-employment offers, but also in part to escape the sexist environments that dominate many workplaces. This choice is not unusual; one recent study found that the majority of full-time freelancers, 53%, are women—many of whom make this choice for the same reasons I did.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to learn that the freelance industry is no safe haven from discrimination.

One study from 2005 revealed a 42% pay gap between full-time male and female independent contractors, and a 35% gap between part-time independent contractors. More recent studies reveal things might be changing, though comprehensive research remains limited; a study from 2014 revealed that female freelancers were securing the majority of the gigs on the platform People Per Hour (58%), while earning up to 22% more per hour than their male counterparts. As for freelance writing specifically, that’s also been woefully understudied, but one Writer’s Union of Canada report revealed that female writers earned only 55% of what their male counterparts did.

As in other industries, some say that if women aren’t making as much as men, it must be their own fault — they have to be more assertive in asking for higher pay. In the world of freelance writing, where negotiating pay is a constant, the pressure to “lean in” and demand more is particularly pronounced.

While I’ve always known that putting the onus on women to ensure that they get paid fairly is hogwash, my recent experience with the city paper editor reminded me why this strategy is not only ineffective, but harmful. As writer Cheryl Strayed once put it, it’s not that there’s “a secret commission of readers and editors dedicated to the mission of keeping women writers down,” but “we live in a patriarchy, which means that everything we observe, desire, and consume is in some essential way informed by gender assumptions that privilege men.” As my own anecdote illustrates, women may be punished for asking for more, or for even any compensation at all.

There’s also the issue of what the industry does and doesn’t value, and how gender stereotyping plays into these judgements. Male writers are often favored for subject matters deemed “serious” (like crime, politics, and news), while women are often pigeonholed into writing about what’s been described as “pink topics” or the “four f’s”: fashion, family, food, and furniture. Women, and particularly mothers, are also often recruited to produce low-quality clickbait for content-farming mills, earning anywhere from $2 (yes, $2) to $25 per article.

As in many other industries, problems with inequity start at the top.

While women tend to dominate lower-ranking positions in publishing, it’s men who often occupy the top positions of power. Women represent just 35% of newspaper supervisors, for instance, and serve as top editors in just three of the nation’s 25 largest papers, eight of the 25 largest papers with circulations under 100,000, and three of the top 25 under 50,000. (The situation is even more dire for people of color; in one study, just 15% of participating organizations said at least one of their top three editors is a person of color.)

And — no surprise here — evidence indicates that the people making decisions about whose stories are worth publishing may favor stories about people like them. Studies in various industries have shown that men tend to favor hiring men (and women tend to favor hiring other women).

Solutions to these deeply ingrained problems are in some ways elusive — but there are some concrete changes the publishing industry can make to rid itself of gender inequality. Concerning compensation, studies have shown that transparent pay policies are effective in remedying pay inequities among women and people of color. All publications should include standard pay rates on their website or in their contributor guidelines. Transparent pay policies will benefit all writers and would go a long way in making fair pay a more easily realized norm in the publishing industry.

Publishers can also work to ensure more women and people of color can become decision-makers and occupy the top positions in the industry — although, it’s worth noting, women in positions of power is not a panacea. After the newspaper editor pulled my article, I forwarded the e-mail exchange to the editor-in-chief of the paper, a woman. She and I subsequently had a phone conversation in which I urged her to establish transparent pay policies and hold the editor (and all her staff) accountable for abusive behavior toward freelancers. She listened to my suggestions politely, but when I followed up with her for this article and asked if she had implemented any of my suggestions, all I got was silence. As of this writing, the paper’s website has not been updated with compensation policies of any sort.

So making more women editors-in-chiefs will not necessarily solve the problem of sexism in the publishing industry if those women do not value fairness and equality or are not willing or able to implement policies that reflect those values.

The problem at the root of all of this is that, like many industries, the publishing industry is composed of institutions that were built on capitalistic, patriarchal values that serve the dominant group (namely, white men) and exclude everyone else (women, people of color). Changing these institutions involves a reimagining of values and goals. We need to build an industry that recognizes the dignity and importance of writers’ work and understands that writing is not just a job, but a form of art through which ideas can spread that have the power to transform society. The stories we tell about the world are profoundly shaped by our experience of it, and allowing more men than women to tell their truth distorts reality and limits the range of ideas that make it into the public’s consciousness. Publishers who practice these values are currently few and far between, but they do exist and we should support these publications as much as possible.

