Why Aren't More Women Financially Literate?

Compared to men, women earn less and own less wealth.  For example, for every dollar of wealth owned by the typical man, the typical woman owns just 36 cents

There are many reasons for these economic gaps ranging from the different occupations men and women often have (construction vs. preschool teacher) to differences in work hours to pay discrimination.  

Another factor at play are gender gaps in financial literacy.  A recent paper from the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at George Washington University profiles research showing that around the world, women have significantly lower levels of financial knowledge than do men.  Surveys done in the U.S, the Netherlands, and Germany found low levels of financial literacy across the board – but women scored especially poorly. 

In the U.S. for example, among those who were asked three key questions about savings and investment knowledge, only a third answered all the questions correctly.  Yet, while 38 percent of the men got all the questions right, only 22 percent of the women got a perfect score.

Notably, women were much more likely to report that they didn’t know the answer to a question.  When asked whether “a single company stock is riskier than a stock mutual fund,” 41 percent of the women surveyed said they didn’t know compared to 26 percent of the men.  Overall, 50 percent of the women, but just 34 percent of the men, said that they didn’t know the answer to at least one question.

In addition to saving and investing knowledge, other research has found gender gaps in knowledge about debt.  Professor Annamaria Lusardi, who runs the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center, did a study with a colleague to assess knowledge about taking on and managing debt. They found that women were significantly less likely than men to answer questions correctly – sometimes by as much as 20 percentage points.

Even having higher levels of education does not close this gender gap.  College educated women still have lower levels of financial literacy than their male peers. 

The lack of financial savvy has serious consequences.  Research has found that people with low levels of financial literacy are less likely to plan for retirement, are more likely to make mistakes that can lead to extra charges and fees, and are more likely to have costly mortgages. 

So who does have financial knowledge?  As I wrote recently in the Atlantic, “Disproportionately, they are white males from college-educated families whose parents had stocks and retirement savings. Phillip Cartwright, the CEO of a biotech start up, underscores the high levels of financial literacy among white men at the top. Talking to me about how he manages his finances he said, “I talked to different financial advisers. But I went to business school, I worked in finance for five years. So I went to meet with some [advisers] and I thought ‘Maybe these people know something?’ I couldn’t find anybody who knew a lot more than I did.”

The implications of these patterns are troubling, especially given the rise in single female headed households and the fact that married women tend to outlive their male partners. Both demographic trends highlight the serious need for women to know how to manage and invest money. 

While studies continue to find these gender gaps in financial knowledge, what is left unanswered is why such gender gaps exist in the first place?  Why do women seem to know less than do men about day-to-day financial matters?  Is it related to traditional expectations about men being breadwinners?  Are girls and women given the message that these topics aren’t important?  What do you think?

Why Financial Literacy Will Not Save America's Finances

From taking out loans to pay for higher education to investing for retirement, Americans are shouldering enormous levels of personal financial responsibility—more so than ever before. At the same time, financial products have both proliferated and become much more complex. Americans now face an Alphabet (and Numbers) soup of saving and investment options (401(k)s, 529s) and a head spinning array of credit options (credit cards, mortgages, home-equity loans).

While Americans are not expected to manage their own legal cases or medical conditions, they are expected to manage their own finances. To be sure, the rise of the independent and empowered consumer rests on the belief that they have the requisite knowledge to be up to the task. But is it reasonable in such a system to expect people to succeed? Economists examining financial literacy would say no.

According to their research, the vast majority of Americans lack basic levels of financial literacy. For example, a survey of Americans over the age of 50 that asked three basic questions about compound interest, inflation, and risk diversification found that only a third answered all three questions correctly. And a more extensive survey of financial literacy among high-school students found that young people aren’t any more informed. Forty-four percent of U.S. students surveyed had scores that placed them at the lowest levels of financial literacy.

Worse still is that levels of financial literacy are lower among the less educated, minorities, and women. Almost 65 percent of Americans with graduate degrees possess basic financial knowledge and skills, compared to just 19 percent of high-school grads. African Americans and Hispanics score lower than do whites on surveys measuring knowledge about financial concepts like debt. And analysis done in the U.S. and Europe has consistently found that women are significantly less likely to answer financial-literacy questions correctly than men.

The costs of financial illiteracy are high. For example, research on credit-card debt found that those with lower levels of debt literacy were more likely to do things that resulted in higher fees and charges like going over the credit limit or only making the minimum payment. One study estimates that up to one-third of the fees and charges paid by those with lower debt literacy is due to a lack of knowledge. Overall, financial mistakes tend to be more common among those with less education and income. Financial institutions often target such unsophisticated consumers  with their less-than-straightforward—and often very expensive—financial products. A recent study found that misconduct by financial advisers is concentrated in firms located in counties with low levels of education and elderly populations.

By contrast, being financially savvy has clear payoffs. Those with higher levels of financial literacy are more likely to plan for retirement, make better investment decisions, refinance mortgages at the optimal time, and manage credit-card debt better. They are also more likely to sidestep common pitfalls like borrowing against 401(k) accounts.

So who is financially literate? Disproportionately, they are white males from college-educated families whose parents had stocks and retirement savings. Phillip Cartwright, the CEO of a biotech start up, underscores the high levels of financial literacy among white men at the top. Talking to me about how he manages his finances he said, “I talked to different financial advisors. But I went to business school, I worked in finance for five years. So I went to meet with some [advisors] and I thought ‘Maybe these people know something?’ I couldn’t find anybody who knew a lot more than I did.”

