The Second Assault

Christine White was a preteen when she went on her first diet. At school, she was bubbly and sociable, an honors student immersed in social causes. But at home, she would carefully ration her food.

By the time she was 14, she had developed bulimia. It was easier to hide the purging from her family than it was to explain why she wasn’t eating. In her darkest moments, she would scribble her anxieties into a blue-lined journal.

When I eat food now I feel guilty,” she wrote in rounded, 14-year-old script. “I don’t like to eat in front of other people.”

As a college student, she stopped throwing up but kept overeating. Carbs were her crutch. “If I’m stressed, let me crawl inside a bag of Tostitos,” said White, who goes by her nickname, Cissy. She would shovel handfuls of cereal in her mouth, or boil and eat enormous amounts of pasta.

Parenting and Punishment

Children, trauma, and the aftermath
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She didn’t fully understand what drove her binges, but she had one idea—an experience she referred to as “my hell” and “my secret” in later journals.

When White was an infant, her mother began dating a man 26 years her senior, and he lived with the family until White was 10. Though to outsiders he seemed affable, the stepfather was largely unemployed, according to White, and he had a boorish streak. “He was the kind of guy who would beep at pretty women walking down the street,” she said, “even with his kids in the car.”

At home, his immaturity had a sinister element, White said. A number of times, after White showered, he’d make her parade in front of him naked so he could “inspect” her. During games of Yahtzee, he would force her to sit on his lap for longer than was comfortable. He’d grab her behind and make flirtatious comments. Occasionally, he’d put a treat in his pocket and cajole her into fishing around for it.

“I knew that I didn’t like what was happening,” she said, “but I didn’t know what was appropriate.”

To her teen self, White’s body was criminal. “I felt like I was always in a battle with food,” she said. “I just thought, this body needs to be tamed. It makes terrible things happen.”

As horrifying as White’s story is, it’s a common one among people who have been abused as children. Researchers are increasingly finding that, in addition to leaving deep emotional scars, childhood sexual abuse often turns food into an obsession for its victims. Many, like White, become prone to binge-eating. Others willfully put on weight to desexualize, in the hope that what happened to them as children will never happen again.

In White’s case, overeating did not lead to obesity—her weight only ever ranged from roughly 118 pounds to 175. But research shows that in general, childhood sexual abuse might be an important predictor of obesity and overweight in adulthood. More importantly, experts say, this disturbing connection suggests it’s fruitless to treat eating-disordered patients without investigating and addressing potential childhood trauma first.

* * *

In 1985, a 28-year-old woman named Patty arrived at a weight-loss clinic in San Diego operated by Kaiser Permanente. The clinic was designed for people who were between 60 and 600 pounds overweight. Patty asked the doctor running the program, Vincent Felitti, for help. Patty weighed 408 pounds. In less than a year, she had shed 276 of them on a near-fasting diet.

“We thought, ‘Well, we’ve obviously got this problem licked,’” Felitti told me recently. “We’re going to be a world-famous department of preventive medicine here.”

Patty stayed at her svelte new weight for a few weeks. Then, in less than a month, she gained back 37 pounds—a feat that would require eating more than 4,000 excess calories daily. Patty blamed it on sleepwalking, saying that though she lived alone, she had been waking up in the mornings to a kitchen covered in opened boxes and cans.

Felitti believed her sleep-eating story, but he asked her, “Why did that start now? Why not five years ago? Why not 10 years from now?”

Patty said she didn’t know. When Felitti pressed her, she said there was a man at work who was much older and married. After she lost weight, he complimented and propositioned her.

Felitti countered that, though the sexual advances were understandably unpleasant, extreme weight-gain seemed like a strange response.

That’s when Patty revealed that her grandfather began raping her when she was 10.

In short order, Patty regained all of the weight and then some.

Patty’s story offered a clue into why nearly half of Felitti’s obesity patients dropped out of the weight-loss program. He interviewed more of these patients and found that 55 percent acknowledged some form of childhood sexual abuse. Like Patty, many would enter his program, slim down, then promptly bulk up again.

Together with Robert Anda at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Felitti would go on to run the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which hunted for lingering impacts of difficult upbringings in the general population. The study generated a framework called the ACE Score, or the sum of all the types of trauma a person might have experienced in childhood—everything from their parents’ divorce, to poverty, to physical and sexual abuse.

The more ACEs a person has, the greater their risk of all sorts of maladies. Six ACEs increases the risk of injecting-drug abuse by 4600 percent, for example. Though some people develop resilience to early adversity, Felitti and Anda found that abuse victims’ ability to “bounce back” without treatment is markedly overstated.

“The things that don’t kill you can make you stronger,” Felitti said. But if they go unaddressed, they can also “get to a point where they become overwhelming and will destroy you.”

* * *

White’s stepfather moved out eventually, but he still made her wary whenever they interacted. His overtures ramped up as White lost weight in adolescence. He’d send her cards and tell her she should be a model. “That was just disgusting to me,” she said.

White’s stepfather has since passed away, but the distress he inflicted loomed over her early adult life. In 1985, when she was 18, she confessed to her journal that she was having trouble having intercourse with her boyfriend. “I’m so frigid,” she wrote.

She wouldn’t have a normal sex life until her early 40s. In college, she’d cry nearly every day and wake up with nightmares and flashbacks.

Experts say sexual abuse is one of the worst adverse experiences, and also one of the most likely to compound other life stressors.

“It’s bad to have a substance-abusing parent, or a mentally ill parent who’s untreated,” said Frank Putnam, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and another prominent childhood-adversity researcher. “Of all those [ACEs], sexual abuse seems to be the most pernicious. This is particularly true for women.”

“Sexual abuse is about betrayal,” he added. “It’s occurring at the hands of trusted family members and caregivers.”

Studies by Putnam and others have found that sexually abused women are more likely to suffer from an array of seemingly unrelated mental and physical ailments, including premature puberty and problems in school.

One 75-year-old former patient of Felitti’s, who saw him when she was in her 20s and weighed 270 pounds, said she began eating compulsively after a childhood of horrific sexual and emotional violence. (She and several other sources requested anonymity to protect family members and friends.) She now has a host of health problems, like bone problems and tumors in her brain and sciatic nerve, that she believes are related to her weight and mental anguish.

“It bothers you all your life,” the woman told me. “It decimates you as a human being.”

The trauma of sexual abuse often manifests through a preoccupation with food, dieting, and a drive to feel uncomfortably full. One analysis of 57,000 women in 2013 found that those who experienced physical or sexual abuse as children were twice as likely to be addicted to food than those who did not.

