When Your Woman Card Isn’t Working Right

My computer science husband sent me this link recently: “I had so many advantages, and I barely made it”: Pinterest engineer on Silicon Valley sexism.

How can an article be so unsurprising, yet so wholly dispiriting at the same time?

The author describes her early career in computer science, but the dynamics are common in many male-dominated fields:

At Stanford, I took two introductory computer science classes. I soon became convinced that I was much too behind my male classmates to ever catch up.

…My classmates bragged about finishing assignments in three hours. Listening to them chat, I felt mortified: the same work had taken me 15 hours of anguish at the keyboard to complete. They are quantifiably five times better than I am, I told myself.

So she was shocked when the professor asked her to TA the class. She agreed with great trepidation. But then she started grading the same assignments she’d previously found intimidating–and was shocked: the braggarts were not five times more competent. In fact, their work wasn’t nearly as good. There was a disconnect between the men’s level of confidence and their actual output.

The so-called “confidence gap” between men and women has gotten a lot of airplay lately. This confidence drops off among girls in the middle school years, especially in technical subjects — and we’re seeing a bit of that in our own household.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement grows out of the awareness that women underplay their abilities relative to men, for a variety of reasons. It’s been famously reported that men will apply for a job when the meet only 60% of the criteria, whereas women only tend to apply if they are a 100% fit. Women are also reticent to negotiate higher salaries for themselves.

This disparity has bothered me for a long time, though probably not in the way you think. I agree with the diagnosis, but not the prescription. Too often–that is, almost 100% of the time–the problem is framed as a deficiency for the women, a character flaw that the women must fix somehow. Women need to lean in! Be confident! Fake it ’til you make it!

OK. I can accept that. And what about the men? Where is their need for change?

Take the example of the men who bragged about completing the programming assignment in three hours. At best, their bragging shows a startling lack of self awareness of their own competence. At worst, these men are aware of their limitations and are outright lying to cement their status in the pecking order. How messed up is that?

So sure, maybe women have some work to do to feel empowered to apply for jobs even if they don’t meet every last qualification. But we should also be teaching men to do an honest self-assessment of their gifts and skills. Is applying for a job when you only meet a little more than half the qualifications a good thing? Is that something I’m supposed to aspire to?

Sometimes it works out, I suppose. Other times you end up with a grossly underqualified [man] in the job, whose primary gift is the art of bulls***ting. (Hey, they call it the Peter Principle, not the Patricia Principle!)

And yes, there’s a certain amount of “fake it ’til you make it” required to get along in the world. But shouldn’t we be critiquing a culture in which men are socialized to misrepresent themselves in order to gain status? Why is it the women who must do the changing, adjusting, and conforming?

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 7.19.41 PM“If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, maybe there wouldn’t have been a global financial crisis.” Many have quipped this, and at least one person has asserted it in all seriousness. I believe strongly in increasing women’s presence in historically underrepresented fields. And that representation will bring its own cultural shifts. But I grow weary of the framing that women must contort themselves to the default (male).

Meanwhile we have Donald Trump saying that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t get 5% of the vote if she were a man. Yes, many of us are excited at breaking that highest glass ceiling. But it’s cute that the Donald thinks Clinton’s gender is a net positive to the tune of 50 percentage points in the presidential race.

As Sady Doyle argued a few months ago, “America loves women like Hillary Clinton–as long as they’re not asking for a promotion.” Clinton’s approval ratings as First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State were quite high. She’s consistently ranked one of the most admired women in the world. But now that she’s asking for our presidential votes, her disapproval ratings have predictably increased.

Setting aside the particularities of Hillary Clinton, the broader point stands: we judge women harshly when they come across as too assertive. What’s going to change that dynamic? Women getting better at the game? Frankly, I doubt it. What’s going to change the dynamic is men learning skills in collaboration, self-awareness, and authenticity. Once the typical corporate alpha male ceases to be the default marker of success, we’ll see real change.

What’s Saving Your Life Lately?

When I send out my twice-monthly-ish emails to subscribers, I usually close with the question, What’s saving your life lately? (Thanks for the question, Barbara Brown Taylor.)

And I love when people reply with their answers… everything from “finally feeling more human after my son’s death” to “working at a rescue shelter for cats.”

Here’s my current list, at varying levels of grandiosity. (Small things can save your life, right?)

The West Wing Weekly podcast. Nerd comfort food.

