One Art Form Inspires Another

I was delighted when visiting the Cheekwood Estate in suburban Nashville, Tennessee to find a small exhibit by local fashion students. The museum tasked the students, who are in the class of 2021 at the O’More School of Design at Belmont University, with creating a garment inspired by a work of art in the collection.

Take a look:

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Dress and collage by Amy May, fashion student at Belmont University
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“Windy Day at the Sea” by Martha Walter

While this design is a bit on the nose, I love it all the same. Whenever I see those late 19th -century and early 20th-century paintings of women in flowing summer gowns at the seaside, like in this painting by Martha Walter, I can’t help but imagine the dresses as giant sails, blowing the women to freedom, away from what I imagine were pretty confining lives.

A close-up shows how the artist, Amy May, underlined the gauzy bodice with fabric in an antique map motif, like a secret underneath the proper summer white.

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This coat, by Justice Yberra, was inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe’s drawing “Banana Flower.”

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Dress and collage by Justice Ybarra
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“Banana Flower” by Georgia O’Keeffe

I liked how the artist included her muslin and pattern in the display, so you could see how she crafted the coat’s pleats to mimic the flower’s organic form.

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Design by Justice Ybarra

This showstopper was by Samantha Edington:

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Dress and collage by Samantha Edington

The collage includes imagery from the 1920s and metallic elements, reflected in the organza the artist chose. It creates such a mood!. You can see how the heavy gathers in the skirt were inspired by “The Feathered Hat,” by M. Jean McLane.

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“The Feathered Hat” by M. Jean McLane

I have sought out a few exhibits like this lately. I love the places where art and fashion intersect. I’d love to be more creative with my makes. As I gain confidence, I hope I can create a work of art worth wearing, someday!

Don’t Raise Your Hand, Part 2

Some recent interactions at work have inspired me to the list of “don’ts” as a woman dealing with in a male-dominated office. (See here for the original list.)

Don’t provide food. I have been in a series of training classes that wrapped up this week. I am the only woman taking the class, with a group of six to eight men. I have been trying to integrate a little better with the men, since they’re a close-knit group. I have to work with them once in a while.

I thought about buying doughnuts for the last class, as a way to celebrate getting through it, and to ingratiate myself a bit with the guys.

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I actually stood in line at this fancy doughnut shop to get a $25 box of doughnuts. And then I thought, “What am I doing? Why am I spending my own money to kiss up to these guys? If the situation were reversed, would it occur to them – ever – to buy anything out of their own pockets?” Of course not, sister. So I went to the meeting empty-handed. All the men did too. Of course they did. We finished the training and said goodbye.

Speak up when you’re not spoken to. A male project manager I work as part of a larger group ignores me. A few times a week he drops by our desks to shoot the breeze with the men and absolutely never includes me in the conversation.

One day I posed a question to a male coworker (we’ll call him Tim) who responded that he didn’t know the answer. Tim then asked me what the project manager had to say about it. “Nothing,” I replied. “He doesn’t talk to me. He literally never acknowledges my presence.”

Tim had a strange look on his face that said, “this bitch be crazy.”  So I thought I’d do a little test. I told Tim: “Don’t say anything, but the next time the project manager comes over, you watch what happens.”

Sure enough, the PM came by later that day, gabbed for a while with Tim and another guy about a project that I am involved with, never once turning toward me or including me in the conversation.

Wow,” Tim said when the project manager left.

Yep,” I said, “people think women make this stuff up.”

I wondered – just wondered as I said this – if it would get back to the project manager. Of course. A couple of days later, the project manager came by my desk and asked how I’m doing, what’s going on, blah blah. Not talking about work, mind you, just talking to show the other guys that he does talk to me.

Of course the PM reverted to ignoring me after that most of the time. Occasionally, he realizes he’s ignoring me and he makes a show of including me. One time when he came over to talk to Tim and the others, I looked up and listened in. He apologized for not coming closer to me, saying it was too far to walk. I sit right next to Tim. I just gave him a look – hey hang yourself with your own rope, dude.