One Maryland woman who was a victim of incest at the hands of her father, uncle, and cousin would sometimes go for days without eating as a teen. Now that she’s in her 50s, the pattern has reversed, and she finds herself prone to binges. When at the airport, for example, she beelines for snack shops, buys two to three bags of M&Ms and a pack of Cheez-Its, and downs it all.

“I’m telling myself the whole time, ‘Why am I doing this?’” she said. “We still always carry this guilt around.”

Trauma that occurs during critical periods in the brain’s development can change its neurobiology, making it less responsive to rewards. This anhedonia—a deficit of positive emotions—more than doubles the likelihood that abused children will become clinically depressed adults. It also increases their risk of addiction. With their brains unable to produce a natural high, many adult victims of child abuse chase happiness in food. It’s this tendency, when combined with what many described as a desire to become less noticeable, that makes this group especially vulnerable to obesity.

Constance, a 53-year-old Virginia woman who also asked that I use a pseudonym, was fondled as a young girl by both an older cousin and her grandfather. A few years after the molestation ended, she was at a family function when she became so uncomfortable that she snuck off to a pantry and ate cookies until she felt sick.

In middle school, three neighborhood boys tricked her into coming over to their house. When she arrived, she said, they held her down and gang-raped her. For years, Constance didn’t tell anyone about the rape. Her weight spiked. When people weren’t looking, she would gorge on cookies, cakes, and chips. By the time she was a teenager, she weighed 180 pounds.

In high school, she turned to drinking and prescription pills, and later, she went to jail and rehab for a cocaine addiction. “When I was under the influence, I was able to come outside of myself,” she said. “I would talk and laugh.” Even after rehab, she struggled with a compulsive-shopping habit that ran up her credit cards.

Today, Constance is still overweight and lives alone. She’d like to find a partner, but she has doubts. “I’m never really quite comfortable or feel safe with men,” she said. “I’m a little afraid of them because I know what they can do.”


Compulsive overeating doesn’t always lead to obesity, but studies show that sexual-abuse victims are far more likely to be obese in adulthood. Research suggests childhood sexual abuse increases the odds of adult obesity by between 31 and 100 percent. One study found that about 8 percent of all cases of obesity, and 17 percent of “class three” severe obesity, can be attributed to some form of child abuse.

The reasons are both metabolic and psychological, both willful and subconscious. For many victims, the drivers of their obesity act in synergy, compounding each other, and they might change over time. One such pathway is inflammation: The major, unrelieved stress of abuse triggers the adrenal glands to pump out steroid-like hormones. One of these hormones, cortisol, not only affects the brain’s ability to plan things like diets, it also affects appetite, satiety, and metabolism.

And there’s some evidence that stress induces the body to squirrel away fat—a vestige of a time in human evolution when this would have been useful. Chronic stress also sparks the release of chemicals called pro-inflammatory cytokines, which prevent insulin from being taken up by the muscle cells. This is called insulin resistance, and it’s strongly correlated with obesity. “If you think of the body as a clever organism, if it’s exposed to something that’s threatening, it protects itself by making sure there are plenty of calories on board,” said Erik Hemmingsson, an associate professor of medicine at Karolinska University in Sweden.

Abuse victims might therefore become heavy even if they eat normal amounts. One 93-year-old woman, Helen McClure, has been obese for years, but she’s not quite sure why. She doesn’t have a problem with overeating, she says.lose less weight after bariatric surgery or during clinical weight-loss treatment. Among women who were hospitalized for psychiatric treatment after bariatric surgery, one study found that 73 percent had a history of childhood sexual abuse. Gastric bypass prevents them from eating large quantities—thereby removing an essential coping mechanism.

In Felitti’s weight-loss group, there was one woman, also a victim of abuse, who would come every week and sit silently with a smile on her face. One week, she announced that her family had finally scraped together the $20,000 necessary for her to have bariatric surgery.

Well, this is going to be a disaster,” Felitti thought.

She lost 94 pounds, became suicidal, and was psychiatrically hospitalized five times the following year.

“The [weight] came off too quick,” she told him later. “I felt like I was losing my protective wall.

* * *

These women’s stories suggest that obesity is not what it seems. Given how it increases obesity risk, preventing child abuse could be considered a public-health measure on par with mandatory calorie labels. Doctors may tell overweight patients to diet and hit the gym, but if they’ve suffered childhood trauma, their bodies might be actively working against them. Worse still, the patient might—consciously or otherwise—have a dark reason for remaining heavy.

Felitti eventually incorporated a questionnaire that asks patients about sexual abuse and other childhood trauma into Kaiser Permanente’s Obesity Program. Several obesity-treatment specialists contacted for this story also said they routinely ask their patients about sexual abuse—most won’t mention it unless prompted.

Wendy Scinta, an obesity-medicine specialist in central New York, says the first question she asks patients who seek weight-loss treatment is, “Did you have a happy childhood?”

People who did will say so right away. Among those who didn’t, there’s usually a pause. A “hmmm.” A vague explanation. If the patient recalls abuse, Scinta might refer them to the psychologist she has on staff.

Some doctors say they struggle to secure insurance-plan payouts for the extensive psychological or psychiatric treatment that abuse survivors require. About half of psychiatrists don’t take insurance, and half of U.S. counties have no mental-health professionals. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services covers 16 to 22 visits per year for obesity-related medical counseling, but psychological therapy is not included.

“With people who are abused, you have to uncover their awful wounds before they get better,” said Marijane Hynes, an internist at the George Washington University Medical School in Washington who focuses on obesity. At her hospital, psychiatry residents see many of her patients for free, and she’s not sure how she would provide mental-health treatment without their help.

Some survivors find unorthodox routes to restoring mental and physical health. Later in her life, McClure, the 93-year-old abuse victim, began speaking regularly on abuse issues to groups of doctors, social workers, and police departments. The advocacy “has certainly dulled the pain and given me a sense of pride in the fact that I have been able to turn my disgusting story into a tool to help others,” she said.

White, the woman who documented her teenage dieting and bulimia in journals, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in her 20s. After suffering an anxiety attack, she called the health center at her college, which referred her to therapy. She would ride the bus to the therapist’s lily-white, immaculate office twice each week. “I used to refer to it as paid-for parenting,” said White, who is now 49 and living in Weymouth, Massachusetts.

