From the Department of Oh No He Didn't

If you've been hiking in the woods or your power got cut this past week, you may have missed the Gene Marks/If I Was a Poor Black Kid uproar. I'm not even going to get into the substance of the, er, "debate," such as it were, but suffice to say this is a big case for the DoONHD.

Here's a link to the piece, and an excerpt to give you the gist:

President Obama was right in his speech last week.  The division between rich and poor is a national problem.  But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality.   It’s ignorance.  So many kids from West Philadelphia don’t even know these opportunities exist for them.  Many come from single-parent families whose mom or dad (or in many cases their grand mom) is working two jobs to survive and are just (understandably) too plain tired to do anything else in the few short hours they’re home.  Many have teachers who are overburdened and too stressed to find the time to help every kid that needs it.  Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves – like my kids.  Except that my kids are just lucky enough to have parents and a well-funded school system around to push them in the right direction.

And here are some links that Forbes' editors have dutifully posted, explaining why each and every one of the preceding words is an embarrassment to the publication and implicitly promising to never let something like this happen again (well, that's not how they define it, but that's the sentiment I picked up):

Editor’s note — This post has generated an enormous amount of feedback here on Forbes and across the web. Here are a few of those responses:

Kashmir HillForbes: Trolling The Internet With ‘If I Were A Poor Black Kid’

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic: A Muscular Empathy

Kelly Virella, Dominion of New York: If I Were The Middle Class White Guy Gene Marks

Cord Jefferson, GOODAn Ode To A ‘Poor Black Kid’ I Never Knew: How Forbes Gets Poverty Wrong

This evening, listening to Tell Me More as I unpacked my groceries, I caught Baratunde Thurston on the program, and was reminded of why sometimes it takes something this bad to inspire something this good. From the Department of Oh Yes He Did (and thank goodness he did):

Dear Mr. Gene Marks,

I am a poor black kid. I don't have great parental or educational resources. I'm not as smart as your kids. These are facts. In 2011.

The one smart thing I do everyday is read Forbes. It's what all us poor black kids do. Forbes is constantly reporting on issues of relevance to me and my community. This week, I found your article "If I Were A Poor Black Kid" printed out and slid under my door like all Forbes articles.


I didn't know any of these opportunities existed. My parents and I were too tired. We were all ignorant, and quite frankly, I could have figured it out sooner on my own if I'd had the brains to do so. Your article provided those brains. It wasn't about my parents or ways to improve the school system or how to empower the community. It had nothing to do with history or accumulated privilege or social psychology. No, I simply needed to want success more and combine that with technology. You taught me that I can do all this by myself, and I have!

With that one article, you solved the problems of millions. Imagine the good you could do with three or four articles! Please don't stop with poor black kids! What about children trapped in sex trafficking? How about undocumented migrant workers? And of course, there's women. Have you ever wondered why there aren't more women CEOs? I'm sure you have. You've thought about everything and figured everything out. You are a great man. Thanks again for teaching me about technology.

There's also Baratunde's website,, where you get to submit questions to a real Poor Black Kid who thinks just like Gene Marks, and another great Tumblr site,, which (trigger warning) features Gene Marks' face so many times you may have nightmares. Episodes like this make me profoundly grateful for the humorists among us. Thank you, Baratunde, and others who have conspired to turn this example of hideous bad taste into endless good times (and important lessons) for the rest of us.

I leave you with a taste of Poor Black Kid's advice to whet your appetite:

Can Poor Black Kids armed with Technical skills save Poor Mexican Kids? Would Mr. Marks even want that?

Mr. Marks believes in the simple power of individual human will combined with TED talks and CliffsNotes to solve income inequality. The question is not “can Poor Black Kids can save Poor Mexican Kids?” The question is: do Poor Mexican Kids want to save themselves?

This TED talk (in Spanish for easier Mexican consumption) should help. Buena suerte!

