A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, May 10, 2013

Leaning ... toward baking cookies for the office

Photo courtesy of the Breakup Triathlon

A few days ago, a friend of mine brought my attention to an online story highlighting Susan Stamberg's stellar career with National Public Radio.  The article – perhaps inspired by the recent Lean In buzz -- focused on the question of what advice older women would give to their younger selves.  Reader comments were numerous, but my friend enthused that “by far the best comment” was:  “Dear Self: To be taken seriously, dress better and learn earlier how to act like a pro in meetings. Keep your "business face" on in all communications and don't bake for the office.”

When I saw this, I blanched. If this quote offered any indication of the grading scale by which I am measured, I thought, I am not just doing poorly; I am earning an irredeemable F.

Professionalism is not my strong suit. 

Last Sunday, I was standing around in Spandex shorts and a sports bra, drenched, when I spotted someone I knew.  I greeted her by name, my voice only slightly obscured by the huge chunk of honey-oat bagel I was shoving in my mouth. 

She smiled uncertainly – the polite greeting of someone who has no idea who the heck you are, but is much too nice to say so.

“I’m Nancy,” I reminded her.  Was it the raggedly dripping pigtails on either side of my head that threw her off, or was the bare skin of my torso blinding her with its fish-underbelly whiteness?  “I interviewed you for the ACCAP job last week.”  Then I bit off another large hunk of bagel.

Dignity and I are not closely acquainted.  Not ever, not in any context.  But should I, I wondered, be trying a bit harder in the “professional” realm?

Officially, I’m the Network Coordinator at the Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic planning, a climate change research group at the University of Alaska.  Unofficially, the nametag outside my cubicle grants me the title “Head Monkey.”  It was put up about three years ago by a coworker (and friend), as a joke.  It sports a photo of a chimp (which, I of course know as a biologist, is an ape, not a monkey).  It was never taken down. 

I regularly wander around the office in sweatpants, T-shirts left over from college, and bare feet. I make jokes in meetings – and some of them are vaguely risqué.  I sign my emails “N,” call people by their first names regardless of rank, and admit to my collaborative partners at government agencies that my work schedule is dictated by when the school bus comes and goes.  I also (oh, the shame!) wantonly leave apple cake and leftover brownies on the break room table.

Is this really so wrong?  And does it have anything to do with gender?

Well, maybe.  I can’t possibly comment on Lean In, in which Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, exhorts women to strive for the professional pinnacle.  For one thing (note to internet commenters in general – this is kinda a key point with regard to vehement and vituperative editorializing), I haven’t read it.  However, I do know that women are still mired in a wage-gap rut that has barely closed in my lifetime.  ABC news reports that “Women working full-time earned just 80.9 percent of what men earned per week in 2012.”  The Center for American Progress Action Fund puts the figure at 77%.

There's simply no joking about this.  It’s a problem long overdue for a solution, and it pisses me off.  But if I (a PhD-holder and a research professor, for heaven's sake) am not setting myself up to be taken seriously, am I somehow part of the problem?

Ok, I lack dignity, I tell myself defensively, but it doesn’t have anything to do with being a woman.  Besides, I usually have a reason for it.  My semi-nude bagel-consumption was perfectly logical, given that I had just completed a triathlon.  The young woman I’d interviewed – who was, in fact, the top candidate for the job – had done the same.  She was just as damp as I was, and probably just as hungry.  Moreover, there was no clear avenue toward “professionalism” in this soggy context, because I was in the awkward position of not being able to tell her that we were about to offer her the position.  The paperwork hadn’t yet cleared with HR.  (Gods of bureaucracy, I have you in my sights, y’hear?)

Instead, I started a conversation about something I knew she’d relate to.  At her interview, she’d mentioned that she’d been out of the workforce for a short time because she has a two-year-old.  So I talked about small children.  And stomach flu.  That’s right – knowing exactly how much I had in common with this vibrant young scientist, based on her résumé and her interests, I talked about my puking first grader.  And when, a few minutes later, I spotted another post-race coworker in the poolside crowd, we talked about … daycare for her toddler.

I know, I know.  Anyone care for a stereotype with their bagel?  How on earth can I be taken seriously if I don’t know how to “keep my business face on”?  Indeed, many debaters in the wage wars argue that women earn less than men because they choose to do so.  Women pick careers that are less stressful, more flexible, more open to part-time employment, more “female” – so that they can spend more time with family.  On the other hand, others argue that the reason women choose to be the ones to take more time off with kids is because they are being paid less to begin with.  

Either way, was this a choice I made?  And if it was, should I feel defensive about it?  Irascible?  Guilty? What flavor of guilty?

I like chocolate-chip-guilty the best – I always have.  Luckily, when I went back to work on Monday morning, I found that our IT director, wizard of computer hardware and cookies, had left a generous number of the latter in the break room.  He’s a new dad, and working only part time these days, but he still manages to keep up with the software licensing, the network issues, all our terabytes of data storage, and the gooey treats.

