Bashing our Heads Against the Brick Wall of Reality

The headline was pure clickbait.

“A Viral Google Memo Alleges Retaliation Against A Pregnant Manager.”

At least, that was the headline back in August when I first noticed the article. The headline has since been changed to,

“A Leaked Google Memo Exposes the Fallacy of ‘Generous’ Parental Leave”

That’s a lot less clickbaity, but the first paragraph is still pretty damning for Google:

On Monday, Motherboard re-published a memo written by a Google employee with the title, “I’m Not Returning to Google After Maternity Leave, and Here is Why.” First posted on an internal message board, it details a now-departing employee’s allegations of pregnancy-related discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The memo writer alleges that a manager made sexist and derogatory remarks about a coworker who might have been pregnant before retaliating following a related HR complaint. When the memo writer herself became pregnant, she says things got even worse.

op. cit.

Let’s find out what these sexist and derogatory things were. I am going to give you my take on this article, and you are welcome to click on the link, read it yourself, and draw you own conclusions.

 The writer of this latest viral memo … was a manager at Google when she says her own manager “started making inappropriate comments” about a member of her team, “including that the Googler was likely pregnant again and was overly emotional and hard to work with when pregnant.”

op. cit.

Hmm, the third party was “overly emotional and hard to work with when pregnant?” Does that sound like a thing that ever happens? Do you suppose it’s ever happened before? Oh, yes, it must have happened, to this very person, because the manager said the Googler was “likely pregnant again.”  So perhaps the manager is speaking from direct, even recent personal experience. And perhaps his or her words are, in some sense, true.

It is well known to all people with a brain that many women become emotional and forgetful when pregnant.  We also become easily fatigued. This could make us difficult to work with, especially in a high-pressure, fast-moving, competitive work environment.

This is not a slam on women. Pregnancy is a major life event. It drains the energy from your body, often makes you physically miserable, and messes with your hormones and, yes, your emotions something fierce. It is, in fact, a full-time job. It would be surprising if such a major physiological event weren’t.

 She continues, “My manager also discussed this person’s likely pregnancy-related mental health struggles and how it’s difficult because, ‘you can’t touch employees after they disclose such things.’” The author felt her manager was encouraging her “to manage the member of my staff off of the team.”

She says she then reached out to HR with a complaint and “almost immediately” found that her manager’s “demeanor towards me changed, and drastically.” The employee alleges “months of angry chats and emails, vetoed projects, her ignoring me during in-person encounters, and public shaming,” as well as the manager “sharing reputation-damaging remarks with other more senior Googlers” and “actively interviewing candidates to replace me.”

op.cit.

Wait a minute. Her? Her??? The evil, pregnancy-retaliating manager is a woman??? Don’t you think this might be relevant?  Yes, yes, I know that women can be sexist against other women too, but given what we’ve already heard, I can’t help but think there might be more going on here.  Like maybe this female manager wasn’t looking forward to having to manage an emotionally unstable employee, and now she finds out she’s got another direct report who is complaining to HR, calling her a sexist, over remarks she made in an unguarded moment. Remarks which, perhaps, she expected that another woman would understand.  Clearly, she was mistaken.

At this point, I no longer trust the author of the memo accurately to describe her manager’s behavior.

After complaining again to HR, the employee says she was told there was “no evidence of retaliation.” Then, she says she was encouraged, and agreed, to find a role on another team, but was told that she wouldn’t be able to manage her new team “until after returning from maternity leave for fear that my maternity leave might ​‘stress the team’ and ‘rock the boat.’”

op. cit.

Maternity leave might stress the team and rock the boat? You mean if the team manager had to leave for several months? Nah, that doesn’t sound at all likely.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.

Then, she writes, she was diagnosed with “a pregnancy-related condition that was life-threatening” to both her and her baby, and which would require an early maternity leave and bedrest. She relayed this to her new manager, who then allegedly told her that “she had just listened to an NPR segment that debunked the benefits of bedrest” and shared a personal story about how she had personally ignored her doctor’s bedrest order while pregnant herself. “My manager then emphasized in this same meeting that a management role was no longer guaranteed upon my return from maternity leave, and that she supported my interviewing for other roles at Google,” she writes.

