Monday, January 25, 2010

Math anxiety and career anxiety

The National Academies of Science came out with a study today that shows that math anxiety in girls can be catching -- and they get it from their female teachers. The study shows that many female elementary school teachers are anxious about their math skills and may pass of the idea to girl students that girls are worse at math than boys.

The researchers at the University of Chicago assessed the level of math anxiety in female math teachers, and then looked at math achievement amoung the boy and girl students in the teacher's class. When the school year started, the boys' and girls' math achievement scores were not related to their teachers feelings about math. But at the end of the year, girls who thought boys were better at math did worse than the girls that didn't believe this. They did not show an impact on the boys.

I wonder if something like this is happening in women in the workplace when they first start their careers. If the other females in the work environment believe that it is impossible for them to do a good job at work and at home, then the younger females may start doubting their ability to do everything. And they start doubting their abilities before they even start getting married and having children. So it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

I remember when I first started working as a lawyer and there was only 1 female partner at the firm. There was story going around that her daughter had told her that she wanted to be a client, because clients came first. This story, true or not, was completely demoralizing to all of the young female associates. And many left, including me, because of the lack of confident role models.

Instead, it is really important for women who are working to model confidence and show everyone. the men and women in the office, they can do it. Just like the young girls learning math, I think this can make a big difference.

By Sharon Meers

Monday, January 18, 2010

Inclusion: The Next Frontier of Freedom

My daughter came home from kindergarten reciting “I Have A Dream” so we decided to watch the YouTube. Her 8-year old brother Max furrowed his brow as MLK talked about the day to day ugliness of racism. “What kind of people could be like that?” Max wanted to know. We’ve talked about the horrors of slavery, the brave people who stood against it and the segregation that followed. “It’s all better now, right mom?” Humm.

Is it a sign of progress that my kids can think this chapter of history-gone-wrong is anything near corrected? Maybe. But with so much more work to do, I’m thinking it’s better to focus my kids (and myself) on the question of “what kind of people” hinder or help progress toward equality in all its dimensions. I’ve spent a lot of the last year talking about exclusion of a different kind -- the kind that keeps men and women from getting on the same page and building a better world.

Beyond moral considerations, less homogeneous work groups are better for economic reasons: they’re more productive and allow us to more effectively solve problems in everything from science to business to government. Pushing talented people away because they are different costs a lot. And skin-tone-based exclusion presents particularly weighty examples.

I have only 2nd hand exposure to the black experience, but as one of many ethnically-ambiguous Americans, I’ve had some run-ins that make me marvel at how much effort it takes to reverse the impulse to exclude.

At a holiday party a year ago, my husband and I were approached by a friend. “Who’s the rag-head posing with Max in your Christmas card?” he wanted to know. With a frozen smile, my husband explained. “You know, Sharon’s half Indian -- and we were in India a lot this year.” The friend, well-educated and generally kind, looked thunderstruck. Turning swiftly to me, he said “Oh! I didn’t know…I didn’t mean.. I was just joking about the turban!” I said nothing. I like the guy, he felt bad, could I really re-set his thinking with some quip I’m too slow to think of?

Visiting South Carolina as a kid, I was walking through a store with my very tanned sister. A woman looked at her quizzically for a few moments and then approached, “Excuse me miss, but are you black or are you white?” My sister, still in grammar school, had the most accurate response I’ve ever heard: “I don’t know.”

The fact is, even the folks who came here on the Mayflower really don’t know their roots back beyond a few hundred years. Yet today, we base so much identity on the fallacy that we do know.
Time magazine explained recently that that John Smith, the leader who opened Jamestown to slavery, had himself been a slave. As a young man, Smith was a mercenary fighting on the edge of the Ottoman Empire and ended up as the chattel of a Turk (he escaped by killing his master).

It may be natural for humans to see ourselves as different and better than others, to use this as a rationalization for taking things (land, food, power). But as I learned from my favorite evolutionary biologist, “What is natural is not necessarily good.” And we all benefit by acknowledging our lesser urges and getting them better under control.

So how do we do that?

Here’s what I’m trying out. In honor of MLK day, I took the Implicit Association Test, an invention of the Harvard psych department popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. The test shows us how our implicit attitudes -- attitudes we inhale from the environment we live in -- impact how quickly we can connect certain ideas. According to the test, I am moderately biased about skin tone and gender too. (Research says most Americans -- whether black or white, male or female -- show socially-conditioned bias, associating good things more quickly with light faces and career/power with men).

One point of the IAT research is that it takes a lot of active effort to put instinctive assumptions in check. (E.G. if you surround yourself with photos of female scientists, you may less often picture a man when you hear the word “physicist.”). So having taken the IAT, I have to ask myself what active effort I am making to alter the environmental inputs that shape how I think -- and how my kids think too.

