In favor of wearing whatever the hell you want, part 3

We had our own Janet Yellen moment in Europe yesterday: the third swearing-in of Angela Merkel as Germany’s Chancellor. Just the same way as Yellen “Wore Same Dress Twice, Upsetting Local Idiot” (Jezebel), Merkel was criticized (picture below from the front page of Corriere della Sera) for wearing a very similar outfit to what she wore for previous ceremonies of the same type.

So what? They are smart and practical women. They standardize their looks because it saves them precious time, even if they become predictable. I am sure a lot of powerful men have favorite outfits too, and they don’t spend a lot of time worrying whether they’ve worn the same thing before.

Plus, Merkel has been photographed wearing quite different gear to the opera (see this post in case you don’t remember). So why, why can’t women yet wear whatever the hell they want?


Merkel swearing-in outfit


The extraordinarily important nugget you missed in Anne Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic piece about gender equality and careers

Talk about work-life balance: it is only today, several days after its publication, that I’ve had the time to read Anne Marie Slaughter’s cover story in the July 2012 issue of The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” (which, as of today, has been recommended on Facebook approximately 178,000 times), as well as her first response to the storm of comments that flooded in as soon as readers saw it, “The ‘Having It All’ Debate Convinced Me To Stop Saying ‘Having It All'”. (Suggested alternative tags: #StumblingTowardParity,‬ #PushingForBetter,‬ #StillWorkingOnIt,‬ #GuysThisIsYourProblemToo,‬ #DemandingMoreForMoreOfUs,‬ #Feminism).

What an extraordinary woman! What a privilege to have had such role models as Hillary Clinton. And what courage in rocking a boat that many of our predecessors couldn’t rock, and many younger women – as she points out – seem to be giving up on rocking.

And here’s what’s been missing from the debate: the full implications of this paragraph in Slaughter’s essay (emphasis added).

The best hope for improving the lot of all women […] is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.

The issue is: how do we get to parity at the top in politics, in business, and in judicial ranks? Well, the standard American answer is: you vote for women and elect them, for elected posts; you promote a meritocracy in business; You change the culture in the workplace; you ask women to keep spinning their wheels, in the meantime, until they get traction.

And that’s why it doesn’t work. Many talented women decline to seek political office, or “leave before they leave” (in Sheryl Sandberg’s words) in the corporate world, because they feel that, even if they gain that extra ounce of power, the odds will be even more ruthlessly stacked against them. The rate of progress is just too slow. Or negative. Take a couple of data points:

  • In 1998, Catalyst projected in their their Census of Women Board Directors that, at the then-current rate of change, it would take 66 years, until 2064, for women to reach parity with men in the ranks of Fortune 500 boards.
  • In 2007, Catalyst projected that, at the then-current rate of change, it would take 73 years for women to reach parity with men in the ranks of Fortune 500 boards.

I believe that, in publishing more recent editions of the study, they’ve quit publishing any such extrapolations. For good reason, it seems.

When all else has failed, why have we kept trying the same recipes? Even Slaughter’s recommendations – no matter how lucid her analysis – see to me to fall short. Changing the culture of “face time”; redefining the arc of a successful career; rediscovering the pursuit of happiness; using technology and creativity; enlisting men – all are worthwhile efforts, and I praise her for spelling them out once again. But they’re not enough. We need to change the rules.

Let’s mandate gender parity in the candidate pool for elections. Let’s start linking campaign finance ceilings to the number of women a party gets elected: the more you achieve gender parity in the posts you win, the more funds you can raise. And let’s not forget – let’s mandate gender equality in corporate boards: how else do you think the Norwegians got to 40%? Similar measures have been passed, although at a much slower pace, to promote women’s board membership in Spain and Italy. EU Commissioner Viviane Reding, after a consultation on the topic, is said to be planning to introduce a draft directive this October mandating at least a 40% board participation by each gender.

Slaughter’s essay shows the need for a bold stand, but refrains from taking it. It is time for us, in America and elsewhere, to acknowledge that we need to put in place the right rules. As in the variously-attributed quote, insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results. Let’s try something different: the worst that can happen is that it will be a different sort of mistake. And it’s well worth trying: if we succeed, we will have created a better world for our daughters.