When she later wrote her manager announcing that she was “experiencing concerning symptoms” and would likely be starting her leave, she says she received back “an angry email letting me know I wasn’t meeting the expectations of someone at my level, nor meeting the expectations of a manager.” 

op. cit.

OK. It’s time for some reality here.  Maybe, just maybe, the childbearing years do not mix well with building a high-powered, team-managing career at Google.  Maybe this is the elephant in the room that is being ignored by everyone in this story, heroes and villains alike.

Obviously it is not good to discourage a pregnant woman with a life-threatening condition from going on bedrest when her doctor has recommended it. Nor is it good to tell someone else how to care for their own health problems based on your own personal experience.  What could be causing all this bad, arguably sexist (though I prefer the term anti-pregnancy) behavior from another woman?

Maybe it’s the cultural expectation that prenancy is not a big deal and should not in any way affect a woman’s ability to “meet the expectations of a manager.” Which, of course, it is and it does.

This is a subset of the bigger problem of wanting to pretend that men and women are exactly the same and should behave and been seen as exactly the same at all times. Or, rather than being a subset, this is more like the real road test of that idea. Can women behave and perform exactly the same as men … even when pregnant? Even when on bedrest?  And if they can’t, does this make them inferior? And if you say they can’t, does this make you anti-woman?

One Google employee who dared to say “men and women are not the same” was James Damore. Adding insult to injury, he is now used in this article as an example of sexist attitudes within Google. 

Then-engineer James Damore wrote a memo arguing against the company’s diversity efforts on the scientifically inaccurate grounds that women are less competent in the field of technology than men.

op. cit.

The only part of that sentence that is accurate is the phrase “then-engineer.” That’s because Damore lost his job for writing the infamous memo. But the way the article quotes him is extremely misleading. He did not “argue against the company’s diversity efforts.” He suggested that there might be a natural limit to the number of women Google was able to recruit and retain. He didn’t say that “women are less competent in the field of tech,” at least not that all women are. He said that, in general, women tend to be less drawn to that field.  This is not “scientifically inaccurate.”  It’s extremely well-documented. As Jordan Peterson has pointed out, in countries where people are allowed the maximum freedom to choose their careers, women tend to gravitate toward the helping professions and men tend to gravitate toward the hard sciences. 

What is scientifically inaccurate is the idea that women and men are exactly the same in mind and body, that pregnancy is a minor exception to this sacred truth, and that in the service of “equality,” pregnancy should at all costs be minimized, ignored, and if possible avoided altogether.

Certainly, goes the reigning orthodoxy, pregnancy shouldn’t be a big deal, shouldn’t change a woman’s work performance or lifestyle in any major way.  And if it does, somebody is due for some blame. Usually it’s the pregnant or newborn-having career woman, who “needs to figure out how to balance work and family” (translation: how to care for an infant without any help and without anyone else ever having to see or hear about the infant).  Occasionally, as in this article, the person who gets blamed is the woman’s manager, who dares to point out that her childbearing might have some impact on what she’s able to do at work.

People are flawed and sinful, and often, when we are blamed for something, it is at least partially justified. Not in this case. In this case, people are being blamed for not being able to enact a completely false picture of reality.  

Expecting women to combine their child-bearing years with their prime career-building years is unfair to everybody. As we see in this article, it puts managers, co-workers, and teams in a bad position. It also, of course, puts the young moms in a bad position, guaranteeing them a bad experience at work and robbing them of the ability to focus on their bodies and their babies during those childbearing years.

I’m not trying to guilt anybody here. Some young moms need to work so the family can get by. I get that. But we need to stop insisting that this arrangement is desirable for everyone … no big deal … easy … possible without something having to give, something having to suffer. Until we stop pretending, we’ll continue demonizing people (like the poor manager in the story above) rather than question the flawed doctrine.  That attitude, and not James Damore, is the real sexism.

