Beards, Why?

Paul Ryan: House speaker, Wisconsinite, Republican standard-bearer, and now, lumber-sexual? In an Instagram post late last month, the congressman unveiled a spray of chestnut stubble across his face. “I’m the first Speaker to sport a beard in about 100 years,” he said. (Close: The last was Frederick H. Gillett in 1925, according to The New York Times.)

Because it’s politics, there were critics.

“Grow the economy, not facial hair,” the National Review demanded. “Cut taxes, as well as whiskers.” Some conservatives, who are angry at Ryan for supposedly compromising with Democrats on the spending bill, have taken the xenophobic road, calling it a “Muslim beard.”

But there were also fans. The beard was Ryan’s second most-liked post on Instagram and the third-most liked on Facebook, according to Ryan’s office.

It’s actually not the first time Ryan has worn a beard in office. He sported the same look in January, and it caused a stir then, too—probably because it’s rare for politicians to have facial hair. According to Rebekah Herrick, a professor of political science at Oklahoma State University, fewer than 5 percent of members of Congress have beards or mustaches, and the last president with facial hair was William Howard Taft, who left office in 1913.

Not long ago, Herrick sought to figure out why so many senators and representatives stay clean-shaven. To do it, she gathered up photos of the male members of the 110th Congress, which was in office in 2007 and 2008, who had facial hair. She matched each photo to an image of a bare-faced member of similar age, race, party affiliation, and other characteristics, and showed the photo pairs to a group of students. The students were asked to rate the men’s masculinity and their likely stances on feminist issues.

The congressmen with facial hair were thought to be more masculine, less feminist, and less likely to support women’s rights, Herrick wrote in a blog post about her work. As a consequence, women and self-identified feminists in the group said they were less likely to vote for them. (In Ryan’s case, this comports with his vow to defund Planned Parenthood, which many women view as an anti-feminist move.) In the same blog post, Herrick suggested that this might be why so few political candidates have sported facial hair since women gained the right to vote.

Sexism score, by facial hair (Archives of Sexual Behavior)

Her findings are bolstered by a controversial study that came out earlier this year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Upon surveying 223 American and 309 Indian men, the authors found that “after controlling for nationality, age, education level, relationship status, and sexual orientation, men with facial hair scored significantly higher on hostile sexism than clean-shaven men.” That is, men with mustache, goatees, soul patches, stubble, and light beards (but not full beards) were significantly more likely to agree with statements such as, “Once a woman gets a man to commit to her, she usually tries to put him on a tight leash.”

That’s not to say that growing some light-to-moderate facial hair turns men into incorrigible pricks. The Archives study was correlational, so there’s no telling which came first: The loutishness or the ‘stache. Both facial hair and uber-masculine gender attitudes are predicted by testosterone levels, so it’s possible that having more free testosterone made the men sprout whiskers and believe regressive things.

And when Herrick looked at the bearded congressmen’s actual voting records, the perception that they were less feminist didn’t hold up. The policymakers with facial hair voted no differently on women’s issues, on average, than their clean-shaven counterparts.

It appears, then, that politicians don’t grow beards in order to telegraph some hidden, sexist agenda. Instead, their reasoning might be the same one that facial-hair researchers have unearthed again and again: The beard gets respect.

Some researchers have suggested that as primate societies grow large and complex, males need ever more imaginative ways to compete for mates. Thus, males in those societies developed ostentatious “badges”—cheek flanges on orangutans, long noses on proboscis monkeys, and beards on humans, as the Telegraph noted—to help them stand out.

During the Renaissance, beards were indeed the facial representation of manly energy, according to the beard researcher Alun Withey. “A thick beard thus spoke of virility and sexual potency, since it indicated the fires burning below,” Withey explained on his blog. “Not only was the beard held up as an ensign of manhood, it was a highly visible symbol of his ‘natural’ strength and authority.”