The therapist was warm and welcoming. Eventually, though, White felt it wasn’t enough to simply talk about her emotions. Her abuse had left her feeling like an amputee, she said. Talk therapy was like retracing the question, “How do you feel about the fact that you can’t get up the stairs?” she said—when all she really wanted was a ramp.

In her 30s, she enrolled in a writing workshop. She and dozens of other people, many of them survivors of trauma, would sit in a room, compose essays about their pasts, and share their work with the group. At first, being open about her childhood felt awkward. But after each of the four sessions, White found herself feeling better for months.

It was around that same time that she began regularly practicing yoga. That, too, was fraught initially. For a survivor of sexual abuse, lying down in a dark room with strangers, as most yogis do at the end of a class, was scary. Gradually, though, the practice helped her once again feel safe in her skin.

Decades later, the days of seeing her body as tainted are finally over for White. She still believes she’ll be keenly sensitive to stress for the rest of her life. But now, when something triggers her—like her home flooding a few years ago—she turns to a relaxation technique called guided imagery to manage her symptoms. She’s become an advocate for abuse victims, and in 2014 she opened her own writing workshop.

She says the abuse will always tug at her, but today its power is diminished. “That’s just stuff that happened to you,” she said. “It isn’t you.”

Why Brazil Loves Breastfeeding

RIO DE JANEIRO—The other day here, I saw something I rarely encounter back home in Washington. A young woman holding a toddler sat down at the table next to me at a boardwalk cafe. When the little boy got fussy, she tugged down her tank top and fed him in plain view of one of Rio’s largest thoroughfares. No blanket. No shame.

It’s not just that Cariocas are far less body-conscious than Americans. Brazil promotes breastfeeding much more aggressively than the U.S. does, and perhaps as a result, breastfeeding is far more common here. More than half of Brazilian mothers exclusively breastfeed their children until they’re six months old, according to the Health Ministry, compared with 16 percent of American moms.

About That Breastfeeding Study

For women who can’t breastfeed, the country offers “milk banks.” Donors pump their milk and store it in glass jars in their freezers, as the AP reported. The jars are picked up by motorcycle messengers and kept in 214 banks around the country, ready for use by mothers who can’t produce enough of their own.

Along with dozens of other countries—but not the U.S.—Brazil bans the advertising or promotion of infant formula. These products are forbidden from having labels that read “ideal for your baby.” In March, the São Paulo municipal government passed an ordinance that would fine businesses or organizations that prevent women from breastfeeding in public.

That move was prompted by what mothers’ rights activists say were a series of incidents in which women were scolded or shamed for feeding their babies out in the open. The final straw, it seemed, was when the model Priscila Navarro Bueno was chided by a security guard for breastfeeding her 7-month-old daughter at São Paulo’s Museum of Image and Sound. That led to a mass feed-in by 40 women who flocked to the museum and nursed openly in protest.

The breastfeeding push is partly credited with helping slice Brazil’s infant mortality rate by more than two-thirds in the past two decades. In the past, poor Brazilian women would sell their breast milk, leaving their own children malnourished, or they would use formula mixed with unsafe water. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life because of its link to numerous health benefits. (Though as Hanna Rosin points out, some of those benefits are overstated.)

Still, there’s a fine line between a gentle “breast is best” message and judging mothers for their choices. Take, for example, this recent advertising campaign created by the Brazilian-based ad agency Paim for the Pediatric Society of Rio Grande do Sul, urging women not just to breastfeed, but to watch what they eat while they’re doing it.


The tagline on that burger-boob? “Your child is what you eat.”

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

When a Chief Justice Declared That Women Make Better Secretaries

In September 1966, a Florida woman named Ida Phillips drove to a missile plant in Orlando to apply for a job on the assembly line.* It paid more than double what she was making as a waitress, and she had seven kids to support. But once the receptionist found out that Phillips had a child in preschool, she wouldn’t even give her an application. The company, Martin Marietta (now known as Lockheed Martin), didn’t hire women with kids that young, though men with children the same age were free to apply—between mothers and fathers, the company assumed it was mothers whose attendance would suffer because of a sick child or lack of childcare. And even if they made it to work, the thinking went, mothers would just be too distracted by thoughts of the home front to get the job done.

While those assumptions still bedevil working mothers, explicit bans like Martin Marietta’s are now against the law. That’s because 45 years ago today, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Ida Phillips’s case.

The law under which Phillips sued, Title VII of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act—the “title” outlawing employment discrimination because of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex—had never been interpreted by the Court. That its first opportunity to do so arose in a case brought by a woman was ironic, given that Title VII’s ban on unequal treatment of women had been added to the legislation at the last minute. Many, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with enforcing the new law, were skeptical that it was meant to do much of anything. Indeed, not long after Title VII was enacted, the EEOC’s executive director derided the sex provision as a “fluke” that was “conceived out of wedlock.”

Complicating Phillips’s case was the fact that Martin Marietta had produced personnel data showing that it overwhelmingly hired women for the job Phillips had been denied. So the company didn’t ban all women—which unquestionably would have been discrimination “because of sex”—but just one category of women, namely mothers of young children. Was discrimination “because of motherhood” equally illegal?

At the podium arguing Phillips’s case was William Robinson, a young attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Although its mission was to advance the civil rights of African Americans, and Phillips was white, the group’s leadership understood the high stakes of Phillips’s case. For one thing, black mothers were nearly twice as likely to work as white mothers were, so a decision upholding Martin Marietta’s rule would be economically disastrous for African American families. For another, if the Court found the company’s rule nondiscriminatory because it only excluded some women, Title VII would surely die by a thousand cuts. Employers could re-impose many Jim Crow-era rules: Instead of barring all African Americans from applying, they simply could ban those who, for instance, didn’t have a high-school diploma or achieve a certain score on a shoddily-designed aptitude test.

As it turned out, Robinson didn’t have to spend a lot of time in his arguments detailing these potentially dire consequences. Instead, he had to contend with the fact that some justices held many of the same stereotypes about women’s inherent interests and abilities that underpinned Martin Marietta’s policy. “Does the law require that the employer give the woman a job of digging ditches and things of that kind?” asked Justice Hugo Black. Or, Black continued, could an airline “decide that they only wanted to have the job position of stewardesses” and not hire any men because “customers like women better in that place, younger women obviously”? Justice Harry Blackmun, who just three years later would author the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, asked Robinson to “educate me”: “[S]uppose a hospital for years had employed nothing but female registered nurses,” he hypothesized, “and then today after the passage of this Act, a male nurse applicant comes along. Do I understand your interpretation of the Act to be that just because they have always had female RNs and like them and got along well, they could not refuse to hire the male nurse?”

