Rejecting the Idea that “I Didn’t Get Into This for the Math”

Innumeracy pisses me off.

People never say “I can’t read!” But many will say “I can’t do math!”

Ridiculous. Of course you can do math. And if you practice, you can get better at it.

I used to be one of those people who avoided math. I struggled with math as a kid, and I was led to believe that math was hard for me because I was a girl. Other parents who watched their daughter sob over arithmetic at the kitchen table might have helped, might have hired a tutor, might have called the teacher to see what was going on. My parents didn’t care. They didn’t think anyone needed math beyond the ability to calculate a restaurant tip or estimate a grocery bill. And so I suffered at the kitchen table, math book open, for years.

My school system grouped students according to their general “smartness” – the smartest kids in the “red” group, middle kids in a “white” group and the dumbest kids in the “blue” group. (Can you tell I grew up the 70s?) These groups never mixed. I was in “red” because I was really great at reading, writing, social studies, science and everything else but math. I got pushed along with the rest of the “reds” through elementary school and was grouped into a similar system in middle school.

Things fell apart in high school. My struggles overwhelmed me and I got a C’s and even one D in Algebra II sophomore year. I had thought about studying medicine as a kid, but I knew you needed great math to be a doctor, so I shelved that ambition and focused instead on what I was good at – writing and reading.

Instead of continuing with the “red” crowd into Trigonometry and Calculus, junior year I downshifted into a remedial math class. I wanted to study what was on the SATs (a college entrance exam) so I could get a decent score and get into a decent college. The remedial class basically drilled you on the SATs – you know, “volume of a cone,” simple algebra, and crap like that. In higher math, I was destined for more C’s and D’s, but in this class I stood a chance. My guidance counselor told me this class would mar my transcripts for college, but I didn’t care. I was cutting my losses. Besides, I thought, I really want to learn this stuff.

To my amazement, I did well. The teacher was great and something just clicked in my head. Math was a lot easier for me after that. I actually got 10 points more on the math than the verbal part of the SAT. I really enjoyed physics. Who would have thought?

I use math all the time on the job. As a journalist, I cut a niche beat for myself in data-heavy analytics. When I joined the business world, I learned how to read companies’ earnings reports. I deal with statistics every day.

I also practice all the time. If you want to get better at math, you need to flex your muscles. Here are some ideas to help you:

  • Calculate tips in your head. This is very easy! You do not need a calculator! Let’s say your bill comes to $82.50 before tax, and you want to leave a 15% tip:
    • 10% of $82.50 is $8.25 (just move over the decimal one place).
    • 15% is just 10% plus 5%. So cut the $8.25 in half ($4.13) and add it to the $8.25 = $12.38. I usually round up to the next dollar, so leave that waitress $13!
    • If you want to leave 20%, just double the 10% = $16.50!
  • Estimate your grocery bill. (This would make my parents proud, anyway.) Just an estimate is OK:
    • Weigh your produce and other items weighed at checkout (there’s usually a basic scale nearby) and estimate the cost. If those tomatoes are $2.99 a pound and you’re buying 2.5 pounds, that’s $7.50 for tomatoes!
    • As you shop, keep a running tally in your head of everything you buy. Bread, eggs, milk, etc.
    • Subtract any coupons or special sale prices offered at the register.
    • See how close your estimate gets to the actual tally.
    • BONUS ROUND: If your estimate is off, it might not be you. Maybe an item rang up incorrectly. I have saved myself many dollars over the year by knowing about what I should pay and spotting errors on the receipt.
  • Calculate sales taxes. Taxes vary depending on where you live. If you don’t know what your standard sales tax is, find out. Whenever you go shopping, calculate that sales tax in your head based on what you’re buying. For example:
    • A $50 shirt, $20 belt and $80 pair of jeans = $150.00 worth of stuff.
    • Let’s say your sales tax for clothing is 7%. You can calculate this the same basic way you did for tips, or make it easier by adding the tax up in 1% increments.
    • 1% of $150.00 – $1.50 (move over the decimal two places). $1.50 times 7 = $10.50. That’s 7%!
    • If you like to work with even numbers, maybe think of it this way: $1.50 + $1.50 = $3 – that’s 2%. Do this twice more, for $9 (that’s 6%) And add that last 1% for $10.50.
    • Add the stuff and the tax. Total you owe for fashion = $160.50.
  • Calculate the true cost of sales items. Lots of times a sale will offer, say, 30% off the full price of an item, and then you might have a coupon for an extra 10% off. You can’t just add those two discounts together to get 40% off. Many people try to do this. They are wrong. The store is going to take the 30% off the full price first, then take 10% off of the discounted price. Sneaky, eh?
    • Let’s take our $150 clothes example from above. If the items were 40% off, the discount would be $60 and the items would cost $90.
    • The real way discounts happen, it looks like this: 30% off of $150 is a discount of $45, so the items would cost $105. Then an additional discount of 10% would equal only $10.50. So you’d pay a total discounted price of $94.50. Still a deal, but a bit more than you might have thought if you hadn’t done the math!
    • BONUS ROUND: Calculate the tax!