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Now, this is a shitty passive-aggressive way to deal with the problem of being ignored. Going all Glenn Close from “Fatal Attraction” isn’t the answer. The second I realized this was happening, I should have told the project manager, “Please include me in conversations about this project, as I am on the team too.” And if he “forgets,” I should remind him, this time in writing: “Hey, I asked you to include me, but you didn’t just now. Why not?” If it happens again, escalate to his manager.

 

Fight Back with Feedback

Do you ever see bad behavior, but you don’t call it out, for whatever reason? Maybe you’re scared. Maybe you don’t want to rock the boat. Maybe you don’t want to get involved. Maybe you’re not sure of what you’re really seeing.

There are a million reasons not to do something, but only one reason where you must act: when it’s the RIGHT thing to do.

Such a predicament happened during a business meeting this week, where some men displayed some very bad behavior against women. So I spoke up. Maybe something will change. Maybe not (these guys didn’t seem like the types given to introspection). But if something does change, it will be because of the way the feedback was received:

  • Done at the moment, not later
  • Based in fact, not opinions or emotions
  • Based on content, not people or personalities
  • Constructive to give people something to act on
  • Band together if you can\
  • Follow up

By “at the moment” and  “based in fact” I mean, sticking to feedback about things that were observed. For example, four men had loud side conversations while a junior woman was presenting at the meeting. It was hard to hear the presenter. The presenter glared at them a few times but they kept going. Finally, I spoke up and asked them to stop. Those are facts that cannot be argued with.

I offered some constructive feedback: the moderator should organize the meeting to provide ample time for presenters. Each presenter should agree to stick to the allotted time. The moderator should intervene if side conversations become noisome.

“Based on content” basically means, no personal attacks. For example, this one guy who presented was giving as “evidence” all these personal anecdotes that were self-serving and not useful. Basically, dude was a serious Baby Boomer blowhard. But that’s not constructive, is it? Better to say: “Your anecdotes help illustrate the issues, but do you have data to back them up? I need data to make decisions, so please provide it next time.”

Finally, banding together helps women navigate these issues. If one woman raises a complaint, it’s easy for the men to dismiss her as “crazy” – an all-purpose epithet for any woman who dares to speak up. But if several women come forward, all agreeing to be constructive, fact-based and focused on content, not personalities, we can get somewhere.

In this case, I had a couple of “off the record” discussions after the meeting with other participants. We agreed on the facts. Then we provided our feedback. We agreed that we will follow up in two weeks to see if our comments were addressed.

Happy St. Distaff Day!

OK, there’s no “Saint Distaff.” Although, any woman who had to wield a distaff when spinning wool or flax is a saint in my book.

Rather, “St. Distaff Day” is Ye Ole Catholic Church’s way of saying: “Get back to work!”

Back in the day, Christmas partying lasted until the Feast of the Epiphany (it still does in some Christian cultures). You know, the old Twelve Days of Christmas” racket.

The day after the Epiphany, the fun was over. Women picked up their distaffs again and resumed their lives of ceaseless toil. Men resumed their ceaseless pastime of tormenting women, which on St. Distaff Day included stealing the spun wool and flax and setting it on fire.

There’s even a snatch of doggerel to mark the merry moment:

“Give St. Distaff all the right;

Then bid Christmas sport good night,

And next morrow everyone

To his own vocation.”

I am on a business trip, so no textile work for me!

Making a Buck from International Day of the Girl Child

October 11 is “International Day of the Girl Child,” a day the United Nations designated to to celebrate girls and to raise awareness about their challenges and triumphs. Since most cultures on earth greatly favor male children, and since girls have to persevere despite inadequate health care, education, discrimination and violence, it seems like a worthy “day” to me.

It also sounds like a great day for a male-dominated business to make a buck, don’t you think?

Steam, the PC game platform that’s overwhelmingly male and that hosts plenty of antagonism against women, offered a big sale today on “female protagonist” video games. “Ooh,” I thought, “let’s check that out!”