War rapes: an international overview

Two years ago I wrote about one war, in Sudan, where ICC prosecutors found that rape was being massively used as a weapon by government troops against insurgents. This week, the Economist brings us a war-rapes-in-review piece that in itself is worth the yearly subscription. A few snippets from the story, which I suggest you read in full:

  • In the Rwandan genocide rape was “the rule and its absence the exception”, in the words of the UN. […] Out of Rwanda’s horror came the first legal verdict that acknowledged rape as part of a genocidal campaign.
  • […] with the Bosnian war of the 1990s came the widespread recognition that rape has been used systematically as a weapon of war and that it must be punished as an egregious crime […] Rape was first properly recognised as a weapon of war after the conflict in Bosnia. […] the Balkan war-crimes court broke new ground by issuing verdicts treating rape as a crime against humanity.

Four recipes to save Italy: “Meritocrazia” by Roger Abravanel

The Italian malaise, so widely chronicled in its various facets of gerontocracy, corruption, stagnation and economic insecurity, is one of those systemic issues that have become so entrenched that it seems nearly impossible to do anything about it. Yet, author and former management consultant Roger Abravanel believes that many Italians’ dissatisfaction with the status quo may have reached the threshold that triggers change.

A few words on why, far from being impartial, I am a member of the subterranean Roger Abravanel Fan Club. When I joined McKinsey, Roger was already a senior partner at the firm, having returned to Milan after his years in Tokyo, Mexico City and Paris. I had the privilege to work with Roger on several assignments throughout my years there, and I looked up to him as a leading role model; he was, I believe, the most sincere practitioner of the caring meritocracy that kept many of us going through those nights and weekends at work. After retiring in 2006, Roger spent his time as a board member at companies in both Italy and Israel, and started writing a book about meritocracy, published this month.

Meritocrazia argues, with Roger’s characteristic optimism, that four concrete solutions can inject a jolt of leadership and excellence into Italian economy and society, and jumpstart its turnaround. These are his four proposals:

  1. Establish a Delivery Unit for the public sector in Italy, modeled after the one launched by Tony Blair in 2001 to monitor progress on and strengthen the British government’s ability to deliver on its key priorities across education, health, crime and transport. Roger has extensively discussed that experience with Sir Michael Barber, the first head of the Delivery Unit, and argues that an Italian version of it could both improve quality and reduce waste in the public sector, and train a new generation of young leaders. The extraordinary civil service of Singapore and, though only in part, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in France provide more food for thought on how to turn around our dismal performance in government services.
  2. Create a standardized testing system for Italian schools, similar to the SAT Reasoning Test in the United States (“the secret weapon of American meritocracy”, in the words of Nicolas Lemann). No education reform and no amount of money showered onto schools and universitites can ever achieve any impact, if we can’t measure how schools and teachers are performing.
  3. Launch an Authority to deregulate and promote competition in private and public local services. From food retail to urban transport, from pharmacies to taxis, from water utilities to toll roads, from gas stations to local professions, local services are the bulk of the economy: and they have largely been untouched by liberalization, thanks to the extortionary power they exert on consumers’ daily lives (try driving through Rome during a taxi strike) and the political consensus that protects local monopolists and oligopolists. This Authority should lead an extraordinary effort to unlock competition in local services. “Devolution” is not the answer: on the contrary, getting results will require strong alignment from the center.
  4. Unlock the leadership talent of Italian women through affirmative action for women in corporate boards. The model here is the recent Norwegian law mandating that medium and large companies must have at least 40% of board members who are women, or face tough sanctions, including forced liquidation. Italian women themselves are not fond of the affirmative action idea, and some of them have, most insidiously, interiorized our culture’s worst stereotypes. But I believe Roger is right in saying that we’re not going to get anywhere without a shock therapy forcing the end of discrimination at the top of our economy and society. Women’s careers should also be supported through incentives for shorter maternity leaves and a better public and private child care network.