I could go on and on. Try it! Exercise those math muscles! The world runs on math. A basic competency will get you far in life – beyond just knowing how much to leave the waiter, you’ll understand the true cost of mortgaging your house, or paying off a car loan, or figuring out a savings plan.

 

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Five Years Ago I “Leaned In”

Five years ago, I found myself at a crisis point in my career. I was feeling restless and dissatisfied. I vaguely felt underpaid and underappreciated, in a male-dominated industry and company. While I had been successful,  I was stuck.  I didn’t know how to move forward, nor did I have the energy or courage to move. I had started looking for my next opportunity, but without any firm direction or goal.

I read “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg shortly after it published, five years ago this week. So had a couple of work friends. We each invited five women to be part of a “Lean In Circle” at the office, to follow up on the book’s advice. A group of about 15 women met for two hours every other month to work through the program and support one another.

“Lean In” changed my life. Today, I am at a much bigger and more prominent company, in a bigger job, with more pay, responsibility, challenge and energy. “Lean In” didn’t do this alone for me, but it pushed me out of my comfort zone, jump-started my career and opened my mind to what was possible.

A lot of people like to disparage “Lean In.” I wonder, did they actually read the book? They complain that Sheryl Sandberg approached the topic from a place of extraordinary prestige, wealth and privilege, as a Harvard graduate and COO of Facebook. Yes, she did. So what? I don’t understand how that invalidates what she has to say, as if the only “legitimate” women’s viewpoint on careers has to come from some hardscrabble perspective. And I really don’t understand why a “women attacking other women” viewpoint in op-eds and blogs is somehow more valid. There is a special place in hell reserved for successful women who don’t help other women succeed.

Here are several real-world examples coming from me, who came from a hardscrabble background, of how “Lean In” opened my eyes and helped me move forward:

Sexism: My manager at my old job was an older British man. I liked him and we got along well. But he did three things that really bothered me:

  • He insisted I get a mentor.
  • He socialized after work only with other men on our team. Me and other women were never invited.
  • He said that me and another woman I worked on a project with lacked “gravitas” to present our project findings on the big stage at a department-wide offsite, so he recruited a man to present with us.

At the time, I didn’t see these things as sexist, but “Lean In” opened my eyes:

  • Sheryl Sandberg wrote a lot about and how older people are always encouraging young women to get mentors. This push makes young women feel inadequate and forces them into artificial relationships with senior people who… you guessed it… make them feel even more inadequate. Mentors can be wonderful, but such a close relationship must develop organically.
  • By not being invited to after-work events, I missed out on valuable face time with the boss.  The men had better relationships and more insight into what the boss was doing and thinking.
  • “Gravitas” is a fancy way of saying “you won’t be taken seriously.” The man who my boss pushed into the project ended up doing some harm to it because he had to throw his dick around.

Equal Pay: I pushed for better pay when I joined the company, but I was told “this is our offer, not up for negotiation.” I was getting paid more than at my last job and this was a big opportunity, so I accepted it. Once I got promoted into management, I got a small raise because it was in the middle of the budget year, with a vague promise I’d get more later. I wasn’t happy, but I was naive enough to trust the system. Then two things happened:

  • I realized that most of the men who reported to me made more than me, and the lone woman on the team with equal experience to the men and at a higher position made even less. My complaints got me nowhere. I was never made whole and each year I sank a bit further back in pay equality because new people were brought in at higher salaries.
  • I was a top performer and earned raises and bonuses regularly, but I still was underpaid. I earned about 85% of what peers from the “Lean In Circle” earned. And they were underpaid compared to men in similar positions.

“Lean In” opened my eyes:

  • I didn’t understand how compensation works. If you are underpaid today, you will always be underpaid. The compensation system is rigged against you and no one will fix it.
  • If you want to be paid more, you need to know your value and negotiate hard. I learned how to negotiate and how to calculate my value to get better pay and other perks at my new job.

