Single mothers, their kids, and the big American holidays

This week, Leslie Bennetts crafted an ode to American moms, who are doing the best they can in this lousy economy.

The latest Census data revealed that 42 percent more women than men now live in poverty—and among those over 65, twice as many women live in poverty, compared with men. Single mothers are particularly vulnerable; more than 40 percent of their families are poor, and more than half of all poor children live in female-headed households.

My father passed away when I was seven, so for most of my life, it's been just me and Big Mama, kicking it live. She is a SuperMom if there ever was one, working at nights and weekends writing books to supplement her income as "the assistant to the editor of the Home section" (her official title) at the New York Times.

Single motherhood is associated with all kinds of negative life outcomes for the next generation. I'd argue that the outcomes are correlated with many of the other factors that, in turn, correlate with single motherhood -- poverty, lack of access to or education about reproductive health services, etc. Those factors, in my case, were not present.

Both of my parents were writers and had high expectations for me. We lived in a safe, low-crime neighborhood in Manhattan. When my father passed away, we weren't well-off, and we weren't even financially "comfortable" (that's not how I'd ever describe my mom while I was growing up), but we were definitely not poor by either the federal definition nor in our day-to-day life, which was rich with love, with learning, museums, books, basketball, and friends. So I was fortunate in my circumstances to avoid the negative life outcomes (lower school achievement, lower lifetime earnings, etc). In my more rebellious phases, I went out of my way to date a drug dealer and stay out really late, but that was a phase. In my family, by which I mean "in my mom's eyes," there was no question that I would go to college, do well at college, and go on to work. My friend with whom I regularly debate this says I am the exception, not the rule. If that is the case, I do not think the mothers nor the fact of their singleness are to blame.

One thing that never bugged me was what to do over the holidays while everyone else was getting together with their greater-than-binomial families. We always had places to go, loving family friends who took us in, a large table to sit at with many people around it, many plates of food on it, and two seats saved for my mom and I.

My dear friend Cara Hoffman reminded me of this today when she sent me this little essay, "How do Atheists and Families of Two Celebrate Christmas?" Good families are about quality, not quantity. And to her and my mom and all the other single mothers, I dedicate this song:


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.

The Daily Muse: A new kind of women's magazine

Author's note: I was assigned to cover a start-up for class, and having just come off the heels of an interview with Hanna Rosin, was feeling very End-of-Men-y. Her thesis - that patriarchy is on the wane, at least in America - sure rings true when you're in the company of the women behind The Daily Muse. I'm not convinced that patriarchy is giving up without a fight, but as someone who finds mainstream women's magazines very problematic, it's great to see content that's geared towards getting women ahead, instead of making us feel fat or inadequate.  With Professional Women on the Rise, New Startup Hopes to Link its Readership with Hungry Employers

NEW YORK CITY – On a Friday evening at 5 pm, the elevator at 33 West 17th Street discharged half a dozen young women into an unseasonably warm New York City evening. On the ninth floor, Alexandra Cavoulacos and Kathryn Minshew, co-founders of the Daily Muse, were still huddled over a table in their bright white Silicon Alley office, documents in hand, preparing for a conference call.

Cavoulacos and Minshew, along with their co-founder Melissa McCreery, are banking on the idea that there are millions more women like the ones just spotted leaving work (whom they guessed worked for handbag designer Rebecca Minkoff, who has offices on the sixth floor) -- young, ambitious and tired of traditional women’s magazines offerings – and that companies recognize their potential.

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.

“For me, the person who is most qualified to give advice to a recent law school grad who’s experience a law office for the first time is another recent law school grad, or a group of recent law school grads, who are one to five years older,” she said. “Some of our most powerful articles have been by women in their late 20s and early 30s saying ‘Here are the five mistakes I made in my most recent job, and how you can avoid making them too."

The site, which soft-launched in early September of this year, comes at an auspicious time for working women, who are infiltrating the workforce at an impressive clip. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that 51.4% of managerial and professional jobs are now held by women, versus 26.1% in 1980. A May 2011 BLS report on women’s employment during the recovery noted that “women college graduates are likely to outnumber male college graduates in the near future.”