Hitchens, Mentors and Muses

When Christopher Hitchens died last week, writers and thinkers and anyone who's ever picked up a copy of Vanity Fair or, less commonly, the Nation, lit the internet on fire with songs of praise and adulation. The first thing I read by him was his 2001 book The Trial of Henry Kissinger. A solidly argued book that made a deep impression on me morally, it did not stand out for its writing. I fell for his writing later on, in 2005, as an intern for the Nation. Tasked with photocopying the entirety of Katha Pollitt's oeuvre for a compilation of her essays, I found my gaze wandering over to his column, which lay just across the staples, facing hers. There, standing next to the photocopy machine, I realized what a truly tremendous wit he had, and how spectacularly effectively he could deploy it. In the fall of 2005, "Christopher Hitchens" was a dirty word around that office. He had left the magazine over his pro-Iraq War position, and a green stench like a cartoon fart trailed behind the mere mention of his name. So, I enjoyed his verbal prowess privately, in a dingy corridor, piles of back issues around my ankles.

Then, he lost me. It wasn't just the Iraq war stuff: his Islamophobia, his relentless sexism, and the way he handled a question at the Hay Festival, where he was touring with "God is Not Great," that really put me off. Nevermind that he totally dismissed my question ("Could you describe what a secular morality would look like and on what principles it would be founded?") with an incoherent ramble on blood donation. What upset me was how disrespectful he was to another audience member who, admittedly, perhaps shouldn't have opened with "I'm an Episcopalian." I don't remember the substance of her question, but I do remember that he attacked her intelligence on the basis of her being a person of faith, and thinking that his attitude was arrogant, inappropriate, and most of all, intellectually cowardly.

Was he drunk? Perhaps. That, to me, is another form of disrespect for his audience.

I've written before on his utterly unconvincing "Women aren't funny" stance, and in retrospect, should have noted that in that loathsome Vanity Fair article, his writing falters, as though he can't even bring himself to fully unsheathe the wit and rhetoric required to defend the indefensible. But nobody takes on sexism better than Katha Pollitt. In "Regarding Christopher," her column for the Nation this week, she bids him farewell in her own way, with an evaluation more honest and, in its own way, more respectful, than many of the other verbal shrines that have been built over the past few days. Here's my favorite part:

So far, most of the eulogies of Christopher have come from men, and there’s a reason for that. He moved in a masculine world, and for someone who prided himself on his wide-ranging interests, he had virtually no interest in women’s writing or women’s lives or perspectives. I never got the impression from anything he wrote about women that he had bothered to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking, let alone interviewing or reporting—the sort of workup he would do before writing about, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Scientology or Kurdistan. It all came off the top of his head, or the depths of his id. Women aren’t funny. Women shouldn’t need to/want to/get to have a job. The Dixie Chicks were “fucking fat slags” (not “sluts,” as he misremembered later). And then of course there was his1989 column in which he attacked legal abortion and his cartoon version of feminism as “possessive individualism.” I don’t suppose I ever really forgave Christopher for that.

This leads me to another thing that disappoints me about him. While journalism is by and large a meritocratic field, a great deal of success (as in many other fields) depends on connections, friendships, and mentorship. My understanding was that Hitchens mentored very few women journalists; instead, he focused his attention on young male journalists, including Jacob Weisberg, the chairman and editor of, whose column describes how "nothing was headier" than grabbing a drink with Hitchens in DC. I've been lucky enough to have a few journalism mentors, one of whom, whether she knows it or not, is Katha. I also know that Katha looks out for other young women writers, since it was through her citations of their ideas and writings that I got to know the work of Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing, and Dana Goldstein, who now specializes (and how!) in education reporting.

But mentorship is not easy to come by, as Kathryn Minshew, founder of the Daily Muse, discovered as a consultant working at McKinsey. I wrote up the site, which is targeted at young, ambitious women who want to know how to kick heinie at work.

The Daily Muse is an online magazine that provides content geared towards career-focused women. Minshew’s own experience as a consultant at McKinsey, which she joined after graduating from Duke University in 2008, inspired her to launch the Daily Muse. She realized very quickly that, as a woman, “the workplace experience was different.” Take mentoring, for instance. Minshew cited research showing that senior male executives are uncomfortable mentoring younger women because of concerns about appearances, which may leave women at a disadvantage.

