Category Archives: Personal

What It’s Like To Be Shamed While Pregnant

I’m 16 weeks pregnant with my first baby. When I was younger, I never thought I would get pregnant — by choice. I didn’t see motherhood as compatible with what I saw as my life trajectory, which included a highly successful and likely demanding career. I didn’t want to attempt to “have it all” because I felt like society had already set mothers up to fail. With inadequate paid family leave policies, the lack of affordable childcare, and the cultural expectation that women devote all of their time and energy exclusively to their children, I imagined motherhood as an oppressive experience.

Over time, I changed my views on having a child and my desire to become a mother outweighed my concerns about its associated oppression. I am not sure what exactly changed my mind, though I expect it was a combination of falling in love with my partner and wanting to start a family specifically with him, as well as the favorable career context in which I find myself today. I am fortunate to have successfully transitioned to an entrepreneurial job that affords me a flexible schedule with unlimited leave time. I know that having a baby will undoubtedly affect my career, but I feel more equipped and prepared to handle it than I did when I was younger. And my excitement to become a mother and have a family supersede my worries about my ability to balance.

But now that I’ve been pregnant for about four months and shared the news with most of my family and close friends, I’ve experienced the oppression of motherhood in a way I never imagined.

The source of the oppression comes from other women — in the form of unsolicited judgment, criticism, and shaming of decisions related to my pregnancy and plans for my baby. I’m not even a mother yet (in fact, I have five months to go!), but I’ve never felt as disparaged in my life as I do now, as a pregnant mom-to-be.

Read the rest of the article on Ravishly.

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.

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.

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.

How Leaving My Comfort Zone Changed My Outlook On Life

This piece was originally published in ThoughtCatalog on January 9, 2017.

I was never much of a “doer.”

As a child, I rejected my parents’ encouragement to get involved in “activities”—things like French Club or our church’s youth volunteer program.

My favorite thing to do as a teenager was get into a car with my friends and drive around our small town, maybe stopping at a party or the beach (to meet up with more friends driving around in their own cars). But ask me to go to the movies, see a concert, or participate in any other pre-scheduled, planned event, and my answer would probably be no.

This trend of not really wanting to “do things” continued as an adult. I belonged to a gym, but I could never quite get myself to sign up for group classes, preferring to drop-in and hop on a treadmill on my own schedule. I worked in the political science department at college, but was reluctant to join any of the clubs or organizations my school offered, even ones that worked towards issues I really cared about, like gender equality.

In fact, the question “what are your hobbies?” that I’d receive at job interviews or from a new acquaintance always filled me with anxiety—does going to brunch with friends on weekends count?

Sometimes my antipathy for doing activities caused rifts in my relationships. While I was perfectly content with doing little to nothing after work save for ordering dinner and watching Netflix, I’ve dated more than one man who resisted against my penchant for vegging out. I would be asked to go to Broadway shows, listen to live music at a local bar, and take cooking classes. While I mostly refused these invitations, the few I accepted I attended begrudgingly, and often dreaded the very act of participating.

I’m not quite sure what caused my rejecting of doing. I wouldn’t consider myself a boring person, and in fact I have done things—big things—in my life, like completing a doctorate in political science and building a successful career in the consulting industry. At times I rationalized my need to do little more than watch Law & Order SVU marathons as a consequence of the amount of time and energy I put into my job—I work in the public opinion research and consulting industry, and most of my days are spent creating work for my clients—perhaps this act of producing all day meant that all I could do was consume in my downtime, whether that meant watching TV, reading, eating, or drinking (or sometimes all four).

And even though very few people would guess this about me because of the confidence I project to others, I’m somewhat of an introvert. I don’t get energized from being around large groups of people and need to step away and be alone after a few hours of socialization. Many of the “doing” activities outside of work require a level of extroversion that I save for events with friends and meetings with clients.

For a long time, I felt like something might be lacking in my life. On paper, everything was great—I had an amazing career and was living in one of the best cities in the world—and fairly comfortably at that (something very hard to do in New York City as the middle class slowly disintegrates). I had good friends, a family close by, a cat, and as of October 2015, a husband. But producing all day long just to go home and consume for a few hours before bed didn’t always feel great. Sometimes it got pretty boring. And I increasingly felt a need to really do something and force myself out of routine and complacency.