Chief Justice Warren Burger also appeared uneasy with the notion that Title VII required employers to assume women and men were equally equipped to do most jobs. Was it the case that if a federal judge like him “would decline to hire a law clerk who had an infant child, a lady law clerk, but was willing to hire a man whose wife had infant children,” then he “would be in violation of the statute?” No, answered Robinson, because the law didn’t apply to federal employers (a gap later closed by a 1972 amendment). Burger earned a laugh from the gallery with his relieved reply, “I am sure, it doesn’t apply to federal judges.”

Later, when Martin Marietta’s counsel explained that the assembly-line job denied to Phillips was not “heavy work” but rather “intricate work” involving “small electronic components,” Burger stated that that was surely why women comprised the bulk of the company’s workforce. “[W]omen are manually much more adept than men and they do this work better,” he opined, adding, “Just the same reason that most men hire women as their secretaries, because they are better at it than men.”

That the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court apparently had no qualms about declaring women to be inherently better secretaries than men spoke volumes about how little Title VII had done in its six-year existence to uproot, or at least to stigmatize, the cultural biases motivating a lot of sex discrimination.

Shortly after the oral argument, the Court issued its unanimous decision. Like so many Court rulings, it was a mixed bag. In one sense, it was a big win for Ida Phillips, and for all employees covered by Title VII: The Court agreed that refusing to hire mothers (or any other sub-group of protected workers) was just as discriminatory as if Martin Marietta had refused to hire any women at all. That expansive definition of Title VII’s coverage still stands. But the Court apparently agreed that Martin Marietta’s concerns about mothers’ job commitment weren’t off-base; it sent the case back to the lower court for a trial, so the company could present any evidence it could muster that mothers in fact had higher rates of absenteeism, or made more mistakes, or took more phone calls during the work day, than non-mothers. Title VII allows employers this loophole. If they can prove that only one sex could do a certain job—say, that only a woman could portray Cleopatra in a stage production—then it isn’t illegal to restrict that job to men only or women only. Notably, the law doesn’t permit this exception for race discrimination, preventing employers from ever deeming certain jobs “for whites only” or “for blacks only.”

As it turned out, Martin Marietta had no appetite for a trial, and settled Ida Phillips’s case soon after. (She used the modest proceeds to give her daughter a down payment on a house, buy herself the first air conditioner she’d ever had, and take her youngest daughter—the one who had cost her the job at the company—to Disneyworld.) And subsequent court decisions have departed from the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Title VII’s loophole; its willingness to give Martin Marietta a chance to use a stereotype to justify discrimination against all mothers has not, for the most part, prevailed.

The reality, though, is that motherhood continues to pose a stubborn barrier to working women. When Phillips applied to work on that assembly line, only about 25 percent of mothers with children under six were in the workforce. Today, that number has more than doubled, to nearly 70 percent. Yet studies confirm that mothers are still viewed as less committed to their jobs than men. This “maternal wall” results in lower pay for mothers than for fathers, fewer opportunities for advancement, and even—just as Ida Phillips faced—outright job denial. True, the biases on display at that oral argument 45 years ago may not be voiced as openly or as often, because thanks to Title VII, they’re recognized as illegal. But make no mistake: They’re still there.

The sub-headline to this article originally stated that Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corporation was decided 50 years ago. We regret the error.

The Hardest Job

BALTIMORE—On a typical morning, the first to wake is 6-month-old Nathaniel. He doesn’t always sleep through the night, so by the time his mother, Cierra Thomas, sits up in the twin bed she shares with her husband, Tony Gardner, she’s already dreading the day.

“I’m mad that I woke up here,” she says.

“Here” is the Gardner family’s room in a 135-bed shelter for homeless families. Their space, bright and painted beige, is the size of a modest kitchen. It’s where the six Gardners have bedded down on a bunk bed, crib, play-pen, and twin mattress for the past three months.

Upon hearing Nathaniel’s first whimpers, Cierra will walk the four feet to his crib and feed him formula that was mixed in the sink of the shared bathroom. After he’s changed, it’s time for Noah, the 14-month-old who sleeps in the donated Pack’N Play wedged between his parents’ and brother’s beds. Cierra washes his face and changes his diaper. She tugs a pull-up on 3-year-old Sapphire, who’s been having accidents ever since the family lost their house. In the top bunk, 5-year-old Ma’lia pretends to be asleep until the last possible second.

In search of clothes for the kids, Cierra will rifle through two blue Rubbermaid bins that are stacked between the bed and the wire shelves. Sapphire, whom they call Fire for short, will probably struggle with her shirt: “Help peese, help peese!” Noah might start to cry, meanwhile.

Cierra and Tony cajole the kids into making their beds. Where are everyone’s shoes?

All told, the process takes about an hour. They usually miss breakfast, which the shelter only serves until 8 a.m. But that’s okay; the kids rarely eat their breakfasts anyway.

Cierra holds Nathaniel in their room in the shelter. (Noah Scialom / The Atlantic)

Cierra, small and round, looks older than her 23 years. She has chestnut eyes and a razor-sharp wit. Since her family settled into the shelter this past summer, they’ve had 120 days to find a new home—with no income, no credit history, and four kids.

At one point, Cierra applied for a $750, three-bedroom apartment, but she was turned down in favor of someone who had more money, she said. Another time, she was on the phone with a prospective landlady, but as they were talking she went through a tunnel and got disconnected. The woman didn’t answer when Cierra called back.

While they’re at the shelter, the Gardners have been part of an unusual parenting intervention. The program, called PACT: Helping Children with Special Needs, aims to strengthen the bonds between homeless parents and their children. One in 30 American kids is homeless, and the stress of street life assaults their bodies and minds. Kids who have no place to live are more likely to suffer from asthma, digestive issues, and mental-health problems.

PACT’s social workers believe that while these families may not have much materially, they can at least knit the loving family ties that protect kids from the ravages of homelessness. PACT’s hope is that its participants’ parenting will become less harsh, and that there will be fewer reports of abuse and neglect after they move out.

Cierra and Tony have been attending PACT as they anxiously plot a way out of the shelter. “I’m not the best parent in the world,” Cierra says. “For everything I’ve been through, I think I’ve done a damn good job. If I take some of this advice that they give me and put it into my everyday parenting, will it help?”

