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I… am a quiet thing

A short sketch (2 minute read)

Every time the clouds thicken and droplets cascade from the sky, my little friends emerge from the darkness, not walking or crawling like animals but unfolding like mist. They are the ones who deposit trails of slime as if needing to retrace sluggish steps, who act like home isn’t on their backs but a place to return to. Their progress is static, an animation flipbook held in place, still and silent and calm.

One snail claims its throne, a rusted ironing board long left for dead. Its single bumpy appendage soaks in the heavy air like a sauna foot. If it had a voice, it would say to me, “I am not like Jerusalem’s dainty yellow flowers with their slender necks and green clover. I don’t bloom in the light and shrivel at night. I… am a quiet thing.”

Snails know that not everyone or everything shines in the sun. Its the shrouded moment and pitter patter of the earth’s tears that brings them out of their shells and lets them know it’s okay to move again.

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Three Ways to Activate Young Men for Workplace Gender Equality

Tens of thousands of American men enter the workforce every year. What can they do to combat gender inequality? (5 minute read)

My next door cube-mate was a woman in her late-20’s. I’ll call her Frances for the purpose of this essay. She’d earned a degree from a prestigious 4-year college and had a half-decade of experience in the sector we worked in. All of this made her job title very confusing.

“Frances!”, yelled our boss, Steve, as he barged in through the office door and stomped over to the cubicle next to mine like King-Kong in a button-down shirt. “I have some slides for the conference tomorrow. The content is solid but they need some formatting.”

Some formatting was an understatement. I’d seen these slides before. They were crammed with so many distorted images and run-on sentences that without extensive editing, an audience member might wonder whether our company were real or a complicated embezzlement scheme.

Steve said, “I need you to fix ‘em. Can you do it before tomorrow?”

“Sure thing, Steve,” Frances replied.

“Great. Knew I could count on you.” He stomped backed out of the room.

Frances was in her cubicle late that night. I saw her methodically replacing fuzzy pictures with sharp ones, removing unnecessary commas, and tweaking the formatting. It wasn’t work at a level commensurate with her experience, but it fit nicely under the title Steve gave her: Intern.

That same night, I pounded away on a new strategy for one of Steve’s projects. I was a recent college grad with few relevant work experiences, but my job description didn’t include any of the dirty work.

Frances and I talked about it sometimes. “Before this job, I had one kinda like yours,” she would say. “I wonder why Steve hasn’t asked me to work on more of your projects.” I never asked myself how Steve allocated work, but another co-worker of ours, Linda, had a theory that she divulged over lunch one day.

“Steve’s a sexist,” she told me in a blunt monotone, her brown eyes shooting lasers into my forehead as if the truth were as obvious as the sky is blue.

Linda had worked in the cubicle adjacent to mine for almost a year. She was an accomplished professional already, with a decade of experience and a Masters degree. But when our company won a shiny new project, Steve (also her boss) dumped it on my desk.

“Make me look good, Nelson,” he told me.

Linda continued, “If he weren’t a sexist, why else do you think you got to manage the project? No offense to you or anything, but you don’t have any professional experience. You’re a baby.”

I nodded sympathetically in response to her, but my internal monologue started spinning.

You’re just jealous, I said to myself, retreating into an emotional shell like a threatened gastropod. …The project fits squarely into my role. That’s ridiculous.

But Lisa’s question stuck with me long after we left the table that afternoon. Why did I get to manage the project over her? Why didn’t I start out as an intern like Frances did? I certainly wasn’t more qualified than either of them. What was actually going on?

Photo Credit: LiCheng Shih

The Invisible Wind

When the Sociologist Michael Kimmel writes about male workplace advantages, he says it’s like having an invisible wind at your back. He says, “we rarely, if ever, get a chance to see how we are sustained, supported, and even propelled by that wind.” The implication is that things seem just a little easier than they should be, like the friction that’s supposed to be there has disappeared in a wondrous miracle of physics. I’m no physicist, but even I could identify little resistance to my advancement at this job.