Roger’s book is well-documented, wide-ranging and convincingly argued; it has the crucial virtue of moving beyond diagnosis and adopting a “can-do” attitude to defeat the defeatism so prevailing in public discourse. It is also a direct appeal to our Prime Minister, whoever that would be (the book was going into print just around the time of the April elections), to adopt these proposals. Whether Roger is listened to or not will be, in my opinion, a crucial test for the openness of this government’s agenda to citizens’ needs.

Finally, an apology to some of my Twitter followers. Last Wednesday I inundated them with a live twittercast from the presentation of the book, in Italian – I understand it looked like a ton of spam to those who don’t speak it. But now you understand why I cared so much about what was going on!

Update, September 2008: Please visit to leave your comments and questions for Roger Abravanel!

From Michael to Megan: being transgendered in the workplace

Megan Wallent works in the management ranks at Microsoft. Until a few weeks ago, she was called Michael Wallent. She writes a blog chronicling her transformation. It tells you something about Microsoft culture, or indeed U.S. West Coast culture, that seeing her back to work as a woman wasn’t a big deal for any of her coworkers.

And yet. As beautiful and strong and amazing as women are, the workplace is not where they call the shots. Not even the U.S. West Coast workplace. Steve Ballmer is not a woman (and it would be real interesting news if he discovered his inner femininity). So, this is where I’m puzzled, and I know it’s not going to be politically correct of me to write this, but, as sympathetic and supportive I am of Megan, there’s also something I don’t understand.

It is: it’s hard for me to understand how, in a corporate environment, one would choose to put oneself in a position of lesser power.

It’s tough out there, as women know. Beauty can help somewhat, perhaps. Adam’s apples are ugly, and Michael’s had to go, and so it did. But notice. I don’t know if Michael was a tall guy, but Megan looks like she’s a tall woman. Michael didn’t go to the surgeon in San Francisco complaining about his height and asking “make me a petite”. (For the sake of clarification: I wouldn’t have expected him to.) So, no change in the height department. Tall with boobs is even more imposing than tall with no boobs.

Megan’s voice is also the same as Michael’s voice. That helps, for example on the phone, in conveying power. And I’m pretty sure Megan hasn’t started phrasing her statements with the questioning upward slant that makes so many young American women sound terminally indecisive. No, my guess is Megan has a remarkably decisive voice. I don’t thing she giggles.

So, it will be interesting to see if Megan’s new feminine features help or hinder her power in the organization. My bet is: it doesn’t help to look like a woman. It’s a burden and an excuse for men to treat you, unconsciously or not, worse than you deserve. (Just ask women at investment banks from Morgan Stanley to Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein; no wonder Morgan Stanley prefers to settle its women brokers’ class-action suits out of court). Megan made a conscious trade-off between corporate status and other things that were more important to her, and she hedged her strategy by retaining and using those masculine features and mannerisms that sustain her standing in the workplace. Smart choice, Megan.

For those if you less interested than I am in the dynamics of power and politics in the workplace, here’s something else. If you’re like me, you will recall from your childhood The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. It’s a classic, and even today Megan reads it to her son at bedtime.

Think about this: have you become the kind of butterfly you dreamt of in your caterpillar days?

Does anybody, ever, really?

Jane Smiley on de Sade’s Justine and the morality of the novel

A few months ago I submitted to your attention, dear readers, a few notable excerpts from Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography. I am now enjoying a rather more diverse piece of literary criticism, Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.

Smiley, an acclaimed biographer of Charles Dickens and the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Thousand Acres, writes thoughtfully about such broad topics as “What Is a Novel?” and “Who is a Novelist?”; in her sixth chapter, “Morality and the Novel”, she needs to deal with de Sade and his Justine.

But before getting to Justine, a quote about how one – in Smiley’s opinion, and in mine – becomes a novelist, which is out of a compulsive habit of reading as a child:

Undoubtedly, we were reading for all the wrong reasons — escape, pleasure, avoidance of responsibilities and human contact. We were reading because it was easy and fun and because we were unsupervised. We were reading to find companions more congenial than those around us. We wanted to fill our heads with nonsense and tune out practical considerations. We were not, most likely, athletic or useful sorts of children. We were reluctant to help around the house or to go outside and play. […] We were reading because we had two lives, an inner life and an outer life, and they were equally important to us and equally vivid.