Finally, we need to stop telling women that it is their responsibility to ensure they get treated fairly. No marginalized group ever got their fair share of anything by asking the group in power if they would please stop oppressing them. And as my story reveals, telling women to fight for themselves does not always work, and in fact can come with its own negative consequences. Sexism and unequal compensation (in the writing industry and elsewhere) are not individual problems that individual women can solve themselves by just saying the right things or bringing the right attitude to pay negotiations — they are collective problems that require collective action.

The part of my story that hurts me the most is remembering how I initially felt when I received the editor’s email pulling my piece. For about five seconds after reading it, I regretted asking about money. In those five seconds, I felt a desperate need to apologize for asking, in an effort to hopefully save my article. In those five seconds, the patriarchy came crashing down on me in full force and I was powerless to its ability to make me feel ashamed for speaking up.

Very quickly my regret turned to anger and indignation once I regained the rational consciousness in which I understood how unfairly I was being treated, but those five seconds will never go away, and thinking about that short period of time incites rage and despair. It’s in those momentary periods of self-doubt that a little part of us dies, and our defenses and willingness to fight the system that tells women and other marginalized groups to stand down are weakened. For those five seconds, the patriarchy won.

That’s how deeply ingrained these gendered commandments are — they become our automatic responses, even when we consciously reject such prescriptions.

Legislators should approve paid family leave bill in CT

This article was originally published by the CT Mirror on May 17, 2017.

This past January, Connecticut lawmakers introduced two paid family and medical leave bills: Senate Bill No. 1 and House Bill No. 6212: An Act Concerning Earned Family and Medical Leave. The legislation passed through the Labor Committee successfully in March, but since then supporters of paid family leave have anxiously awaited further action from the Assembly.

With less than a month to go before Connecticut legislators adjourn for the summer, Connecticut citizens need to demand that our representatives take action on these bills and pass paid family and medical leave in Connecticut.

If passed, the legislation would require employers to provide 12 weeks of paid leave (100 percent of weekly earnings, up to a $1,000 cap) to new parents or those who need to care for a sick relative or recover from a personal illness. The system would be funded through employee contributions (less than a half percent of weekly earnings), thereby eliminating the financial burden on small business owners.

In fact, since workers without access to paid leave often have to leave their jobs altogether, paid family leave benefits employers and business owners because it reduces turnover and increases retention. Paid family leave can keep Connecticut competitive by attracting workers and young professionals looking to live in states with progressive policies that allow families to work and care for each other at the same time.

Paid family leave lessens burdens on taxpayers by decreasing reliance on public assistance and social services. A study conducted by Rutgers University found that new mothers who return to their jobs after taking paid leave are about 40 percent less likely to receive public assistance compared to women who do not have access to paid leave.

In addition to the economic benefits of a paid family leave program, this legislation will bring Connecticut into the 21st century by updating our policies to reflect the realities of working families today. Gone are the days when men brought home the bacon for women to fry up in the kitchen —these days, more than three in five families are considered dual earner households, meaning both women and men are working outside the home. While in the past, women who stayed home could function as caregivers to new babies and sick relatives, our families have changed and our policies need to sprint to catch up.

A common misperception about this legislation is that it is a “women’s issue,” but to the contrary, paid family leave is a family issue, a Connecticut issue, and an American issue. Paid family leave will strengthen families by ensuring children get a good start in life and that the adults can do what they need to do concerning their family without risking their financial security. Strong families make strong states and strong states make strong countries.

Passing paid family leave would ensure no one has to choose between a paycheck and being there for their family. Senate Bill No. 1 and House Bill No. 6212 represent the kind of smart, common sense solutions this state needs to grow into a competitive, economically stable state where families can thrive because they know they are valued.

I used to think that I had to be a ‘mean boss’ to be respected — but changing my approach got better results

This article was originally published by Business Insider, May 18, 2017.