The levels of facial hair studied in one 2008 paper. From the left, clean-shaven, light stubble, dark stubble, light beard, full beard. (Personality and Individual Differences)

Things haven’t changed much. Across several modern-day studies, men with facial hair are consistently rated as more masculine, dominant, older, and in some cases, attractive. One study found that the thicker the beard on a drawing of a man, the more masculine, dominant, and aggressive women perceived him to be. “Light stubble,” however, was considered the most attractive condition. (NB: This was in 2008, during the dawn of Bradley Cooper.) As the authors explained, “This indicates females [prefer] males who are clearly mature (post-pubertal) but not too masculinized.”

Which means that, since Republicans have struggled to entice women voters, a light beard may not be the worst strategy.

Then again, maybe there’s nothing more to Ryan’s beard than his stated reason: It’s for deer-hunting season.

For Sale (to Women Only)

America is going through something of a reckoning, struggling—loudly, publicly, constructively—with the concept of gender. Giant retailers such as Target, for example, are knocking down the artificial distinctions between so-called boys’ and girls’ toys. Businesses that try to generate profits by creating selling unnecessarily gendered items, such as pens, incur withering scorn. And TV shows including Amazon’s Transparent and Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, which foreground the rich, complex lives of transgender characters, have found both audiences and acclaim.

This is not to say that the gender revolution has come, of course. There are many examples of the continued strength of the old rigid roles: One anti-discrimination ordinance that would would have protected trans people, among many others, in Houston, Texas, failed at the ballot box this November after opponents mounted a vicious, fear-based campaign against it. And a new study by the New York Consumer Affairs Board demonstrates that women are charged from 4 to 13 percent more for everything from toys to toiletries.

It’s silly for girls and boys to have separate building blocks and doctor kits, and for girls to be charged more for theirs, but are there some products and experiences, such as financial advising, for which gender specialization make sense?

That is the premise of two new women-specific financial robo-advisers, or automated, algorithm-based, wealth-management systems: WorthFM and Ellevest, both scheduled to launch officially in 2016. Tara Siegel Bernard at the New York Times greeted these initiatives with skepticism earlier this fall, claiming these products could “suggest women need extra hand-holding with their money.” In actuality, Siegel Bernard points out, evidence suggests women are better stewards of their cash; they have less money, on average, and yet they save more of it. Do they really require, or even want, specific confidence-building measures? Likewise, would robo-advisers geared toward women make traditional assumptions, that, for example, every woman intends, or even wants, to marry and have children?

I asked the feminist personal-finance expert Carmen Rita Wong, author of Generation Debt: Take Control of Your Money—A How-to Guide, whether she finds initiatives such as WorthFM useful or insulting, and she said she leans toward the idea that, if designed correctly, robo-advisers could serve the needs of women without condescending to them.

Wong told me that she was raised to be financially independent, to assume she could rely on no one but herself, much like a man. Money is about “taking care of me and what’s important to me.” Even if she got married again, “I would take care of my retirement, I would take care of my emergency fund.” Still, she pointed out, the lives of women on average are different in some key ways that are worth taking into account. They live longer, for example. If they do have children, they are “going to have a maternity penalty, possibly,” she said, and they are “more likely to become disabled. How do you plan for those things?” Any kind of serious financial advice for women must take these considerations into account.

When I contacted WorthFM’s CEO Amanda Steinberg, she told me her endeavor is responding to a gender-specific need: “I launched WorthFM because women’s disenchantment with financial services is so enormous and also so clear to me that I can’t call myself an entrepreneur and not try to solve it.” No one was or is being condescended to. Women, she argued, have long felt left out of the financial conversation, and male advisors were doing nothing to change that. “I haven’t met a single woman who has said ‘I love Schwab, Edward Jones, or T. Rowe, I feel great about how my retirement is invested there,’” she told me. “I’m launching WorthFM with Michelle Smith because I’ve observed for seven years how little the entire marketplace of offerings resonates with women, and as an engineer I know how to fix it.”