On sale were seven games. Seven. Out of the tens of thousands of games available through Steam, these alone were notable for their female protagonists. And I already had played four of them – all first-person adventure types of games where the protagonist is a young woman. Here are some quick reviews:

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Screenshot of a “Gone Home” poster
  • Gone Home – A college student returns home to find an empty house and no sign of her parents and sister. Players explore and follow clues to figure out what happened. The story unfolds slowly and builds to a climax, sort of like a novel in video game form. The game includes some lesbian themes. This game is a bit basic, but I liked the story.
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Screenshot from “What Remains of Edith Finch”
  • What Remains of Edith Finch – A young woman returns to her ancestral home to investigate a so-called curse on her family. She steps into the shoes of various relatives – from infants to old men – to learn about how the curse affected them. This is a gorgeously made game – full of laughs and tragedy in equal measure, with a good surprise at the end and some deep ideas about the unbreakable bonds of family ties.
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Screenshot from “Life Is Strange”
  • Life Is Strange – A high school student navigates the intersection of school, friends and the supernatural in this game, which unfolds somewhat in a “choose your adventure” style. Players decide how good or bad they want to be, interacting with many complex characters. Actions have consequences. This game includes disturbing episodes of violence against women. It also makes many strong points about the nature of lifelong friendships. I enjoyed playing it, although it was difficult to take at times.
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Screenshot from “Tacoma”
  • Tacoma – In this game, from the makers of “Gone Home,” the female protagonist investigates a mystery on a space station. It’s gorgeously and inventively made, including good, diverse characters (race, sexuality, body type, ability) and some good female roles. This game also includes some lesbian themes and unfolds much the way “Gone Home” did, but with more wit, inventive gameplay and  imaginative detail.

Who made these games? Only Fullbright (the makers of “Gone Home” and “Tacoma”) has women in leadership positions (the privately held company’s leaders are half women, half men).

The developers of “Edith Finch” were all men at the company Giant Sparrow. A female-led company, Annapurna Pictures, published it. Annapurna is better known as a film production company, whose president, Megan Ellison, has been nominated for Academy Awards for producing “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Her,” and “American Hustle.”

“Life Is Strange” also was developed all by men (Dontnod Entertainment) and published by SquareEnix (all men, yet again, but you knew that already). The developers say that other publishers pushed them to make games with male protagonists and that they weren’t trying to “make a statement” by using a female lead. Having played the game, I can tell you they needed to make the protagonist female, because otherwise the whole violence-against-women theme would not pan out. So, yeah, no statement to be made here.

When I play a first-person game, I play as “me.” With most video games, “male” is the default. Why? Because men don’t think it’s important to have a female character, and because they’re afraid that men will be turned off by anything with  whiff of “girly.” They’re trying to sell to men, so the characters are men. If women want to play, that’s fine, but it’s playing in a man’s shoes. Aren’t most animated things like this? Why are all the Minions “male”? Why is there only one female Smurf and one female cartoon M&M? And why does the one female character have to be sexy?

Some games let you choose an avatar for your character, and I choose a female character then. So do a lot of men, only when the avatars can be sexed up in ridiculous costumes. If they play games were they spend a lot of time looking at their avatar’s backside, they’d rather see a woman’s backside in a thong. This is not progress.

If you want to explore games with female characters and feminist themes, I highly recommend the “Nancy Drew” series from HER Interactive. HER is largely run by women.

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Nancy Drew game cover art

Nancy’s a feminist icon, to be sure, and she’s fearless and capable in the games, too. The games have a kids’ mode and an adult mode. They’re popular among parents because there’s no sex or bad language, and the violence is pretty benign compared to most games (Nancy gets trapped someplace and has to escape, or has to flee some threat). The games usually have equal numbers of male and female characters of various ages, races and body types, and a recent game had a lesbian character. I also like the games because they display remarkable affinity for rational thought. Nancy’s often called to help solve mysteries where someone attributes a problem to the supernatural – you know – a ghost is haunting a house or whatever. Nancy is clear that she doesn’t fall for ghosts and other woo-woo but rather sticks to the facts until she uncovers that – just as in real life – people use others’ superstitions or religious beliefs to cover their own misdeeds. The games are great stories to bash magical thinking.

It’s interesting to note that even when there are female protagonists, they are thin and young. Would the entire gaming world explode if a game featured an overweight 48-year-old protagonist?