Recently I was settling into my seat on a flight when a woman stomped onto the plane and barreled down the aisle while talking loudly on her ear piece. She was dressed in professional clothing as though she just got out of a meeting, and was visibly flustered trying to talk into her Blackberry while trying to find overhead space for her bag.

Her seat happened to be right across from mine so I couldn’t help but overhear her conversation. I could tell she was in talking to one of her employees because she was reviewing his (I heard the name ‘Jeff’) work and telling him what to change.

I cringed at her conversation and the tone she took with Jeff: condescending, impatient, and downright rude. She made disparaging remarks about his work, remarking she was surprised he graduated from an Ivy League school given the quality of his work. She offered suggestions to improve his work, but in a way that must have made poor Jeff feel like he was the most incompetent person on the planet. She may have been right to reprimand Jeff for poor performance, but her delivery was disrespectful.

As much as I disapprove of this woman’s behavior, I can also relate because I’ve been her before. I’ve been the no-nonsense, take-no-crap from anyone boss who doesn’t hesitate to yell at a subordinate or use a harsh tone in the hopes that a scolding will be the motivator he or she needs to do better next time.

But what I learned over time, and what my neighbor on that flight will likely learn too, is that being the mean boss won’t get you anywhere. That being condescending, sarcastic, disrespectful, or rude might feel good in the moment when you’re angry, but is a guaranteed way to lose the trust of your team.

My flight neighbor probably believes her team respects her for being so tough, but they don’t. You cannot respect someone who has no control over their own emotions, who doesn’t understand that moving forward and up is always better than laying down in the mud.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that my flight neighbor was a woman, and her gender certainly colors the interaction she had with her colleague. Women in leadership positions often feel they need to overcompensate and defy the perception that women aren’t tough enough for the job. And to some extent, women do have to be assertive to be taken seriously, but crossing over into abusive behavior is something both women and men need to guard against.

These were hard lessons for me to learn. The first time I managed a team, I adopted a “hard ass” persona, quick to chastise or criticize the team working under me for anything I perceived as less than a perfect performance. One person I worked with at the time described me as “quite prickly” to work with, though I think that was actually a euphemism for being a total jerk to my teammates. I didn’t like being a mean boss, but I felt I had to assert my authority and show how hard and harsh I could be to command respect. But the thing is, yelling at my teammates didn’t improve their quality of work or inspire them to work harder. It made them resent me and broke down the essential ingredients of trust and mutual respect that a team needs to succeed. If anything, being a jerk at work only made my team’s work suffer.

As difficult as it is to recount these cringe-worthy experiences, I am ultimately a better leader and colleague because of them. I learned that being an effective leader is about uplifting your team, not stomping all over them. My approach to solving workplace issues became all about finding the solution, rather than reprimanding or punishing without a plan to move forward. This didn’t mean I let employees slack or let them off the hook, but it did mean that instead of getting angry and firing off rude, condescending e-mails, I approached problems at work in a new way. I started demonstrating more patience and respect and showed that my number one goal was always to move forward and up—to find solutions, implement them, and focus on producing the best possible work, together as a team. Now, when I talk to my colleagues about their performance issues and work with them to find solutions to the problem, they know I’m on their side and that I want them to succeed. Showing them I’m interested in communicating with them to solve the problem, not just demand they work to my standards, motivates my team to do better next time.

Interpersonal communication is a critical skill for any professional to have and will lead to more productive, inspired teams.

I Attended a Whipping Ceremony in Ethiopia

This blog was originally published by Ravishly on May 4, 2017.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I traveled to the southern Ethiopia as part of an extended trip we are taking around the world. We spent six days in the Omo Valley, a part of the country composed mostly of small villages where different tribes live and work on their farms. Tourism is just starting to move into this area of the country, but most of the Omo Valley remains untouched by Western influence and is one of the few parts of the world where African tribes still exist.

As part of our tour, my husband and I had the chance to witness a “bull jumping ceremony,” which is a rite of passage for tribal boys before they marry. The boys must run across the backs of bulls naked four times without falling to be successful, and once they pass this test, they go from being boys to men, ready for marriage.