In addition to career advice, the site features contributions from some of the most successful women in their respective industries, such as a contribution to the “Letters to My Younger Self” column by media mogul Arianna Huffington (her tip: get more sleep.) While the first four categories on the home page are Career, Job Search, Entrepreneurship and Education, there are regular contributors on beauty, fashion, hobbies, and technology, among other topics.

Minshew and her colleagues are not the only ones hoping to target this demographic. In recent years, the mainstream media have caught on to their potential Forbes magazine launched ForbesWoman in 2009; the Wall Street Journal hosted a Women in the Economy conference in 2010; Bloomberg has scaled up its coverage of women in the past year; and the Financial Times has maintained a “Women at the Top” blog for professional women since 2009. More specialized sites like Vivanista, dedicated to women in philanthropy, and Ladies Who Launch, focused on women entrepreneurs, as well as more general career-oriented sites like the Levo League and Hello Ladies!, are all hoping for a piece of the pie.

Unlike most mainstream media sites, whose large audiences appeal to advertisers, Minshew does not plan to rely on advertising for revenue. Instead, the Daily Muse will offer services like headhunting, professional development courses and other networking opportunities.

“We’ve been approached by employers who are excited, who tell us ‘Oh my goodness, you’ve got this pool of incredibly qualified, ambitious women who want to read about how to be good managers, and good employees and good speakers. How can we hire them? How can we work with you to share our job opportunities with them?’” Minshew said.

“Beyond that, the workplace is becoming more skill-based and less industry-based,” she said, noting that women may have an advantage in a new economy that prioritizes excellent verbal and written communications skills over the physical brawn that once-dominant industries like construction and manufacturing required.

Pattie Simone, a serial entrepreneur and founder of, a platform for women professionals, said the crowded field is both a blessing and a curse.

“As more people realize the buying power and overall influence of more women in the workforce, as well as the explosion of women-founded entrepreneurial ventures, the more content providers there will be, vying for the same audience,” she said. She encouraged them to think about finding multiple revenue streams, citing Ladies Who Launch and the Women’s Leadership Exchange as two other sites that have done this successfully.

Sarah Granger, a writer and new media innovator and strategist, advises them to keep refining their voice and their offerings over the next few years, and also predicted a redesign of the site in that time-frame, which she said is normal for media-based startups. While they have “a unique collection of content for the target audience they selected,” she said, “They'll need to find a unique niche where they provide the best content or services in order to survive as a for-profit venture.”

The Daily Muse is currently self-funded, said co-founder and fellow McKinsey alum Alexandra Cavoulacos, but they hope to have their seed round of outside funding commitments finalized by the end of the year. In the two months since it’s been up, they have met their 30% month-on-month readership growth rate. They have already completed some revenue deals already, including helping an internet start-up fill a general manager position by announcing it to their readers and then filtering applications.

Jennifer L. Pozner, a media critic and founder and director of Women in Media and News (WIMN), applauded the Muse’s effort to seek alternative revenue streams.

“Advertisers are permeating our media content at a more extreme level than ever before,” she said. “Women deserve to be valued as media consumers, rather than simply traded for our eyeballs.”

Yoga to the People. No, seriously.

You may have heard about Yoga to the People, a donation-based yoga studio in the East Village that's now the defendant in a lawsuit filed by Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram yoga (TM). A yoga-based lawsuit could and one day may be the subject of its very own blog post, but for now I mention it merely to highlight its polar opposite: seriously bringing yoga to the people. Not just broke students who can't afford the very high prices of yoga classes in New York, but people who've never heard of yoga. People like former child combatants in Uganda, and women who have survived sexual violence during conflict.

The person bringing the yoga is Lenny Williams, the founder of Mandala House, who I profiled last week for Women in the World. An excerpt follows, and the full profile can be read here.

Williams had practiced yoga regularly since her mid-twenties and trained in 2003 at OM yoga studio in downtown Manhattan. While she enjoyed taking classes, she knew she wanted to work with people who wouldn’t normally find themselves in a yoga studio. To work more effectively with these populations, she began training in trauma-sensitive yoga. During a training with trauma pioneers David Emerson and Bessel van der Kolk, she realized that much of what she was learning – that yoga can help heal – she knew through her own experience.