Ever met children like these? Ever been one?

And, now, to Justine.

Justine was published in 1791, during the French Revolution, and the novel’s theme, you might say, is the right of every man of rank to do whatever he wants with any woman he can gain access to, preferably by force. […] In Justine, the goal is not to reinforce the social order but to maximize the exploitation of female flesh. […] It seems obvious that de Sade wrote Justine for pornographic reasons — that is, the plot and the protagonist are there to serve the author’s and the reader’s shared desire to fetishize sex and cruelty and to use images for lascivious excitement. Even so […], de Sade makes rape part of the apparatus of state control as expressed by individual members of the ruling class (most of whom possess formal authority; they are not renegades or rogues). […] Justine is a true heroine; she never betrays herself, always tries to understand and survive, never loses her moral compass. Surely she speaks for the author as much as the men do. […]

Ostensibly shocking and immoral, Justine actually promotes a certain moral point of view — that integrity and virtue can be retained and recognized in the face of relentless suffering. In addition, to expose secret corruption is to challenge its existence because of the nature of the novel as a common and available commodity.

Naked ambition, the FT, and Italian women

Readers of my other blog know that I often comment – mostly with dismay – on the status of women in Italian society. Today, the FT Weekend article by Adrian Michaels gives me a chance to rant here too.

In a nutshell, Michaels argues that the female image portrayed by media and advertising in Italy feeds on, and in turn reinforces, the low status of women in Italian business, politics, and in the professions. And I think he’s right: there are few role models for young girls beyond the veline (skimpily dressed TV dancers, for readers who aren’t familiar with the term), and hardly any visible women CEOs or entrepreneurs beyond those who have inherited their roles because they are the founder’s daughter, sister or widow. Outside these pockets of privilege, there are enormous constraints on the time a woman can devote to pursuing professional achievement if she’s trying to keep a family going (from schools that close in the afternoon to primitive retail and banking hours, as the author himself discovers when trying to buy milk on a Sunday). According to economists Tito Boeri and Daniela del Boca, only 25% of the hours worked by Italian women are paid work; the rest is unpaid, work hours spent outside the labor market, taking care of others for free (including, increasingly, older family members). Among women who work outside the home, only 30% return to work after having a child; for the careers of the others, maternity means game over.

I think we need a rather radical agenda to get out of this vicious circle. First, we need to be more selfish.

Let the house get a bit dirtier. Some scum in the shower never killed anybody. Cleanliness is overrated.

Go to supermarkets that sell ready meals. Yes, they’re pricey, but not as much as our time is worth. Better yet, order online or by phone. Arrange delivery when convenient. Bank online. It is retailers who ought to adapt to our needs, not we to theirs.

Let the baby wallow in a dirty diaper until Dad changes it. Let older children wash themselves, or go to bed dirty. Some exposure to germs is good as it increases resistance to diseases.

Let your husband pay for a nurse for your mother-in-law. If he does not have enough money, tell him to get a second job, or to act as a nurse himself. This may take until Grandma gets a couple of bedsores. Bedsores are a necessary evil in the education of men.

Get extremely organized (you might pick a few ideas from The 4-Hour Workweek). Then, use the time you rediscovered to play the power game. Be bold. Call a meeting with your boss at 8pm to show him your ideas for reorganizing his department, and engage him in a long discussion, so that he misses the first half of that Champions League match. Go out to breakfast with a head hunter. Network with other women. Write about your agenda for change, and become a columnist for your local paper. Bootstrap your reputation. Stand for election to your town council, or some other body where you will have the power to change things.

The point is: no one will hand power over to women. Not if we accept the state of things as they are, or if we merely entertain interesting proposals about quotas in company boards and so on. We have to want it, and we have to build our resumes for it.

Are you ready?