Lean In, Lean Back or Stand Tall?


Yesterday I was surprised to see a feature about women’s ‘real’ feelings about work on the front page of The New York Times.

Surprised because the front page naturally favors breaking news or lately, daily worldwide unrest. And surprised because instead of the usual fawning over female Celeb CEO’s like Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Mayer, this story by Catherine Rampell followed Sara Uttech from Falls River, Wisconsin, who simply wanted to be successful enough so that she could be a wife, a mom, a professional communicator and a woman she was happy to meet in the mirror.

Turns out Sara had ‘made it’ but had made the choice to ask for a flexible schedule. By working every possible angle and hour, she managed not to miss any of the six ballgames her three kids play every week, no mean feat. Now, Sara is lucky. She has a supportive husband, a job that requires little travel, plus she has a responsive manager and her firm is run by a woman with an open mind. Having no kids myself, the boss’s story also touched me, since she acknowledged that despite being childless, her own personal life deserved flex time too. No matter how keenly felt by moms, flexibility isn’t only a mother’s issue, it’s a human one. But we can be our own worst enemies.

According to the Families and Work Institute, only 37% of women and 44% of men actually want a job with more responsibility and yet, we can’t stop leaning in till it kills us. As I travel to speak, I still find women resisting the idea of downshifting, not because of financial limitations but for ego.

Some of the linked-in women’s career groups frankly scare me. In a recent posted question, “Is it okay to be happy where you’re at?” (I still can’t get over the careerist dangling her “at”, but… ), most of the commenting women declared they will never be satisfied until they get the next bigger job. When did “happy” become a synonym for surrender? At a recent speech, I described my own reinvention of a more livable work/life, and one woman raised her hand and asked, “Wait…are you saying the only difference between your busy life then and now, is that now you’re happy?” Well, yeah. That would be the difference. Isn’t it time that we stop defining fulfillment only in the elusive corner office (been there, my friends…it isn’t that pretty) or flex-time as tantamount to opting out, and that we find that center place where we stand tall and seek ‘enough’ space to live happily ever after? Wouldn’t we love to be in that front-page story?

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Red Soles And Pink Slips

Manolos or Louboutins? We should only be so lucky as to have that choice.

The New York Times Style Section debated the issue this Sunday–the iconic Manolos brought to attention by Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw are suddenly back on top of the stiletto pyramid. On the heels of her appearance in recent documentary God Save My Shoes, our very own CEO and Founder Mary Lou Quinlan weighed in on Manolo Blahnik’s ascent to power over his counterpart Christian Louboutin:

“Luxury is strong,” said Mary Lou Quinlan, the chief executive of Just Ask a Woman, a marketing company with clients like Clairol and GlaxoSmithKline. “There’s an element among women who are still doing well in their jobs of, ‘I deserve it, I need it, I’ve got to have my fix.’ ”

Or, as Ms. Quinlan said, “It’s tacky to strut around in your red-soled shoes when other people are trying not to get a pink slip.”

To read more about the shoe struggle, check out the entire article HERE.

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Sales Show Women Are Only Green-ish

Okay, we will try not to rub it in. But after four years of predicting that women were more ‘greenish’ than green and that they will only buy green if it’s as convenient, effective and equally priced to conventional products, we get to say, “I told you so.”

In today’s New York Times article “As Consumers Cut Spending, ‘Green’ Products Lose Allure,”  sales on everything from kitchen counter cleaners to hybrid cars are sinking because the penny-pinching consumer would rather save money than contribute to a cause. While there’s an affluent core of advocates who are still fueling the growth of the smaller brands like Method or Seventh Generations, mass brands have met their match in today’s mass female consumer.

We don’t mean to say that women don’t want to save the environment or live in a more holistic, organic, healthy way, but in this economy, women are running households with every bit of ingenuity they can muster. Cutting pennies adds up and even though she got that original glow from displaying her Clorox Greenworks cred, she can’t justify the markup anymore. And even though Clorox has reduced prices, women continue to make choices that feel right for their households.