The George Washington University economics professor Annamaria Lusardi has done pioneering research on financial literacy. Her studies have documented the gaps in financial knowledge among different demographic groups. “What the data on financial literacy shows is that financial knowledge is unequally distributed,” says Lusardi. “Those with the least knowledge are also the most vulnerable groups in economic terms. As a result, the lack of financial literacy exacerbates economic inequality.” Lusardi’s own analysis has estimated that more than one-third of wealth inequality could be accounted for by disparities in financial knowledge.   

Lusardi directs the Global Finance Literacy Excellence Center that focuses on raising the level of financial knowledge through financial-literacy education. “Finance has entered the lives of every family in a much more significant way than in the past. We now have a lot more responsibility for managing our money. Everyone needs to know the ABCs of finance,” notes Lusardi.

But how much can financial education do to even out the playing field and enable all Americans to better navigate a complex and fast changing global economy?

Finance expert and author Helaine Olen is skeptical. “Which is easier?” Olen asked, “Educating and changing the financial practices of 300 million Americans or changing the financial frameworks surrounding them? The vast majority of Americans think that their financial advisor has a fiduciary responsibility to act in their best interest. As of right now, that's not true. Instead of educating people about this, why not just make it a legal duty that financial professionals act on the behalf of consumers.”    

Lusardi agrees that increasing financial literacy alone is not enough. “Some things are better addressed through regulation,” says Lusardi. “If there are things that are clearly negative for consumers, then they don’t need to exist. But changing the financial framework is also not enough,” she says. “Financial literacy is an essential skill for thriving in today’s economy.”

Debunking The Myth Of The Woman Card In Silicon Valley

In one of the latest mudslinging remarks of this election season, Donald Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton was playing the "woman card," implying that she only got to where she is in the race because of her gender. His remarks, "I think the only card she has is the women's card . . . She has got nothing else going. Frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don't think she would get 5% of the vote," sent the message to his supporters that her womanness is somehow getting her approval despite an obvious incapacity to be president.

This phenomenon—accusing women of being able to get ahead professionally just because of their gender—isn’t new.

"There’s definitely people who will come right out and tell you, they think you got hired because you are a woman, or because you have darker skin color, instead of assuming that the place they work that is supposedly good at hiring, hired you because you’re also good," says Erica Baker, a former engineer at Google and current engineer at Slack. "Someone at Google said it. Oh, you were probably hired because of affirmative action," she continues. The idea of a woman card is not unlike the idea of the race card—or the perception that someone is hired not because of their talents, but because they're fulfilling a quota.

While that may be a complaint in the workplace or online forums, statistics and studies show that people aren’t getting selected for jobs based on their skin color or gender alone. For one, if hiring qualifications rested squarely on these two characteristics, workplaces would probably already be a lot more diverse. They’re not. Staff at major companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook are roughly 30% female.

Those same companies struggle to incorporate more women and people of color into their ranks through Rooney Rule-like diversity initiatives and unconscious bias training. A year after pledges to increase diversity, Facebook was only able to raise the number of women in its ranks by a mere 1%. Meanwhile a discrimination suit lobbed at Twitter from former employee Tina Huang revealed that gender disparity was far worse than the company's already dismaying statistics let on.

While diversity initiatives are helping to improve the number of female employees ever so slightly, there’s no tide-turning shift that’s happening. "Companies won't hire someone who isn't the best person for the job because of their gender or any other diversity goal. A company may make an effort to interview women and be excited about the value diversity adds to a team, but they won't hire someone unqualified to meet a diversity goal," says Alaina Percival, CEO of Women Who Code.

It doesn’t make economic sense for a company to jeopardize their bottom line to accommodate diversity by hiring people who are unfit for a job. Whether executives are coming out and saying this is unclear. Regardless, the sentiment is being felt. In a Medium post, former Twitter engineer Leslie Miley recalled his superior, SVP of engineering Alex Roetter, allegedly telling him, "Diversity is important, but we can’t lower the bar."

The idea that the tech industry or any workplace is guided by some sort of meritocratic compass that’s always pointing in the direction of the hardest workers has been widely debunked.

Research indicates women and minorities with resumes comparable to male candidates fare much worse when it comes to recognition inside the workplace."What studies show is that women are actually judged by a higher standard and are more scrutinized and have to provide more evidence of their accomplishments and their competence to be seen as equally qualified as a man," says Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford University's Clayman Institute for Gender Research. To Cooper’s point, 2014 research from the American Management Association shows that female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies on the whole were better credentialed than male CEOs on the list. Keep in mind that women made up a mere 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs that year.

Research does show that women are held to a higher standard. It also indicates that male employees tend to get judged by more lenient standards. "What evidence we do have points to cultural stereotypes working in a way that advantage men and disadvantage women," says Cooper.

For instance, a 2012 study examining bias in academic science found that faculty members who rated two equivalent job candidates, one male and one female, not only deemed the male candidate more competent than his female counterpart, but offered him a better overall hiring package, including higher pay and mentoring opportunities. The reason for this, Cooper explains, is that our brains are deeply tethered to stereotypes that say men are good at certain things and women are bad at those same things. "There are widespread cultural stereotypes that men are more competent than women, and it’s especially more prominent in traditionally masculine domains," she says.

All this to say that Trump's assertions are flat-out wrong: The woman card doesn’t exist. The data says that women don’t get hired for a job unless they’ve proved themselves capable multiple times over. Clinton is far from immune to this curse. Perhaps it could be said that Clinton, with her eight years as First Lady, two terms in Congress, and four years as secretary of state is more qualified for the presidency than others who have held the post, and certainly more qualified than a businessman with no political experience.

"In my experience, a woman only gets a position when she’s been doing that job for many years for less pay. And everyone already recognizes that she can do it, she’s been doing it. It just took way too long to get there." says Jordan A. Smith, a designer based in Portland, Oregon. "It’s always overdue. I’ve seen it time and time again."