Back then, I believed Steve gave me all of the important work because I understood what he demanded and did just that. But this reasoning wasn’t universalizable. Frances and Linda cranked out high-quality work too, but they encountered a headwind.

This early work experience gave me some anecdotal insight when I later researched why America’s labor inequality between men and women was as bad as it is. Preferential treatment by male bosses toward men is one of the many reasons why women comprise 47% of the labor force but only 26% of private-sector executive positions and 5% of Fortune 500 CEO’s. Hiring discrimination is common and can drastically alter women’s career trajectories. Payscale, a compensation research firm, wrote a study showing that bosses who share the same gender as their direct reports are more likely to give them more responsibility, and as a result, those employees get promoted more often.

When reflecting on my experiences, I’m struck by the ways in which they were representative of larger American labor equality issues. It also hits me how unaware I was of what was going on. I didn’t even think of myself as the beneficiary of inequality, much less a posterchild for America’s gender equality battles.

My obliviousness isn’t unique. There will be tens of thousands of young men like me entering the workforce every year, similarly unaware. In an age when American women are pushing powerfully for equality in the workforce, it’s a problem for young men to enter workplaces without awareness of the gendered power dynamics at play there.

Since founding a men’s group dedicated to discussing issues of gender inequality and building better and more inclusive workplaces, I’ve worked with dozens of young men around the country to remove this “awareness gap,” a blind spot that I believe is preventing men from being stronger advocates for gender workplace equality.

You may be saying to yourself, “Awareness? We don’t need men to be aware, we need them to act!” I agree. Awareness is no substitute for action. The reason why I’m writing about awareness, however, is that there are so many valuable resources already that are focused on specific actions that men can take to make the workplace more equitable for women. These resources include reducing bias in hiring, creating equitable and flexible work-life policies, advocating for companies to build inclusive infrastructure like lactation rooms for new moms, creating an inclusive culture with gender-neutral social outings, and assessing whether your company has a gender-based pay gap and removing it. There are relatively fewer resources that focus on building the necessary awareness so that working men make these aforementioned actions a high priority in their day-to-day.

This series of three articles will be focused on ways that men, especially young men, can investigate and reflect on the ways in which gender inequality manifests in their own workplaces.

Tactic #1: Discuss Your Workplace

The men’s group I led was a part of Venture For America (VFA), an entrepreneurial training and apprenticeship Fellowship program of which I’m both an alum and former team member. Every year, over 150 recent college graduates join Venture For America to begin their career in entrepreneurship, and of the Fellows, around 50% are men. Over the past two years, we’ve led or hosted discussions during our 4+ week preparatory bootcamp about healthy masculinity in the startup world with these young men. This year, we also set up an online webinar after they started their jobs that was focused on building awareness of gender inequality in their workplaces.

I kicked off the webinar discussing my experience with Steve and asked the young men, “in what ways do you see or have you seen gender inequality manifest in your workplace?” When people started talking, stories arose that sounded far too familiar: The all-male software development team… The all-male executive team… A male employee referring to a woman he knew as a “fat bitch” in a public space where female coworkers could hear him… Male managers stating their preference for “strong employees” who could focus solely on work instead of “outside commitments,” like family.

The second question I asked them was, “what do you gain from gender inequality at your job?” One participant mentioned not having to worry about code switching because the dominant workplace culture talked about subjects like sports and beer. He also mentioned not having to worry about being the target of sexual misconduct in his workplace. Another said how he believes his deep, loud voice is more readily listened to. He also stated that, “My mistakes are more easily forgiven and co-workers don’t question my authority even though I’m entry-level.”

Asking reflective questions like these are essential for young men entering the workforce because they provide a space where they can reflect and digest layers of unearned advantage they may be experiencing. It’s a similar exercise to Peggy Macintosh’s Invisible Knapsack. Whereas she identifies, “the daily effects of white privilege in my life… [which] my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances…cannot count on,” the questions young men should be discussing focus on revealing privileges related to gender and work.