We identified this “greenish” trend in What She’s Not Telling You as the Half Truth of Ego Protection. Sure, she likes to feel that she comes off as a conscientious person, but underneath, she’s got to draw the line somewhere. Consultants and pundits who are preaching at conferences and corporations, painting the entire female population green, are misleading marketers to overdeliver on what is a Half Truth among women. Sure, we are growing our green consciousness…but take it one step at a time or find yourself buried.

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Women Are Compassionate But Self-Critical? Duh.

Self-compassion (aren’t hyphens handy?), is the newest buzzword on the block. The New York Times profiles the phenomenon, starting with a 2007 Yale study and progressing to two books published this year. The consensus appears to be that Americans, immersed in the society of “hard work will get you everywhere,” are working too hard and engaging in too much self-criticism and condemnation, to the detriment of their mental and physical health—measured in terms of depression and weight gain.

What You See Isn’t What You Get.

The article (available HERE) includes the following phrase barely a paragraph along:

“People who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others, it turns out, often score surprisingly low on self-compassion tests, berating themselves for perceived failures like being overweight or not exercising.”

How, exactly, is this surprising? It sounds like most women we’ve interviewed.  The profile of a person who is a compassionate, caring listener who holds herself to unreal standards to her ultimate detriment isn’t revolutionary. It’s the common profile of a mom, a female friend. It’s like looking into a mirror.

Where Are The Men?

Truly surprisingly, the research claims to analyze people in general. But the cited study was done among female undergraduates, who unknowingly submitted themselves to a study about food guilt.  Women with existing food guilt who were explicitly cautioned not to feel bad for eating a doughnut at the study’s beginning—as everyone had to eat them—ate less overall and felt  guilty about doing so.  What a shock. A more interesting version would have included men.

It’s an unusual case of reverse projection. All women are people, but all people aren’t women. Just like marketers who target women to the exclusion of men, these studies project their striking findings from a female cohort onto the half of the population whose own results may not be so nuanced. Assemble mental health and weight-loss data at will, but remember that conclusions can be only as broad as the research. Hyphens don’t solve everything.

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Hey Marketers, Age Up!

Last week I read “In a Graying Population, Business Opportunity”  in the New York Times. This smart primer on the state of our aging union examined “gray marketing” now that the first boomers are turning 65. At MIT, they’ve invented a special suit to simulate the physical deterioration. Creaky knees, anyone? Ken Dychtwald, an indefatigable advocate of rethinking aging points to all the opportunites to redub retirement as “rehirement.”

I was hit with three simultaneous reactions:

The Ego Protection Fault Line: In “What She’s Not Telling You,” we exposed five reasons women don’t always do or buy what they say they will. This article exposed one of our Whole Truths, Ego Protection: if products are overtly designed for boomers in a way that gives away their age or uncool factor, like obvious big buttons on phones, they fail. Boomers still see themselves as younger, so if a young person is turned off to a boomer feature, so are they. The GAP learned that lesson the hard way when their concept store for midlife apparel, Forth &Towne flopped by assuming ‘older’ women wanted to look well, older. The Whole Truth? They do want to look their age, but the age in their heads is about 15 younger than the age on their ID.

DejaVu All Over Again: I feel like I have read this article for years. This age resistance issue just won’t die with marketers. No matter how old they are, marketers are blind or at least averting their eyes to the reality of their aging customer base. Dare I admit that in 8 years, I could be featured when they rewrite this again in 2018? Like many women my age, I pass for a lot younger. I think young, I feel young and I like Lady GaGa’s music and I don’t wear pantyhose. But I generally keep my digits under wraps because I think that fellow marketers instantly marginalize anyone over 45…and in some environments, take that down to 40, 39, 38.. Media targets still cling to the dream team of 18-34, 25-40. Even older-suited categories like financial services and healthcare prefer to pursue the ‘peri-retirees’. Are we afraid of our own mortality? Are we in denial of our own mirrors? When will marketers younger and older, start facing the truth and chasing the big money in the marketplace?

The New Age Defiance:  I loved that the piece featured an 86 year old redhead who had her place wired to monitor every move, support her positive health behaviors and keep her at home. My redhead Mom lived at home till 82, still keeping up her crosswords, her high celebrity IQ and her calorie counting. At 91, my Dad relied on his Jitterbug phone, his Lifeline (which saved his life multiple times) and his at-home exercise bike which he pedaled while practicing speech therapy on his tape recorder. My parents were from a generation that aged with spirit and dignity. I think that our next generation of boomers will age with defiance and wishful thinking that will keep them younger longer. If it’s Ego Protection that preserves their youthfulness, so be it. I just hope that the marketers who are smart enough to recognize their power get over their stultified attitudes toward what’s old and what’s beautiful. Like her or not, Grandma ain’t going down easy.

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Women Know Less Than Men—That Is, If You’re Asking Wikipedia

Humility, reticence, and self-doubt: unfortunately sought-after qualities in a traditionally feminine woman, but terribly inconvenient when hunting for female experts. This is the problem currently facing Wikipedia, the go-to reference site and bane of professors everywhere. Out of “hundreds of thousands” of contributors, fewer than 15% are women. In fact, there is a larger percentage of female justices on the Supreme Court, which isn’t exactly known as a shining example of gender equality.

The NY Times article discussing the lack of female contributions among the 3.5 million entries explains that such unequal participation is common—according to the OpEd project, a NYC-based research firm that “monitors the gender breakdown of contributors to ‘public thought-leadership forums,’” (they have a company for everything now, don’t they?), an 85%-to-15% man-to-woman ratio is common. According to its founder, women are in this position because of a lack of confidence and an overabundance of self-doubt.

We spend the vast majority of our time listening to women… and they know their own minds. Think about your own experience: the formidability of Mom when she’s crossed. Your girlfriend’s dogged pursuit of the perfect outfit for New Year’s Eve. The exact specifications of your niece’s tree house. Do you doubt the women in your life? Remember that the female half of the population controls around 80% of household spending—women are speaking with their money instead of their voices, which is great news for advertisers, but less encouraging for the greater good.

We’ll leave you with a point from the article that struck home: Encouraging women to contribute to the internet’s favorite knowledge base isn’t some noble pursuit of “diversity for diversity’s sake.” Instead, Wikipedia’s executive director is looking to make the encyclopedia as good as it can be. “Everyone brings their crumb of information to the table,” she said. “If they are not at the table, we don’t benefit from their crumb.” We know you know what you want, and we know you have opinions. The question is: Are you at the table?

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2 Ways to Make Me Feel Like I’m a Bad Mother in 1 Week

The New York Times ran what I’m sure was meant to be an innocous article this weekend in their NY/NJ Metropolitan section about an Upper East Side professional organizer. Basically for $450 for about 3 hours she will come to your fancy apartment on Park Ave and throw out all of your crap for you and then label what is left with a P-touch. This woman, Barbara Reich, is to thank for sentimental gems like “Everybody’s going to learn how to read and write” … “You don’t need the evidence.” as she tosses out your child’s first scribbles of the alphabet.

I don’t ideologically disagree with Reich and I will admit that the article motivated me to gather up 3 big bags of toys to donate. But I do think this article was another way to criticize moms for hanging onto toys, projects and sentimental sports equipment. Reich uses a tough love approach that must have worked well for her in her former life as a MBA management consultant. Her abrasive shtick gets her clients though and I’m sure her phone was ringing off the hook by Monday morning. The part that really bothered me in this profile though was that she makes NO attempt to recycle or donate the castaway toys. Instead she complains that “Our society is wasteful” as she fills up another garbage bag. I am far from green, to say the least, but I don’t think throwing away perfectly good toys and sporting goods sets a very good example for our kids or teaches them anything about value or charity.