Ever Wonder What Those Models on Sewing Pattern Envelopes Are Saying to One Another?

Picture this: a Kwik Sew sewing pattern envelope from the 1970s. View D is a white woman with a brunette bob, wearing a flesh-colored bra and a long green slip. View C, a white woman with a blond bob, is also wearing a bra and slip, but this slip has a slit in it. View A is a white woman in a short, lace-trimmed slip, arms crossed over her bare chest.

Miss View C says to Miss View A: “Come on, Blair! Do you want to pledge Chi Omega or not?”

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So that’s what the models on sewing pattern envelopes are saying to one another! Passing along weed and birth control. Expressing their sexuality. Tormenting their siblings. Plotting against enemies. Expressing feminist positions instead of vapid fashion statements.

It’s all in the book “Pattern Behavior: The Seamy Side of Fashion” by Natalie Kossar.

Kossar started this book as a Tumblr a few years ago. I looked forward to new ones coming out every few days. Kossar has compiled many of the best into this book.

Kossar and sewing did not get along. As a child, she’d been bored many times at the fabric store, as her mother pored over pattern catalogs, and she could never get the hang of sewing. “Girls who liked sewing were weak and boring. And I refused to be one of them,” Kossar writes.

She saw sewing patterns in a different light when her mother asked her to find a vintage pattern online. A simple Google search bombarded her with thousands of pattern envelope images, including many that expressed outdated ideas about gender, race and class. She started thinking of putting these models into a new conversation. “The juxtaposition of the vintage images with modern dialogue generated a strong message of social growth and change,” Kossar writes.

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“Average” takes on a new meaning.

If you like what you see and want more, please leave a comment below to enter a giveaway to win a free book! From all the comments received by 8 p.m. US Eastern Time on Tuesday, May 1, I will randomly draw one winner for the prize.

Five Years Ago I “Leaned In”

Five years ago, I found myself at a crisis point in my career. I was feeling restless and dissatisfied. I vaguely felt underpaid and underappreciated, in a male-dominated industry and company. While I had been successful,  I was stuck.  I didn’t know how to move forward, nor did I have the energy or courage to move. I had started looking for my next opportunity, but without any firm direction or goal.

I read “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg shortly after it published, five years ago this week. So had a couple of work friends. We each invited five women to be part of a “Lean In Circle” at the office, to follow up on the book’s advice. A group of about 15 women met for two hours every other month to work through the program and support one another.

“Lean In” changed my life. Today, I am at a much bigger and more prominent company, in a bigger job, with more pay, responsibility, challenge and energy. “Lean In” didn’t do this alone for me, but it pushed me out of my comfort zone, jump-started my career and opened my mind to what was possible.

A lot of people like to disparage “Lean In.” I wonder, did they actually read the book? They complain that Sheryl Sandberg approached the topic from a place of extraordinary prestige, wealth and privilege, as a Harvard graduate and COO of Facebook. Yes, she did. So what? I don’t understand how that invalidates what she has to say, as if the only “legitimate” women’s viewpoint on careers has to come from some hardscrabble perspective. And I really don’t understand why a “women attacking other women” viewpoint in op-eds and blogs is somehow more valid. There is a special place in hell reserved for successful women who don’t help other women succeed.

Here are several real-world examples coming from me, who came from a hardscrabble background, of how “Lean In” opened my eyes and helped me move forward:

Sexism: My manager at my old job was an older British man. I liked him and we got along well. But he did three things that really bothered me:

  • He insisted I get a mentor.
  • He socialized after work only with other men on our team. Me and other women were never invited.
  • He said that me and another woman I worked on a project with lacked “gravitas” to present our project findings on the big stage at a department-wide offsite, so he recruited a man to present with us.

At the time, I didn’t see these things as sexist, but “Lean In” opened my eyes:

  • Sheryl Sandberg wrote a lot about and how older people are always encouraging young women to get mentors. This push makes young women feel inadequate and forces them into artificial relationships with senior people who… you guessed it… make them feel even more inadequate. Mentors can be wonderful, but such a close relationship must develop organically.
  • By not being invited to after-work events, I missed out on valuable face time with the boss.  The men had better relationships and more insight into what the boss was doing and thinking.
  • “Gravitas” is a fancy way of saying “you won’t be taken seriously.” The man who my boss pushed into the project ended up doing some harm to it because he had to throw his dick around.