“I didn’t even know that I was using yoga and these techniques to heal and self-regulate, but I was,” she said, “so I intuitively knew there was this toolkit. I just hadn’t formalized it.”

She tried reaching out to organizations working with incarcerated youth, and to local rape crisis centers, but got little traction. Friends who worked at the United Nations and with international relief agencies encouraged her to look abroad. Just a month after she secured fiscal sponsorship through the women’s rights organization MADRE, she got the green light from the St. Monica’s Girls School in Gulu. From her conversations with the headmistress, CNN Hero Sister Rosemary, she gathered that the staff was enthusiastic about the yoga training. Only upon her arrival did it become clear that no one had any idea what yoga was.

“I wish I had a picture of my face at that moment,” she said. “They thought it was going to be badminton or something -- some sort of sports activity.”

Full story here.

Getting Women Back to Work

The recession has hit women and men differently, but globally, the consensus is there. Economies will grow if women work. Or as the World Bank puts it, investing in women is "smart economics." In this piece for Women in the World Foundation, I profiled three innovative non-profits getting women back in jobs across the United States. One trains women to work in construction; another focuses on microfinance, and a third helps women launch and grow small businesses.

When the recession hit in December 2007, men took the first hit: jobs in construction, real estate and finance, where men are overrepresented, vanished from the labor market. But the so-called “man-cession” has given way to yet another neologism: “the he-covery.”  In fact, over the last two years, women’s unemployment has risen while men re-enter the work force. As stimulus money dries up and states and municipalities struggle to balance their budgets, public sector jobs (of which women have already lost 72.3% in the last two years) will face further cuts.

These figures reflect a changing economy, in which certain sectors where women are overrepresented, like administrative and secretarial work, are in decline. Others in which they are underrepresented, like the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, are projected to grow.  Construction and extraction jobs are expected to grow at a rate of 1.2% through 2018, but women only make up 2.6% of the industry’s employed.

Read the rest of the story, "Bucking the Trend: Getting women back to work in the face of the 'woman-cession,'" 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.

2+2 = 4; Health Enables Returns

2+2 = 4

Health enables returns.

One of those equations probably looks familiar to you. The other one should be equally apparent: how well do you work when you're coughing, sneezing, or, in the case of some factory workers in Bangladesh, substituting fabric scraps steeped in toxic dyes for menstrual pads? None of those situations is a recipe for productivity, which is why BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) launched HERproject, or Health Enables Returns. I wrote about this initiative for Women in the World Foundation last week:

At four Primark garment factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the fabric scraps that lay on the cutting room floor were often repurposed on the sly. Female workers snatched them up and used them as improvised sanitary napkins, subsequently developing infections from the strong, toxic dyes and dirt present on the fabric. In addition to the pain and suffering they experienced, they were missing work. It was a phenomenon Racheal Yeager had seen throughout Asia.

Last year, Yeager, 29, arrived in Dhaka with a solution: HERproject, a yearlong factory-based health education program that works in partnership with local non-profit and medical service organizations, trains women to become peer educators and spread valuable information about basic hygiene and reproductive health care. The project, an initiative created by BSR, launched in 2007. It has so far reached approximately 100,000 women in more than 80 factories in eight countries in Asia and the Middle East HERproject counts as its participants some of the biggest names in the apparel and electronics industries, including Levi Strauss, Abercrombie and Fitch, J. Crew and HP, all of whom have a vested interest in ensuring their factories comply with international standards.

While there is no precise data available, women are thought to make up 60% to 80% of factory workers globally, a figure that can go even higher, depending on the country. Although most of the factories have clinics on-site, workers often arrive from rural villages, with little, if any, knowledge about preventing sickness, sexually transmitted diseases, or unwanted pregnancy. For these women, the biggest barrier to robust health is a lack of information. But with a demanding work schedule and little time off for school or doctor’s visits, there’s little opportunity for them to seek that information independently. HERproject brings it to the factory floor.

Read the full story, "Meeting Women Where They Are: Health Education on the Factory Floor," here.

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.