The NYT article was nothing compared to the maelstrom caused by The Wall Street Journal’s article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” this past weekend. This article (really an excerpt from Amy Chua’s book that came out this week) was intentionally controversial (remember, book came out this week). The premise was that Chinese mothers raise more successful children because they don’t follow Western warm and fuzzy child rearing philosophies. While I read the article I will admit to beating myself up over my own lackluster discipline skills. I let my children have playdates and I imagine when they are in school I will “accept” an A- instead of an A+ on occassion. Chua’s superiority as a mother has caused a real blogosphere ruckus and has made me question my parenting just a little bit since reading it. (I will admit that the excerpt was a brilliant publicity move to market the book to women. It’s #6 today on Amazon).

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Taking Care of Business

Tuesday’s New York Times featured an article about how hotel rooms are becoming sleepaway offices. Seems business travelers are less interested in the sports bar downstairs and more into big desks, accessible technology and back-supportive office chairs upstairs.  Gone are the days when a business trip meant a good night’s sleep and a mini bar treat. Now, it’s all work, work, work. (Unfortunately, this story dovetailed with the news that the CEO of Pfizer was leaving due to burnout…hmmm. )

On one hand, I was glad to see some of the in-room improvements. Niki Leondakis, President and COO of Kimpton Hotels, which has a track record of intuitively catering to women, said that they’ve upgraded electrical sockets to reachable power strips–welcome news to any woman who’s ever crawled on all fours to plug in a recharger. (And it’s a great solution for those times when you’ve been forced to unplug the lamp to power up your laptop and then can’t see the keyboard?)  Kudos to the Hilton Garden Inns who junked all those local travel brochures clogging the desk surface.  Type A travelers swept them all onto the floor anyway to get down to business. (No cave tubing trips when you’re on a deadline!)

But the innovation that made me kind of sad was the new Marriott Spring Hill Suites redesign that reset the desk into an “alcove” (AKA cubicle) within the room. They even installed a tiny sliding window panel where truant workers can allow a bit of sunlight to shine as long as it didn’t break their concentration. We are a nation of over-worked, over-whelmed, highly productive people who brag we don’t take our entire vacations (or spend them on our iPhones.) I worry that this economy only tightens the noose and squeezes the precious shut eye out of our nights.

It’s great that hotel rooms are becoming more work-friendly. But once the door is shut, I hope that some road warriors just pull up the covers on their heavenly beds and grab a well-deserved nap.

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A Green Tinted Catch 22

Half Truth: “I want to be as green as I can be.”
Whole Truth: “I’ll go green as long as it still tastes good, looks pretty and doesn’t cost more.”- What She’s Not Telling You

A recent article in the Times, “Cleaner for the Environment, Not for the Dishes”, explores negative consumer feedback on P&G’s new Cascade product line that follows new government regulations around the amount of phosphates allowed in dishwashing detergents. Often with environmentally friendly products there is confusion over price, effectiveness and the trade off. For example, if I don’t use one resource (harmful chemicals) and alter my routine by pre-washing my dishes, aren’t I then using more of another environmental resource (water) thereby hurting the environment in a different but equally bad way? It’s like a green Catch 22.

How can Cascade address this? Are there stats out there proving that pre-washing dishes uses less water than running your dishwasher twice? It’s time for green companies and products to address mass consumer concern in order to gain acceptance and market share.

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Truebalance Wins with the Whole Truth

Recent advertising for New Balance’s new line of women’s toning shoes, Truebalance, points out that you can tone your body without toning down your style. As this growing toning-shoe segment has focused on fitness claims, New Balance is focusing on how you look while toning up. They have tapped into the whole truth of ego-protection here and I believe it will help them stand out in the category.

Half Truth: I’m open to trying new ways to get and stay in shape.

Whole Truth: I don’t want to look like a dork in the process.

And by advertising in both fitness and non-fitness magazines, such as Glamour, Instyle and Lucky, not only are they capturing those that want to look good while working out, they have also opened up the category to those who like the idea of a “work-out” without ever having to actually work out.  Being part of the fit club continues to build on this whole truth. Great job New Balance!

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July 24, 2024
by Mary Lou Quinlan

A look at an early production of WORK


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The God Box Goes Global!

“The God Box” has grown to include an app, audio book, philanthropic venture and solo show performed by Mary Lou across the US. Now The God Box Project goes global to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
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