So—my husband and I did the whole clichéd “quit your job and travel the world” thing. It makes me cringe a little to write that, precisely because it’s so hackneyed. It’s also something that might be more acceptable to do when you’re fresh out of college, not a decade out, like me. But I think we both felt a strong need to do something out of the norm and shed the predictability of our lives. Traveling wasn’t the only answer to our problem, but it sure was a fun one to entertain.

We left New York on a journey set to last six months. The beginning was hard. When you decide to shake things up like we did, you don’t always anticipate how the transition to that sort of lifestyle might be just that—shaky. I was so used to my routine and especially the producing part of it, that walking around cities and visiting sites was a complete 180—total consumption. I found myself trying to “schedule” time to write blogs, or to keep up with my professional networks, anything to feel like I’ve accomplished something. Without work, I was in some ways lost.

But this feeling didn’t last long, because I actually started doing things, in addition to consuming. And the things I did were productive in that they helped me work toward a better version of myself. I’ve never gone camping in my life—even as a child, I’d pitch a tent with my siblings in our backyard and last an hour in a sleeping bag before running back inside to the comfort of my own bed and room. So when I camped in an Omani desert in a straw hut with sand as the ground and an outhouse (read: a hole in the ground) for a bathroom, it’s safe to say I was lightyears outside of my comfort zone. But sitting under the stars that night sipping tea with other foreigners and talking about everything from the joys of traveling to what it’s like to have kids, I felt a sense of accomplishment—not only could I survive, but I could thrive and really enjoying doing something totally new for me.

In Egypt, we visited to slums of a river town not far from Luxor. I thought I had seen the “third world” on trips to Central and South America, but nothing I’d seen was even close to the devastating poverty I saw on my walk through this town. I had to step over mounds of mosquito-infested trash that included feces along a street adorned with makeshift huts that consisted of slabs of wood and a piece of cloth for the roof. But what surprised me most was how happy and satisfied the villagers seemed. We walked through a market and watched some fishermen fry up the catch of the day while they hammed it up for the photos we took of their labors. The children loved to run up to us and scream the only English word they know—“Hello!” while they wave and jump up and down, trying to get our attention. And they just kept smiling—everyone in that town had a smile on their face, laughing with their families and friends as they went about their day amid conditions most of us in the Western world could scarcely imagine.

And the best part of visiting these towns was talking with the locals, who were more than eager to practice their English and share their thoughts on life in their country. I also learned that most people in this world are fundamentally decent humans who will really try to help you if they can. I was amazed by how many locals would stop to ask if we needed directions or try really hard to communicate with us even if they didn’t know English well. I hate to say it, but I personally wouldn’t have gone out of my way to help strangers prior to this trip. I shudder to admit that I actually say no when tourists in NYC ask me to take their photo when I’m rushing to get to my next work meeting. The philosophy of individualism that dominates in America—the idea that we all need to pull ourselves up by our boot straps and make our own way in the world without help—is not felt as strongly, if at all, in other countries. I was so humbled by the generosity so many showed us, and it inspired me to give back in my own life by adopting a more empathetic stance toward others.

My experiences on this trip taught me that doing things in life that have nothing to do with how you make money can teach you a lot—about yourself, about the world, about humanity. I do feel changed from participating in different cultures and experiences that I never would have sought out had I not taken this trip. Many of my friends and family who have followed my journey on social media have made comments like “Who are you?” when they’ve seen pictures of me riding camels in the desert or slathered in mud at the Dead Sea. My uncle even said to me that my pictures on Facebook are “not of the Brittany I know.” But far from betraying who I am as a person, I am expanding my set of experiences and growing because of it. In fact, those comments made me feel embarrassed—had I really limited myself that much by not doing things in the past?

But luckily, the journey isn’t over yet—my husband and I are leaving for a tour of Eastern Africa in just a couple of days. He wants us to trek through the wilderness and explore the parts of Africa that are hard to get to for most travelers. As you can probably tell about me by now, that’s also pretty far from my comfort zone. But you know what? I think I’m going to do it.