Recommended reading: Maxed Out by Katrina Alcorn

Not Conventionally Handsome?

The first time we meet the romantic lead in my second novel, he is described thus (he’s the older brother):

Both boys were built along round, compact lines. Sha was still rather skinny, but Ikash was beginning to fill out with a little muscle, taking on a sleek, powerful shape reminiscent of a dolphin … They had brown skin; sweet, round faces like their mother; and straight black hair, Sha’s floppy, Ikash’s hugging his head like a seal’s pelt.

The Strange Land, chapter 1

Later, we are told that Ikash has “a tendency to appear squat.”

This is a look that might be called not conventionally handsome (i.e., not looking like the prince in Snow White or something). By the end of the book, believe me, Ikash is what Michael Knowles would call “a hulking Adonis.”

I didn’t write this intentionally to boost this particular style of male beauty. That’s just the way it worked out. Coincidentally, around the same time I was writing, Disney’s Maui gave us another spectacular example of this style of male beauty:

Though Maui is even more of a tank than Ikash.

Ladies, It’s Sort of Our Fault when Male Writers are Alcoholics

Today we have a YouTube podcast by one of my favorite living writers, Andrew Klavan. Skip all the political stuff at the beginning (unless you need a laugh, cause Klavan is funny).  For this post, we are going straight to the Mailbag segment at the end of the show.

At 34:10, Klavan reads a question from a listener who says that he is writing a screenplay.  The writing process has required him to open up some bad memories of his own, which though it resulted in good writing, has been hard on him and has slowed his progress.  “How do you deal with this, Mr. Klavan?”

At 34:58, Klavan agrees that this is a problem.  “Writing can really rip you to pieces, especially if you are an unsteady personality.”  Later, he will end the segment by saying, “Especially if you’re a really good writer, you’re really gonna hurt yourself sometimes, and you have to take care of yourself and heal.”

So far so good, if so obvious.  This is something that all writers know, even if we try not to talk about it a lot because it makes us sound like overly fragile artiste types.  Still, it’s good to hear this confirmed by a professional who has written hard-boiled crime novels and screenplays and has even gotten paid for them.

But things are going to get wilder. Klavan starts elaborating on why writing can mess you up.  He mentions that if you write a villain, you have to tap in to that evil place in yourself.  Then, at 35:40, he adds, “When you create female characters, you have to go into feminine parts of yourself, which for men can be very upsetting.  I think that’s why a lot of male writers are alcoholics, because they don’t like to face that part of themselves because it makes them feel that they’re not manly.”

Whoa! Wait! Stop, Mr. Klavan. Back up. This is fascinating, and I have so many questions.

First of all, do you think that female writers have a corresponding problem? And if not, why not?

Secondly. Klavan has just said that writing female characters can be so depressing that it drives men to alcoholism. Wow. Now my question is, are they depressed just because they are dismayed to find they are capable of thinking in a feminine way? In other words, are they upset only by the implied insult to their manliness?  Or … is there something inherently upsetting and/or depressing about being a woman, and these male writers are experiencing that directly?  My money’s on the second one. I can see that it would be a lot to handle for them, poor lambs.  Being relatively unprepared for it and all.

In other words, it just more fun to be the average man than to be the average woman?

And I’m not blaming anyone for this. If there is some truth in it, I think it has a physical cause (female hormones).  Dennis Prager has said that if the average man could suddenly be given a woman’s brain for a day, he’d be totally overwhelmed by everything that’s going on in there.  Whereas if the average woman could be given a man’s brain, she would go, “This is terrific! I’m free!”

Anyway. If there is any truth in my theory, it would follow that it is less emotionally taxing for female writers to write male characters than the reverse.

Based on my limited experience, I think this is true. Perhaps it’s because, to a greater degree than men, women are already in the habit of putting ourselves in another person’s shoes.  We have been given a natural tendency to do this.  We need to do it, as mothers, so as to intuit the needs of our children, whether they are boys or girls. So, we get a head start on that being-depressed-by-other-people’s-emotions thing.