Taking Risks: I am by nature rather risk-averse. I don’t seek thrills or take many chances in life. “Lean In” made me realize I was too comfortable where I was, not challenged enough or interested enough to find fulfillment at my job. I noticed a few things:

  • My job was in a female ghetto – an operational role that was viewed as a cost center, not revenue-generating or otherwise contributing much to the bottom line. My boss took another job and I had a new female boss, who in turn reported to a woman, “Big Boss,” who was one of only two women leading our entire division. Only human resources had a higher proportion of women than our group did. Men made the decisions, and we women (for the most part) executed them.
  • Women at my level within this group were moved around like chess pieces to satisfy whatever demand at the moment fell on Big Boss’s ears. These lateral moves were good for gaining experience, but they never seemed to lead to promotions or big opportunities, rather just putting out fires and shoring up crumbling walls. Some women had been at these types of tasks for 5 to 10 years! Strategic decisions came from a higher level they didn’t penetrate.

Because of “Lean In” I realized I needed to take chances in my career. The longer I stayed where I was, the harder it would be to move. There was a reorganization and Big Boss wanted me to take one of these lateral-move jobs. I had a meeting with her, where I laid my cards on the table and told her flatly what I wanted. She said no. So I left. I never would have had the courage to do this without “Lean In.”

Leaning In at Home: Sheryl Sandberg inspired the most vitriol with her insights into how to manage a work-life balance. Such a powerful and big earner of course could have endless nannies, maids, assistants and other helpers. She didn’t understand the struggles of single mothers, or of women whose partners also have demanding jobs and are unwilling or unable to take on more responsibilities at home. This is a valid criticism.  And Sandberg herself viewed these challenges through a different lens when her husband suddenly died a few years ago. Also, I don’t have kids, so I can’t comment on the working mother dynamic. But this doesn’t mean that all of Sandberg’s ideas are bullshit.

  • Just like at work, at home you also have to ask for what you want. Your partner and kids won’t read your mind.
  • Your husband needs to be an equal partner, or you will tote around resentment along with all the housework, shopping, cooking and child care responsibilities. If he won’t meet you halfway before you’re married, you have no hope after you’re married.
  • Don’t put your career on hold because you might get married, might have kids, or might have to care for aging parents. Do what you need to do at work. If personal life throws curveballs later on, deal with them then.

When I took my new job, which has a long commute and longer hours, I told my husband that he must take on some responsibilities at home, such as making dinner two or three nights a week (including cleaning up after), vacuuming, paying some bills and shopping for groceries as needed. He doesn’t like it, but he does it, and he acknowledges it’s fair. “Lean In” helped me craft these discussions with my husband, to get to a satisfactory agreement.

What’s next?

I think I will reread “Lean In” this month to see what else I could learn or other places where I disagree with Sandberg. I also wonder what other women think. Have you read the book? Did it help you?

A Year of Reading Books by Women

My rekindled feminism, brought to a blaze in my disgust over Trump’s election, hit my Kindle reader right away. I resolved to read only books by women in 2017. I read 14 books in all, 13 by women, one book by a man and some short stories by women and men.

I started the year by rereading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I read it first in high school (25 years ago, but who’s counting), so I wondered if it would pack the same punch. It did, even more so as I imagined how many of our right wing lunatic political leaders would love a United States where the rule of law is gone and instead the government runs on biblical bullshit.

After that, I needed some escapism, so I read books 6, 7 and 8 the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. These books are, frankly, not that good. I got into them last year because of the TV series, and I got in to the TV series because of the fabulous period costuming by Terry Dresbach. The first three books are good, the fourth is OK, and then they go downhill – recycled plots, little character development, way too many inconsequential actions. I stuck with them because I expected a big payoff in Book 8 and it was only “meh.” It kept me a little entertained during my 15-hour flights to India, anyway.

I needed reality after that fantasy binge, so I read “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron.  Diana Gabaldon’s experience writing the Outlander books also fueled this interest. I have always wanted to write fiction but I have not succeeded for various reasons (here and here if you want to know more).

Then I read another series a friend had recommended, The Giver books by Lois Lowry. The dystopias Lowry created are similar to Atwood’s in some respects – in one society, a group of young women is judged by its ability to have babies. These are young-adult novels and not really my speed either, but I feel that I learned something from them about how our desires to protect ourselves from pain and harm may leave us feeling nothing, which is worse. They were good summer reads anyway.

At this point, I was reminded of some short stories I read by Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. I reread a few of them that had influenced me as a young woman. I never felt that I wanted to have children, yet all women I knew except for one great-aunt had children. Her stories confirmed for me that it was OK to have a childless life.

My next book was “Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners”  by Therese Oneill. A blogger I like had recommended it. It was very laugh-out-loud funny in places and pretty gross in other places. I later read a female historian’s account of all the ways the book is wrong. Entertaining – both points of view.