9 Weeks in the Shelter // Morning

At 9 a.m., Cierra, Tony, their kids, and dozens of other residents file into the shelter’s cafeteria. It’s a cacophony of crying and singing. At the front of the room, an energetic, middle-aged, white woman named Kim Cosgrove is deep into an interminable rendition of “Wheels on the Bus.” She’s up to butterflies on the bus saying “I am curious” and turtles saying “I am shy” before the room finally quiets.

On some mornings, the shelter hosts a free breakfast organized by PACT, which also runs the shelter’s free, therapeutic daycare. It’s all optional, but parents are lured by the eggs and hash browns, which are a step up from the standard shelter fare.

Kim is a licensed clinical social worker and leads many of PACT’s activities. After her song, she asks all the parents to describe their days so far in terms of thumbs-up and thumbs-down.

“I’m having a thumbs medium,” Cierra says. “I think I’m ready for thumbs up.”

After breakfast, some of the parents shuffle into another room and form a circle for a meditation session. It’s supposed to help the parents unwind—the idea being that they can’t take good care of their kids if they feel frazzled. Again, Kim asks how everyone’s doing.

Parenting and Punishment

Children, trauma, and the aftermath
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“I had a pretty nasty morning,” Cierra admits. “This morning is pretty fuckish.”

The meditation, bookended by chimes, helped her relax. “It’s nice just to be calm and think to myself,” she tells the group. “My mind is on tomorrow, the day after that, the day after that, and stuff that happened in the past.”

Like most other homeless families, the Gardners followed a winding and tragic path to the shelter. Cierra first caught a glimpse of the tall, handsome boy, a year her senior, when she was in high school in Baltimore. True to love-story form, they hated each other at first.

Cierra was accepted to four colleges, she says, but she couldn’t go because she got pregnant with her oldest, Ma’lia, by a different man. Ma’lia wanted a sister, so Cierra gave her one: Sapphire, by her next partner. That relationship didn’t last.

She and Tony reconnected, and they married two years ago. The union quickly produced Noah, and they swore off having more children. Financially, life was rolling briskly downhill.

Six months after Noah was born, Cierra had a routine check-up, and the doctor took a pregnancy test. It came back positive.

“Okay, I’m probably like a month pregnant,” she thought. “I can still go and get an abortion.”

“You’re about five and a half months,” the doctor said.

Nathaniel was on his way.

But now, she’s done. She smiles and pounds the underside of her arm, where the skin conceals a cylindrical birth-control implant. No more.

Tony did construction, and when she wasn’t pregnant, Cierra worked in restaurants. According to Cierra, the family’s home ended up in foreclosure because her father mismanaged the rent money. The couple bounced between relatives’ homes until Cierra had Nathaniel. Family members decided four kids were too many to house all at once. Her mother-in-law told Cierra she ought to start from scratch.

Shelves in the Gardners’ room (Noah Scialom)

“And the shelter,” Cierra says, taking a breath, “was starting from scratch.”

The shelter, a converted schoolhouse called Sarah’s Hope, is situated in a rough part of Baltimore, just a few blocks from where the Freddie Gray riots raged. But it’s spotless, safe, and well-run—a far better hand than many other homeless families are dealt.

If it was just her, Cierra would have braved the streets. But the shelter is best for the children.

Still, it’s depressing. She has nothing. Other shelter residents gather on the porch to eat fast food, one of the few treats they can afford.

“Mommy, I want an ice cream,” her oldest daughter, Ma’lia, would say.

“I can’t give it to you,” Cierra would respond.

It makes a person “look like a bad parent when your child is sitting there asking for food,” she says. And Cierra does not want to be a bad parent.

12 Weeks in the Shelter // Morning

In a brightly lit room on the first floor, Tony forms a circle with a half-dozen other shelter residents for a parenting lesson organized by PACT. Crudely put, it’s a class for learning how to be better than your own parents.

The parents are turned toward a small TV at the front of the room, watching a DVD of a baby playing with her mother. “Our children depend on us,” an authoritative voice on the video says. “You are much more important than you knew. Can you see how much this 5-month-old and the mom delight in each other?”

On the video, a mother looks away from her infant, and the baby starts crying. When the mother doesn’t turn her attention back after a few minutes, the baby throws up.

From her seat in the circle, Kim explains it to Tony and the others: “Think about us, if we were having a conversation with someone, and suddenly, they went on their cellphone and started texting,” she says. “Don’t you feel a disconnect? This little one is really not feeling connected. She physically became quite distressed.”

In the next episode of the video, an older girl is rough-housing and bumps her head. The mom extends her hand and asks her if she’s okay. The girl runs to her for comfort.

Kim hits pause.

“What do you think would have happened if the mom had said, ‘Oh, suck it up. Why were you playing like that?’” she asks of the circle, which is largely silent.

Kim knows few parents could pay this much careful attention to their kids. But if they can just try to do it 30 to 40 percent of the time, that’ll suffice. “This isn’t about perfect parenting,” she says. “We just have to be good enough.”

Inside the PACT therapeutic daycare (Noah Scialom / The Atlantic)

The strategy of PACT, which is an affiliate of Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute, is based on a branch of child psychology called attachment theory. In 1965, the developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth described an experiment that, she believed, could divide humans into three basic ways of relating to their parents. For the experiment, called the “Strange Situation,” she would bring toddlers and their mothers into a toy-filled room. She’d tell the mothers to leave for a few minutes. Then she’d watch what each child did when her mother left and how the child reacted when she came back.

In the first, and most ideal, reaction, called “secure attachment,” the child cries when the mother leaves, stretching her hands toward the door after her. When mom returns, the baby calms down and begins playing again. In the second variation, called “insecure avoidant,” the kid does not seem to care much whether the caregiver is in the room or not. Ainsworth considered this a sign that the child’s attempts to bond with the mother had been rebuffed before. Then there were the “insecure ambivalent” babies, who would cry before their mothers had even left the room and could not be consoled when they returned. That could be evidence the mother had been mercurial with her affections in the past.

A final and especially troubling category was discovered later by a student of Ainsworth’s, Mary Main. She dubbed it “disorganized attachment.” These babies, many of whom had been abused, would behave bizarrely when the mother returned. They’d make jerky movements, freeze in place, or seem afraid. The minds of these children stew with a lifelong, irreparable dilemma: Their parent, their safe haven, was also the source of their fear.

The insecure attachment styles are a strong predictor of nearly every social ill. Securely attached kids are confident and intrepid; the insecurely attached fall to pieces under pressure. At work, anxiously attached adults are cynical, easily exhausted, and mean to their colleagues. Kids with disorganized attachment struggle to control their emotions. They can’t get along with friends and disrupt class. By the time they’re teens, the disorganized-attachment kids are more likely to have a psychological break with reality.