3 Lessons I Learned About Gender In The Middle East

As part of a round-the-world trip I’m on this year, I recently traveled throughout the countries of Oman, Egypt, and Jordan. While these three nations are distinct in their own ways, all three rank toward the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, which ranks countries based on the difference (gap) between men and women on economic, political, education, and health indicators. Out of 145 countries included in the index, Oman ranks #135, Egypt #136, and Jordan #140. For comparison, the United States ranks #28 while Scandinavia occupies the top spots for gender equality.

As a long-time advocate for women and student of global gender issues, I was excited to see what I would learn from my travels to the Middle East. The lessons I took away from the experience surprised me, and called into question many assumptions I (and other Westerners) hold about gender in the Middle East.

1. Gender ideology varies widely

One of the major lessons I learned from my travels is that there is little homogeneity when it comes to opinions about gender and the role of men and women in society. In Egypt, I had the pleasure of spending time with two different tour guides—both Egyptian men. The first I met in Luxor, Egypt, which is a city of about half a million people. The tour guide, Mohammed, grew up in a West Luxor village but was college-educated in Cairo and spoke excellent English.

Mohammed* was our tour guide for several days, so I had the opportunity to have deep conversations with him about his life and his views on Egyptian society. Mohammed was quite conservative in his attitudes toward gender. For example, he told me a story about how he was briefly engaged to a woman but he broke it off when she began asking too many questions during one of their meetings. In some parts of Egypt, an engagement involves a short courtship of several “meetings” between the man and woman (usually in the woman’s father’s home) when the couple gets to know each other and make sure they both want to go through with the marriage. Mohammed told me that during the courtship period, the woman is supposed to “act shy” and let the man do the talking. Apparently, the woman he was engaged to did not adhere to these norms of behavior, and so he broke off the engagement.

Mohammed also told me that when he sees women arguing in the street of his village, he feels it’s his duty and right to step in and break up the argument. He commented that women shouldn’t “behave” like that in public, and it is his right to stop them and make them go inside.

Several days after our time with Mohammed, I met another tour guide in Aswan, a city of about 300,000 people, in lower Egypt. Hassan* was around the same age as Mohammed (late 30’s) and also college-educated. But their views on gender couldn’t have been more different.

Hassan believes strongly in gender equality as a principle and in practice. He encourages his wife and his sisters to get educated and work outside the home and believes Egypt would benefit with more women in political office. Hassan was very liberal in his attitudes toward gender roles, and even takes on a lot of the domestic work in his own home, a fairly progressive practice for Egypt.

One factor that would explain the differences between Mohammed and Hassan’s views is where they grew up. Despite both of them being college-educated, Mohammed’s upbringing in a small village may have contributed to his more conservative views, including his paternalistic attitude toward women. These villages are more isolated, less educated, and thus more likely to harbor and perpetuate strict gender prescriptions.

I also encountered different opinions about gender in Jordan, among women themselves. In Amman, I stumbled across the Arab Women Organization of Jordan and stopped inside to meet the staff. I talked to one woman there who told me this about the status of women in Jordan:

“We work toward empowering women, ending discrimination, and encouraging political participation. Women face a lot of problems in Jordan, but the biggest one is that society does not believe in women. They don’t think women are capable. They don’t think women can make decisions for themselves. So we are working towards changing that.”

While this particular woman had a more dismal view of gender equality in Jordan, others I met believed women were more liberated than ever. I met two sisters who worked at a tourist shop near a mosque outside of Amman, and both talked excitedly about how Jordan is the land of freedom and that all people—men and women—can behave anyway they want. Notably, both sisters did not wear the hijab and were dressed in Western-style clothing. They talked about the many opportunities for women in Jordan, including education, and overall felt positively about the direction of the country toward liberty for all human beings.

So in sum, Middle Easterners differ vastly both in their experience of gender and their beliefs about women in their societies. There is little uniformity when it comes to gender norms and expectations, which may be contrary to the stereotype of the Middle East as the bastion of gender inequality. More liberal, egalitarian ideas and behaviors are definitely present, which is a good sign for the future.

2. The meaning of the hijab is complex and often misunderstood

Most women I observed in the Middle East wore some form of the hijab. In Oman, I saw more burkas and abayas, while in certain cities like Cairo and Amman, women were more likely to don Western-style clothes with a simple head covering. Islamic tradition requires women to dress modestly and hide signs of their sexuality and femininity, including their hair.