Young men should be guiding themselves through exercises like these at every workplace in the United States. The objective isn’t to guilt them or humiliate them, to say they’re bad people, or even to convince them that the preferential treatment they might be experiencing is only experienced by men. The main reasons are twofold.

If young men build awareness of the systemic gender inequality they benefit from early on in their careers, it raises the likelihood that as they rise in the workforce, they won’t unconsciously replicate past behaviors. Research has shown that biased behaviors “can be caught” like a disease and transmitted from person to person, generation to generation. Behavior in the workplace is no exception.

Research also says that awareness of biased behavior and discussion about it are two of the best ways to prevent it from being caught and spreading. Most young men I’ve worked with don’t want to unconsciously catch and be vessels for this intergenerational disease, and mention this as one of the reasons they participate in men’s groups. In acknowledging, exploring, and discussing these issues, these folks are much less at risk of perpetuating workplace inequalities than those who are not doing the work.

The second reason is that by identifying their own unearned advantage, young men can identify which benefits they receive that others don’t. From my own personal experience and talking with other men who have done similar exercises, awareness of these realities often leads to a deep desire to change things in the name of equality and fairness. It is a powerful foundation that can lead to action.

In the Next Article…

In the next article, we’ll focus on the ways in which workplace gender inequality manifests through the unconscious, exploring a phenomenon called Implicit Bias.


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The Mangiest Cat in Jerusalem

I call my apartment the Cat Palace.

There is an older woman who lives next door who feeds them. She is a pied-piper in orange crocs singing Israeli songs as she dances outside the apartment. Cats creep out from bushes, awake from lazed lounging, and pursue her like cheetahs when she passes by because they know it’s feeding time. I do too, as my feet dodge trickles and streams of cats flowing on the sidewalk following her siren song. She tosses out dry food and wet to high-pitched mewing from my neighbors: little pumas, long-haired fatties, splotched beasts, and camouflaged tabbies.

The most fascinating feline I met, though, looked nothing like the others and I didn’t see it at Feeding Time. Its fur was matted and unkempt, bunched in some places and missing in others. Its scrunched-up face peered from the edge of a giant green dumpster. It yelled at me with slitted eyes, “BACK OFF. I know I’m ugly and I know those other cats get fed, but I’m hungry right now and this is my dumpster.”

This cat was near death. It was clear to me from its scabs, caving sides, and scowl.

Yet, there was a force radiating from it, the pulse of life in its veins. I witnessed the cat’s gnawing hunger as a humble dream, and its rotten meal as meager redemption. Its suffering and striving revealed its divinity. You can see God even here, in the mangiest cat in all of Jerusalem.

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From Dust to Dust

We all have our first experiences in mourning following a family member’s death. This is about mine and the text that helped me cope. (7 minute read)

“Your grandfather died this morning,” Dad’s voice came through my cellphone. He sighed, “Tell your mother you love her.”

“I will.”

Died…

I hung onto the word.

Should I feel sad?

I didn’t feel sad… If anything, I felt shocked.

My grandfather, Mortimer, had been in a slow decline for years. Parkinson’s and Dementia had robbed him of his mind and the ability to move and yet still he’d persisted. I just assumed he would continue to persist, his body pickling, sleeping in his chair in the house he’d bought over 30 years ago on the Jersey Shore overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. He slept day and night, his neck cocked almost 45 degrees as his body remained upright. “He’s just like a little baby,” my grandmother, Marcia, used to say, over and over. She said it with a mixture of resignation and a hint of disbelief at the fate of the man she’d loved for over sixty years. I don’t know if anyone ever considered that his decline would have an end point, though.

The view from my grandparent’s beach house on the Jersey Shore

In my last memory of us together, I walked to my grandfather’s seat at the dinner table and put my arms around him. My lips scratched on his stubbled face. He awoke and turned slowly toward me, blinking his blue eyes to adjust to the bright kitchen lights.

“Am I dead?” he asked me gently, as if I were St. Peter at the pearly gates of Heaven.