PACT’s goal is to get shelter residents into that first category—secure attachment. It’s a struggle, because homeless parents hail from traumatic pasts. Their own emotional wounds are still raw, which makes it hard to be gentle with their children.

“You have this little baby who needs you, and you don’t have the answer,” explained Carole Norris-Shortle, a licensed clinical social worker at the University of Maryland and a PACT consultant.

After the DVD session, Carole, Noah, and Tony all scrunch into a tiny back office with some toys for a “mindful play” activity. The goal here is for Tony to revel in how Noah plays.

“You’re the curious observer,” Carole tells Tony in her urgent whisper, handing him a book. “You’re going to narrate his play. It doesn’t matter if [the book] is upside down, it doesn’t matter if it’s in his mouth.”

She wipes it off with a wet wipe.

Noah comes in wearing purple windbreaker pants and black t-shirt. He’s a happy baby, to the point where he always looks slightly guilty.

“How’s daycare been today?” Tony asks. “You just getting the hang of it?”

Noah grabs the book and presses it to his face. Then he puts it on his head.

“Is it a house now?” Tony asks. “Are you making the book different things?”

Carole pumps her fist victoriously.

After a few more minutes, Carole tells Tony to give Noah a warning that they’re almost out of time. She hands him her watch.

“Remember when we talked about time?” Tony asks. “Remember time? When this hand goes here, we’re gonna be all done.” Noah gurgles.

Carole starts singing, “Cleeean-up, clean up. Every-body do your share.” (Singing is important for “transition times.”)

Tony high-fives Noah. “Enjoy the rest of your day, okay?”

Noah grins and drools as Carole carries him out.

Tony prepares for his mindful play session with Carole. (Noah Scialom / The Atlantic)

Some of the shelter residents roll their eyes at Kim and Carole’s oppressive niceness. The language of PACT veers toward treacly, with talk of “loving cups” and “little ones.” It’s not the way most people talk. Still, knowing the stakes, Kim and Carole press on, and surveys of their participants tell them that it’s working.

Kim and Carole say three to five sessions is how many it takes to make a difference, and Cierra has made it to two or three. Some of the PACT information has enlightened her. She has noticed, for instance, her own kids following a pattern Kim described one day: A child will pull away and explore her surroundings, but after a few minutes she’ll run back to her mom, seeing her as a “secure base” in a tumultuous world.

Some of the PACT tenets, though, ring less true. Like when Carole tries to get parents to “delight” in their children by narrating their activities—even if all they’re doing is grabbing a feather from a box and shoving it in their mouths.

“I’m sorry, dude, it’s a feather,” Cierra says. “I don’t have time for that.”

Another thing Cierra doesn’t endorse: The new-age style of discipline she’s been learning about ever since she arrived here. PACT and the shelter are both against spanking or yelling at kids.

“The way that we parent is an urban style of parenting,” she says. “We hit our kids. Period, point blank.”

If that’s true, she’s well within the mainstream. A large study of children from 18 U.S. cities in 2011 found that 15 percent of all 1-year-old children are spanked, and nearly half of children are by the time they’re 20 months and older. African American mothers, according to one study, are more likely to spank their children than are white or Hispanic moms, but mothers of all ethnicities who are under stress are more likely to spank.

Cierra is also trying to yell less, she really is. But as any parent might attest, sometimes it’s almost like her kids don’t hear her unless she yells. Or maybe they just don’t want to hear. They seem to be acting out more since they moved into the shelter, and she thinks the lack of discipline might have something to do with it.

She doesn’t spank her kids in the shelter, though, because she doesn’t want trouble with the authorities. She’s heard Child Protective Services can be called on moms who hit their kids in front of shelter staff.

“My kids are my everything. They’re the reason I breathe,” she says. “To have someone come in and try to take my children away from me because I disciplined them so they don’t go around being blatantly disrespectful … I’ll do what I have to do while I’m in here.”

12 Weeks in the Shelter // Evening

Cierra rides the elevator with Audrey Leviton, the director of PACT. (Noah Scialom / The Atlantic)

Cierra’s days are looking increasingly thumbs-up. She got a job as a sandwich artist at Subway. After rounding up all the birth certificates and social-security cards that had been scattered across the family’s various domiciles, getting an income stream was the final piece of the couple’s move-out puzzle. Other than getting an apartment, of course.

Tony had a job when the family first arrived at Sarah’s Hope, but he’s since somehow lost it. That’s when Cierra started searching frantically for work.

The Subway job means brighter prospects for housing, but it also portends even less “me” time for Cierra. Her friends tell her to make Tony watch the kids in the evening, but Tony gets tired from babysitting all week. Sometimes she’ll take them on the stoop with her as she smokes Newports and gossips. But that doesn’t quite count as Cierra time, since the kids are still there, forever orbiting her like tiny satellites.

Outside, Cierra chats with the other moms, her support system. A 15-year-old boy, who also lives at the shelter, walks up and starts taunting Cierra, slapping her knee and grabbing at her phone.

“I’m going to make it so you can’t have children!” she hollers, taking a couple of fake swings at his groin.

Shouting—both the parental, worried kind and the gleeful, childlike variety—is the predominant sound of the pre-dinner hours. There aren’t any toys outside, so the little kids play on the shelter’s cement lot and on a small jungle gym nearby. They climb on some orange railings that frame the rough cement steps. “You’re gonna fuckin’ fall!” one mom screams in her toddler’s direction.

Before long, Noah scampers off to a forbidden portion of the parking lot.

“Noah, get out of there!” Cierra shouts. “Come here! Stop playing, come on!”

He stalls.

“Ain’t no ‘no!’ Come here!”

The teenager starts complaining about his younger sister. “She’s retarded,” he concludes.

Cierra furrows her eyebrows. “Why would you call her that?” she asks him, softly this time. “Let me tell you something: Don’t go around calling anybody retarded.”

Noah returns to Cierra’s lap. She gazes out across the block’s technicolor rowhouses, then down at her son. “Where is your fatherrrrr?” she asks him. Noah looks up at her and smiles.

At last, Tony shows up. He had a long doctor’s appointment for glaucoma, and now he’s wearing dark glasses and sulking.

Cierra cross-examines him.

Nathaniel gets changed. (Noah Scialom / The Atlantic)

“Tony, did you send Nathaniel [to the PACT daycare] with three bottles already made?”

“Not already made—”

“Yeah, they have to be already made,” she says, meaning the formula powder must be stirred into the water.