Many Westerners believe that the hijab is the ultimate sign of gender inequality in the Middle East, and that women who wear the hijab must be oppressed by their husbands, fathers, or other men in their lives. And for some women in the Middle East, that’s exactly what the hijab represents. Some choose not to wear it, though many more wear it despite their personal feelings because of the immense social pressure to do so.

However, not all women feel negatively toward the hijab. One woman I talked to told me that she takes pride in wearing it, because the type of veil she wears signifies the region of Oman that her family is from. Others use the veil as a fashion statement and wear beautiful hijabs of different colors and patterns to match their outfits.

Some Muslim women believe they benefit from wearing the hijab, because men will focus on their minds rather than their bodies. They want to be valued for their intelligence instead of their looks, and wearing the veil is a way to ensure no one credits their success to their sex appeal over their personal merit.

I met several Westerners on my trip who would comment on how “tragic” and sad it was to see so many Muslim women wearing the hijab. I found these comments to be judgmental and condescending, because they allow only for one interpretation of the veil, when in fact there are many.

3. Contact between members of the opposite sex is limited

As an American, I’m used to striking up a conversation with my barista, bartender, or taxi driver. But in the Middle East, contact with the opposite sex is limited to family members. In fact, it would be considered highly inappropriate for a Muslim man to talk with a woman who was not of familial relation. Even cousins of the opposite sex do no more than wave hello when they see each other, as anything more would be considered taboo.

There is a little more leeway when it comes to tourists in the Middle East, as contact with the opposite sex is necessary in many cases. But whenever I was with my husband, the men we interacted with would only address him, basically ignoring me. This was the case with taxi drivers, hotel staff, bartenders, and restaurant servers. It almost felt awkward when they would ask him questions about our experience but only expect an answer from him, not from me. I often felt invisible during these interactions, and couldn’t help but interject my own opinions from time to time. When I did, some of the men would become visibly uncomfortable and avoid eye contact with me.

The day I left Egypt, I really wanted to hug one of the tour guides who we spent a lot of time with. I had really gotten to know him during our week together and felt a connection with him. I asked one of my fellow travelers if it would be appropriate for me to do so, and she said that even though I was a tourist, a hug would be way out of bounds for a Muslim man. I took her advice and settled for a handshake. But not being able to express my (platonic) affection for another human being really bothered me—it felt like someone had put a cage around my emotions, and all I could do was slide a finger or two between the bars.

An interesting corollary to the custom of limiting contact between the sexes is that for members of the same sex, affection is actually very common. I saw many instances of men holding hands in public as a sign of friendship—something that would actually be rare to see in the United States.

While my travels to the Middle East were by no means comprehensive or representative of the Middle East as a whole, they did offer me glimpses into different mindsets and traditions that I otherwise would not be privy too. Overall, I felt very welcome in the three countries I visited and am grateful to the Omanis, Egyptians, and Jordanians that took the time to talk to me and teach me about their beautiful countries and their customs. Learning from the locals challenged my preconceived notions about gender in the Middle East and taught me that like most issues, gender in the Middle East is nuanced, complex, and varied.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

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4 Ways Life Overseas is Different (and maybe better) than in America

For the past five weeks, I have been privileged to take some time off and travel the world with my husband. Our journey will last about six months in total, and will take us across every continent except for Antarctica. In the process, I have been interviewing women and their families in different countries to better understand the issues women face abroad and how they are both similar and different from those experienced in the U.S. I’m documenting these interviews on my blog, Women of the World.

So far, I’ve traveled through Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Italy. Some of these countries are the most progressive in the world when it comes to gender equality, and I’ve learned valuable lessons not only about gender, but about ways of life for Europeans that in some ways seem to be healthier, happier ways of being compared to how we live in the U.S.

The 4 things I’ve learned about life overseas are specific to my experience—they are not meant to perfectly represent life for everyone in these countries, but rather provide a snapshot from the people I’ve talked to and my observations so far.

1. Work is NOT the center of life
In many of the countries I’ve visited, work is not as intimately bound up with one’s identity as it often is in the U.S. Many European professionals go to work at about 9am in the morning and return by 4 or 5pm. And when they come home, they’re done with work—there’s no incessant need to check e-mail after-hours or even talk much about work at all. Instead, things like time with family and outside hobbies are more important. But work isn’t unimportant to Europeans—in fact, every person I talked to takes a lot of pride in their work, it just doesn’t take center stage in their lives. And in addition to working fewer hours, Europeans get more vacation time too—in fact, it’s a law that every country in the European Union provide 4 weeks of paid vacation to employees. To me, this seems like a way more balanced way of living.

