Notes from Joan Didion’s “White Album”

The White AlbumThis is one of the rare books I kept highlighting as I read through it (or would have underlined and dog-eared, if I’d read it on paper). Joan Didion was fascinated with complex systems such as waterworks and dams, highway operations centers, jails and prisons, orchid greenhouses. Joan Didion suffered from migraines. Joan Didion had no patience with a women’s movement concerned with “the litany of trivia” used to politicize “women who perhaps had been conditioned to obscure their resentments even from themselves” (The Women’s Movement, 1972):

These are converts who want not a revolution but “romance,” who believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for a new life in exactly the mold of their old life. In certain ways they tell us sadder things about what the culture has done to them than the theorists ever did.

A woman who starred in Céline ads in 2015, aged 80, Didion never tries to be anything else than a woman of her time; yet her notes on political sentiment in Hollywood in the 1960s (Good Citizens, 1968-70) sound as if written about today’s Silicon Valley, a place where public life “comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth, a climate devoid of irony”, and where she describes the attitude of the screenwriters of the McCarthy era just as if she were writing of today’s tech philanthropists: the particular vanity of perceiving social life as a problem to be solved by the good will of individuals.

She is also oddly prescient in her encounter with biker movies, a genre started by Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966), starring Peter Fonda. She watches nine of these movies over a short period of time, “the first one almost by accident and the rest of them with a notebook… I was not even sure why I kept going” (Notes Toward a Dreampolitik, 1968-70). Remember that Didion, a child of the West, loved John Wayne, and that she is believed to have voted Republican through most of her life; Didion’s obvious discomfort with the behaviors and ideology that these movies portray – and that scared her, even back then, as “ideograms of the future” – are a measure of the gaping void between the conservative values of Didion’s screenwriting years, and those of an “alt-right” so shamelessly blandished by an American President today:

I suppose I kept going to these movies because there on the screen was some news I was not getting from The NewYork Times. I began to think I was seeing ideograms of the future. To watch a bike movie is finally to apprehend the extent to which the toleration of small irritations is no longer a trait much admired in America, the extent to which a nonexistent frustration threshold is seen not as psychopathic but as a “right.” A biker is goaded on the job about the swastika on his jacket, so he picks up a wrench, threatens the foreman, and later describes the situation as one in which the foreman “got uptight.” A biker runs an old man off the road: the old man was “in the way,” and his subsequent death is construed as further “hassling.” A nurse happens into a hospital room where a biker beats her unconscious and rapes her: that she later talks to the police is made to seem a betrayal, evidence only of some female hysteria, vindictiveness, sexual deprivation. Any girl who “acts dumb” deserves what she gets, and what she gets is beaten and turned out from the group. Anything less than instant service in a restaurant constitutes intolerable provocation, or “hassling”: tear the place apart, leave the owner for dead, gangbang the waitress. Rev up the Harleys and ride.

To imagine the audience for whom these sentiments are tailored, maybe you need to have sat in a lot of drive-ins yourself, to have gone to school with boys who majored in shop and worked in gas stations and later held them up. Bike movies are made for all these children of vague “hill” stock who grow up absurd in the West and Southwest, children whose whole lives are an obscure grudge against a world they think they never made. These children are, increasingly, everywhere, and their style is that of an entire generation.

Sadly, more than one.

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Where’s the (woman) expert? Practical suggestions for better media and better events

Why do we still see professional events, academic conferences, media interviews where only men speak as experts? (Pictured below: a panel at an innovation summit last year where all panelists were men and no one had been born after 1965).

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I spoke about this with Sandra Mori, Donatella Sciuto and Paola Caburlotto at a panel I had the opportunity to host at the 2017 International Journalism Festival in Perugia. Because we know the problem well, and we know its soul-crushing impact on what girls and young women believe they can achieve, I would like to focus here on our responsibility as conference organizers, journalists, speakers: because we each have a role to play.

The answer, we agreed, is two-pronged: don’t be lazy and try harder. I was recently asked to help find a woman speaker for a panel on cryptocurrencies at a digital economy conference taking place three weeks later, because throughout the many months it took to plan it no one had thought about asking for help making that panel diverse: within 6 hours I had three names of young women speakers (and one of them got on stage at the event).

Here are some suggestions on how to make our TV interviews, conferences and panels more gender-balanced.