A Site Where Women Can Review Their Employers' Female-Friendliness

Corporate websites can do a good job indicating the way companies want themselves to be seen, but it can be tough to get trustworthy firsthand information about their workplace culture. Glassdoor has patched up a good portion of this information gap, but there’s still a shortfall of intel for women who are curious about how female-friendly a prospective employer is.

Providing that intel is the goal of Fairygodboss, a site that has been called “Yelp for maternity leave benefits.” On it, women write anonymous reviews of their employers, sharing information about whether the company has a generous maternity-leave policy or values work-life balance. It’s becoming a valuable resource for lots of women, especially those who are mothers or plan to be.

The idea for Fairygodboss occurred to one of its founders, Georgene Huang, when she was job hunting a few years ago while two months pregnant. Huang was looking for companies that were friendly to women and wouldn’t “mommy-track” her career, but she found little in the way of helpful information online. Huang, along with her former colleague Romy Newman, started Fairygodboss in March of last year, and since then the site has collected over 19,000 reviews on over 7,000 employers. The majority of the site’s reviewers are American workers, and, site-wide, the median age range is 25 to 34 and the median salary range is $80,000 to $100,000 a year.


Recently, Huang and Newman analyzed the site’s reviews in order to identify the top five factors that correlated with women’s satisfaction in the workplace. Some of the results were not exactly surprising, but it’s useful to have some numbers demonstrating the impact of family-friendly policies. Fairygodboss’s dataset, which used a five-point scale to measure job satisfaction, indicated that women were overwhelmingly dissatisfied with workplaces that had long and inflexible hours. On the other end of the spectrum, women with jobs that promoted work-life balance generally reported high levels of satisfaction.
Newman, one of the co-founders of Fairygodboss, notes that the longer maternity leave a female employee took, the more satisfied she was with her job—a finding Newman said she hadn’t seen recorded before. “It’s particularly interesting because so many companies are considering expanding [maternity-leave benefits] past 12 weeks,” she says.

The percentage of women who rate their job satisfaction as a 1 on a 5-point scale increases as the duration of their leave decreases. Meanwhile, the percentage who rate their job satisfaction at 5 goes up as leave duration increases.

Another conclusion from Fairygodboss’s data was that women who reported that female employees were treated equally were much more satisfied at work. So were women who said that management teams weren’t composed mostly of men. Newman explains that this is probably about the perception of fairness and opportunity: If there aren’t women in management, it’s harder for junior workers to imagine getting promoted or having a long and prosperous career at a particular company.

“Women often leave organizations because of negative work-climate issues like a lack of advancement opportunities or excessive hours,” says Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Studies and a member of the site’s advisory board. “What Fairygodboss found is in line with research showing that women are drawn to and stay with companies that provide them with growth opportunities and family-friendly environments. Companies with gender-balanced management teams and cultures that support flexible work send a strong signal to women that they are welcome.”

"There’s a lot of debate over whether gender-diversity programs or considerations are really worth pursuing,” says Newman. “Does it really return to your bottom line? And I think what that statistic says is yes.”

Originally published on February 9, 2016 in the Atlantic

We act as if work is optional for women. It’s not.

There are many things that make the United States different from the rest of the developed world. One of them is that we are the only developed economy that does not provide paid maternity leave. 

I’m often asked why this is the case. My latest answer: “Because American babies raise themselves. Those babies in other countries — they’re slackers. They actually need their parents’ help.”

[Anne-Marie Slaughter: For women, happiness isn’t the issue. Equality is.]

My joke highlights the kinds of assumptions that must exist in order to explain why the United States lacks any kind of paid family leave policy. No, I don’t really believe that lawmakers think American babies raise themselves. But I do believe that many assume we don’t need paid family leave because someone in the family is (or should be) home caring for the baby — and that someone is a woman.

When it comes to women and work, the largest myth of all is that working is somehow optional. Like men, women work for personal fulfillment and a passion for their job. Also like men, women work to support themselves and their families, and always have. The reality in the United States today is that earning money is an absolute necessity for the vast majority of women. And the sad truth is that we aren’t doing anything to support them or their families — not because we can’t, but because we won’t.

[Six myths about women in the workplace that you probably fell for]

Increasingly, women are the economic backbone for families in our country. Today, 70 percent of mothers work. More than 40 percent of mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners for their families, earning at least half of their family’s income. An additional 22 percent are co-breadwinners, earning at least a quarter or more of their family’s income.

The influx of women, particularly mothers, into the workforce over the past few decades has been one of the largest transformations in American life. As a country we have responded to this massive change by, well, pretty much doing nothing. Only 13 percent of workers can receive paid family leave through their employer. The majority of mothers (54 percent) don’t have access to paid sick days to care for their sick children. And we are all on our own to find and pay for child care, which is extremely expensive. Child-care fees for two children in a child-care center are higher than annual median rent payments in every state.

To be clear, it’s not that we can’t respond with a set of policies that reflect the modern realities of American families wherein women, too, work. Other countries have. In fact, we’ve actually done it before. During World War II, when there was a great need for women to work, we had a federally administered universal child-care program funded by the Lanham Act. Almost every state received money to build child-care centers, provide teacher training and subsidize day-care costs for parents. 

Recent analysis of the Lanham Act found that the program was extremely beneficial for children and was associated in the long run with a lower high school drop-out rate, a higher college completion rate and higher earnings. The disadvantaged benefited most from the program. After the war was over, and the pressing need for women to work abated, the funding was stopped and most of these child-care centers closed.

What we have today is Dickensian. Every day in this country we have parents who must choose between losing their job and caring for a sick child. Every day there are families that fall into poverty because the birth of a child means they can’t work for a time. Every day parents drop children off at low-quality day-care centers because it’s the only thing they can afford. 