As it happened, my boss was home sick that day.  His two little girls had passed on to their daddy the latest horrific chest cold.  Luckily, he got hold of me via email.  Sure, I told him, I could cover the interview he had scheduled with the guy from Switzerland’s public radio.  This sort of thing happens regularly around here, and we always cover for one another.  When the temperature hits forty or fifty below zero, people’s cars get finicky.  There are sudden dental emergencies; sick parents who live on the other side of the map; and ailing dogs.  Once, my boss called me at the last minute to give a presentation for him.  He couldn’t make it in to the office, he explained, because his goat was kidding. 

When the Swiss guy showed up, I was wearing old jeans and a t-shirt, but that was fine, because so was he – and this was a radio interview, after all.  I told him a heck of a lot about climate change science in the far north.  I also told him about the vagaries of living in an environment underlain by thawing discontinuous permafrost.  I described how Jay and I built our cabin.  I described the variety of biomes to be seen in the space of the half-mile walk to the school bus stop.  He asked more questions about those personal aspects of the interview than about anything else.  We called each other by our first names, and I offered him coffee.

Back at my desk, I found an email from our tech lead.  Like me, he’s part of the office’s four-person “management team”.  “A few of us are headed over to HooDoo today after work.  If others would like to join, I'll pitch in for a few pizzas…”  He’d cc’d the entire staff list. 

Well, why not?  If you work in a cool office, then everyone is invited to the local brewing company at the end of the day.

Somewhere between the brewery invitation and the quick dash across the road with the inhabitant of the cubicle next to mine to see if Hotlicks Ice Cream had opened for the season, I decided that the well-meaning advice about how to be taken seriously as a Professional Woman was not so much wrong, as utterly inside-out. 

We don’t need women to dress better.  We don’t need them to “keep their business face on” at the expense of taking time to care for their children -- or their parents, or their dogs, or their goats.  We certainly don’t need them to stop baking chocolate-swirl pound cake with streusel topping.  What we need is for men to do all these things, too.  And at my office, it’s happening.

Yes, it’s important to Get Stuff Done at work.  Yes, sometimes we all need to stop multi-tasking and focus on getting the report written, the documents signed, and the &%$@ paperwork back from HR.  Sometimes it’s even necessary to come in and work a bit of utterly unpaid overtime on the weekend (although if you’re a non-exempt employee you must never, ever admit to this, lest you face dire consequences such as paperwork, and maybe spanking).  Being professional can be important, and I even have a few semi-respectable clothing items to prove it.  But in my opinion, being human is more important than being “professional” – for women and for men.

Being human means having a life that’s complicated, messy, multifaceted, rewarding, funny, and real.  It means juggling the pieces to make them fit as best you can.  When I drop by the office on weekends, I bring along the kids, and let them draw on the one-sided paper supply and make cool stuff out of the cardboard and plastic recycling.  Jay does the same.  No one has ever complained about stray rainbows on the whiteboards.  Being human means passing on our well-worn stroller/bike trailer to the guy down the hall with a new baby, giving the little green pull-wagon and wooden cars to the triathlete with a toddler girl, and donating the itty-bitty moose slippers to whomever snagged them from the break room.  I’m not sure who that was, but there are an awful lot of small people to choose from.  And if the coworker who asks me for breast-feeding advice when we run into each other at the coffee pot is male, I’m not in the least bit surprised.

Of course, even as I paint this rosy picture, I know I’m incredibly lucky.  I work thirty hours per week.  So does Jay.  We use the extra time to hang out with our kids, take part in ludicrous outdoor adventures, and (upon occasion) bake stuff.  We choose to live an inexpensive lifestyle, but we’re also immensely fortunate to have the skills, the degrees, and the jobs required to make this workable.  Most people don’t.

This brings me back to that wage gap, and all the politics and social injustice that go with it – a hydra of a problem if ever there was one.  The United States is woefully backward with regard to affordable childcare, healthcare coverage (particularly for part time workers) and wage gaps not only between males and females, but also between CEOs and workers.  I could rant about this for pages (or for hours, depending on whether you like to take your rants visually or aurally) but that would be, as I’ve been noting in fifty different spots on the spreadsheet-du-jour, “Outside the scope of this project.”

I will add, however, one salient postscript.  In the ABC article I perused, Ariane Hegewisch of the Institute for Women's Policy Research notes that “there may also be some reluctance to hire women for high-powered, lucrative jobs when there is the chance that they may take time off in the future to have children.” 

Our top candidate for that ACCAP job – the mother of the two-year-old – mentioned in the course of the interview that she plans to have another child. 

Well, excellent.  When she does, maybe someone will have an extra car seat or a pair of moose slippers to pass on to her.  It will be easy to find her -- because yesterday the Bureaucracy Gods reached down from on high and gave us the green light.

Welcome, New Person.  I’m the Head Monkey; feel free to ask me whatever you’d like.  There are muffins on the counter.  I hear you enjoy triathlons…

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