As journalists, TV producers, editors:

  • Think twice. Of course you have a deadline, but… You’re doing a story on white collar crime, and your first instinct when picking up the phone is to call the corporate law professor you interviewed last year. Can you get a new perspective, maybe from a woman law professor this time?
  • Measure gender balance in your publications and programs. What gets measured gets fixed.
  • Get help. Sometimes you will have academic watchdogs and media studies programs measuring things for you: enlist them to help you. You need a vulcanology expert – can they put you in touch with one, preferably not a white man? You would like to interview a woman on cybersecurity – can they suggest one?

As conference organizers:

  • Use lists. You may not be aware of it, but people are volunteering their time and energy to built list of kick-ass women experts. Inspiring Fifty can put you in touch with dozens of inspiring women in digital technology across Europe (with South Africa coming soon). 100 Esperte is a database (in Italian) of women scientists who are leaders in disciplines ranging from astrophysics to nanotechnologies. Women for Media is an Australian database of women leaders in business, finance, government, academia and non profits. Khabirat, a list launched by the MedMedia program, allows you to find women experts in fields from geopolitics to sports in Jordan, Palestine, Tunisia and Morocco. And there will be more.
  • Get yourself an Advisory board. Marketer and curator Gianfranco Chicco, who has organized dozens of conferences with thousands of speakers, told me about a week-long event he led. One of his decisions was to have an Advisory board, three women and two men, with the explicit mandate of finding diverse speakers and young speakers.
  • Adopt these 10 rules proposed by molecular bioscientists Professor Jennifer L. Martin in PLOS: Ten Simple Rules to Achieve Conference Speaker Gender Balance.

As speakers:

  • Be informed and vocal. When contacted by organizers, always inquire about gender balance in the event. If you’re the only woman on stage, consider refusing to speak unless the conference is made more diverse.
  • If the conference is a for-profit event, ask to be paid. You should be paid for your time and effort in money, not in visibility, whenever an organization makes money from your presence. And make sure you’re not paid any less than men. It’s time to end the pay gap for speakers.
  • Enlist men to help. Many men are jetsetting around the world and in high demand as speakers: ask them to take the Panel Pledge. Development economist Owen Barder has a one-line version: “I will not be part of male-only panels.” The Australian group Male Champions of Change has a longer version, here for your reference:

When you are invited to speak at or participate in a professional forum:

Request confirmation of who the other panelists/speakers/ participants are, and how gender balance will be achieved;

Insist that as a condition of acceptance, you expect women to participate in a meaningful way;

Reserve the right to withdraw from the event, even at the last minute, should this not be the case when the speaker list is finalised;

Offer names of women from within your organisation or network and, if helpful, point them to resources for support in finding women.

If you are a woman and you’d like to act, a useful thing you can do is to speak to three men who are in your network over the next week and ask them to commit to this pledge. If you’re a man, commit to it yourself. We can change this, and we will.

Technology, women, choice, and nudge: a rant about female ambition

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This woman is Elizabeth Holmes, 30 years old, founder of Theranos, a medical technology company valued at over nine billion dollars, in which she owns more than fifty per cent of the shares.

Keep Elizabeth Holmes in mind. Keep her in mind, women entrepreneurs, the next time you pitch me. Because you ought to decide how big your ambitions should be, but I am going to think of Elizabeth and I am not going to be satisfied if your pitch says your startup is going to solve a small problem, serve a handful of customers, employ a few people, distribute through niche channels, raise a little capital, produce some revenues, break even, and not scale. If you’re not aiming to change the world in some significant way, you’re the one putting yourself at a disadvantage towards the other startups, the ones that plan to do exactly that. Investors like to bet their money on people who dream big and want to change the world. They are not going to bet on you if you nurture small, local, provincial ambitions.

Nudge-coverThere is a great concept in behavioral science called “nudge“. A nudge is “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing economic incentives”. Most of you were not nudged, I assume, towards choosing STEM disciplines in school. But today, I believe, the ethical thing to do in our families and in our education systems is to nudge today’s girls and young women towards STEM disciplines.

Because if we don’t, this happens: only four out of 81 “unicorn” companies – private companies valued at over one billion dollars – have a woman CEO. These companies are technology companies and are overwhelmingly founded and led by technologists. Elizabeth Holmes is a technologist. But she is one of just four women CEOs in that list. The rest are all men.

And if we don’t, that’s not the only thing that happens. What also happens – and drives me crazy – is the mansplaining about choice, as in “young women are not interested in tech because they choose not to be”. But how can you be interested in something you know nothing about and have had no exposure to?

Exposure is the primal nudge here. Then we have hands-on learning, networking, coaching, mentoring, sponsoring. Getting the Inspiring Fifty group together – at 10 Downing Street, of all places – and speed-mentoring a number of Girls in Tech was a great moment. Let us commit to creating more and more moments like that. And to offer our girls a nudge, in their own best interest, at every opportunity we get.