Which brings us back to myths. The problem with myths such as “working is optional for women,” or “only teenagers work in minimum-wage jobs,” is that they prevent us from seeing things as they are and responding in a meaningful way.

If instead we accept the fact that women are now the breadwinners for the majority of American families, then it’s clear what needs to be done. We need policies that make it possible for people to both work and care for their families. We need programs that ensure that all children are educated and cared for while their parents are working. We need jobs that provide women and families with economic security and dignity.

For example, a national paid family leave policy would keep families afloat while workers take time to care for themselves and their loved ones. These kinds of policies increase well-being, keep women more attached to the workforce and lower the need to turn to public assistance. Analysis has shown that the impact on business is typically neutral to positive. We could also focus on doing things such as raising the minimum wage or closing the gender wage gap. If women earned the same as comparable men, it would reduce the poverty rate of employed women by half.

The American family has changed and will continue to evolve. More than half of children born today to women younger than 30 are born to unmarried mothers. These trends require us to let go of myths such as “it’s optional for women to work,” and instead embrace truths: The overwhelming majority of mothers now do work, and must. We need to adjust to these new realities and have policies that reflect the world as it is, not the world as it isn’t.

Originally published on February 5, 2015 in the Washington Post

The False Promise of Meritocracy

Americans are, compared with populations of other countries, particularly enthusiastic about the idea of meritocracy, a system that rewards merit (ability + effort) with success. Americans are more likely to believe that people are rewarded for their intelligence and skills and are less likely to believe that family wealth plays a key role in getting ahead. And Americans’ support for meritocratic principles has remained stable over the last two decades despite growing economic inequality, recessions, and the fact that there is less mobility in the United States than in most other industrialized countries.

This strong commitment to meritocratic ideals can lead to suspicion of efforts that aim to support particular demographic groups. For example, initiatives designed to recruit or provide development opportunities to under-represented groups often come under attack as “reverse discrimination.” Some companies even justify not having diversity policies by highlighting their commitment to meritocracy. If a company evaluates people on their skills, abilities, and merit, without consideration of their gender, race, sexuality etc., and managers are objective in their assessments then there is no need for diversity policies, the thinking goes.

But is this true? Do commitments to meritocracy and objectivity lead to more fair workplaces?

Emilio J. Castilla, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, has explored how meritocratic ideals and HR practices like pay-for-performance play out in organizations, and he’s come to some unexpected conclusions.

In one company study, Castilla examined almost 9,000 employees who worked as support-staff at a large service-sector company. The company was committed to diversity and had implemented a merit-driven compensation system intended to reward high-level performance and to reward all employees equitably.

But Castilla’s analysis revealed some very non-meritocratic outcomes. Women, ethnic minorities, and non-U.S.-born employees received a smaller increase in compensation compared with white men, despite holding the same jobs, working in the same units, having the same supervisors, the same human capital, and importantly, receiving the same performance score. Despite stating that “performance is the primary bases for all salary increases,” the reality was that women, minorities, and those born outside the U.S. needed “to work harder and obtain higher performance scores in order to receive similar salary increases to white men.”

These findings led Castilla to wonder if organizational cultures and practices designed to promote meritocracy actually accomplished the opposite. Could it be that the pursuit of meritocracy somehow triggered bias? Along with his colleague, the Indiana University sociology professor Stephen Bernard, they designed a series of lab experiments to find out. Each experiment had the same outcome. When a company’s core values emphasized meritocratic values, those in managerial positions awarded a larger monetary reward to the male employee than to an equally performing female employee. Castilla and Bernard termed their counter intuitive result “the paradox of meritocracy.”

The paradox of meritocracy builds on other research showing that those who think they are the most objective can actually exhibit the most bias in their evaluations. When people think they are objective and unbiased then they don’t monitor and scrutinize their own behavior. They just assume that they are right and that their assessments are accurate. Yet, studies repeatedly show that stereotypes of all kinds (gender, ethnicity, age, disability etc.) are filters through which we evaluate others, often in ways that advantage dominant groups and disadvantage lower-status groups. For example, studies repeatedly find that the resumes of whites and men are evaluated more positively than are the identical resumes of minorities and women.

This dynamic is precisely why meritocracy can exacerbate inequality—because being committed to meritocratic principles makes people think that they actually are making correct evaluations and behaving fairly. Organizations that emphasize meritocratic ideals serve to reinforce an employee’s belief that they are impartial, which creates the exact conditions under which implicit and explicit biases are unleashed.

“The pursuit of meritocracy is more difficult than it appears,” Castilla said at a recent conference hosted by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford, “but that doesn’t mean the pursuit is futile. My research provides a cautionary lesson that practices implemented to increase fairness and equity need to be carefully thought through so that potential opportunities for bias are addressed.” While companies may want to hire and promote the best and brightest, it’s easier said than done.

GapJumpers, a Silicon Valley start-up, is focused on making meritocracy a reality by taking a skills-first approach to identifying the highest-performing talent.  Modeled after research showing that blind auditions block biased evaluations, GapJumpers developed an online technology platform that enables hiring managers to hold blind audition challenges. In the challenges, job applicants are given mini assignments that are designed to assess the applicant for the specific skills required for the open position. All submissions are evaluated and ranked, and the top-performing submissions (minus any applicant identifiers) are then reviewed by the hiring manager who selects candidates to bring in to interview. The result: About 60 percent of the top talent identified through GapJumpers’ blind audition process come from underrepresented backgrounds.

Hiring managers do not expect this outcome. “The high percentage of underrepresented applicants that make it through the skills-first screening process is often met with suspicion,” says Sharon Jank, a social psychologist and Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, who is conducting her doctoral research with GapJumpers.  In her work, Jank has observed that “hiring managers tend to be surprised that the top performing submissions they pick to advance very often come from applicants without an elite education, training, or experience.  This suggests blind performance auditions are a powerful tool to manage bias and address the pervasive and incorrect assumption that elite pedigree best predicts performance of on the job skills."

“Our biases lead to sub-optimal talent selection decisions when evaluating resumes,” says GapJumpers cofounder Kédar Iyer. “By scaling the successful and proven method of blind performance auditions, GapJumpers’ results show that real work performance trumps labels on a resume.”

In addition to blind auditions, transparency and accountability also support more meritocratic outcomes. Recently, Castilla published the results from a longitudinal study he conducted with the same large service-sector company that he had studied years earlier. After learning from Castilla’s analysis that there were pay disparities in their organization (white men received more compensation than equally performing women, minorities, and non-U.S.-born individuals) the company asked Castilla to recommend practices to close the pay gap.

Drawing on research showing that transparency and accountability reduce bias because, among other things, transparency provides the information needed to track inequity and accountability puts people on notice that their decisions will be monitored, Castilla counseled the company on actions they could take.

The company then made many changes such as creating a performance-reward committee to monitor compensation increases and sharing information with top management about pay broken down by gender, race, and foreign nationality. When Castilla analyzed the data five years after these changes were introduced he found that the demographic pay gap had disappeared.

American beliefs about the rightness of meritocratic ideals often leads to the belief that those ideals are what guides society. But research shows that a real commitment to meritocracy requires understanding that America hasn’t gotten there—at least not yet. It is this insight that leads to the adoption of practices that will ultimately result in a society where merit truly does equal ability + effort.

Originally published on December 1, 2015 in the Atlantic

Yes, Even Doctor Barbie Sends Girls the Wrong Message

The last few years have been tough ones for Barbie. Sales have declined significantly, dropping 16 percent in 2014 alone. In an effort to jumpstart the sagging brand, Mattel has launched a new marketing campaign called, “Imagine the Possibilities.” The signature ad for the campaign features little girls in professional roles in otherwise normal settings: a girl professor in front of a lecture hall, a girl veterinarian attending to a sick cat, a girl coach barking orders at a men’s soccer team. Dressed in sports garb, she blows on her whistle and yells, “Knees up! Like a unicorn. Higher! Higher!”

The ad ends with a little girl playing with several Barbies on the floor of her room, and the big reveal: The scenarios were all in the girls’ imaginations. The following tag line then appears: “When a girl plays with Barbie she imagines everything she can become. You can be anything.”

If only that were how it worked. A 2014 study of 4-to-7-year-old girls found that playing with Barbie actually limited girls’ perceptions about what they could be in the future. Compared to girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head, girls who played with fashion Barbie identified a greater number of careers as ones they could not do when they grew up. The same pattern emerged even when girls played with Doctor Barbie.

Why would this be? A few studies suggest that Barbie’s particular physical appearance—her sexualized body, her tight jeans (for Doctor Barbie), or her minidress (for Dentist Barbie)—may have something to do with the dampening of little girls’ career aspirations. There’s a plausible pathway for this: Maybe it’s because playing with sexualized and distortedly thin dolls makes girls think more about what they look like and less about their aspirations.

One study examining this connection between Barbie and body image found that after hearing a story illustrated with pictures of Barbie, young girls expressed higher levels of dissatisfaction with their bodies and a greater desire to be thin than girls who heard the same story but saw images of a full-bodied doll. Another study that looked at how much food girls ate after playing with different-sized dolls found that girls who were assigned to play with average-sized dolls ate more food than girls who were assigned to play with Barbie. Disturbingly, a study of more than a hundred girls, ages three to six, found that almost a third of them would change something about their physical appearance if it were possible, about a third reported that their ideal figure was thinner than their current size, and about half of the girls said they worried about being fat “sometimes” or “almost always.”

Americans live in a culture infused with sexualized images of women and girls. Even Halloween costumes for little girls are sexy. This is not harmless. The messages these images send—that a thinner, sexier appearance is better—get internalized and adopted by girls themselves. For example, a study of 6-to-9-year-old girls found that when asked to pick the paper doll they would like to look like, the girls overwhelmingly picked the sexualized doll over the non-sexualized one for their ideal self.  

And this is where real damage is done. Studies repeatedly find that when girls engage in body-objectification (monitoring and working on one’s appearance to increase attractiveness) or self-sexualization (believing that being sexually attractive to men is an important part of their identity) there are negative outcomes. Girls who objectify their bodies more have lower self-esteem and higher rates of depression. Other research has found that self-sexualization can undermine achievement. Girls with higher levels of internalized sexualization get worse grades and lower standardized tests scores.   

Which brings us back to Barbie. The ubiquitous sexualization of girls and women is not solely Barbie’s fault, of course. Barbie is but one cog in very large media- and society-fueled wheel. But Barbie is a big cog. It’s estimated that 90 percent of girls own one.

Mattel’s tag line says one thing, but its product sends a different message: Be anything you want to be. Just be sure to look beautiful and sexy doing it. Spend a lot of time thinking about what you look like and always monitor how much you eat. This may mean you accomplish less in your life. But for a girl, having other people think you are attractive is a really important goal.     

Originally published on November 8, 2015 in the Atlantic

When it Comes to Faith, What do Americans Believe?

The United States is often viewed as a highly religious country.  Analysis by Duke University professor Mark Chavez found that since the 1980s, large majorities of Americans say they know god exists (64%), pray multiple times a week (69%), and believe in heaven (86%).  While these kinds of beliefs and practices have held steady, there have been a few notable changes.

An Increasing Number of Americans are “Un-Churched”

Starting in the 1990s, surveys began to show increases in the number of Americans who say they have no religious preference or affiliation.  In 1991, 7 percent of adults stated that they had no religious preference.  In 2014, polling conducted by Pew Research found that the share of Americans who said they are atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular, had grown to almost 23 percent.  There are now 56 million religiously unaffiliated Americans. 

Often referred to as “nones,” this group now outnumbers the share of Americans who are Catholic or Protestant. In terms of size, “nones” are second only to evangelical Christians.  While the number of “nones” has grown, Pew Research found that the number of Christians has declined by 7 percentage points in just the last seven years.  Today, about 71 percent of Americans say they are Christian.    

Early analysis of this trend by sociologists Mike Hout and Claude Fisher found that an important factor related to the growth of religiously unaffiliated Americas was the rise of the religious right.  As conservative politics became increasingly bound up with churches, some moderates and liberals started taking a political stance and stopped self-identifying with organized religion.   

More Americans Say They are “Spiritual but Not Religious”

Yet, just because a person is not a member of an organized church, doesn't necessarily mean they are entirely secular. In his book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, professor Chavez points out that religiously unaffiliated Americans often report believing in God.  In fact, Chavez notes that as a growing number of Americans have become “un-churched,” more and more Americans consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” 

Other data supporting an increase in a diffuse kind of spirituality is the significant rise in the number of “nones” who believe in life after death, increasing from 48 percent in the 1970s to 60 percent today. 

These trends are especially pronounced among young people.  An increasing share of people under age 40 are reporting that they are “spiritual but not religious” and more Millennials are shying away from affiliating with mainstream religions. 

Religiously Active People are Now More Conservative

Another emerging trend is that those who are the most religiously active tend to be more conservative.  When looking at church attendance and ideology, professor Chavez found that in the 1970s, those who were more active were only a little more conservative than those who were less religiously active.  By the 2000s things had changes dramatically, with those who attended church more frequently (i.e. at least weekly) being twice as likely to report that they are very conservative.  Moreover, among those who are religiously active an increasing percentage (40%) are white evangelicals. 

Americans Have Lost Confidence in the Church

A big change has been a disillusionment with organized religion.  In 1973 a Gallop survey found that about 66 percent of those polled had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the church/organized religion.  Since then, confidence has steadily eroded as sexual abuse and televangelist scandals led to a decline in trust.  In 2015, only 42 percent said they had a high degree of confidence.  As a result, the church has dropped down in the ranking of institutions that Americans trust.  Organized religion now ranks fourth – behind the military, small business, and the police. 

The Future of Belief in America

If the trends outlined here continue, in a few decades the landscape of faith in America will look very different.  Fewer Americans will be Christian.  More Americans will be “nones.” And increasingly, spiritual journeys will take place outside the walls of mainstream churches. 

While Americans may change the way they think about and experience their faith, there isn’t evidence showing that Americans are rapidly giving up beliefs about the existence of God or in the afterlife.  In the future then, Americans will still believe. 

Originally published on October 22, 2015 on LinkedIn. 

The Downsizing of the American Dream

At the height of the Great Recession, Jennifer Silva, a sociology professor at Bucknell University, interviewed working-class young people (ages 24 to 34) about coming of age in turbulent economic times. With good jobs harder to find and educational opportunities financially out of reach, Silva discovered that the young adults she talked with were letting go of traditional markers of adulthood. Rather than planning to go to college, buy a home, get married, and start a family, these young adults were bouncing from one low-paid job to the next, taking on debt to weather the tough times, and were wary of romantic attachments. Lacking the resources needed to stay afloat in the new economy, these young people were no longer setting their sights on the very things that have long symbolized the American dream: a home, a job, a family.  

Recent data indicates they are in good company. This year a survey by Fannie Mae found that the share of consumers who said they would buy a home if they were to move has decreased and is now at an all-time survey low of 60 percent. According to the latest employment statistics, 1.8 million Americans have not looked for work in at least the previous month, and 35 percent of them don’t believe there are any jobs available. Another 6.5 million are only working part-time and would prefer to be working more. In 2015, only 28 percent of those surveyed by The Atlantic and Aspen Institute felt that a healthy marriage was an important part of their personal sense of the American dream and just 14 percent said that having children was important.  

For the majority of Americans, the 2000s was a “lost decade,” with wages flatlining or declining. Middle-class jobs disappeared during the Great Recession and many have never come back. Instead, many of the fastest-growing sectors are those that pay the least. Median income remains below pre-recession levels. How is all of this influencing how Americans are feeling about the American dream?  

Surveys continue to show that Americans, in large numbers, still believe in many of the tenets of the American dream. For example, majorities of Americans believe that hard work will lead to success. But, their belief in the American dream is wavering. Between 1986 and 2011, around 50 percent of those polled by Pew consistently said they felt that the American dream was “somewhat alive.” However, over that same time period, the share who said it was “very alive” decreased by about half, and the share that felt it was “not really alive” more than doubled.   

Majorities of Americans think it will get worse in the future. Survey after survey finds that when asked about the next generation, Americans are pessimistic, saying that it will be harder and take more effort for the next generation to get ahead.

These gloomy sentiments may be part of a more general shift: The majority of Americans once thought the playing field was more or less level. No more. Back in 1998, a Gallup poll about equal opportunity found that 68 percent thought the economic system was basically fair, while only 29 percent thought it was basically unfair. In 2013, feelings about fairness had reversed: Only 44 percent thought the economic system was fair, while 50 percent had come to feel it was unfair. Another 2013 poll found that by an almost two-to-one margin (64 to 33 percent), Americans agreed that “the U.S. no longer offers an equal chance to get ahead.”

Perhaps as a result of all of this, there are signs that the very idea of the American dream is changing. The American dream has long been equated with moving up the class ladder and owning a home. But polling leading up to the 2012 election revealed something new—middle-class Americans expressed more concern about holding on to what they had than they were with getting more. Echoing these concerns, Pew reported in 2015 that when asked which they would prefer—financial security or moving up the income ladder—92 percent selected security. This is a seven percentage point increase since just 2011, when 85 percent selected security over economic mobility.  

And while majorities of Americans continue to say that home ownership is a key part of the American dream in general, when a survey asked people which things were the most important to their personal American dream, only 26 percent selected “owning a nice home” as a top choice, while 37 percent chose “achieving financial security” and 36 percent chose “being debt free.” In a 2013 Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll that asked respondents to define what it means to be middle class, 54 percent of respondents chose “having the ability to keep up with expenses and hold a steady job while not falling behind or taking on too much debt,” and only 43 percent defined being middle class as earning more, buying a home, and saving.  

* * *

For more and more families, achieving the traditional American dream has become just that—a dream. Instead, what surveys indicate is that people are downsizing their definition of the American dream. Today, the desire to own a home or to move up economically is often replaced by a desire to be debt free and to have financial stability.

These developments point to a possible change in the underlying psychology of the American dream, and thus for the country more broadly. When people are more concerned about falling down than they are with moving up, planning ahead and having big goals is not only pointless but painful, since time and again something outside of one’s control comes along and upends their plans. There are grave consequences to this: People stop making investments in their education; they delay or never have children; they stop buying homes, they are less likely to take entrepreneurial risks; and they defer their dreams, often indefinitely.

Originally published on October 2, 2015 in the Atlantic

“Think Crisis – Think Female:” Why Women Leaders Confront the Glass Cliff

Last week, Ellen Pao announced that she was dropping the appeal of her legal case for gender discrimination and retaliation against Kleiner-Perkins.    

Observers have noted that Pao’s story brings to life some of the obstacles women can face in the workplace, especially when in leadership roles.  For example, many have characterized Pao’s resignation from Reddit as an instance of the “glass cliff.” 

The glass cliff is a phenomenon discovered by psychology professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam in which women are more likely to be put into leadership roles under risky and precarious circumstances.  By taking the helm in difficult times, their odds of failure are often higher.     

Over the last ten years, research in a variety of contexts have repeatedly documented the glass cliff. 

A study of the 2005 General Election in the UK found that in the Conservative party, men were selected to contest seats that were easier to win, while women were selected to contest seats that were unwinnable. An analysis of CEO transitions among Fortune 500 companies over a fifteen year period found that white women and men and women of color were more likely than white men to get promoted to CEO when firms were performing weakly.  Another study found that law students were more likely to assign a problematic legal case to a female attorney than a male attorney. 

What this research highlights is that not only do women get fewer leadership opportunities than do men, but they also often get different kinds of opportunities.  But why? 

 The reasons behind why women are more likely to be selected for risky leadership roles points to a couple things.  First, some evidence suggests that the selection of a woman can signal a change in direction, especially when a company has a history of having all male leaders.  So for under performing companies, selecting a woman can show that they are implementing the kind of change that is sorely needed. 

Second, research indicates that we believe men possess qualities that are more of a fit with running successful companies, while women possess qualities that can make them more suitable in difficult situations.  When asked to describe managers in successful companies, people tended to list more stereotypical masculine qualities (decisive, forceful). 

But when asked how desirable different characteristics were for a managers of unsuccessful companies, the number of stereotypical female qualities (intuitive, understanding) outweighed the number of masculine ones. 

These kinds of findings have led some to conclude that when we think crisis – we think female.  

In times of crisis, more stereotypical feminine qualities like being collaborative or good with people are often seen as particularly important.  Thus, it may be that women are thought to be more suitable in certain types of crisis situations, since they are believed to possess these kinds of social qualities more so than do men. 

In fact, research into the particular circumstances under which feminine traits are considered to be especially important are when a leader is expected to manage people, work behind the scenes to manage a crises, and be a scapegoat. 

The glass cliff phenomenon results in negative consequences all around.  For individual women leaders, being put in command when the odds of success are low can set them up to fail.  Despite inheriting the problems, women in glass cliff positions are seen to be fully responsible for the bad state of affairs.  After becoming synonymous with a failure, career advancement can be undermined. 

This glass cliff dynamic can also serve to reinforce stereotypes and cultural beliefs that men are better leaders in the first place.  When a woman is forced off the cliff, it can reaffirm beliefs that women aren’t good leaders anyway.      

Interestingly, analysis of women’s and men’s reactions to the glass cliff mirrors some of the reactions of the predominately male Reddit community to assertions that the criticism of Pao was sexist. 

When asked to read a newspaper article about a study of the glass cliff, women were more likely to recognize its prevalence and its unfairness.  In contrast, men were more likely to, “question the validity” of the research and to “downplay the precariousness of women’s leadership positions.”  Men were also more likely to “deny the existence of the phenomenon altogether than they were to explain it.”

Women are not the only ones confronting the glass cliff.  Research has found that in the Conservative party in the UK, blacks and other ethnic minorities were also selected to run for harder-to-win seats than were their white counterparts.  And an analysis of NCAA men’s basketball over a thirty year period found that minorities are more likely than are whites to be promoted to losing teams. 

In light of evidence documenting the glass cliff, why do you think many continue to deny that it exists?   

This article was originally published Sep 15 2015, on LinkedIn.com

Women cracking gender ceilings in sports

The news has come in waves this summer. Becky Hammon, the lone female assistant in the NBA, coached the Spurs to an NBA Summer League title.


A few weeks later, Nancy Lieberman was hired by the Sacramento Kings to be an assistant coach under George Karl.


Jen Welter was hired as an assistant linebackers coaching intern for the Arizona Cardinals.
Sarah Thomas is preparing for the NFL season as the first full-time female official in the league.
Beth Mowins was hired to do play-by-play on Raiders preseason games.


Add in the overwhelming success of the U.S. women’s national soccer team — with record-setting television ratings and coached by Jill Ellis, the first woman to take the Americans to a world title — the dominance of Serena Williams and UFC fighter Ronda Rousey and it’s been a landmark summer for women in sports.


“It feels like a big moment for women’s athletics, like the 1996 Olympics or the 1999 World Cup,” said Cal basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “It feels like momentum.”


That’s the way it feels, with a flurry of groundbreaking news. But is it?


“This many women breaking into exclusively male jobs is definitely a watershed moment,” said Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” “But the question is, is it a one off or will it lead to a tipping point?”


“The glass ceiling may be cracked,” Cooper added. “But to shatter it you have to increase the percentages significantly.”


That’s not going to happen immediately. Though there are more female coaches than there were 40 years ago, the percentages have actually declined since the passage of Title IX. More and more men are coaching women’s sports while women have made rare inroads to coaching male athletes.


“In college, 75 percent of the jobs are going to men,” said Tara VanDerveer. “Hopefully the future will be more diverse in terms of gender.”


‘Timing is good’
VanDerveer, a Hall of Famer entering her 31st year at Stanford and one of the top basketball minds in the country, may not be impacted by the new opportunities. She jokes that the only person to contact her about coaching a men’s team is Chronicle columnist Scott Ostler. And she has a great gig at Stanford.


“But I think it would be fun,” she said. “The timing is good for Becky — she can develop into a head coach. That’s what an assistant job should be. Grooming to be a head coach.”
Sports leagues are copycat businesses. So when the gold standard team, the San Antonio Spurs, does something different and groundbreaking, it’s suddenly worth contemplating.
“The NBA has always been a leader,” VanDerveer said. “And these teams are not doing this for show. Or because of policy like Title IX. And that’s good. They just want to win.”


Amy Trask, who worked for a man whose motto was “Just Win Baby” for 30 years, thinks Al Davis — who made groundbreaking hires regularly — would applaud the new developments if he were still alive.


“Al would have just asked, ‘Can she help us win?’” Trask said. “That would be his analysis.”


Foot in the door
Trask said she isn’t surprised that the Cardinals were the NFL team to make the move of hiring a female assistant. Welter is working as a training camp intern, the same way many male coaches get their foot in the NFL door.


“I think the world of (Cardinals president) Michael Bidwill and (coach) Bruce Arians,” Trask said. “I interacted with Michael for years. He was never concerned with differentiated characteristics like gender or race. I think it’s a great environment for Jen.”


Football is different than basketball, in that there are few women who play the game competitively. But Trask points out that’s not an issue on the other side of the gender equation.


“There are plenty of men coaching that have never played,” she said. “Why should it be different?”


That’s becoming more and more true, in many sports, as statisticians and analytical experts with little playing background gain prominence in front offices and even on the fields.
“Running a team or a company has nothing to do with gender,” said Gottlieb.


Like VanDerveer, Gottlieb is happy in her current job. But she could imagine running an NBA team someday. Both she and VanDerveer have spent time with NBA coaches, picking their brains, learning, sharing ideas.


“Coaching is teaching,” VanDerveer said.


But changing perceptions is part of the challenge. Like seeing a woman make a serious run for president or the wide acceptance of same-sex marriage, things that seemed unlikely not long ago, are now the norm. Perhaps women coaching men will fall into that category in the future.


Opening doors
“It broadens the image of what a coach looks like and that’s a very positive development,” said Cooper. “It opens up more doors, brings in more people.”


And what’s newsworthy today, may not make headlines in the future.


“This is very exciting, but what would be truly significant is when it’s no longer newsworthy when someone qualified is hired to do a job,” Trask said.


Trask, VanDerveer and Gottlieb agree that eliminating 50 percent of the candidate pool right off the bat is a foolish management strategy. Just as alienating 50 percent of the population is a poor business model.


“I think the sporting world in general has been having a broader conversation about gender, about how to be more inclusive organizations,” Cooper said. “The conversation about how to treat women is happening, and these developments are another part of that.”


The Summer of 2015 is definitely a time of change. What the future holds remains to be seen.
“We can’t necessarily identify ahead of time when trends will happen,” Gottlieb said. “But when you watch it happening, it’s exciting and uplifting.”


Ann Killion is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. E-mail: akillion@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @annkillion


First ladies
Teams in the NFL and NBA have taken a step toward diversifying their coaching ranks with the hiring of women.


Becky Hammon
San Antonio Spurs assistant
Background: As a guard at Colorado State, set school scoring records while earning All-America status. Played 16 seasons in WNBA and ranks seventh in league history with 5,841 points.


Nancy Lieberman
Sacramento Kings assistant
Background: The basketball Hall of Famer, a three-time All-American at Old Dominion, played professionally in the short-lived Women’s ABA as well as in two men’s minor leagues. At age 39, she played in the WNBA. She has coached the Mavericks’ Development League affiliate and worked as an analyst for Thunder pre- and postgame shows.


Jen Welter
Arizona Cardinals assistant coaching intern
Background: Was a linebacker for 14 seasons, primarily for the Women’s Football Alliance’s Dallas Diamonds, whom she helped win four championships. In February, she was hired to coach linebackers and special teams with the Texas Revolution, a men’s team in the Champions Indoor Football league.

Originally published on August 8, 2015 in SFGate