2. Parental leave is amazing
Parental leave is not just a lofty policy ideal like it is in the U.S., but a real benefit that both women AND men are entitled to in many countries. For example, parents in Sweden get 480 days of leave at 80% pay that parents can split up however they choose, and that’s after 18 weeks reserved just for new moms. Additionally, dads get 90 days of leave reserved specifically for them. In Estonia, parents get more than a year—435 days—to share after maternity leave ends, and are paid the average of both their wages.

Caregiving is valued in many countries, and government makes it a lot easier for families to combine work and family– in addition to generous parental leave, childcare is also way more affordable. In Finland, government-funded childcare is free to all parents with children age 7 and under. And if parents choose not to use childcare and stay at home to care for their children, they get paid for it.

"Work/life balance is still probably my biggest challenge. But I think it's a big challenge for men too, not just women. We all work outside of the home and inside too and it's hard, it's a lot for anyone." -Finland
“Work/life balance is still probably my biggest challenge. But I think it’s a big challenge for men too, not just women. We all work outside of the home and inside too and it’s hard, it’s a lot for anyone.” -Finland

3. The idea of a level playing field actually exists
In the U.S., we believe that all men and women are created equal, and that there is opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard. But in reality, not all opportunities are created equal. For example, where you can afford to live greatly impacts the quality of public schools available to your children, and there are stark differences between wealthy and poor neighborhoods around the country in terms of educational attainment and success. And with skyrocketing costs of college, many Americans either can’t afford to go or, if they do, are then saddled with crushing debt that affects their economic security for the rest of their lives.

In places like Finland, public schools are more or less equal in quality and even state universities are free. Students in Norway typically pay a fee of 50 euros per semester at public universities. In these countries, making education more or less equal regardless of family income or background is the solution to leveling the playing field and giving every citizen a truly equal chance.

4. Men have more freedom to define their own masculinity
In the U.S., we’ve made a lot of progress toward breaking down gender roles and prescriptions about how men and women ought to behave. But compared to some European countries, we have a long way to go. In my travels, I have been struck by how some of the men I’ve met seem much more willing to express emotions and talk about things we almost never hear men talk about in the U.S., like mental illness and eating disorders. I met one young man who had taken sick leave from his job because he was struggling with depression. He talked about his challenges so openly and honestly, without an ounce of embarrassment or shame. And the fact that he actually could take months of leave from work to deal with his mental illness is amazing itself—as he put it: “We might pay a lot in taxes here, but when you get sick—physically or mentally—our country will take care of you.”

It’s true that the way of life for Europeans is due in large part to their bigger governments, and therefore, higher taxes. Yet, working families often don’t feel strained because of it—in fact, Norwegians enjoy a higher disposable income than the average working family in the U.S. For many Europeans, providing these benefits is a part of their culture—they truly value caregiving, family, and equality and couldn’t imagine life any other way.

While I absolutely love my country and am proud to be an American, I think it’s a good idea to look beyond our borders and take some lessons from other successful countries back to the U.S. Bringing more balance and fulfillment into American lives can only make us stronger.

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I Was Viciously Harassed by Misogynist Internet Trolls for Defending an Anti-Republican Ad

I wrote an article for Xojane about my experience being harassed by hateful online trolls, just for expressing my opinion. I connect my experience to the problem of sexism and misogyny writ large in America, and encourage women to keep talking, shouting, and having their voice.

Here’s an excerpt:
“This election has unearthed some of the most painful diseases of American society, including misogyny and sexism. The reaction among women has been one of empowerment, of motivation to speak out and up, without fear. I am hopeful that, despite the outcome — and perhaps because of it — we will continue to amplify the voices, interests, and concerns of women everywhere.”

Read the full article here.

4 Fascinating Ways My Relationship Changed After 1 Year of Marriage

This piece was originally published on YourTango, 10/28/16

When I got married a little over a year ago, I assumed nothing would really change in my relationship post-nuptials. After all, at that point my now-husband and I had been together 3 years before we got engaged, and 4 years total before we said “I do.” And for two of those years, we lived together, sharing a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. So wouldn’t marriage simply be an extension of the life we had already built together?

