Fight Back with Feedback

Do you ever see bad behavior, but you don’t call it out, for whatever reason? Maybe you’re scared. Maybe you don’t want to rock the boat. Maybe you don’t want to get involved. Maybe you’re not sure of what you’re really seeing.

There are a million reasons not to do something, but only one reason where you must act: when it’s the RIGHT thing to do.

Such a predicament happened during a business meeting this week, where some men displayed some very bad behavior against women. So I spoke up. Maybe something will change. Maybe not (these guys didn’t seem like the types given to introspection). But if something does change, it will be because of the way the feedback was received:

  • Done at the moment, not later
  • Based in fact, not opinions or emotions
  • Based on content, not people or personalities
  • Constructive to give people something to act on
  • Band together if you can\
  • Follow up

By “at the moment” and  “based in fact” I mean, sticking to feedback about things that were observed. For example, four men had loud side conversations while a junior woman was presenting at the meeting. It was hard to hear the presenter. The presenter glared at them a few times but they kept going. Finally, I spoke up and asked them to stop. Those are facts that cannot be argued with.

I offered some constructive feedback: the moderator should organize the meeting to provide ample time for presenters. Each presenter should agree to stick to the allotted time. The moderator should intervene if side conversations become noisome.

“Based on content” basically means, no personal attacks. For example, this one guy who presented was giving as “evidence” all these personal anecdotes that were self-serving and not useful. Basically, dude was a serious Baby Boomer blowhard. But that’s not constructive, is it? Better to say: “Your anecdotes help illustrate the issues, but do you have data to back them up? I need data to make decisions, so please provide it next time.”

Finally, banding together helps women navigate these issues. If one woman raises a complaint, it’s easy for the men to dismiss her as “crazy” – an all-purpose epithet for any woman who dares to speak up. But if several women come forward, all agreeing to be constructive, fact-based and focused on content, not personalities, we can get somewhere.

In this case, I had a couple of “off the record” discussions after the meeting with other participants. We agreed on the facts. Then we provided our feedback. We agreed that we will follow up in two weeks to see if our comments were addressed.

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Happy St. Distaff Day!

OK, there’s no “Saint Distaff.” Although, any woman who had to wield a distaff when spinning wool or flax is a saint in my book.

Rather, “St. Distaff Day” is Ye Ole Catholic Church’s way of saying: “Get back to work!”

Back in the day, Christmas partying lasted until the Feast of the Epiphany (it still does in some Christian cultures). You know, the old Twelve Days of Christmas” racket.

The day after the Epiphany, the fun was over. Women picked up their distaffs again and resumed their lives of ceaseless toil. Men resumed their ceaseless pastime of tormenting women, which on St. Distaff Day included stealing the spun wool and flax and setting it on fire.

There’s even a snatch of doggerel to mark the merry moment:

“Give St. Distaff all the right;

Then bid Christmas sport good night,

And next morrow everyone

To his own vocation.”

I am on a business trip, so no textile work for me!

Making a Buck from International Day of the Girl Child

October 11 is “International Day of the Girl Child,” a day the United Nations designated to to celebrate girls and to raise awareness about their challenges and triumphs. Since most cultures on earth greatly favor male children, and since girls have to persevere despite inadequate health care, education, discrimination and violence, it seems like a worthy “day” to me.

It also sounds like a great day for a male-dominated business to make a buck, don’t you think?

Steam, the PC game platform that’s overwhelmingly male and that hosts plenty of antagonism against women, offered a big sale today on “female protagonist” video games. “Ooh,” I thought, “let’s check that out!”

On sale were seven games. Seven. Out of the tens of thousands of games available through Steam, these alone were notable for their female protagonists. And I already had played four of them – all first-person adventure types of games where the protagonist is a young woman. Here are some quick reviews:

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Screenshot of a “Gone Home” poster
  • Gone Home – A college student returns home to find an empty house and no sign of her parents and sister. Players explore and follow clues to figure out what happened. The story unfolds slowly and builds to a climax, sort of like a novel in video game form. The game includes some lesbian themes. This game is a bit basic, but I liked the story.
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Screenshot from “What Remains of Edith Finch”
  • What Remains of Edith Finch – A young woman returns to her ancestral home to investigate a so-called curse on her family. She steps into the shoes of various relatives – from infants to old men – to learn about how the curse affected them. This is a gorgeously made game – full of laughs and tragedy in equal measure, with a good surprise at the end and some deep ideas about the unbreakable bonds of family ties.
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Screenshot from “Life Is Strange”
  • Life Is Strange – A high school student navigates the intersection of school, friends and the supernatural in this game, which unfolds somewhat in a “choose your adventure” style. Players decide how good or bad they want to be, interacting with many complex characters. Actions have consequences. This game includes disturbing episodes of violence against women. It also makes many strong points about the nature of lifelong friendships. I enjoyed playing it, although it was difficult to take at times.
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Screenshot from “Tacoma”
  • Tacoma – In this game, from the makers of “Gone Home,” the female protagonist investigates a mystery on a space station. It’s gorgeously and inventively made, including good, diverse characters (race, sexuality, body type, ability) and some good female roles. This game also includes some lesbian themes and unfolds much the way “Gone Home” did, but with more wit, inventive gameplay and  imaginative detail.

Who made these games? Only Fullbright (the makers of “Gone Home” and “Tacoma”) has women in leadership positions (the privately held company’s leaders are half women, half men).

The developers of “Edith Finch” were all men at the company Giant Sparrow. A female-led company, Annapurna Pictures, published it. Annapurna is better known as a film production company, whose president, Megan Ellison, has been nominated for Academy Awards for producing “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Her,” and “American Hustle.”