Equal Pay: I pushed for better pay when I joined the company, but I was told “this is our offer, not up for negotiation.” I was getting paid more than at my last job and this was a big opportunity, so I accepted it. Once I got promoted into management, I got a small raise because it was in the middle of the budget year, with a vague promise I’d get more later. I wasn’t happy, but I was naive enough to trust the system. Then two things happened:

  • I realized that most of the men who reported to me made more than me, and the lone woman on the team with equal experience to the men and at a higher position made even less. My complaints got me nowhere. I was never made whole and each year I sank a bit further back in pay equality because new people were brought in at higher salaries.
  • I was a top performer and earned raises and bonuses regularly, but I still was underpaid. I earned about 85% of what peers from the “Lean In Circle” earned. And they were underpaid compared to men in similar positions.

“Lean In” opened my eyes:

  • I didn’t understand how compensation works. If you are underpaid today, you will always be underpaid. The compensation system is rigged against you and no one will fix it.
  • If you want to be paid more, you need to know your value and negotiate hard. I learned how to negotiate and how to calculate my value to get better pay and other perks at my new job.

Taking Risks: I am by nature rather risk-averse. I don’t seek thrills or take many chances in life. “Lean In” made me realize I was too comfortable where I was, not challenged enough or interested enough to find fulfillment at my job. I noticed a few things:

  • My job was in a female ghetto – an operational role that was viewed as a cost center, not revenue-generating or otherwise contributing much to the bottom line. My boss took another job and I had a new female boss, who in turn reported to a woman, “Big Boss,” who was one of only two women leading our entire division. Only human resources had a higher proportion of women than our group did. Men made the decisions, and we women (for the most part) executed them.
  • Women at my level within this group were moved around like chess pieces to satisfy whatever demand at the moment fell on Big Boss’s ears. These lateral moves were good for gaining experience, but they never seemed to lead to promotions or big opportunities, rather just putting out fires and shoring up crumbling walls. Some women had been at these types of tasks for 5 to 10 years! Strategic decisions came from a higher level they didn’t penetrate.

Because of “Lean In” I realized I needed to take chances in my career. The longer I stayed where I was, the harder it would be to move. There was a reorganization and Big Boss wanted me to take one of these lateral-move jobs. I had a meeting with her, where I laid my cards on the table and told her flatly what I wanted. She said no. So I left. I never would have had the courage to do this without “Lean In.”

Leaning In at Home: Sheryl Sandberg inspired the most vitriol with her insights into how to manage a work-life balance. Such a powerful and big earner of course could have endless nannies, maids, assistants and other helpers. She didn’t understand the struggles of single mothers, or of women whose partners also have demanding jobs and are unwilling or unable to take on more responsibilities at home. This is a valid criticism.  And Sandberg herself viewed these challenges through a different lens when her husband suddenly died a few years ago. Also, I don’t have kids, so I can’t comment on the working mother dynamic. But this doesn’t mean that all of Sandberg’s ideas are bullshit.

  • Just like at work, at home you also have to ask for what you want. Your partner and kids won’t read your mind.
  • Your husband needs to be an equal partner, or you will tote around resentment along with all the housework, shopping, cooking and child care responsibilities. If he won’t meet you halfway before you’re married, you have no hope after you’re married.
  • Don’t put your career on hold because you might get married, might have kids, or might have to care for aging parents. Do what you need to do at work. If personal life throws curveballs later on, deal with them then.

When I took my new job, which has a long commute and longer hours, I told my husband that he must take on some responsibilities at home, such as making dinner two or three nights a week (including cleaning up after), vacuuming, paying some bills and shopping for groceries as needed. He doesn’t like it, but he does it, and he acknowledges it’s fair. “Lean In” helped me craft these discussions with my husband, to get to a satisfactory agreement.

What’s next?

I think I will reread “Lean In” this month to see what else I could learn or other places where I disagree with Sandberg. I also wonder what other women think. Have you read the book? Did it help you?