WorthFM does seem intent on communicating to its potential client base that it will treat them with respect. Its “MoneyType Assessment” could be experienced as a high-brow Cosmo quiz; and it does include some potentially wince-inducing statements such as “I spend my money on things like clothing, restaurants, jewelry products (name your passion of choice!) rather than saving” that would surely be different if directed toward men. The possible answers, which range from “Totally like me” to “Totally not me,” would also probably be worded differently for a male audience. But for the most part the questions are substantive; they probe issues such as whether “more important than money to me is the autonomy to live my life on my own terms” and “It’s important to me to use my money or time to support the dreams of others.” In appearance—its color palette is as muted and sensible as a pantsuit—as well as in substance, the assessment attempts to take women, their values, and their priorities seriously.

By contrast, the Texas-based nonprofit Cleaning For A Reason, which offers women with cancer free housecleaning, presents a much softer, pinker image. Its goals are irreproachable, as are its methods, which enable the employees of cleaning services to volunteer to help out the needy. Still, does it need to be so clearly gendered? Do only women, after all, care about having a clean house? Do only female cancer patients deserve one?

President and Founder Debbie Sardone acknowledged that some men have felt slighted, and that, on an individual basis, she and her own company are happy to work with men. Right now, in fact, “we’re cleaning for a wounded vet warrior. He’s a man, and we’re donating a year’s worth of maid service as he gets used to not having the use of his legs.” But her world is almost entirely composed of women. Two other Debbies sit on her board alone. Hers is “a woman-owned-business,” one she herself began and turned into a million-dollar enterprise. Her employees are “95 percent women.” The other house-cleaning companies she works with are owned and staffed overwhelmingly by women as well. It makes sense that the population they serve would be female.

Besides, she told me, fair or not, “it’s women who call us when their house is dirty. It’s the women who call us when they need help and they have cancer.”

If Amanda Steinberg is correct, women are similarly looking for financial help that is tailored to their specific situations and needs. That will provide a kind of “value added” that a lady-pen does not.

Sexism in Paradise

RIO DE JANEIRO—Two dozen women formed a circle and linked hands on a stretch of concrete near the Carioca metro station here Wednesday, dancing and chanting. They called for the fall of Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of Brazil’s lower house of congress, because of a new law he’s proposed that would make abortions much harder to obtain in a country where they are already all but illegal.

“Women should have the right to choose,” said the group’s leader, Luciana Targino, who wore a pink flag as a cape. The women’s rally was a small element of a larger march against Cunha that day by unions and other interest groups. But it echoed the actions of thousands of women who have taken to the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and Brasilia in recent months to protest the abortion law, specifically, and Cunha in general.

An Ex- Ex-Gay Lesbian Pastor Preaches Tolerance in Brazil

Roughly a fifth of Brazilian women will have an abortion by age 40—either by paying exorbitant fees to secret clinics, ordering abortifacient pills, or traveling to Uruguay. If caught, they can be criminally tried, though in practice few such women are jailed.

Legally, Brazilian women can only abort if they’ve been raped, if their life is threatened, or if sonograms reveal a brain deformity in the fetus. Cunha’s proposed bill would make things more difficult for women in the first category. It would require rape victims seeking abortions to report to a police station and have their bodies examined, and it could limit access to the morning-after pill. People who give women advice on how to obtain abortions could be jailed.

Rape is widespread in Brazil—one is said to occur every 10 minutes. The law’s opponents say the measure would discourage rape reporting and traumatize survivors. There might also be a rarer, more clandestine consideration at play. With abortion barely available, women find creative ways of skirting restrictions. Desperate abortion-seekers sometimes turn to false rape reports as an out.

The bill’s proponents say its evidence requirement will bolster rape investigations, as the Green Party lawmaker Evandro Gussi explained to AFP. And also, he said, they want to eliminate “any doubts that a rape was committed.”