My last summer read was “The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messaud. This was my favorite fiction book of the year. It followed on the themes from The Artist’s Way – the protagonist is a frustrated artist who finds her muse, only to be betrayed. Messaud is a hell of a gifted writer and I am planning to read more from her in 2018.

I realized at some point that I’d read only books by white women so far in 2017 and I had wanted to continue my efforts to read more African American women, so I read “Strategize to Win” by Carla Harris. She’s a high-ranking banking executive who’s made a name for herself not just for thriving in a white man’s industry, but also for giving solid career advice. I wish I’d read this book 15 years ago. It was instrumental in my decision to enroll in graduate school, classes starting in January 2018.

I reread “H Is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald, just because it’s beautiful.

My final female-authored book for 2017 was Emily Wilson’s translation of “The Odyssey.” I read about it in a profile in The New Yorker and I was captivated by her direct, insightful language in translating the Greek classic. It was very good, maybe missing a bit of the poetry of other translations, but doing a great job of making you care about the characters and better understand the ways the ancient Greeks lived.

I read three things my men. In October, to get the spirit for a trip to Baltimore, I read and reread some short stories and poems by Edgar Allen Poe. We visited his house and grave in Baltimore on Friday the 13th and got into the Halloween spirit. I was reminded of what a genius he was – the stories are well worth reading if you haven’t touched them since high school. I also read some short stories by Haruki Murakami on and off this fall. They were not that good. Long-form fiction is more his style.

Finally, I am reading “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire” by Kurt Anderson. This is my #1 nonfiction book for the year. If you want to understand how Trump could get elected president, read this. Anderson’s premise is that there is something in American culture, from its earliest days, that promotes and encourages magical thinking. Maybe it was the wide open spaces of the New World, or the religious nutjobs who first colonized the land, or maybe its the American embrace of new technologies, be it printing press or Internet, but our Constitutional freedoms have curdled into something dangerous for the future of American society.

For 2018, I will be starting out with college textbooks, I guess. I’d like to read more from African Americans and other cultures. And I will probably read one more series over the summer, just for fun.

Don’t Raise Your Hand

I’m back home from an overnight business meeting. Another meeting where men dominated and treated women dismissively, and women (myself included) did dumb things that didn’t help.

The meeting was for an industry group of people in technology. There are six women (three of whom are lower-level staff people) and 20 men (including two senior male staff people).

Monday night, at a dinner at a steakhouse (natch) where do I end up standing during the cocktail hour, but with two of the women, who talked the whole time about their kids and families while all the men talked shop. I peeled myself away and tried in vain to insert myself into more substantive conversations.

Then for the meal, determined to break in with the real action, where do I end up sitting but at the “girls’ table” with the three other women! I ran to the bathroom before the meal and when I returned, all the seats were taken except for two, next to the other three women and one of the women’s male coworkers. Those seats were vacant, of course, because none of the men wanted to sit at the “girls’ table.” I made the best of it, and we had good substantive conversations, but the worse tendencies of men and women in business were off to a bad start.

One of the men who led the meeting is always welcoming and engaging. The other one literally ignores me – it’s like I am not in the room. I made it a point to say hello to him and to engage him in conversation.

At the meeting today, I intentionally crossed the room to avoid the other women and sat in the middle of a pack of men. I engaged them in conversation and we had a good meeting. Then during a Q&A after a presentation, I could not get my question in. The men kept talking over me. At one point I actually raised my hand like a schoolgirl, which just made it all worse. Eventually I half rose out of my seat and just talked over another man  – the jerk I mention above – to get my question in – really just steamrolled him the way everyone had steamrolled me. The question was answered and sparked a good debate.

At the afternoon break, over coffee, the man who did the presenting actually said to me: “Did you get what you needed out of the presentation? You didn’t ask a question.” “Yes I did!” I shot right back at him. “I asked about X.” “Oh yeah,” he said, backing off, “that’s right.” I grabbed my coffee and walked away.

The meeting concluded with a man in the group taking credit for an idea I have been pushing for a year. It was a minor point after everything else that day, but it just felt like the last straw. I took an early train home.

If you find yourself in this situation:

  • Don’t stand around with a gaggle of other women shooting the shit. Look to see who everyone else is talking to, and talk to that person.
  • Never sit at the girls’ table.
  • If you have a question, ask. Don’t raise your hand and wait to get permission to ask. Just do it.
  • If someone does something sexist or even just thoughtless (hard to tell sometimes), call him on it, right away.
  • Be in the present. Get your ideas down early, speak up, repeat yourself if you need to before the men will listen.