A couple of caveats.  No, I am not saying that women make better writers than men, nor that women are automatically good at creating male characters (there are plenty of counter-examples to that idea).  Just that women already tend to do, in our daily lives, a perhaps slightly less intense version of that part of the writing process that some male writers find so depressing.

What do you guys think of all this?

After Twenty-Five Years

Today is a special day for me and my husband. (Happy Anniversary, Honey!)

It’s not 25 years, but it is an anniversary that I would have thought would make us old, back when I was nineteen.

We don’t look old. Our kids are still school-aged, for crying out loud.

In honor of this day, I am posting what I believe is the sweetest love song in theater.

Tevye and Golde, in this song, are about the same age as my husband and me. Possibly a little younger. But they seem older because they married and began having children very young, and their hard life has aged them. Neither of them is a prince or princess. Instead, they are a peasant couple. After having made a life together, prompted by the newfangled habit of marrying for love they are just now raising the question of whether they love each other.

The De-Mothering Project

Here is a strange, sad article about how one woman’s self-concept as a woman was formed … or de-formed.

The summary goes like this:

Strange as it may sound, the Holocaust education at my school shaped my sexuality and fertility well into adulthood by teaching me that the Holocaust brought about a complete break in the continuity of mankind. In the face of such immense suffering and slaughter, no responsible woman would choose to have children.

Susan Martin, “Conscience, Fertility and Holocaust Education”

This seems counter-intuitive. In the face of genocide, having more children would seem like a good way to fight back.

… Unless, that is, you are being told that you, and any potential children you might have, are part of the problem. And that is exactly what girls are being told. For Martin, it was because of the Holocaust (“the inevitable conclusion that humanity was evil and that all women share indirect responsibility for the atrocities”). Today, it’s more likely to be because of environmental concerns, “overpopulation,” or vague, un-stamp-out-able “injustice.”

Martin describes how being told that it was morally wrong to have children caused her to be unhappy with her body when it started developing into the body of a woman. She was infertile most of her adult life.

I can’t say that the Holocaust was used against me in my own education the way it was used against her, and in fact, I still have a hard time seeing the logical connection. But I can certainly identify when she writes,

“It was clear that my emerging sexuality and potential fertility would not be positively received in the adult world” and “We quickly discovered we got more praise from [society] for writing poetry than for pushing prams.”

Martin’s story is so tragic, and it’s yet another testimony to the fact that you can’t devalue motherhood (for any reason) without devaluing women. I have previously posted about it here.

An Actual Viking Reacts to Marvel’s Female Thor

Bjorn Andreas Bull-Hansen blogs here about men’s mental health, viking culture and bushcraft (“viking camp”). That’s why I call him an actual Viking.

I realize that not all of you will make the time to watch this 8-minute video, so below are some highlights of the transcript. But you need to watch the video to get the full effect of the Norwegian accent, the poignant eye contact, and especially the emotion in this guy’s voice at 6:55 when he talks about “our gods. Or what we perceive as holy.”

Highlights of Bjorn Andreas Bull-Hansen Talking about Female Thor

“So, you want to make Thor a woman.”

[takes swig from beer bottle]

“… you people.

“Listen.  I’m OK with a female Thor.  I don’t care!  That’s only because I’m a grownup. 

“But here’s the thing.  Thor is a symbol of masculine power.  But I do suspect that … the writers … have a little bit of an agenda and they think it’s interesting to tear down that concept of masculine power.  But let me tell you, there is actually such a thing.”

[takes swig of beer]

“My ancestors, they knew how important masculine power is for our society, for the family, and for our culture.  And let me just say that you are stepping on something now that means a lot to some of us.

“So go ahead, make Thor a woman.  But just know this: if you think it’s OK to make Thor a woman, you should never again criticize anyone for ‘cultural appropriation.’