But feminist opponents say it’s just another swipe at their gender in a country where machismo rules and women are far from equal.

Even libertine Rio de Janeiro, all megawatt smiles and dental-floss bikinis, has a misogynist streak, according to a group of feminist activists I had dinner with recently. “You can wear a short skirt, but you’ll still be judged for this,” said one of the women, Bea Lopez. “The probability of getting violated is high.”

Women’s rights activists here have been emboldened in the past few years, and not only because they have Cunha as their foil. Social media makes it easier to organize, and as more Brazilian women attend college and get good jobs, they’ve become eager to shake up traditional gender roles. No more dama na casa—lady in the house—they say: It’s time for men to start sharing in the housework and respecting female bodies.

“Some people call this the spring of the woman,” said Silviana Bahia, who has also been involved in a burgeoning black women’s protest movement in the country. “Men need to change the way they look at women.”

Her friend Domingos Pimentel, who is also black, said Afro-Brazilian women are drawn to the anti-Cunha movement because they tend to be poorer, so they’ll be hit harder if the high price of a furtive abortion rises even more.

When I asked if any of them knew someone who’d gotten an abortion, they grew quiet. Even though they’re feminists, they said, there are some things they don’t talk about.

The pro-life legislative push is propped up by conservative, evangelical politicians like Cunha, who have snatched up congressional seats in recent years. The rise of evangelical Christianity in Brazil has brought about a major cultural shift in a country that, though firmly Catholic, had previously taken a relaxed approach to issues such as homosexuality and divorce.

Today, Lopez believes the country’s iconic Carnival and beach culture are “just what’s sold to outsiders. In the suburbs, the church has all the power.”

The church, and as ever, the patriarchy.

In November, a 12-year-old contestant on the Brazilian version of Master Chef Junior was bombarded with sexual tweets about her appearance. “If there’s consent, is it pedophilia?” one asked. After that, Brazilian women used the hashtag #primeiroassedio—my first harassment—to flood social media with thousands of stories of the first time they were sexually targeted.

Later that month, women took to the hashtag #meuamigosecreto (or “my secret friend”) to highlight acts of everyday sexism by men they know. “#Mysecretfriend loves criticizing the power structures present in society,” one wrote, “Almost as much as he loves reproducing them in his own relationships.”

They’re also creating tech tools such as Vamos Juntas, a mobile app that’s like Waze, but for preventing assault. Women walking alone at night can tell the app when they feel unsafe, and it will suggest alternate routes.

The women I met differ from most American feminists in one major way: Several of them said they don’t believe men can be feminists. They hear men say things like, “a feminist is a woman who doesn’t want to be married,” and they fear that men, if invited in, will dominate feminism like they do other spheres of life. “In our movement, men don’t sign the papers,” said Thais Alves Pinto.

“It’s not that men are horrible,” Lopez interjected. “I love men! But sexism is socialized in the man from the time that he’s a young person.”

Bea Lopez, in red, shouts into a microphone at the rally. (Olga Khazan / The Atlantic)

The following day, Lopez led a group of students—her colectivo, or protest club—in an anti-Cunha rally down the street from where Luciana Targino’s group gathered. Walking backwards, drum-major style, Lopez called out chants like, “Cunha, you are sexist! My body is not an account in Switzerland!”—a dig at Cunha’s alleged role in a corruption scandal involving the state-run oil company Petrobras.

Lopez’s colectivo marched on to a large square in the center of the city. There, it was clear how the feminists planned to propel their agenda into the mainstream: They’d join forces with like-minded Cunha-haters. There was no shortage of options: An LGBT contingent unfurled rainbow banners, because Cunha opposes gay marriage. Young people marched, because Cunha lowered the age of criminal responsibility to 16. On the sidelines, a man said he represented a land-justice group, and indeed, Cunha wants to restrict indigenous Brazilians’ rights to their ancestral territories.