Though the ceremony may sound strange to Westerners, the substance of it seems innocuous enough — sure, the boy could fall during the jump, but is unlikely to sustain serious injuries (save for a bruised ego). However, before the kid jumps, women and girls in his family must partake in what is known as a “whipping ceremony.” Other men in the village who have recently completed their bull jumps take on the roles of “whippers,” and use sticks fashioned into makeshift whips to hit the women and girls. The whipping is supposed to signify women’s strength and their commitment to the boy who is jumping. The more whipping, the better, because scars from the wounds are also considered beautiful and desirable in this tribe’s culture.

As a feminist, violence against women is an issue I care about deeply, and one I have worked to raise awareness of in my professional career as a writer and communications strategist. I have written extensively about rape culture in military institutions, about sexual assault on college campuses, and about populations particularly vulnerable to intimate partner violence, like immigrants. In college, I volunteered at a domestic violence organization outside of Providence, Rhode Island, and spent time as a court advocate for survivors of domestic abuse.

But in all these years of writing, studying, and talking about violence against women, I never actually witnessed an instance of violence against a woman, at least physical violence. I never saw a woman get raped or sexually assaulted. I never saw a man hit his wife or girlfriend.

Part of what has shielded me from violence is my privilege.

Even though violence against women occurs in every stratum, including the white upper-middle-class community that surrounded me, it was underground, safe from the earshot or eyesight of neighbors.

So it was in this context that I walked with my husband and our guide into the whipping ceremony. I knew what I was about to see, but I was woefully unprepared for how I would feel. The first woman I saw get whipped already had deep scars all over her back, from previous ceremonies. Part of the tradition calls for women and girls to beg the men to whip them. They are supposed to ask to get whipped and antagonize men to hit them harder. Deeper scars show higher intensities of commitment to the men in these women’s families.

The crack of the whip on flesh is a sound I won’t easily forget. The men doling out the whips didn’t hold back either — they walloped these women, enough to draw blood that dripped all the way down some of the women’s backs. As I watched, I concentrated on the women’s faces, for any sign of distress, pain, or reluctance, but I saw none. They looked proud, defiant even, not so much as flinching as the sharp stick cut into their backs.

I walked into the ceremony with a commitment to very consciously avoid imposing my own judgments on the women and men participating in the whipping ceremony.
My guide had told me that the women and girls were extremely happy to participate in the ceremony, because of the reasons mentioned above; enduring the whipping showed their commitment to their families, and the scars were considered beautiful. Also, the women related to the boys jumping over the bulls were happy to celebrate his initiation into manhood and his intention to marry. It was a joyous occasion for all, I was told.

And yes, the women did seem happy, as they danced and sang in between taking turns getting whipped on their chests, stomachs, and backs. But all I felt watching them was pure terror and anxiety. I had to hold myself back from following my gut instinct to run out there and put myself between the stick and the woman. I cried when I watched a pregnant woman get whipped on her chest and back, and I sobbed when a woman, who had to be at least 70, stepped into the ring, offering her back to the boy with the stick.

The whipping part of the ceremony happens intermittently throughout the day, so there are breaks in between the whippings. But even during these breaks, my anxiety levels remained high. I couldn’t concentrate on what my guide was saying and kept nervously looking around, never turning my back to any man or boy I saw carrying a stick. I felt that at any moment, someone was going hit me with a whip. I know that sounds illogical, but I felt a profound sense of being unsafe — like violence could strike me at any second.

After posting my account of the whipping ceremony on Facebook, a former professor of mine shared her own experience of witnessing a female circumcision ceremony in Kenya, also known as female genital mutilation. According to my professor, the girls participating in these ceremonies were jubilant, overjoyed to get their clitorises cut off because it would signify they were finally “real” women. The cost of foregoing circumcision is high and often means being shunned by the community, with little to no chance of marriage.

While whipping carries far fewer physical consequences than circumcision, the symbolic consequences are similar: both practices send the message that violence against women is not only acceptable, it is necessary for them to be considered real and proper women by society’s standard.
Part of what allows communities to justify these instances of violence is that the women and girls ostensibly want to participate in these ceremonies and are happy to get whipped or circumcised. Women begging to be beaten and antagonizing men to hit them harder is a way to exonerate men from perpetrating the violence — how can they be blamed for hitting these women and girls when they literally asked for it?