Gone Girl: if you didn’t get the “Cool Girl” rant, think again

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Why is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn such a powerful novel? Because nothing is black-and-white and everything is ambiguous: how we fall in love, how far we go to please someone else, how we might go about reclaiming ourselves – even if the fiction brings the premise to extreme consequences.

Why is Gone Girl by David Fincher such a weak movie? Because it’s black-and-white. People who have only seen the movie – and not read the book – women who have only seen the movie – easily buy into the typecasting of Amy as the horrendous psycho killer and Nick as the poor, cute, loving husband victimized by his traitorous wife.

But the novel is more subtle than that. Amy, you see, has a point. Amy is right, right in her diagnosis of what happened to her marriage. (Not in the actions she takes – I am not condoning or advocating – spoilers ahead – framing people for crimes they have not committed, absconding in search of a new identity, or extracting revenge by locking husbands into sadistic marriages). Amy is right because she understands what happened to her when she tried to be a Cool Girl for Nick: she gave up her identity. The first crime she committed was against herself.

Here is a good chunk of the “Cool Girl” rant, those three or four pages that expose the moral core of the novel, and the source of Amy’s anger.

That night at the Brooklyn party, I was playing the girl who was in style, the girl a man like Nick wants: the Cool Girl. Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.


Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: ‘I like strong women.’ If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because ‘I like strong women’ is code for ‘I hate strong women.’)

I waited patiently – years – for the pendulum to swing the other way, for men to start reading Jane Austen, learn how to knit, pretend to love cosmos, organize scrapbook parties, and make out with each other while we leer. And then we’d say, Yeah, he’s a Cool Guy.
But it never happened. Instead, women across the nation colluded in our degradation! Pretty soon Cool Girl became the standard girl. Men believed she existed – she wasn’t just a dreamgirl one in a million. Every girl was supposed to this girl, and if you weren’t, then there was something wrong with you.

But it’s tempting to be Cool Girl. For someone like me, who likes to win, it’s tempting to want to be the girl every guy wants. When I met Nick, I knew immediately that was what he wanted, and for him, I guess I was willing to try. I will accept my portion of blame. The thing is, I was crazy about him at first. I found him perversely exotic, a good ole Missouri boy. He was so damn nice to be around. He teased things out in me that I didn’t know existed: a lightness, a humor, an ease. It was as if he hollowed me out and filled me with feathers. He helped me be Cool Girl – I couldn’t have been Cool Girl with anyone else. I wouldn’t have wanted to. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy some of it: I ate a MoonPie, I walked barefoot, I stopped worrying. I watched dumb movies and ate chemically laced foods. I didn’t think past the first step of anything, that was the key. I drank a Coke and didn’t worry about how to recycle the can or about the acid puddling in my belly, acid so powerful it could strip clean a penny. We went to a dumb movie and I didn’t worry about the offensive sexism or the lack of minorities in meaningful roles. I didn’t even worry whether the movie made sense. I didn’t worry about anything that came next. Nothing had consequence, I was living in the moment, and I could feel myself getting shallower and dumber. But also happy. […]

I was probably happier for those few years—pretending to be someone else—than I ever have been before or after. I can’t decide what that means.

But then it had to stop, because it wasn’t real, it wasn’t me. It wasn’t me, Nick! I thought you knew. I thought it was a bit of a game. I thought we had a wink-wink, don’t ask, don’t tell thing going. I tried so hard to be easy. But it was unsustainable. It turned out he couldn’t sustain his side either: the witty banter, the clever games, the romance, and the wooing. It all started collapsing on itself. I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. […]

So it had to stop. Committing to Nick, feeling safe with Nick, being happy with Nick, made me realize that there was a Real Amy in there, and she was so much better, more interesting and complicated and challenging, than Cool Amy. Nick wanted Cool Amy anyway. Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you? So that’s how the hating first began. I’ve thought about this a lot, and that’s where it started, I think.

If you’ve read this far, also read this meta-rant by Shannon Kelley and this Slate piece by David Haglund about how the rant was mangled into the movie (“the passage is not just a critique of men. Quite a bit of it, in fact, is a critique of women… The Cool Girl speech is fundamentally about wishing all women would think for themselves”).

So, don’t buy the Hollywood version. Read the book and think for yourself.