Cunha is also pushing for the impeachment of the country’s president, Dilma Rousseff, whose popularity ratings have tanked because of the flagging economy and the same corruption scandal that has engulfed Cunha. (Rousseff has been the target of her fair share of “quit now!” protests.)

Women march at the rally against Cunha. (Olga Khazan / The Atlantic)

But the workers’ union loves Dilma, and plenty of crimson flags belonging to the Central Unica dos Trabalhadores—Unified Workers’ Central—flew in the square. The women’s activists stationed themselves on a platform and stoically held their signs. Down below, the rally’s emcee alternated between singing samba and issuing rallying cries. Beer was sold, and the protesters gradually grew less angry and more, well, tranquilo.

When I asked Targino whether she thinks demonstrations like these will really improve things for women, she offered a frank assessment of their odds. Even if change doesn’t arrive now, she said, “we’re also working for the women who come up behind us.”

Olga Khazan is reporting from Brazil as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).

The Failure of the Phrase ‘Work-Life Balance’

How people think and talk about an issue matters. Every time people say “working mother” but don’t say “working father,” every time people talk about parental issues (or caregiving issues generally) as “women’s issues,”—together these small failures continually reinforce the assumption that it is up to women to raise children and care for elders, even though most people now accept that it is up to both women and men to earn a living. That assumption, in turn, enables male-female inequality to persist.

Another common idiom—that of “work-life balance”—does a disservice to women at the bottom of the income scale, implying that people have some control over this situation. The notion of “balance” summons an image of a see-saw or a scale, a stable equilibrium in which people have the right amounts of different things that they want. It is the ultimate expression of “having it all”—just enough of this and just enough of that.

The majority of American women who have caregiving obligations are persevering in the face of seemingly impossible conflicting pressures—how to get their jobs done and be at their children’s sports games and organize weekend activities and help with homework and take their mothers to the doctor and cook for or at least take dinner to a friend with cancer and and and. Or worse still, how to work two or three jobs to put food on the table and pay the rent and still have any time for children or parents at all?

Instead of balance, a better approach is to talk more simply and straightforwardly about making room for care, a concept I  explore in my new book Unfinished Business. Begin from the proposition that we cannot survive, as individuals or as a nation, without caring for one another. George Halvorson, former head of Kaiser Permanente, recently wrote: “The biggest single public health deficit and failure in America today is the fact that almost no parents of newborn children have been told or taught that they can improve their child’s learning abilities significantly by exercising their baby’s brain in the first three years of life.” Caring for children properly, and valuing the unpaid and paid work of those who undertake this vital job, will determine America’s future competitiveness, security, equality, and the wellbeing of its citizens. And at the other end of life, who are we if we do not care for those who cared for us?

Making room for care is dependent on one thing: valuing it, economically. Yet instead of valuing care as the indispensable work that it is, society as a whole free rides on the labor of family caregivers, who are not compensated for their work. Ann Crittenden, author of The Price of Motherhood, cites studies estimating a mother’s worth as somewhere between $100,000 and $500,000 a year, depending on whether the measure is the replacement value of each of the services she is expected to provide or what we could expect to have to pay one individual to provide a combination of those services. But none of those goods and services is ever counted in the U.S. GDP.

Anne-Marie Slaughter discusses her new book on work and family.

They could be. Plenty of economists have shown how. Bringing together much of this work, Riane Eisler is leading over 100 organizations in the Caring Economy Campaign, which has put together a set of Social Wealth Indicators specifically designed to track the value of caring for others and to measure where the U.S. stands on these measures versus other advanced industrial countries.

If society valued care, it would be accounted for in measurements of the economy and assessments of the country’s health and wealth. If society valued care, workplaces would adopt an entire set of new practices, from a right to request flexible work to the routine creation of work coverage plans for every worker, on the expectation that all workers must make room for caring for someone in their lives at some point in their lives. And if society valued care, the roles of teacher, lead parent, coach, nurse, therapist, or any other caring profession would have a degree of prestige and compensation that reflect the enormous importance of the work these people do.