“Every day, I walk my dog among the grave mounds of my ancestors.  And my belief system is no less important than any other belief system.

“We should all lower our shoulders when it comes to our gods. Or what we perceive as holy.  I think the world would be a better place if we did.  But never again will you cry out about ‘cultural appropriation.’  Because that’s what you’re doing now, making Thor female.”

[swig of beer] [shakes head] “You people.

“So go ahead, go ahead!  I don’t care. Thor is still out there.  All around us, as a symbol of masculine power.  He is present in every healthy society, in every healthy family.

“That’s all for now. Have a wonderful day! Bye-bye.”

An Insoluble Puzzle

Sad topic today.

An abusive marriage is a major part of the plot in my second novel, The Strange Land.

I first introduced this problem with a very minor mention in The Long Guest.  Wife abuse of some kind (not always the violent physical kind) could occur in a quarter to a half of all relationships, depending on the culture.  In The Long Guest I portray a small founding group of not quite 100 people, which means fifteen or twenty families.  Given that human nature has not changed throughout the ages, to have a group of this size with no abusive families in it would have been grossly unrealistic.

The Limits of the Options

Abuse within a family is always very difficult to respond to.  This is true in every age, but in our modern age there are at least a few options that those who care about the victim can offer.  As a last resort, breaking up the family in order to stop the abuse might not be ideal, but it’s at least possible.  It is possible for a single mom in our society to survive economically.  As for the abuser, it is possible to put him in jail, or failing that to put hundreds of miles between him and his victims.

There are fewer options available to a community when it’s tiny, isolated out in the wilderness, and consisting basically of one big extended family.  In this situation, there is no jail, there is no other place to live and it’s much less possible for a woman, especially if she has young children, to physically survive without a man.

So, how can the community handle this? A case of abuse is essentially a case of a stubborn, very hard heart.  Rebukes don’t work on such a heart.  Threats or pressure might work for a while, but ultimately tend to make the abuse worse. In a small, isolated community with no police force and nowhere else to go, the community has very few options unless they are willing to kill the abuser.   They are unlikely to be willing to do this, especially if he is related to them by blood.  If they do choose to put him to death, in the best case they must now support his widow and children.  In the worst case, it could tear the community apart, resulting in anything from more deaths to the complete end of the tribe.

When I included an abusive marriage purely for realism, I had little idea that I would be handing my community of characters a truly insoluble puzzle.

The Limits of the Law

These very questions, and others like them, are explored in the video below by the always articulate Alistair Roberts.   Roberts is answering a question from a viewer about why consent (in cases of arranged marriage, concubinage, etc.) does not seem to feature as a concept in Old Testament law. How can we square this with the idea that the Law is in any sense good?  

Roberts talks about the limits of any law to change the society it governs, and about the extremely limited reach of national-level laws to govern what goes on within a household. He mentions cases like that of Hagar, Abraham and Sarah’s Egyptian slave woman, whom Sarah “gives” to Abraham so that Hagar can have a son who will be considered his heir.  The way the founding couple treated Hagar was normal in their society at the time, but was certainly exploitative and was arguably rape.  Though Hagar’s case was not covered by the law, it is obvious from the story that God noticed the injustice and avenged it.  I never noticed that God avenged what happened to Hagar and her son Ishmael until I heard Roberts point it out in other videos, and then it became blindingly obvious.  He recaps that here, as well as giving proof that God took seriously King David’s treatment not only of Uriah, but of Bath-Sheba as well (another case that today would be considered at least sexual harassment and probably rape).

The bottom line is that we do what we can to right wrongs, but our varying circumstances constrain what are able to do.  These topics, sadly, are relevant to everyone.  If you spend long enough in a community of any kind (church, school, team, family) you will eventually be forced to deal with the question of how to confront abuse.  This video isn’t going to to give you all the answers (because they don’t exist), but it could help clarify your thinking.  If you have time, give it a listen.

Another excellent resource on this topic is the book Why Does He DO That? by Lundy Bancroft.