On privilege, awareness, debate and moving forward

You might say that my antennae are finely tuned to issues of gender in the workplace as reported by the media, but the latest crop of interesting reads has been, if ever, more depressing than usual. I will not dwell on the vicious backlash against women who brought to the media’s attention physicist Matt Taylor’s poor outfit choice in a press conference about a comet landing – if only because I tend to defend women’s right to wear whatever the hell they want -, other than to quote writer Roxane Gay (someone I will return to) and her essay “Blurred Lines, Indeed” (previously published as “What men want, America delivers“): “It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. ”

So, here is a multi-industry selection of recent articles pointing to the inescapable fact that, again in Gay’s words, “the problem is not that one of these things is happening, it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly”:

  • In finance: “When I was younger, I assumed that it would change. […] The results of this generational experiment are now in and they are pathetic.” From “Men alone should no longer run finance“, John Gapper, Financial Times, Dec. 3, 2014.
  • In asset management“One in five women in asset management has suffered sexual harassment at work… another third of female asset management staff had experienced sexist behaviour at work on a weekly or monthly basis… 15 per cent had felt pressured to exploit their sexuality at work…” From “Sexism still plagues fund management“, Chris Newlands and Madison Marriage, Financial Times, Nov. 30, 2014.
  • In architecture: “In the UK […] one recent survey found the number of women in architecture firms fell from 28% to 21% between 2009 and 2011.” From “If women built cities, what would our urban landscape look like?“, Susanna Rustin, The Guardian, Dec. 5, 2014.
  • In technology: “Women make up a tiny fraction, roughly 15%, of people working in technical roles in the tech industry. And amazingly, that percentage is dropping, not rising. Multiple studies have found that the proportion of women in the tech workforce peaked in about 1989 and has been steadily dropping ever since. […]The women I know in tech are tough, resilient and skilled [… ] The women who quit tech aren’t fragile. I think they’re fed up.” From “Why women are leaving the tech industry in droves“, Sue Gardner, LA Times, Dec. 5, 2014.
  • In videogames: “The campaign grew and morphed and got a name, “gamergate.” Very few people came out looking good in the ensuing hashtag war—an example of social media at its worst, with childish insults, sarcasm, disingenuousness, and threats of rape and other violence. […] Unfortunately, law enforcement hasn’t shown a willingness to take online threats seriously.” From the weirdly titled “The Gaming Industry’s Greatest Adversary Is Just Getting Started” (does one really become the greatest adversary of the industry by way of cultural criticism?), Sheelah Kolhatkar, BloombergBusinessweek, Nov. 26, 2014.

This latter article prompted an interesting discussion among some of my Facebook friends, in particular a (male) friend claiming that videogames aren’t really that bad in their depiction of women, and that the academic in question – Anita Sarkeesian – was overrreacting to online haters’ threats, since they are rarely carried out. I find it hard to describe the frustration I felt. Here was a man – a good friend, and not someone I believe would indulge in online hate – telling me, a woman, that another woman was wrong to fear for her safety. Perhaps this is what black males in Ferguson feel like when they are told by white authorities that the police is there to protect them, I replied.

But the point is, I don’t really know what black males in Ferguson feel like. I can attempt the necessary exercise in empathy – as one does, for example, in storytelling of many sorts -, but outside that exercise I can only truly speak to what I feel, if and when I am able to articulate it. If the lottery of life has allowed me a privilege, it is my job to be aware of it, just as it is for others who have a different type of privilege. I learned this in another of Roxane Gay’s essays, “Peculiar Benefits” (you can find it, along with the one quoted above, in her collection Bad Feminist), which suggests the beginning of a personal agenda for each of us who is somehow privileged:

There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege and the list goes on and on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold because everyone has something someone else doesn’t. […]

We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy and because life is hard for nearly everyone, we resent hearing that. Of course we do. Look at white men when they are accused of having privilege. They tend to be immediately defensive (and, at times, understandably so). They say, “It’s not my fault I am a white man.” They say, “I’m working class,” or “I’m [insert other condition that discounts their privilege],” instead of simply accepting that, in this regard, yes, they benefit from certain privileges others do not. To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. […]

You don’t necessarily have to do anything once you acknowledge your privilege. You don’t have to apologize for it. You don’t need to diminish your privilege or your accomplishments because of that privilege. You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about. They might endure situations you can never know anything about. You could, however, use that privilege for the greater good–to try to level the playing field for everyone, to work for social justice, to bring attention to how those without certain privileges are disenfranchised. While you don’t have to do anything with your privilege, perhaps it should be an imperative of privilege to share the benefits of that privilege rather than hoard your good fortune. We’ve seen what the hoarding of privilege has done and the results are shameful.

This should be, perhaps, if enough people in good faith agree, a way to move forward.

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Photo: https://www.facebook.com/roxane.gay