“Balance” is a luxury, something only the very luckiest can ever attain. Equality—of the activities that are equally necessary for our survival and flourishing—is a better framework, as it demonstrates why care is something everybody needs to do and everybody needs access to. That’s not about balancing work and life. That’s about valuing all the activities that society needs for humans to flourish.

It’s a Man’s World

Please forgive some very rough history: In the middle of the 20th century, men worked and women stayed home (this was more true for white families than for black families, but, again, this is very rough). Many women deplored their lives at home (see: The Feminine Mystique and, also, this article on widespread tranquilizer abuse among housewives) and sought careers for themselves. Today, women make up nearly half the workforce.

In that earlier time, the roles people had—breadwinner, homemaker, student—fit in neatly with the distinct institutions where they did them: work, home, and school. Those roles have changed, but, in significant, fundamental ways, the institutions haven’t. For most people, the workday isn’t any more flexible nor any shorter (to the contrary, if anything it’s longer); home is still some combination of parents and children, while communal, co-operative living situations—which would supply more adults to help with household tasks—remain quite rare; and school continues to be an 8-ish-to-3 gig. Society has the basic design that it had in the 1950s, a world built for men to work and women to stay at home. Women have succeeded—at least to a certain degree—in this world, but, as Anne-Marie Slaughter writes in Unfinished Business, it “is still fundamentally a man’s world.”

Needless to say, this does not work. It’s wonderful that women aren’t stuck at home (goodness knows I myself am a beneficiary of this shift) but it’s crazy that there has been this dramatic reorganization of society with so little actual structural reorganization. There is no better illustration of this than the three hours between when school ends and when the workday ends, to say nothing of the approximately five years of a kid’s life (pre-kindergarten) for which society has failed to offer any public care for children at all.

The Failure of the Phrase ‘Work-Life Balance’

For many families, the solutions are stop-gap measures—find a free relative for some days, an after-school program on others, maybe work from home for a bit while the kids bounce off the walls, or pay for private care (an option that many cannot afford). It’s no wonder then that, according to a new Pew report, so many parents—39 percent—are reporting that they have a hard time finding satisfactory options for their kids. And the numbers are much worse for black families (56 percent) and poor families (52 percent). And for families with little kids, finding daycare is major problem. According to Pew, 67 percent—two-thirds—of parents in families with two earners say that it’s hard to find quality daycare they can afford.

This situation is at least partly to blame for the decision of many moms (yes, typically it is the moms) to switch to part-time work or drop out of the workforce altogether, if they are able. But many are not able, either because they and their partner rely on having two incomes for their lifestyle or because they are the sole earner in their household. Twenty-six percent of kids are being raised in households with one parent, according to the Pew report, up from just 9 percent in 1950. For these parents, the incongruity between work and school is even harder to manage.

Until these three institutions—work, home, and school or daycare—are brought into alignment, families will continue to feel stretched thin, dads will continue to experience pressure to be workers first and fathers second, and, in all likelihood, women will continue to lag behind men in terms of career achievement and compensation. Equality is not possible under these circumstances.

School could change, extending the school-day until parents can get home. There could be public daycare, something society already managed to pull off during World War II. Families could expand, living together in co-operative communities or by just straight-up sharing a house, so that more adults are on hand to help make life run smoothly.

But these are all options that presume that work cannot change, and that all the rest of life must bow to its unyielding exigencies. This need not be the case: There is no natural law stating that the workday must be eight or more hours long (Sweden—surprise!—is already experimenting with a six-hour workday). Perhaps work, not home or school, should be the one to bend. If it did, it would no longer look like the man’s world that woman sought to inhabit half a century ago, but, instead, one they helped to build themselves.