I’ve also been reading the current advice on the bullying -- the schoolyard version of exclusion. Bullies get their power from bystanders who don’t intervene, who passively condone the mistreatment. Instead, experts say, we should train our kids to break that power in gentle ways. When actions or words exclude others, our impulse should be to neutralize the bully (“thanks for sharing”) and include the excluded (“come sit with us”). Not turn away. Can we train ourselves to do this as adults?

I hope I’ll think of the brilliant retort -- humorous, mind-changing -- to the next odd comment on turbans. Or do more than raise my eyebrows when someone tells me how one group of people is inherently “different” in X or Y way. But mostly I hope it will become more common to talk about how much effort it takes to kick the habit of exclusion -- so it’s easier for all of us to be the kind of people who choose words that include, who extend a hand. So please chime in with your thoughts (clever comebacks welcome too).

By Sharon Meers

Sunday, January 10, 2010

It's not so complicated- communicate more, assume less

As I resolve to be a better person in 2010, I think about a poignant bit of paternal wisdom -- one I received from my dad via his holiday letter. My father, a retired shrink, is now 82 and closed out 2009 by shipping 1400 pounds of psychiatric texts to an institute in Beijing. Packing up this weighty load, my dad reflected on his professional lifetime and felt inspired to update his resume. My father’s CV now lists 25 pages of journal articles “documenting for the family what he did when he wishes he had been home with the kids.” I choked up a little as I read this -- because I know my dad really feels this (though I’ve told him many times that I can’t think of another guy born in 1927 who was a more engaged parent.)

I’m sure we all have male relatives (maybe a few female ones) who enjoyed full professional lives and later regret how they spent their time. At 44 and at mid-career, I know it’s dangerous for me to hope I can wend a better way -- but I do hope that. Talking this week about our book, two sets of people questioned whether you can hear the siren song of work success without betraying your family in some way. A group of young women asked me my views about female CEOs who ended up with divorce or troubled kids. Then a man in his late 40s approached me, he told me how he’d built a couple successful companies but that his marriage had ended. As we talked, he struck me as a guy with a very good heart who had simply missed cues that his wife was drifting away.

It can seem that success-versus-happy-family is an inevitable trade off. Being really good at your job can feel all-consuming. Being engaged as a spouse or parent takes a lot of time too. So yes, fitting work and family into 24 hours per day is challenging -- but I think the bigger issue is how we communicate. Research says hours are only the culprit at the extreme (one study we discuss in Getting to 50/50, shows IBM moms/dads with the lowest career-family stress work 50+ hours per week -- but get home for dinner). Studies also say that mindset makes all the difference: When men and women see their roles as more similar than different, they communicate their work/life conflict down a lot -- husbands and wives helping each other focus on what matters and learning to triage lesser things out of life (shrinking two days out of the 5-day business trip, agreeing that kids will be fine with one less activity -- and the carpooling required).

But most insightful book on modern marriage I read this year was not research-based, it was fiction. Lady of the Snakes, by Rachel Pastan, is a beautiful exploration how family life and ambition either blend or combust in our generation. Just how much passion can we have for our work without harming the people we love?

The heroine, a young professor named Jane, has a toddler, a tenure clock and a husband competing for her time. She also has a womanizing old professor as a nemesis and peers who think great work is done only by great minds freed of family. Jane resists this view but struggles to find her own middle ground. As she races against her corrupt rival to solve a historical mystery, Jane scrambles to manage the endless string of parenting tasks with her increasingly distant spouse. In her state of distraction, Jane leaves on a business trip without a functioning cell phone – on the day her child is rushed to the ER, unable to breathe.

Like many harried young parents, Jane and her husband don’t agree on standards for their family life – dinner, daycare, OR time for work. They stop communicating. They make unhelpful assumptions about each other. They almost split. What saves them? Escape from the either/or worldview. Jane solves the mystery, discovering that a landmark piece of literature (previously attributed to a man) is, in fact, the work of a beleaguered mother. Jane’s husband learns to voice what he needs more precisely -- learning that clarity about what’s important lets work and family more happily co-exist. He tells Jane that he just needs two things from her: He wants his old wife back, the one who wasn’t tormented by a “black cloud” of overwhelmed-ness -- and he wants her to loosen up about domestic duties (anxieties that feed the cloud). Jane’s husband tells her he really doesn’t mind if she’s work-obsessed now and then. (For examples of how candor and communication help marriage--Merryl Streep's, yours and mine- please see our piece in today's The Huffington Post.

Last weekend, my spouse sounded like Jane’s. Out for a rare date night, my husband Steve asked me how I felt about last year and what I hoped to accomplish as I jump back into corporate work. With wine-liberated abandon, I told Steve what I’d like to do with the next decades of my life -- and I was relieved to see two things. First, that I sounded as wild-eyed and energized as I did when I started my first job -- despite having learned the hard way that every climb is more difficult than it looks. Second, that Steve enjoys my ambition. I just need to keep Jane’s lesson in mind: That when your work heats up, when things get frustrating at home -- that’s exactly the time to talk more (and not less) with the people you love.

By Sharon Meers