I looked at him, astonished. He was mostly silent these days unless someone asked him how he was doing, and even then it often took two or three shouts to get his attention.

“No, Pop-Pop,” I said. “You’re not dead. You’re still alive.”

How could it be that this man, whose mind had been stolen from him, could still know that the end was coming? I suppose the recognition of mortality is baked deeper into us than even our own memories.

He returned to silence after I answered him. His icy blue eyes blinked again and then they closed. It was as if he were meditating, waiting for the end to come.

The sun rises in the Holy Land

I flew in from Detroit for the funeral. Mom’s eyes, red from crying, met mine as I stepped out of the arrivals terminal. She flung her arms around me and hot tears melted into my shoulder.  My grandfather was her role model, her friend, her closest confidant. They used to walk for hours together on the white beaches of the Jersey Shore, feet sinking into sand and salt water as the waves climbed up and retreated to the ocean. Now, nothing remained of their relationship besides her affection for him, untethered, and her still fresh memories. As we walked to the car, she grasped my hand tightly.

We drove out to the cemetery on a warmer-than-normal mid-November day in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The clouds obliged with the day’s mood, blocking out the sun and casting the skyline, billboards, cars, and my family’s faces in somber blue-grey hues. We shot down the interstate as I held Mom’s hand, caressing it over and over, feeling the vibrations from her sobs. She looked at me with her light blue eyes, eyes he’d passed to both of us.

The driver pulled off the freeway and the car slowed down, turning past an imposing rod-iron gate. The thick black pavement gave way to a dirt and gravel road and the car’s tires made a muffled crunching noise as we were bumped and jostled by the hill. Bare trees and gray tombstones surrounded us on all sides .

The grave site wasn’t a neat patch of grass like I expected, but an orange and brown gash in the earth. Ropes held the casket over the grave and it dangled in suspension like a morbid hammock. People nodded at each other as they stepped out of their cars, hugged, and grasped each other’s hands, all while suppressing the smiles they would have shown under more pleasant circumstances.

Rabbi Epstein, who presided over the funeral, brought us into a circle around the grave. He was a familiar face, stopping by the beach house every now and again to check in with my grandmother and ask, “How’s he doing, Marcia?” He knew the answer. Half of Rabbi Epstein’s congregants had a foot in the grave already; I imagine that’s why he seemed so comfortable in the setting of a funeral.

His baritone voice boomed against the backdrop of morose faces and loose sniffles. “Read with me please, from the text of Ecclesiastes,” he said.

“There is an appointed time for everything and a time for every affair under the heavens. A time to be born, and a time to die; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

I mouthed the words, unable for some reason to conjure the will to speak. A wave of emotion crashed over me. This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered Ecclesiastes.

Wind turbines in Southern California, Photo Credit: Danielle Nelson

It had been 6-months prior when I mentioned to a friend, Joey, that my girlfriend had just broken up with me and that my supposed dream job in renewable energy felt pointless. I wasn’t usually one to share my emotions, especially challenging ones, but on that night, I felt lost.

“Ohhhh, you’re in that phase,” Joey chuckled nasally in response. As he laughed, his thin face expanded gently into a smile, and his large brown eyes wrinkled at the corners. His reaction made him seem decades older than me, a grizzled veteran on the other side of age-30. “Hey, it happens to the best of us, man,” he said.

I strained a smile.

“Have you ever heard of Ecclesiastes?” he offered.

“No.”

“You should check it out.”

“Why?”

I didn’t trust it when people referred me to religious books. The last time it happened, a Christian person in North Carolina gave me a copy of the King James Bible with the hope that I would accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior.

Joey smiled again. “You just seem like someone who’d be into it.”

“Okay, I’ll check it out.”

I was looking for answers, after all, and didn’t know where to start. Religion was as good a place as anywhere else. What the hell? I pulled out my journal and jotted down, “Ecclesiastes.”