The book Challenger Deep, an excruciating but gratifying read about a young man with mental illness. Such reverence. Such

Last weekend’s run at Great Falls:

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Loved ones who forgive me readily when I screw up. Bonus when those loved ones are my children.

MyFitnessPal, my constant companion to help me make better nutritional choices.

Getting the summer camp schedule mostly locked down for the kids.

The Hamilton soundtrack–the multi-layered gift that keeps giving.

A week in which the writing flowed, aka lots of sh***y first drafts.

Kitties who jump five feet in the air when birds visit our patio bird feeder. I’d say they jump in vain, but it entertains us, so they’re earning their keep around here.

Swimming, then biking, then running, for the first time in rapid succession, in anticipation of a triathlon in two weeks.

What’s saving your life?

Monday Runday: On Being a Family of Runners

James is doing a running challenge with me, in which we’re running 26.2 miles over the next 8 weeks. It’s been astounding how dedicated he’s been to this task.

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Thanks to Facebook memories, I’m recalling that three years ago, I took the girls through Couch to 5K, two years after going through it myself. Since then, each girl has participated in Girls on the Run and assorted races here and there.

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Robert also runs, although he’s currently sidelined with a cranky Achilles.

Somehow, over time, we became a family of runners. 

I’m tempted sometimes to enroll my kids in club running activities–recreational track or cross country or somesuch. It’s startling how easily that thought jumps into my head. My kids enjoy this, therefore they should do it in an organized way. It’s what we do as parents. A kid’s interested in the guitar? We get them private lessons. They like to do art? Sign them up for pottery camp. They want to learn tennis? We find a league to join. At least where I live, that’s an implicit or explicit responsibility of a parent. We nurture through providing opportunities. And as the mother of a kid on the swim team told me a few years ago, it’s never too early to think about a child’s college application. (Her kids were in elementary school.)

Certainly there are benefits to team sports–a good coach can be one of those inspiring childhood influences that impacts a person’s whole life. And while running is an activity that we most of us learn to do naturally as children, there’s always stuff to learn. Still, I’m trying to resist the impulse to formalize this interest of theirs. Kids today are continually evaluated, graded, scantronned, judged and compared. Not with this. This is our limit.

Part of that comes down to money and time–there’s only so many enrollment fees we can handle, and only so much carting around we’re willing to do. (I have a friend who calls this phase of parenting “Carpool.”) But on a broader level, I want my kids to have something they can do purely for the joy of it. They can set goals, or not. They can strive to improve, or not. It’s entirely up to them.

And they’re teaching me a lot. I realize, as I continue to claw my way back from last fall’s injury, how easily I’d fallen into a mode of improvement and incessant goal-setting. This is painful to admit about myself, though will surprise nobody who knows me. (My friend J took a personality inventory that suggested she stop thinking about life as one big self-improvement project, and she was incredulous: “What else would it be???” Oh, my sister.)

And so, this is a new touchstone for me:

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My hopes and dreams are to be able to run for my entire life, to stay healthy and injury-free, to get an occasional PR through smart training, and to have a spirit of adventure in what I do.

When James runs, he says, “Look how fast I am!!!” I suspect if he joined a kids’ running team he would discover that, comparatively speaking, he isn’t fast. That’s the McKibben/Dana genetic lottery at work, and there’s only so much you can do to overcome that.

But at the end of our runs together, when the house is in sight, he turns to me, waiting for the signal. I say, “Now, James, turn on the gas!” and he does, leaving his mother in the dust… busting through whatever 8-year-old hopes and dreams he has, scattering them like leaves in the wind.

The Awkwardness of Improv: Links and Update

The following message went out to my email list this morning. Click here to subscribe.

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Hello friends!

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That’s me at the Petersburg Half Marathon last weekend, keeping an eye out for the finish line.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve sent a message to you all. ‘Tis the season… for kid performances, lots of speaking engagements, and a good bit of writing… and I also managed to fit in a half marathon too. But I’ve missed our twice-monthly dispatches, and will be getting back to a regular schedule this spring and summer.

Work has been ramping up on my next book, Improvising with God, with a September due date for the manuscript. Yikes! But it’s been a blast to write, and is some of the most energizing work I’ve done so far.

It’s also really hard work. As much as I’m intrigued by improvisation, especially as a way of approaching life, it doesn’t come easily to me. I like having a script and a plan. The improv classes I’m taking are tiring for this borderline introvert. Every Monday morning I have to steel myself to go. I’m in level 2, which means I’m still a beginner, but just experienced enough to know what I don’t know. That’s a painful place to be, full of missteps and embarrassing silences in which my mind feels like it’s gone completely blank.