Who Loves a Business Trip?

I’m on a business trip for a few days. Nothing fancy, just a hop on Amtrak to Baltimore for a couple of days.

I love business trips. Although I’ve been traveling for work a little for 20+ years, it’s still thrilling somehow. I feel like Peggy from Mad Men with her smug satisfaction, even if it means staying at a budget hotel, drinking low-quality whiskey.

Or, in my case, a fruit, veggie and hummus plate from Amtrak…

Business trips cure my craving for alone time. Something about a hotel room, all to myself, a flight without a companion, even a meal alone feels great. I get time with coworkers during the day, or I interact with lots of strangers at a conference, but any time after that is MINE. At home there’s always something that needs doing, or my husband wants to chat, or the TV is blaring… Always something demands my time. 

Most importantly, I get lonely after a few days, or I wish I was home again. And then I am – feeling refreshed.

A “Friend” at Work

A woman I work closely with had a goodbye party this week. I didn’t attend. Notice I did not say “a friend from work.” I would like to think of her as my friend, but she’s not, really.

Her husband got a job in a new city, so they’re moving. She’s going to keep her job, but work remotely from now on with occasional trips to see up at the headquarters. She did not want to move, does not want to work remotely, and is actively and vocally dreading the whole thing.

If she were a “friend,” I would feel more comfortable telling her what I really thought about this. My greatest regret in my career is that I put my husband’s career ahead of my own. He was older and more established at the time, so I deferred to him. Today, I have advanced much further in my career – perhaps as far as I can go. He’s in exactly the same place, doing exactly the same thing, and counting down the days (many many days) to retirement.

If she were my friend, I’d tell her not to defer, not to consider her career second-best. It isn’t, for one thing – she’s at a higher level than he is and is more established at a premier company. She also loves living in the city and loves being in the office. She will be miserable working from home full-time and living in a provincial city. Also, her husband sounds very controlling. They got married not even a year ago. She’s forever saying her husband “lets her” do this and that. I find this disturbing. She’s all of 30 years old, and she has a long way to go. I am 47 and I have a bit of wisdom to offer. Yet, all this is none of my business.

I might have considered her a friend, but it’s clear she doesn’t feel this way about me. I actually heard her talking on the phone about me (our desks are next to each other). She started to say “a friend at work” when she stopped. “A fr….. a coworker,” is what came out instead. So she actually stopped herself from calling me a friend, while on a personal phone call, and sitting right next to me.

So,  I keep my mouth shut, skip her going-away party, and count her out.

Can you really have “friends” at work anyway? I was close to a few people at my old job, and we’ve tried to stay in touch. When we get together, though, we talk excessively about the old times, or about the current situation at work if they’re still at the same place. Is this true friendship, or just affinity born of professional convenience?

I have two true “friends” from work – both women I worked with decades ago. Perhaps distance is needed to assess whether a true friendship is in the cards. We’ll see in another 20 years who I still consider a friend.

“Women’s Work”

I’ve had these garden gloves for years. I never noticed the label: Womanswork.

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I love these gloves because they fit perfectly. No wonder – Womanswork is owned by a woman and many key staff people are women and relatives of the company’s founder. (For more info, see their Website.)

Wow does the term “woman’s work” get a bad rap. I have been watching this BBC show “Victorian Slum House” (airing now in the US), one of these shows where modern people try to live in historical times, and this old guy who probably would have been dead in the 19th century is all upset because he’s stuck doing “woman’s work” – making artificial flowers to sell to milliners. He tried “man’s work” at a bell foundry and put his back out.

I felt sorry for him, because back pain is horrific. But I turned sour at his disdain for the flower-making job. It put food on the table and kept a roof over the head of his whole family of five for a week. Why, is his mind, is making a bell more important than making an ornament for a hat? Is it because a bell is big and heavy and a flower is tiny and light? Because the bell costs more? Because a bell is “manly” in some way that a flower is not?

Both iron bells and artificial flowers are fripperies in life, one might say. Not necessary. Not important. One is not inherently better than another. But all work has value. All work matters and should be treated with respect, just as all workers should be treated with dignity.

A lot of young men find themselves out of work nowadays. That’s for a lot of reasons, but one reason is because of their disdain for “women’s work.” Health care is the largest sector of the US economy, yet it’s predominantly female. So is education; except at the collegiate level, female teachers and staff outnumber men greatly. Men need to get over this idea that only certain kinds of work are worthy of them. Or, they can stand back and watch the women continue to outshine them at every turn.