I printed out the text at my office the following Monday night, making sure everyone had already left so I wouldn’t feel guilty using the work printer for personal purposes. Still fresh from the heat of the printer, I began reading — the pages bathed in the fluorescent office light:

“Vanity! Vanity! All is Vanity. What do people gain from their labors at which they toil under the sun? One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever.”

I sighed, looking around at the empty cubicles, the silence punctuated only by the memories of today’s politics, infighting, and tension. The text resonated. I was tired of the grind, of the daily flow, of the coming and going, the igniting of my car’s engine, the mechanical clacking on keyboards, the endless chatter, each day passing into another day.

I continued reading the text a few days later, sprawled across my bed. On that Saturday morning, like many in the Detroit winter, the sun sat behind a suffocating blanket of clouds. Everything was cast in an impenetrable grayness. The wind blew, whistling through the cracks at the seams of my closed windows.

“The sun rises, and the sun sets – and glides back to where it rises. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full; To the place [from] which they flow, the streams flow back again. All such things are wearisome.”

The words of Ecclesiastes continued to resonate. I’d dedicated so much effort to fighting for environmental sustainability for the past decade, but on the macro-scale, nothing had changed. Deaf ears met the International Panel on Climate Change’s models of future catastrophe. Every successive year was the hottest on record but politicians and corporations still weren’t interested in cutting carbon emissions. More polar bears than ever seemed like they were swimming laps on Youtube, yet the fossil-fuel-laden status quo continued unabated.

“I found that all is futile and pursuit of wind.”

I felt comforted reading these bleak words. In the past, I’d felt cornered by the feeling of hopelessness, banishing it from my consciousness because it meant giving into failure. That led to nothing but misery. Inevitably, the feeling of hopelessness arose again. But with the help of Ecclesiastes, I felt peace for the first time. People had experienced hopelessness for thousands of years. I wasn’t the only one who had wrestled with the question of how to live with the world’s injustices and humanity’s shortcomings. Admitting this reality wasn’t giving in. It was just the truth. If there is such a thing as pure serenity, I felt it wash over me when I finished reading that day.

The red rocks of Petra, Jordan

Rabbi Epstein continued the funeral liturgy from Ecclesiastes. “From dust we come, and to dust, we will return.”

Mom grasped my hand especially tight. I held it and put my other hand on her shoulder. All we had in that moment were those words. Their weight provided perspective. Mortimer’s death was inevitable. He was dust.

But the words weren’t just about him.

We were dust. As we mourned his death, the text reminded us that we also mourned the coming of our own. The tears flowed down our cheeks. There was something about them that completed an emotional arc, wet beads of humility, reckoning, and catharsis.

Rabbi Epstein closed the service. “And let us say, Amen.”

A word escaped from my trembling, salt-stained lips: “Amen.”

The cemetery staff began cranking a pair of handles, loosening the straps that held my grandfather’s casket above the ground. My siblings and I held Mom tight as the wood hit the bottom with a soft thud.

Rabbi Epstein gestured toward a few shovels plunged into a massive pile of dirt. “First, his wife,” he said. My grandmother picked up the shovel, lifted a small piece of soil from the pile and flipped it into the pit. “Next, his children.” Each of them dropped earth on top of the casket. “Spouses of the children.” My father and uncles grabbed shovels, which scraped and crunched as they stabbed into the pile of earth.

“His grandchildren.” My siblings and I each grabbed a shovel. For a few moments, all I could think about was the crunch and thud of shovel hitting dirt and piling onto casket. How terrible it was to cover someone in dirt when we spend our entire lives avoiding it, washing it out, knocking it off our shoes, perhaps to avoid the reality that we’ll spend eternity beneath it.

The casket was by now almost completely covered by dirt. The cemetery workers and one of my uncles took the final shift. As I watched them finish, smoothing out the top with a few pats, gratitude arose gently within me. Ecclesiastes had provided me with the wisdom I needed twice now. Who knew what other texts like these existed in the world’s ancient religious traditions? I didn’t know the answer, only that I had to continue searching.

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