The Ethiopian government has made attempts to abolish whipping ceremonies, as well as other violent traditions practiced in the Omo Valley, but with very little success. According to the guides I talked with, the tribes have resisted attempts to stop these ceremonies, which they deem critical to the preservation of their culture and way of life; they resent the government intrusion.

As an American feminist, I know how dangerous it can be for Western feminists to critically analyze the practices and behaviors of other cultures, and I was keenly aware of how my Western sensibilities could affect the way I was perceiving and interpreting the whipping ceremony. Western feminists have been criticized for regarding some cultures’ treatment of women as backward, the products of ignorance and a lack of education, a barbarism that emerges in the isolation of tribes from civilization.

Western feminists have also been accused of taking a paternalistic, patronizing approach to women in third world countries, attempting to “save them” from practices considered uncivilized or barbaric. Unsurprisingly, women in these countries have not been so keen to engage with Western feminists under these terms, which they perceive as disrespectful.

For these reasons, I attempted to suspend any judgment or critical thinking about what I saw until after the ceremony, when I had the time and space to process my feelings. What emerged were not so many judgments, but connections to ways in which other societies — including my own in the United States — encourage women’s submission to violence.

Observing the whipping ceremony in Ethiopia made me reflect on parallel practices in U.S. culture. How often do women submit to violence — either at the hands of others or from themselves, to prove that they are real, desirable women? How many women starve themselves or undergo medically unnecessary, risky, and painful plastic surgery to achieve societal standards of beauty? How many women get ripped apart by police officers, defense attorneys, and judges for wearing short skirts, getting too drunk, or walking home alone? They were asking to be raped or sexually assaulted, weren’t they? How many women tell themselves that submitting to their husband or boyfriend’s fists is a way to prove their love? That a broken jaw or a bruised face is the sacrifice they make for their marriage or relationship to survive?

Every society tells stories that justify why people do what they do, or why people are the way they are. Men in Ethiopia can cut women’s backs with sticks because the women are asking for it. Men in the U.S. can rape women who wear short skirts because that means they’re asking for it.

But if we look deeper into these stories about ourselves and our worlds, we may find a common theme — that women are complicit in violence against themselves not because the “choice” is a real one, but because the consequences of abstaining are far too high.

It is much easier, and the rewards are greater, to submit to violence than to defy it — in Ethiopia and other societies. Continuing to define womanhood in ways that demand or support violence against women will only ensure the continuation of such practices.

4 Tips for Qualitative Moderators

As a market research professional and qualitative research expert, I’ve moderated over 200 focus groups, in-depth interviews, and ethnographies for a wide variety of clients. I’ve talked to all kinds of people, from transgender sex workers to C-Suite executives. Becoming a good moderator is critical to generating the types of qualitative insights your clients need to be successful in today’s market. While practice is the best way to improve your craft, these 5 tips will help set you on your way to becoming your client’s go-to moderator:

1. Establish a rapport

The first 10 minutes of a group of interview are critical to establishing trust. You want your respondents to feel like they can be open and honest with you, which is why establishing a rapport up front is so important. The standard introductions we usually do at the start of a focus group or interview are not just formalities–this time is an opportunity to establish rapport and show your subjects that they can trust you.

After going through the ground rules/background of the group or interview, let your respondents introduce themselves and be sure to include a “fun” question like ‘What are your favorite hobbies?” or ‘What are you looking forward to this Fall/Winter/Spring/Summer’?

Once your respondents introduce themselves, make a comment about something they said or ask a question to show you are interested and engaged. For example, if a respondent says one of their hobbies is cooking, ask them what their favorite dish to cook is. In your own introduction share something personal about yourself, whether it’s the vacation you’re about to take with your family or what you’re cooking for dinner that night.

2. Don’t judge

In regular conversation, it’s so natural to use “judgment” language when someone says something to us, whether it’s “I agree,” or “Great,” or some other phrase that places a value judgment on what the other person said. But this type of language can inadvertently lead respondents and make them think about what the “right” answer is to your question.