“It’s hard to find a mentor if you work with a boss of a different gender,” she said. The Daily Muse offers the kind of career advice and feedback that ambitious young women like her need, often written by ambitious young women like herself.

Read the rest here.

Another easy-to-grasp equation, via Eve Ensler: No women, no future, duh.

When I was in high school, my godmother took me to see the Vagina Monologues, written and performed by Eve Ensler. I loved it. So much that I tried to work for Eve Ensler, and was given a job in the gift shop instead, which I worked at the weekends until I got vagina fatigue (they pipe the show into the gift shop and there's only so much repetition of the word "vagina" I could stand.) Ensler, whose V-Day organization has raised millions of dollars to fight violence against women around the world, has a bit of rape fatigue these days. She expounds on her rape fatigue this week in the Huffington Post.

I am over rape.

I am over rape culture, rape mentality, rape pages on Facebook.

I am over the thousands of people who signed those pages with their real names without shame.

I am over people demanding their right to rape pages, and calling it freedom of speech or justifying it as a joke.

I am over people not understanding that rape is not a joke and I am over being told I don't have a sense of humor, and women don't have a sense of humor, when most women I know (and I know a lot) are really fucking funny. We just don't think that uninvited penises up our anus, or our vagina is a laugh riot.

I was feeling the same way back in May of this year when, between the two NYPD rape cases, the DSK allegations, and the reports of mass rape in Libya, seemed to invite an official recognition of May as Rape Month.

It's November now, and I'm with Eve. I'm over rape.

A new generation of Taliswomen?

My professor at NYU, Adam Penenberg (he is not normally sad like in the photo on his website), turned me onto a great blog, Pretty Little Head, written by "Farrah Bostic, a strategist, thinker and maker honing my creative technology chops while living in Brooklyn, NY." In the post he sent me, "The Trouble with Talismen," she muses thoughtfully and at length on why a list of who might be "The Next Steve Jobs" was all Steves, no Stephanies. Her answers are worth reading in their entirety, but here are a few:

Because despite the author’s apparent lack of a criteria for assembling his list (other than the Charlie Rose Booking rule), there was a common thread among those who made the list – and it wasn’t just that they are all men.

What struck me as the true criteria was that the men on this list (with a few exceptions) are inventors.


And this is the real problem for women in tech.  It’s not (just) that the media don’t like us or sex sells or that bias and sexism exist.  It’s that we don’t have enough women who are true inventors in our midst who take their inventions and turn them into multi-billion dollar businesses… And either stay on to be CEOs or sell the business to a bigger fish.

The sad truth is we don’t have enough inventors right now, especially in the US, where enrollment in STEM degree college programs (which would at least give you the basic skills and knowledge for inventing physical things – or say, getting a job even in this economy) is down across the board.

Even those with an interest in engineering don’t get degrees – 1/3 of the list Karbasfrooshan assembles didn’t finish college, much less get a computer science degree.  So it’s not required to have a STEM degree to invent something, but in terms of skills acquisition, women are poorly represented in the shrinking population of those who do study science, technology, engineering or math.

While these women have much to be proud of, not one invented the product their company sells or have revolutionized the businesses they helm.  They have made them profitable, made interesting acquisitions, improved productivity or efficiency or morale.  But they haven’t utterly transformed the way people think about packaged food or cosmetics or pumping gas.

But here’s the thing.  Most Fortune 500 CEOs are not the inventors of their products, not the visionaries, not the game-changers.  So this is not a female problem.  It’s a CEO problem.


In other words, it’s about that vision thing.  Karbasfrooshan didn’t omit women because of sexism and bias and discrimination – at least not directly.  He omitted women because there just aren’t any playing at the level these very few guys play at who are visionaries about new products and services built out of technology.  There aren’t enough women who are inventors and cultural visionaries or industry game-changers… because there aren’t enough of those kinds of people, full stop.  They are, almost by definition, rare.

As ever, I come back to the wise words oft-repeated by Cindy Gallop: you can’t be what you don’t see.

I recently wrote a piece, "This is What a Computer Scientist Looks Like," for Women in the World Foundation about a great initiative sponsored by the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) to recruit and retain more young women in IT. Here's a brief description of how it works and why it works.