“I know, I was running around—”

“I know,” Cierra interrupts. “But it has to be like that, or else PACT is going to say something.”

She hands Nathaniel to Tony, takes his cigarette, and takes a long drag. “I’ll be so happy when I get paid,” she mutters.

During the week, Ma’lia stays with her dad so she can go to a private school, where she’s already learning Spanish. (“I didn’t want her going to public school, because they don’t learn nothing,” Cierra explains.) But Cierra misses her terribly. Ma’lia is the only one of her kids she can really converse with. They do each others’ nails and talk about her schoolwork.

The families have a 7 p.m. curfew, and the evenings are the worst. The shared rec room grows crowded fast, and there’s no wi-fi. “You have to sit and stare at four walls, and that can drive you insane,” she says.

At 6 p.m., the shelter’s security guard bursts through the front door and out onto the stoop. “I need everybody in the shelter right now!” he yells.

Everyone files in through the doors, bewildered. The shelter goes into lockdown. There’s reportedly an active shooter nearby.

“No, no, no!” Cierra protests to no one in particular. “We’ve got curfew at 7. I’m not being in here.”

Sapphire wails. A group of older kids stare out the windows, mouths agape. A pack of toddlers steal Tony’s plastic glaucoma glasses and feud over their ownership.

Across the hall, Cierra counts her kids, lets out a frustrated sigh, and sinks into a chair.

14 Weeks in the Shelter // Morning

Cierra flashes a manager’s instruction sheet and a wide grin when I walk in the room. After just three weeks on the job, she was promoted to shift manager. That means there’s an extra $100 each month to put toward rent.

She’s been scanning apartment listings on her phone during breaks at work, and just the other day she got an email from a man willing to rent her a house for $700 a month. (It’s only two bedrooms, but she can make an extra bedroom out of a curtain or something, she reasons.)

Nathaniel starts to cry, and she spoons pear baby food into his mouth. After a few bites he starts to bawl again.

“Okay, that’s fine, that’s fine,” Cierra says, as though he’s a Subway customer unhappy with his tuna melt. “We can work this out, that’s no problem.” She dumps the baby food into a water bottle and shakes it up into a slurry, which he prefers.

Tony stands in front of the corner store. (Noah Scialom / The Atlantic)

Tony has taken the older kids to watch DVDs in the dayroom. The transition to stay-at-home fatherhood has been difficult. He’s having what Cierra calls “man issues,” and when she’s not working, he wants time to himself. Cierra tries to entertain everyone within the four walls—going out costs precious future-rent money. But, “TGI Fridays has been calling my name,” she admits.

Being cooped up, the kids are getting rowdier and learning each others’ worst habits. Cierra says Sapphire will run up to adults and whisper curse words in their ears for a thrill.

The kids also get sick more, which means they skip daycare sometimes. That translates to even fewer breaks for Cierra and Tony. The lock on their door is broken, so people come in and out a lot, waking the kids up.

With nowhere to go, the family members eat at each other. Cierra yells at her kids more than PACT might recommend. But she probably yells less than many moms who spend their days with four kids within arm’s length.

When the family first moved into the shelter, they took a mandatory parenting class whose methods sound more direct than PACT’s. On a worksheet, Cierra was asked to circle everything she does to try to control her children.

Spank, yes, yell, yes, time-out, yes, take away a privilege, bribe, of course. Talk and reason, give choices. Listen. All yes.

Still, “according to them, I was abusing my children,” she says. Almost everyone in the class was.

But she doesn’t see it that way. On the worksheet, she also listed her biggest parenting fear: That her kids will end up like her. Spanking, she believes, is one way to make sure that doesn’t happen.

She sees parents being too lenient with their kids because they’re trying to be their friends. Little boys are skipping school, selling drugs. Middle-school girls post videos of themselves on Facebook shaking their butts. “Go record yourself doing some homework!” she says.

Cierra didn’t tell her own mother when she started having sex; she was afraid she would punch her in the throat. Cierra, by contrast, aims for what she calls “half-and-half” parenting: an authority figure who dispenses love and inspires respect in equal measure.

Most of all, she wants to preserve their innocence. “I’m not real with my kids. My kids still believe in Santa Claus,” she says. “When I was growing up, I believed in it, and I stayed a child.”

Sapphire darts over to her.

“Fire, is Santa Claus real?” Cierra asks.

“No,” she answers.

And then it’s time for lunch.

14 Weeks in the Shelter // Afternoon

Lunch is a bleak tray of canned peas, beige noodles, and an orange goo that’s supposed to be chicken. When she first got here, Cierra cried a lot because her kids wouldn’t eat the food and they’d go hungry. Today, a kitchen staffer takes pity on Noah and Sapphire and brings them brown, paper bags filled with white-bread sandwiches, cookies, and chips. Noah promptly crumbles his cookies all over the floor.

“You see I’m not yelling at him?” Cierra says. “You see what he’s doing? This is what I go through because I can’t yell at him and I can’t pop him.”

At one point, she thanks him for eating well—just like all the parenting manuals say to do.

When lunch is over, Cierra commences the unique ballet that is attempting to extricate a stroller, a 3-year-old, and a baby from a room simultaneously. Noah seizes this moment to make a break for it, running and diving under a table across the room. Cierra hollers for him to come on. He refuses, grinning.

She tries a tactic she’s learned from parenting instructors: Just ignore him and he’ll follow.

She walks out into the hall. Still no sign of Noah. She sits down on a bench. No Noah. Cierra grumbles. Finally, a woman who works at the shelter fetches Noah and, nudging him through the double doors, tells him it’s time to go. Noah throws himself on the ground, face down, and weeps.

“Uh-oh, that’s a special kind of tantrum,” the woman says.

Cierra rises from her seat on the bench and marches over to her son, who is still prostrate. He’s being blatantly disrespectful. Everyone’s tired. We just choked down a brutally disgusting lunch. This is it, I think. She’s going to hit him. Who wouldn’t?

Instead, she grabs Noah by an arm, like you would a fire log, and hoists him through the air as she walks toward the elevator. “Don’t yell. Talk to them,” Cierra says, summing up the takeaway of nouveau parenting. “How are you supposed to talk to a 1-year-old?”

Upstairs, there are no clean sheets for Noah’s crib, so she’ll have to put him down for a nap in his sister’s bed. The new bed is exciting. The excitement means Noah does not, under any circumstances, want to sleep. Until the kids pass out, it’s trench warfare between them and Cierra.

Noah sits up.