“Life Is Strange” also was developed all by men (Dontnod Entertainment) and published by SquareEnix (all men, yet again, but you knew that already). The developers say that other publishers pushed them to make games with male protagonists and that they weren’t trying to “make a statement” by using a female lead. Having played the game, I can tell you they needed to make the protagonist female, because otherwise the whole violence-against-women theme would not pan out. So, yeah, no statement to be made here.

When I play a first-person game, I play as “me.” With most video games, “male” is the default. Why? Because men don’t think it’s important to have a female character, and because they’re afraid that men will be turned off by anything with  whiff of “girly.” They’re trying to sell to men, so the characters are men. If women want to play, that’s fine, but it’s playing in a man’s shoes. Aren’t most animated things like this? Why are all the Minions “male”? Why is there only one female Smurf and one female cartoon M&M? And why does the one female character have to be sexy?

Some games let you choose an avatar for your character, and I choose a female character then. So do a lot of men, only when the avatars can be sexed up in ridiculous costumes. If they play games were they spend a lot of time looking at their avatar’s backside, they’d rather see a woman’s backside in a thong. This is not progress.

If you want to explore games with female characters and feminist themes, I highly recommend the “Nancy Drew” series from HER Interactive. HER is largely run by women.

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Nancy Drew game cover art

Nancy’s a feminist icon, to be sure, and she’s fearless and capable in the games, too. The games have a kids’ mode and an adult mode. They’re popular among parents because there’s no sex or bad language, and the violence is pretty benign compared to most games (Nancy gets trapped someplace and has to escape, or has to flee some threat). The games usually have equal numbers of male and female characters of various ages, races and body types, and a recent game had a lesbian character. I also like the games because they display remarkable affinity for rational thought. Nancy’s often called to help solve mysteries where someone attributes a problem to the supernatural – you know – a ghost is haunting a house or whatever. Nancy is clear that she doesn’t fall for ghosts and other woo-woo but rather sticks to the facts until she uncovers that – just as in real life – people use others’ superstitions or religious beliefs to cover their own misdeeds. The games are great stories to bash magical thinking.

It’s interesting to note that even when there are female protagonists, they are thin and young. Would the entire gaming world explode if a game featured an overweight 48-year-old protagonist?

Ever Wonder What Those Models on Sewing Pattern Envelopes Are Saying to One Another?

Picture this: a Kwik Sew sewing pattern envelope from the 1970s. View D is a white woman with a brunette bob, wearing a flesh-colored bra and a long green slip. View C, a white woman with a blond bob, is also wearing a bra and slip, but this slip has a slit in it. View A is a white woman in a short, lace-trimmed slip, arms crossed over her bare chest.

Miss View C says to Miss View A: “Come on, Blair! Do you want to pledge Chi Omega or not?”

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So that’s what the models on sewing pattern envelopes are saying to one another! Passing along weed and birth control. Expressing their sexuality. Tormenting their siblings. Plotting against enemies. Expressing feminist positions instead of vapid fashion statements.

It’s all in the book “Pattern Behavior: The Seamy Side of Fashion” by Natalie Kossar.

Kossar started this book as a Tumblr a few years ago. I looked forward to new ones coming out every few days. Kossar has compiled many of the best into this book.

Kossar and sewing did not get along. As a child, she’d been bored many times at the fabric store, as her mother pored over pattern catalogs, and she could never get the hang of sewing. “Girls who liked sewing were weak and boring. And I refused to be one of them,” Kossar writes.

She saw sewing patterns in a different light when her mother asked her to find a vintage pattern online. A simple Google search bombarded her with thousands of pattern envelope images, including many that expressed outdated ideas about gender, race and class. She started thinking of putting these models into a new conversation. “The juxtaposition of the vintage images with modern dialogue generated a strong message of social growth and change,” Kossar writes.

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“Average” takes on a new meaning.

If you like what you see and want more, please leave a comment below to enter a giveaway to win a free book! From all the comments received by 8 p.m. US Eastern Time on Tuesday, May 1, I will randomly draw one winner for the prize.

The Tyranny of Hair Dye

You know things are bad when I start touching up my gray roots with brown mascara.

Every month, I go through this phase when my hairline isn’t gray enough yet to shell out for a color touch-up at the salon, yet I can see it and it looks awful – like some old Frankenstein staples on the crown of my head.

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SCARY!

I resort to various cover-ups. I can part my hair in a different place. That usually buys me a few days. A ponytail looks OK too, although not for the office. And then I hit the area with some mascara or brow powder… just to get through the last few days until my salon appointment.

I used to pull out gray hairs when I saw them. That was a long time ago. If I did that now, I’d be bald.

I used to color my hair myself at home. That worked pretty well at first, but it smells bad and I ruined quite a few towels, pillowcases and shirts. Over time, my hair color became this strange mix of layers, like sedimentary rock formations at the Grand Canyon.

Nowadays, my stylist Tiffany is happy to take two hours of my time and $100 out of my pocket for a touch-up every six weeks.

Once in a while, pondering the hours and the expense, I consider going gray. Then I get together with my friend, Sharon, who said “fuck it” when her kids went to college and let her gray hair grow out. She looks old. She doesn’t care. I wish I could be as zen about it as she is.

Almost every man I know my age has some gray hair. Unless they’re bald, in which case they’d probably take gray hair, no questions asked. (File this in the “Count Your Blessings” bucket.) I know one man who dyes his hair. I hadn’t seen him in a few years, and then I ran into him at a party. His hair looked so ridiculous I nearly had a stroke from holding in the laughter.

I guess I will dye a little longer. Maybe say “fuck it” when I’m 50?

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.