In 2007, Sanders’ colleague Ruthe Farmer launched a small awards program, the NCWITAward for Aspirations in Computing, to recognize girls in high school who showed an aptitude for computer science and invite them to NCWIT meetings. To her surprise, the girls found the experience transformative. It provided much-needed validation to counteract the discouragement they often found at school, where they were a small minority – or sometimes the only female student – in Advanced Placement computer science classes.

With the resources of firms including Bank of America, Google and Motorola, Farmer has scaled up the Aspirations in Computing Award to a nationwide program, with regional and local events so that girls are recognized within their own communities.

“Young women who self-identify as technical is kind of a priceless group,” she said. “They’re very attractive to everybody.”

Nearly 800 girls have been recognized nationally, regionally and locally so far, including Williams, who was an Illinois affiliate winner in 2009-2010. National winners receive a $500 cash prize, a laptop computer courtesy of Bank of America, and a trip to Bank of America’s corporate headquarters in North Carolina.  Every winner gets not one, but two, plaques.

“Each of the girls gets a plaque that goes home with her,” said Farmer, “and then we send a second one for the school to put in their trophy case.”

The winners also provide each other with peer support through a 290-member Facebook group. At the beginning of this school year, one girl posted on the group’s Facebook page that she was the lone female student in her programming class. The others jumped in with encouragement: “Don’t worry!” “Hang in there!” “You can talk to us.”

Farmer said the award’s impact is crucial to countering the self-doubt that they face for having what are considered unorthodox interests. According to an evaluation survey, 79% said that it has made them less “afraid, worried, or nervous.”

The New York Times reported earlier this month about efforts by universities to recruit more women to their STEM programs. But when so many young women are feeling "afraid, worried, or nervous" to study a STEM or IT subject, it's worth stopping to ask why that is, and how we can address that earlier. It's not to say that each of these women can and will go on to become "The Next Steve Jobs," since, as Bostic pointed out in her original post, Steve Jobs-y type people are by definition rare. At the end of her post, she asks:

So, who are the women (or the men we haven’t heard of, for that matter) who are inventing new OSes, software that changes the way you interact with the world, social platforms that alter the infrastructure of the internet, technologies that enable new kinds of transactions and business models, boxes of wires and silicon that transmit and calculate data in new ways?

If you know who they are, please say so in the comments here, and I’ll follow up with that list.

It would not surprise me if the NCWIT program produced a few women for that list.

How Hanna Rosin discovered, described and defended the End of Men

For a case study assignment for my Writing and Reporting I class at NYU, I had the enormous pleasure of interviewing Hanna Rosin, a founder and editor of's DoubleX blog, and the author of "The End of Men," a controversial reported essay that appeared in the July 2010 issue of the The Atlantic magazine. I had seen her debate the proposition "Men Are Finished" as part of the Intelligence Squared series at the Skirball Center; she wiped the floor so thoroughly and so entertainingly with the other side that I almost gave them a pity vote. She was just as humorous, quick and insightful over the phone, and graciously took the time to share the following with me: The Story: “The End of Men,” by Hanna Rosin, ran on the cover of the July 2010 issue of the Atlantic magazine. The story poses the question: “What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women?” and, by way of an answer, details an economic, social and cultural shift underway in America and beyond. Equal parts research, reporting and argumentation, the story presents compelling evidence from a range of sources that, taken together, indicate a profound social change Rosin believes is irreversible.

The Writer: Hanna Rosin is a longtime journalist who has written for many, if not all, of America’s most respected titles, including The New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, GQ, New York, and The New Republic, where, according to Professor Penenberg, she was all buddy-buddy with Stephen Glass. Much of her work focuses on issues of gender and sexuality, such as “A Boy’s Life,” a deeply-reported story on an 8-year-old transgender male-to-female boy. She is the author of the 2007 book God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America, and is currently at work on the book-length version of “The End of Men.” By day, she is an editor at’s DoubleX site, and she is also a senior editor at the Atlantic.