In many ways, the answer to that question is yes—for me, marriage did not change the day-to-day of our relationship, and I suspect that would be the same for most couples who cohabitate before matrimony (as half of American couples do). But in other ways, I did feel changes to our relationship, albeit subtle ones that had more to do with how I felt about things rather than the circumstances or logistics. I also think that the lessons I learned can apply to any long-term committed partnership, not just a marriage. After all, some of these changes were lessons that I was learning over time throughout the relationship, but that solidified once we married. So here are 4 ways my relationship has changed in the first year of marriage:

1. I learned the importance of picking your battles

No matter what stage of a relationship, a couple can benefit from the mantra, “pick your battles,” and, I would add—pick them wisely. When you share a life together there are bound to be disagreements, conflict, and frustration. I learned early on in my relationship that not every disagreement is worth arguing about, but this lesson only intensifies in a marriage. I guess it’s the feeling that because you’re in it for the long-term, keeping the peace and limiting negative energy is just necessary. This does not mean I would ignore my feelings if my husband did something to bother me, but it did mean that I could no longer speak without a filter, as I had done for a long time. Taking a step back or a deep breath before you decide to bring up an irritation or perceived wrong can go a long way toward keeping the marital accord.

2. I learned what acceptance means

A corollary to the lesson of picking your battles is the idea that acceptance of your partner’s ways of doing things is essential, and goes a long way toward minimizing conflict. For example, while I thrive on checking things off my to-do list, my husband often completes projects or tasks in a round-about, drawn out way that usually takes a lot longer than if I had just done it myself. If I asked him to put up a piece of artwork in our apartment, for instance, it would get done, but not right away and not without several reminders from me. At first, I would take his slowness and laidback attitude personally—like he didn’t care I wanted something done and would do it in his own sweet time. It really irked me and was the subject of several battles, especially when we bought a house and fought over the length of time it was taking to complete the renovations. But I began to realize that my husband’s way of doing things is just that—how he does things, how he lives and operates in the world. He does not value efficiency as I do, but he does prize doing things well and right, even if that means it takes more time. Sometimes those values compete with each other, but that’s OK. And neither way is right or wrong—they’re just different ways of living. Accepting what’s important to your partner and allowing them to live the way they want to live (so long as it’s not destructive) prevents strife, and is one of the greatest gifts we can give to our partners.

3. Our fights became “cleaner”

I’ll admit it, my husband and I have had some pretty awful fights. The ones that you don’t get over the next day, the biting words of which you carry with you, breeding resentment. Those are the worst kinds of feuds—the ones that linger, and—if left unchecked—can poison your relationship. Once we got married it became more clear to me than ever that these kinds of altercations—the ones that inflict relationship damage—just can’t happen. When we’re angry and hurt, it’s easy to want the other person to feel as bad as we do, especially when we blame our partner for making us feel that way. But in long-term relationships, one of the best things a couple can learn is how to fight “clean”—that is, how to express disagreement without going overboard and causing damage to the relationship. When my husband and I married, I think we both realized the importance of tempering our arguments and not saying things that we would later regret.

4. My notion of “winning” changed

In a marriage or long-term partnership, there is no individual “winning” anymore—you’re now a team, and the happiness of both people is necessary in order for the relationship to work. In the past, I thought that winning meant convincing my husband to do what I wanted to do, or persuading him to see things my way. That’s no longer true, because I found that winning in a relationship often means compromise. My husband and I are very different in certain ways. Take our vacationing styles for example—while I am perfectly content relaxing on the beach with a good book all day, my husband likes to do more cultural activities and explore the surrounding area. In the past, I would try to convince him that because we work so hard in our normal lives, a vacation means time to unwind, not walking around museums. But laying on the beach all day didn’t make him happy, and when your partner is unhappy, that affects the overall health of your union. So now on vacations we do a little bit of what we both like—a few days on the beach, a few days in museums. Instead of fighting against each other, we have embraced our differences, and have learned to navigate them in ways that make us both happy. And while true happiness may lie within one’s self, life is a lot better when your partner is happy too, and making that effort to address their needs will not go unnoticed.