“STOP IT,” Cierra roars. “Bed, now.”

Noah cries. And so forth.

Carole might have recommended a different way of dealing with Noah’s impetuousness. One day, a toddler in PACT began melting down in front of Carole and the child’s dad. Carole sat the boy and his father down, took the man’s hand, and placed it on his son’s stomach. She held the father’s other hand in hers. In a soft, slow voice, she sang, “time to play with da-ddy. It’s time to play with da-ddy.” Within a few minutes, the boy was calm and happy.

“Often that’s fright,” Carole explained later. “He can be scared about dad leaving.”

As Noah poked his head through the slats of the bunk bed, Cierra offered a harsher verdict on PACT’s methodology: “That shit don’t work. You have listened to me talk to Noah over and over and over again. Yet Noah is still about to fall out of the bed.”

Noah laughs.

“I want Ms. Carole and Ms. Kim to take my kids home with them for a week and see if they don’t come back with their hair pulled out.”

Cierra, Tony, Nathaniel, Noah, and Sapphire sit on the front porch. (Noah Scialom / The Atlantic)

When the kids wake up, Tony gives Nathaniel a cookie, even though Cierra had just put a clean shirt on him, and now she’ll probably have to wash this one, too. Cierra begs Tony to take one or two of the kids with him on a walk to the store. Tony demurs and slips out without them.

Within an hour, the kids grow restless, and Cierra bustles them outside.

Tony arrives bearing fast food, and also the mail. It’s a $620 bill for an ambulance ride for Nathaniel, who had pneumonia recently.

“That’s just for riding him to the fucking hospital?” Cierra says. “They’d better let me insurance that out or something.”

Cierra takes a bite of her hamburger. She needs to quit smoking, she says. She’s considered e-cigarettes, but she heard on Dr. Oz that they’re even worse than the real thing.

Cierra cradles Noah and sings him the ABCs. It’s cold out. There are supposed to be donated coats coming in, but they haven’t arrived yet. They need to go inside soon and see what horror is on the menu for dinner.

Suddenly, Cierra grabs Noah and flips him upside down. She’s beaming, delighted by her own mischievousness. She sticks his legs out like the muzzle of an AK-47.

“D-d-d-d-d-d-d,” Cierra says, imitating a machine-gun staccato and shaking  Noah’s legs with each round. Noah cackles uncontrollably. “D-d-d-d-d-d!”

Cierra sets him down next to her on the step. Noah puts his hand on her leg and looks up at her, smiling.

“Okay, one more time,” she says, tipping him back over.

When she releases him, he leaps back into her arms. They do it over and over again until it’s time for supper.

Olga’s reporting on parenting and childhood was undertaken as a project for the Fund for Journalism on Child Well-Being and the National Health Journalism Fellowship, programs of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

The Deficiencies of Tech’s ‘Pipeline’ Metaphor

Tech industry leaders are constantly talking about the so-called “pipeline problem.” On corporate stages and at academic conferences, CEOs and activists pledge their commitment to “fixing the pipeline for STEM”—the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math—by which they mean they want to get more young women and people of color into the coursework (and, ideally, the internships) that will eventually turn them into attractive job candidates for tech companies.

This pipeline is the norm for getting tech-sector jobs; it is also the main cause of workforce homogeneity, which, according to statistics that companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook have released, is severe. Employers claim there aren’t enough qualified graduates for jobs in the booming industry, culminating in the current dependence on international hires. Emerging businesses demand specific expertise that U.S. colleges aren’t equipped to fill, and the cash-strapped education system can’t adjust quickly enough. And even if firms do find the right people, there’s a retention problem: Tech has a high turnover rate in general, and firms find it particularly hard to keep women on staff. Hence the pipeline is deemed to be not only insufficient but also “leaky.” Fixing the pipeline is about both swelling capacity and plugging holes.

For years schools and colleges have been working to improve the appeal of technology and science careers for girls, depicting the jobs of programmer or engineer without the nerdiness stigma they tend to carry. And for those who do make it through the STEM education pipeline, the mystery HR and management experts are trying to solve is why so many women abandon tech jobs once they attain them. Lately I’ve even heard talk of a “glass pipeline,” which I can only guess means a career path that is especially fragile. Perhaps it is meant to suggest that minorities should be treated delicately in order to keep them happy in the system.

What these mixed metaphors really suggest is (to mix metaphors further) that the glass ceiling of the boardroom and the homogeneity of the pipeline are one and the same problem, namely that of America’s inequalities between men and women and whites and everyone else, and the complex cultural dynamics that produce them. The pipeline problem is a way for predominantly male leaders to talk about diversity in a way that avoids talking about this messy reality, not to mention the privileges they themselves have benefitted from.

It’s no accident that a pipeline is an engineering term, as engineers tend to run tech companies. And a pipeline, as it is imagined, is a breezy sort of narrative about how to get these companies the right job candidates: Once a person is in the funnel, the rest is easy—sheer force and momentum will ensure progress to the desired destination. In such a vision, ongoing employment assumes an indefatigably linear form, with definitive points of entry and clear direction from the outset. But who has anything like this level of job security today? And what kind of employee makes use throughout her career of the same skill set acquired at the start of her professional life? With workers in the employment market longer than ever, and all the fluctuations—personal, social, and economic—that they are sure to endure, the pipeline is a poor metaphor for what people actually experience.

A pipeline further implies that getting work done involves little outside interaction or internal friction. The pesky thing about workplaces is that they are full of individuals—colleagues whose ambitions, anxieties, and emotions collectively create a culture of participation. Most companies make a point of celebrating certain values to influence this behavior and make internal dynamics good for the business. That’s because the same values aren’t always intuitive for everyone: some inevitably go against the belief systems of different cultures, meaning that career advancement may entail relinquishing part of the worldview one has grown up with. These nuances of day to day interaction and motivation are invisible in diversity statistics.

The pipeline trades on the anachronism of a job for life. It comes close to the proposition that a professional identity is forever, that people don’t change over time or seek challenges elsewhere. As a colleague recently noted, speaking of the way that tech companies recruit, “All the attention is on the wedding, not the marriage.”

Women’s determination to reject the terms of high-tech careers is at least as much a statement that other ways of working are possible as it is a failure of nerve. An aggressive, long-hours culture of incessant productivity and accomplishment is hardly an opportunity to be coveted, certainly not for everyone. Viewed this way, a leaky pipeline might actually be a sign of workers’ agency—of their empowerment and willingness to leave intransigent cultures that don’t align with their values.