The Germ: The story was born of an evolving thought process that Rosin traces back to Susan Faludi’s 2000 book “Stiffed,” which explored how cultural trends, changing economic structures and recurrent recessions are warping modern masculinity. “It’s not a new idea,” she admits readily, that men are on the decline. But with only more recessions since 2000, she thought, “Surely it’s gone a step beyond – have women started surpassing men? Could that possibly be true?”

Her editor at the Atlantic, Don Peck, pushed it along. Having just written a book himself, “Pinched,” about the squeezing of the middle class, he was familiar with much of the data on men’s job loss during the recession.

The Reporting: Once she had this question in mind, she said, it was a matter of building a case.

“I started looking in various corners where it might be true, and it turned out it was true, or surprisingly true, or true in various ways,” she said.

Her research and reporting meandered across disciplines: education, pop culture, labor economics, fertility, the men’s movement. She estimates that the reporting process took about two and a half months, during which time she was also editing DoubleX. Because of the breadth of the topic, she likened it to reporting six different stories.

“First you have to familiarize yourself withal the education research and talk to all those people, and then you have the fertility research, and you have to go talk to all those people, and that’s kind of unusual for a piece,” she said. “Usually you’re working in one universe, but here you’re working in several different universes.”

The bulk of the field reporting that made it into the piece was from a one-week trip she took to Kansas, where she sat in on several male-support group meetings and spent time on several universities there, including a community college and the University of Missouri at Kansas City, visiting the business school, the women’s studies center, and different sororities. She estimates she had individual conversations with about 30 students in all, both female and male.

“I knew I had to do some college reporting since that’s central to the argument, the idea that women have taken over higher education,” she said.

She had to drive to different fertility clinics to collect data in person about which sex offspring parents were requesting, information they were collecting for regulatory purposes but they could not give out over the phone. She also spent a lot of time at men’s support groups that did not make it into the story.

The process of reporting the story – building a case by amassing a truckload of data and anecdotes – was in some ways a departure for her.

“To be honest, this is not my favorite kind of reporting to do,” she said. “My favorite kind of reporting is writing about an offbeat topic that illustrates a particular larger phenomenon and you get to follow a particular person or family and report it deeply. In this case, you’re starting with the idea not w the person or family and have to figure out where to report that big idea, and I think that’s really, really hard.”

The Writing: As with the reporting, the writing was a change from the straightforward long-form narrative writing she preferred to do for the Atlantic. “It’s partly an act of rhetoric,” she said, “and trying to get people to think about something they think of as fairly impossible.” Initially, she planned to open with data on women’s dominance in higher education, since the data are clear on this [excerpt]:

We’ve all heard about the collegiate gender gap. But the implications of that gap have not yet been fully digested. Women now earn 60 percent of master’s degrees, about half of all law and medical degrees, and 42 percent of all M.B.A.s. Most important, women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees—the minimum requirement, in most cases, for an affluent life. In a stark reversal since the 1970s, men are now more likely than women to hold only a high-school diploma. “One would think that if men were acting in a rational way, they would be getting the education they need to get along out there,” says Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. “But they are just failing to adapt.”

On the advice of her editor, she moved that information down. He reasoned that this was information most people already knew. Instead, she opened with an anecdote about a biologist who had developed a way to separate out female and male sperm in the 1970s, allowing parents to select the sex of their child. Back then, his experiments raised concerns among feminists about a “dystopia of mass-produced boys.” But by the 1990s, when Ericsson surveyed the clinics using his method, he found a clear and consistent preference for girls. [excerpt]

In some clinics, Ericsson has said, the ratio is now as high as 2 to 1. Polling data on American sex preference is sparse, and does not show a clear preference for girls. But the picture from the doctor’s office unambiguously does. A newer method for sperm selection, calledMicroSort, is currently completing Food and Drug Administration clinical trials. The girl requests for that method run at about 75 percent.

Ordinarily, Rosin, who used to be a columnist, might offer a fact or anecdote that illustrates a counterbalancing phenomenon. To fight that instinct, she recalled advice from her first boss, the columnist Andrew Sullivan.

“If you’re going to write this kind of essay, it’s one thing Andrew taught me,” she said. “If you’re going to argue it, argue it. Otherwise, it’s not interesting for anyone to read. I had to work against my bias, which is very ‘on the one hand, on the other hand.’”