But the other side is this: I feel energized in class (though gangly as all get out!) and I never regret going. I always learn something about myself and this improvisation we call life. In improv, we don’t talk about mistakes, but rather opportunities: opportunities to learn, opportunities to turn a scene around through saying “Yes-And.”

In other words, I’m right here:

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So… onward!

Here are a few things that have been inspiring me lately… all of which have an eye toward improv:

A Much Better View of the Moon (song)
This is a song I’ve loved for years, and I was reminded of it while working on a chapter of the book today. Sit tight through the goofy intro. Lovely lyrics and sweet harmonies from George Wurzbach and the rest of Modern Man.

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Improv your life: How freeform comedy makes you a better person (article)
People think improvisation is about being clever or funny, but it’s really about paying attention. And couldn’t we use more listening in our world?

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A Lovely Spring Day (poem)

Here, Steve Garnaas-Holmes of Unfolding Light shares a poem about spring, and about a world of infinite possibility:

…Life is this, not something else.
Pay attention.
Even God does not yet know
what’s in store before unfolding in it.

Tightrope image is from OakOak, a public artist who uses urban landscapes to create whimsical images. A great example of Yes-And.

Book Two in Process!

This message went out to my email list this morning. Click here if you’d like to subscribe.

I’ve been working for the past few months on a proposal for my second book. Of all the things I’ve written recently, it’s given me the most energy. I’ve had a blast working on it.

I’m happy to say that the folks at William B. Eerdmans caught the enthusiasm too. Tentatively titled Improvising with God, the book will explore improv as a spiritual practice and a metaphor for our lives. The manuscript is due in September (yikes!), with a release date in 2017.

Here’s a bit of the proposal:

In recent years, actors such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Stephen Colbert have written and spoken about improvisation and its impact on their work. The cardinal rule of improv is to say “Yes-and” on stage—to accept what is offered by your co-actors and build on it. As Colbert explains in a 2006 commencement address to Knox College: “They say you’re doctors, you’re doctors. And then you build on it: ‘We’re doctors, and we’re trapped in an ice cave.’” In this way, improv becomes a process of mutual discovery. Neither person is in control, but nor are they passive. Improv is an active, intuitive process.

The principle of “Yes-and” can produce great entertainment, as the success of improv programs such as Whose Line Is It Anyway? can attest. But it’s also an invigorating approach to life in general, and the spiritual life in particular. Some of the basic questions of faith include “Where is God? How do I understand God’s work in the world? How am I called to participate in that work?” As I study scripture and engage in my work as a pastor and spiritual leader—and as a seeker myself—the answers that make the best sense to me are grounded in improv.

From Moses to Ruth to Jesus, scripture is full of people saying “Yes-and,” pivoting in unexpected directions, and making the most of difficult or even devastating circumstances. Even God seems to work improvisationally—experimenting, changing God’s mind, and working in partnership with God’s people to bring about the “Yes-and” that’s at the heart of improv—and also the gospel. This book will explore these ideas in depth and provide concrete spiritual exercises to help people live a more awake, creative, improvisational life.

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This book is not about learning the craft of improv so you can get on stage and make people laugh.

It’s about what you do when your life turns out very differently than the plan.

It’s for the parents whose young son gets hit with a dire medical diagnosis out of nowhere.

It’s for the woman whose husband informs her after 35 years of marriage that it’s over.
Or for the person who marries late in life, having never expected to find a life partner.

It’s for the college student trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life when he doesn’t get into law school—or when he does.

But it’s also for people facing the small decisions we make everyday: What deserves my time and attention today? How can I make the most of limited time, energy and resources? What does a life of “faithful flow” look like?

This is really a book for all of us, especially those of us who like to hold on to every bit of control we can, even when that control is an illusion or gets in our way. (I’ve thought about calling the book Improv for Control Freaks.) While planning certainly has its place, often life calls us to deeper work—to open our eyes to the world as it is, embrace it (which isn’t always the same as liking it), and build on it.

When I submitted the proposal to Eerdmans in January, I wrote, “I’m so excited about this book and can’t wait to continue working on it. I hope it’ll be with you guys, but if not, this book has a life of its own and is demanding that I write it.”

That’s a great feeling, and I can’t wait to share it with you.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, and for being along this journey with me.

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Image is a photo of an improv quilt by Eli Leon, photographed by Sherri Lynn Wood and used under a creative commons license. For more about Eli’s work, click here.