Moderators should actively avoid judging what the respondents say and reply either with a head nod, or a neutral phrase like “OK” or “Got it.” The respondent should have absolutely no idea whether you the moderator agrees or disagrees with what they just said. You want to acknowledge that your respondent just said something, but you must stay neutral in your response.

3. Work the room

One of the most common rookie mistakes new moderators make is allowing a few people to dominate the conversation in a focus group. Everyone in the room should have equal air time, but it’s up to the moderator to ensure that happens.

When stating the ground rules up front, you might want to acknowledge that some people are “talkers” and that others are quiet, so for that reason you might call on some of the quieter folks and sometimes have to interrupt the talkers so you can hear from someone else in the group. Stating these rules up front and letting the group know what to expect is key to a smooth, productive discussion.

4. Check with the backroom

Leave the room 1-2 times to check in with your clients in the backroom and see if there are any additional questions or follow-ups they want asked. A good time to do this is when your respondents are preoccupied with an activity or handout. I try to pop in to the backroom once in the middle of the group and once at the end. You could run a perfectly good focus group but fail in the eyes of your client if you didn’t ask their one key question. Taking the 1-2 minutes to check in with your client is a good strategy to making sure your project is a success.

Now it’s time to start moderating! Check out some of the qualitative research I’ve done here and let me know how your research goes!

10 Fascinating Quotes From Women Around The Globe

I recently completed a half-year journey around the world where I visited twenty different countries across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. In each country I visited, I interviewed women to understand their perspectives on what life is like for women in their countries. I asked women to tell me about the greatest challenges women face where they’re from as well as what being a woman has meant in their own lives. Many women were hopefully optimistic about the state of gender equality in their country while others were more cynical and pointed out that while laws may guarantee rights for women, culture and tradition often usurps legal protections.

While I attempted to diversify my sample in terms of age, race, and region (I interviewed women in cities, small towns, and villages), these interviews are in no way representative of women at-large in the countries I visited. However, they do provide an interesting snapshot of women’s lives across the globes. They also remind us that despite women’s differences, in some ways the challenges we face are universal. Issues like domestic violence, workplace discrimination, and sexism in politics are happening everywhere, though the extent to which women can stand up and safely resist these threats to equality vary by country.

I am grateful to the more than 40 women who took the time to talk with me and answer my questions. Here are 10 of the most fascinating quotes from women around the world:

1. Egypt

Egypt

“The Middle East in general is tough for women, though Egypt is getting better. It’s not so much the laws but the tradition. The Constitution gives women rights but the problem is the Constitution in people’s minds. But it’s getting better…women now have the right to be president, that’s a pretty good step. When I first became a tour guide my family became really angry with me, because it’s not proper for women to travel all the time. But now they are so proud of me. So it’s getting better…women are stepping past the lines in Egypt and they might get pushed back in, but they keep crossing them anyway.”

2. Jordan

Jordan

“Everyone can do anything in Jordan now- dress, talk, and do what they want because it’s a tourist place so it’s more open. Education is the most important thing for boys and girls, and girls are going to the University now too. Without education, there are no opportunities.”

3. Sweden

Sweden

“Men at work definitely talk more. In meetings I often want to say things but can’t get to it because the men are talking. But personally, I have always been surrounded by men who think gender equality is important. I could never date someone who didn’t want to actively be a part of the change. That is a core value for me, and it would need to be the same in any partner I have. Otherwise I would lose respect for them.”

4. Rwanda

Rwanda

“We had good leadership after the genocide. Before 1994, there was a lot of gender inequality, but since then the government has promoted women in all spheres of life and has empowered us in education and jobs. Women are now taught to be producers rather than just consumers. When I was a child, we thought official jobs out in the world were for men only, but now we can do them too. Women in Rwanda are happy leadership recognizes that women matter a lot in every sphere of life.”

5. Myanmar

Myanmar

“Because of religion, people get married right away, like 18 or 19 years old. All of my younger sisters got married at 18. I’m 28 and still single. I have ambitions and I need to make money. Life is getting expensive here, and having children will cost a lot. My grandma still lives with us, so I need to be able to take care of her too, with money and with love. I want a boyfriend but a boy isn’t going to be happy about me going around the country as a tour guide. He will want to know my schedule and I can’t give him one. I want to be free.”