An Atlantic piece like Rosin’s, which describes imminent “vast social consequences,” would usually contain some policy prescriptions towards the end, what I think of as the “So here’s what we can do” part. Rosin said she doesn’t know why she didn’t do that in this piece, but thought it could be due to how she and her editor framed the story: as a work of cultural anthropology, and not a policy piece. In the forthcoming book, there will be a larger focus on policy, she said.

The Fallout: Perhaps due to its provocative title, which Rosin said she had nothing to do with, the piece provoked considerable backlash. Everyone found something to pick apart; Nation columnist Katha Pollitt wrote that “One problem with Rosin's optimistic picture is that every fact she cites in support needs about a dozen asterisks after it.” Men’s rights groups and feminists pushed back in equal measure against her message.

But Rosin thinks the reaction is based on a misread of her thesis, again perhaps due to the provocative title, which makes it sound as though the battle is over. To her, the fact that women still suffer from wage discrimination, or are a tiny percentage of CEOs or political leaders, does not mean that what she is describing is not true.

“These are not answers to my argument,” she said. “It just means these are two realities that can coexist at the same time.”

By August of 2010, the Observer reported her book deal. She hadn’t sought one, she said, but her agent called and suggested it. In addition to more exploration of the policy implications of the end of men, she’s also expanding her research into sex and dating for the book. In the meantime, she’s hit the lecture circuit, giving a TEDx talk and appearing at an Intelligence Squared debate this past September in New York City, where she and her teammate Dan Abrams set a record for the debate series, demolishing opponents Christina Hoff Sommers and David Zinczenko with a 46% vote swing.

This one's for you, Hitch.

Katha Pollitt is so damn funny. Here is her latest column in the Nation. It is funny. Subtly funny, intelligently funny, straight-up funny. In it, God drunk dials her and tries to get her to run for POTUS. Hilarity ensues. In my heart and on my blog, I dedicate this column to Christopher Hitchens. When I was Katha Pollitt's intern at The Nation in the fall of 2005, one of my assignments was to photocopy all of her columns from the previous five years so that the hard copies could be messengered over to her publisher for what was later to become the book "Virginity or Death!: And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time," a best-of collection of her biweekly columns (Hitchens' own collection of columns, Arguably, came out recently).

Her columns were right across the page from those of Christopher Hitchens, who later left the magazine over his stance on the Iraq war (he was pro, entire rest of the office down to the plants and the carpeting was anti). Standing there by the copy machine, I absorbed a lot of vintage Hitch. He's absolutely brilliant, one of the funniest writers I've ever read, especially when he decides to be mean. But a few years ago he lost me with an incoherent Vanity Fair essay on why women aren't funny:

"Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punch line of the cartoon," said the report's author, Dr. Allan Reiss. "So when they got to the joke's punch line, they were more pleased about it." The report also found that "women were quicker at identifying material they considered unfunny."

Slower to get it, more pleased when they do, and swift to locate the unfunny—for this we need the Stanford University School of Medicine? And remember, this is women when confronted with humor. Is it any wonder that they are backward in generating it?

This claptrap leads to outcomes like SXSW's 29 men:1 woman comedy lineup this past March (and reinforces outdated, unhelpful gender roles). But a study out a few weeks ago put this nonsense to bed, as the consistently and highly funny Amanda Marcotte noted in Slate:

It's worth noting that this study didn't get as much coverage as other, less scientfically sound evolutionary-psychology ramblings that actually promote sexist stereotypes. Which is a shame, because this study neatly debunks the unevidenced claims of evolutionary psychology that there's a "sense of humor" gene on the Y chromosome that's there—why else?—so men can get women to sleep with them. What the researchers actually found was that the slight edge given to men in humor rankings was because men find men funnier than women find men. So much for that "will get you laid" theory.

When my late father, Gerald Sussman, worked as a humor writer at The National Lampoon in the late 1970s, the staff was all male. But that was then. This is now.

Updated Monday 8:15 am I forgot to add a list of a few other people to read if you love the funny. Send me your favorites and I'll post them too! Please you enjoy: