The XX Factor
What Women Really Think

March 27 2015 8:06 PM

Jury in Ellen Pao Case Doesn’t Find Gender Discrimination

The jury returned on Friday with what appeared to be a verdict in the high-profile lawsuit filed by Ellen Pao against Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, and Byers. Pao, who is currently the interim CEO of Reddit, accused her former employer, a venture capital firm, of gender discrimination. While the jury found in Kleiner’s favor in three of the four claims based on discrimination, the fourth—whether the firm had fired Pao in retaliation for her complaint—received only eight of 12 votes in Kleiner's favor, short of the necessary nine. As of Friday evening, the jury has been sent back for further deliberation by the judge, Harold Kahn, before a final verdict can be announced.

While much of the public imagination was captured by lurid details of the trial—such as Pao’s claiming that she had been pressured into an affair by her colleague Ajit Nazrem—the real argument at the center of Pao’s case was that gender discrimination need not be overt in order to exist. The picture that Pao’s team painted was not of a Mad Men-style office rife with blatantly sexist comments and bosses openly stating that women weren’t good enough. Instead, Pao’s case rested on the idea that discrimination can take place in much more subtle ways, or even as the result of unconscious biases, and that men may not even know how sexist they’re being. Pao’s lawyers argued that women like Pao are caught in a lose-lose situation: that when they hang back they’re penalized for not being assertive enough, but that if they do display more confidence they are considered arrogant, while aggressive male colleagues are admired for their boldness. 

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Because of this, the case was always a long shot. While sociologists and other researchers might be convinced of the power of unconscious bias to hold back women and racial minorities, the public at large tends to treat that notion like it's poppycock. After all, if we accept that others may discriminate without meaning to, we have to accept we might do the same ourselves. The instinctive I’m-not-a-bigot reaction is why we routinely see polls showing, for instance, that most white people believe racism is no big deal while black people still think it’s a problem. Similarly, polling shows that women will more readily agree that gender discrimination persists in the workplace than will men. While there’s no telling right now what the jury was thinking in considering Pao’s gender-discrimination claims, this widespread skepticism of unconscious biases meant it was an uphill battle for Pao’s legal team from Day 1.

But even if the jury does return with a complete victory for Kleiner Perkins, the heavy media coverage of the trial, especially in the tech press, has started some important conversations about the subtle digs and unconscious sexism that keep women out of the top ranks of the tech industry. The jury may not have been convinced that Pao was discriminated against, but hopefully in the future, leadership in the tech world will put a little more work into treating women with respect, instead of subjecting them to double standards. 

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March 27 2015 3:40 PM

Wet Nursing Is Back! Sort Of.

These days, the idea that "breast is best" is a given. Even though the scientific evidence is lacking, many people continue to believe that breast milk is a superfood that creates smarter, stronger babies, and mothers should do everything in their power to keep a steady supply coming. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a baby's life.) So maybe it's inevitable that a 21st-century version of wet nursing—or suckling an infant you didn't give birth to—would return.

Wet nursing has been around in some form throughout most of history, as there have always been infants whose mothers couldn't feed them—they may have died in childbirth or simply couldn't produce enough milk. Formula seemed to have killed the practice off, with some help from the breast pump: Now, women with excess supply can express the milk and store it in "milk banks" for other women in need. Elizabeth Currid-Halkett wrote an op-ed in the New York Times today calling on women to donate to these banks. "For those of us who are given generous maternity leaves, who are healthy, who have the extra 10 minutes, or who are genetically disposed to produce surplus breast milk, I say go for it," she writes. She also calls on activists and government to do more to promote this service. 

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Currid-Halkett hopes that increased donations to milk banks can help undercut the burgeoning for-profit milk-selling industry, citing companies like Prolacta Bioscience that pay women for breast milk. "This doesn’t seem right to me," Currid-Halkett writes. "Breast milk donation ought to be more like giving blood, not for profit and not as part-time work."

Jessica Valenti of the Guardian disagrees, writing, "we can’t be surprised when a market is created for something we continue to tout as near-magical."

"And if we value women’s bodily autonomy we’re going to have to get comfortable with the choices she makes," Valenti adds, "whether it’s breastfeeding, formula feeding, or pumping for cash." I'm inclined to agree with Valenti. "Breast is best" has become common wisdom in part because it neatly fits our romantic vision of motherhood as self-sacrificing. Under this line of thinking, women shouldn't making money off an act that epitomizes maternal forebearance.

That said, there's reason to worry about the long-term effects of commodifying breast milk. Activists for the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association have written an open letter to Medolac Laboratories, which has been recruiting mothers to sell breast milk in the Detroit area: "Around the country, African-American women face unique economic hardships, and this is no less true in our city. In addition, African American women have been impacted traumatically by historical commodification of our bodies. Given the economic incentives, we are deeply concerned that women will be coerced into diverting milk that they would otherwise feed their own babies."

It's hard to begrudge a new mother extra income if she can produce more milk than her baby needs. But it's also discomfiting to think that we're on a path where poor women's bodies are being commodified so that wealthier mothers don't have to resort to formula.

March 26 2015 12:43 PM

Arizona Wants Doctors to Tell Patients that Abortions Can Be “Reversed”

Doctors in Arizona might soon be required to tell women that abortions can be "reversed." As the Washington Post reports, the Arizona legislature just passed a bill that is the latest in state-based attempts to ban women from using their own health insurance to pay for abortion. What makes this bill especially Orwellian is this attempt to force doctors to put the stamp of medical authority on the fantastical belief that women en masse are regretting their abortions hours after getting them and are miraculously getting them reversed through heroic interventions by Christian doctors. 

I reported on this fantasy back in December, but to recap: Anti-choicers, backed by one particularly vocal doctor named George Delgado, are claiming that you can "reverse" medication abortions. A woman having a medication abortion takes two pill doses, one of mifepristone and then another of misoprostol. Proponents of "abortion reversal" would like you to believe it's common for women to take the first dose and become racked with guilt, desperate to save her pregnancy. To help these women, Delgado gives the woman progesterone shots, supposedly in an effort to reverse the effects of the mifepristone. 

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The problem is it's almost certainly quackery. Mifepristone is not enough on its own to terminate a pregnancy some of the time, so you're not "reversing" the abortion so much as interrupting the process before it's complete. The progesterone shots reverse nothing—they are medically unnecessary theater, designed to portray anti-choicers as conquering heroes rescuing pregnant maidens from the clutches of abortionists. There's no evidence of much demand from women to interrupt their abortions, and in the rare circumstances that someone is seized by regret, all she needs to do is contact her regular doctor about stopping the pills. 

Forcing doctors to "inform" patients about an intervention that isn't medically useful and isn't really in demand serves no other purpose but to inject anti-choice histrionics into what is already a stressful situation for many patients. You should be able to get through an abortion without having to indulge a right-wing delusion.

This bill and its fresh interpretation of the word reverse is part of a larger trend of right-wingers attempting to restrict free speech and remold the English language in their image. In Florida, Department of Environmental Protection employees have complained about orders to excise the phrases climate change and global warming from their speeches. There's also been a movement, complete with bills in Texas and Florida, to ban doctors from discussing gun safety with patients. Some postmodern academic could have a field day with these attempts to rewrite reality to fit conservative fantasies. 

The Arizona bill is now headed to the desk of Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.

March 25 2015 12:03 PM

Political Lobby for Frats Wants to Make It Harder to Enforce Title IX 

The political arm of the national fraternity system—known as the Fraternity & Sorority Political Action Committee (FratPAC)—is getting involved in the campus rape debate. Sadly, it seems they want to make it as hard as possible for schools to discipline students who sexually abuse or harass each other. Bloomberg reports:

March 24 2015 2:50 PM

Arkansas Legislator Says Single Mothers Should Get Free IUDs for the Sake of “Taxpayers”

Free contraception programs are a great idea. Free contraception programs that offer access to IUDs and hormonal implants—which are long-acting and highly effective, but carry up-front costs—are an especially great idea. A program offering free IUDs in Colorado helped lead to a 40 percent drop in the teen pregnancy rate in a mere four years. The St. Louis Contraceptive Choice Project showed that IUDs and implants can be wildly popular with young women

March 23 2015 1:28 PM

Are College Campuses Really in the Thrall of Leftist Censors?

Judith Shulevitz's op-ed from Sunday—about college campuses being overwhelmed by "hypersensitive" progressives who are eager to censor any ideas that ruffle their feelings—rocketed to the top of the New York Times most-emailed list. It's not a big surprise. The piece may give its readers a pleasant sense of superiority to students who take censorious attitudes toward "discomfiting or distressing viewpoints." "People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision," Shulevitz writes; students of previous generations—students such as the reader, perhaps!—were "hardier souls" who could tolerate disagreement without falling apart.

Shulevitz is right that many left-leaning students invoke the need for "safe spaces" in order to shut down debate. She cites an especially troubling example: when students at Northwestern demanded a "swift, official condemnation" of professor Laura Kipnis for writing an article opposing bans on student-professor relationships. The idea of safety shouldn't be used as a cudgel to censor any idea or image that you happen to disagree with, as when students as Wellesley tried to force the Davis Museum to remove a statue of a man in his underwear on the grounds that it's triggering to rape survivors.

March 20 2015 2:17 PM

Monica Lewinsky’s Comeback Tour Shows America May Finally Be Growing Up

Last summer, Monica Lewinsky made a big splash by writing an article for Vanity Fair that denounced the "culture of humiliation" she so famously endured—and which she fears is only getting worse because "the Internet has seismically shifted the tone of our interactions." The piece went a long way toward humanizing a woman who had been reduced to a punch line for so long. And Lewinsky is not done putting herself out there. She is successfully remaking herself as a rallying point in the fight against the kind of sexualized bullying that Internet feminists nicknamed "slut-shaming," her visibility heightened by a TED talk and appearances at events such as the play Slut, staged recently in New York City. 

This week, Jessica Bennett wrote a lengthy New York Times profile of Lewinsky that builds on the Vanity Fair piece by showing the impact—largely positive—of Lewinsky's "comeback" tour. But even now, when most are ready to hear her side of the story, Lewinsky is clearly still fretful over putting herself out there. "She is worried about being taken advantage of, worried her words will be misconstrued, worried reporters will rehash the past," Bennett writes. It would be easier for Lewinsky to continue hanging back. She is persevering because she believes that she can have a positive impact in the fight against what she calls the "the sexual scapegoating of women and girls."

March 20 2015 12:56 PM

8,000 Years Ago, Only One Man Had Children for Every 17 Women

Bad news for anyone who touts the idea that our ancient ancestors had it all figured out: Scientists have discovered evidence that, during the Stone Age, only one man passed on his DNA for every 17 women. That's right, guys. Living like our ancient ancestors means having as little as a 1-in-17 shot of reliably getting laid. 

March 19 2015 4:08 PM

Penn State Frat Member Says Pictures of Nonconsenting Nude Women Are “Satire”

Questions are being raised about the moral turpitude flourishing inside the walls of the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity at Penn State University, which was discovered to have a members-only Facebook page featuring non-consensual nude photos of women. Now Philadelphia has published an interview with one of the 143 men who participated in the group. His comments suggest that he may not be getting all he can out of his expensive education. 

After this anonymous member sent Philadephia a statement complaining that the media attention will "ruin people's lives and unjustly ruin reputations" (coincidentally, also concerns for women subjected to nonconsensual nude photography), the magazine reached out to him. He explained:

March 18 2015 4:26 PM

The Jinx Highlights How Cops Once Dismissed Domestic Violence

The Jinx, HBO's documentary about the hijinks of the alleged murderer Robert Durst, has created a welcome swirl of media attention covering nearly every angle, from hand-wringing over the journalistic practices to questioning the timeline of events, to exploring the meaning behind Durst's dark pupils. But one factor has gotten very little attention in the renewed interest: That domestic violence, and law enforcement's inclination not to take it seriously, is at the heart of the allegations against Durst.

Durst has long been suspected in the 1982 disappearance of his one-time wife, Kathleen Durst, though never arrested or convicted. The other two incidents covered in The Jinx—the alleged murder of Susan Berman, for which Durst has now been arrested, and the killing of Morris Black, to which he admits to—are thought by several of Kathleen's relatives and also law enforcement agents interviewed in The Jinx to be related to the first, allegedly committed to keep the victims from talking to the police about Durst's secrets. This matters, because if the suspicions expressed in The Jinx are true, then Durst isn't an unknowable monster, but something far more common: The wife beater (something he admits to in the documentary) who escalated his violence to murder. Serial killers who kill for the thrill of it are rare. But men whose desire to control women leads to murder are not. Thirty-four percent of female homicide victims are killed by a male partner

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