6. Norway

Norway

“Norway is very equal on paper, but even though we have the 40% quota there are still more men that are mayors than women. Leaders of big companies and leaders of boards are still men too. I became the Mayor of this town by gaining respect of the people. I was already known around here because I worked in the bank for 20 years. I also didn’t have any children and my husband has passed, so it was easier for me in that way. But if women or girls are willing to take the challenge, there are more possibilities. You have to really want it. And in order to make it as a female you have to be flawless; if you know you aren’t, you hesitate. When I took the step to become Mayor it was very fun. And it has been an honor.”

7. Indonesia

Indonesia

“I own my own business, a lot of women in Bali do too. Patriarchy might be strong in the countryside, but in the city it’s pretty modern. I opened this place 2 weeks ago, I’m excited!”

8. Mozambique

Mozambique

“One of the biggest problems for women in Mozambique is the ‘lobolo’ tradition- when a man marries a woman, he has to pay her family money. But if they get divorced, she has to find a way to pay him back the money. So that creates bad situations where women are forced to stay in marriages when they can’t pay back their lobolo.”

9. Namibia

Namibia

“In Namibia, women basically have equal rights in employment…there are no gaps. All jobs from security to jobs in the kitchen are pretty equal. The biggest challenge women face is in the home- abuse. The rate of ‘passion killings’ is high in Namibia. And this is a challenge that men must face too.” (Note: ‘Passion killings’ is a term used for murders of women by intimate partners)

10. United States

United States

“When I was young, I worked off the books in a restaurant. I was just grateful to be working, because my family needed the money. But because my wages were never put down, I wasn’t paying into Social Security. I worked for years and years but it’s like all that work never happened, because my employers didn’t put it on the books. So now I’m a widow but my Social Security check is very little. I wish I had known better, but they didn’t teach girls to look out for themselves in jobs back then- we were lucky just to get hired at all.”

Visit the Women of the World Blog to see more interviews and photos of women around the globe.

Travel Notes: The Pain of Beauty

In many societies around the world, being beautiful involves engaging in practices that cause physical pain and in some cases severe health consequences. That is, the endurance of pain is intimately connected with cultural standards of beauty.

In some Ethiopian communities, women are whipped with sticks until their backs bleed in a testament to their commitment to the men of their village; the scars they develop from getting their backs slashed open are considered beautiful and desirable.

In Myanmar and Thailand, female members of the Padaung tribe (so-called “giraffe women”) wear brass rings around their necks to make them appear longer. The rings are so tight that over time the clavicle becomes deformed which is what causes the appearance of a lengthened neck. At one point the tribal members claimed that the rings offered women protection from tiger attacks, but now that tigers are no longer a threat the practice still continues in the name of cultural beauty.

I can’t help but also notice the silencing symbolism in placing the coils around the throat, thereby restricting vocal cords.

The governments in these countries have attempted to outlaw and curtail these cultural practices, but with limited success. Tribal members have resisted these efforts, claiming that perpetuating these practices is a way to preserve their culture.

In defense of these practices, tribal members will invoke the concept of freedom: if women want to participate in these beauty rituals (and ostensibly, they do), then why is the government interfering with our right to carry out our own traditions? Importantly, women’s consent is critical to the perpetuation of such practices. Ethiopian women participating in the whipping ceremonies literally beg the men to whip them more, as the deeper the scars the more beautiful they become. Similarly, women in Myanmar and Thailand are proud of their coils and enjoy wearing them.

Of course, the extent to which this “consent” is the result of a free and informed decision is highly suspect. When a culture defines beauty—and therefore, womanhood– by the endurance of painful rituals like whipping and the neck coils, women must comply to be accepted in their societies. The consequences of abstaining, of deviating from deeply ingrained cultural norms, are often far too high.

In Myanmar at least, I’ve heard reports of younger generations of girls refusing to wear the neck coils, which may indicate progress on the horizon. But we cannot place the burden of stopping these harmful behaviors on women alone—men also need to push back against the idea that a woman must suffer pain in order to be considered beautiful.

See more of what I’m learning on my 6-month trip around the world on my blog, Women of the World.