What did the 'wagging tongues' expect?

Published: February 7, 2009

WASHINGTON — The government workers greeted Michelle Obama like a Hollywood celebrity, whooping and cheering and oohing and aahing over her slate gray power suit. But when she took to the podium, the nation’s self-described mom in chief quickly turned policy wonk.

The first lady pitched her husband’s economic stimulus package, including plans to create 15,000 affordable housing units, weatherize 2 million low-income homes and repair military housing. Such investments, Mrs. Obama told employees at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, would prevent “an increase in homelessness during these tough economic times.”

In her first weeks in the White House, Mrs. Obama has been the gracious hostess and loyal spouse, welcoming visitors to the Executive Mansion and accompanying President Obama to a prayer breakfast and to a charter school to read to second graders. But in a departure from her predecessor, Mrs. Obama has also begun promoting bills that support her husband’s policy priorities.

Last month, Mrs. Obama celebrated the enacting of a pay-equity law with a reception for women’s advocates at the White House. Last week, she supported the economic stimulus bill on her visit to the housing agency and another to the Department of Education.

Mrs. Obama plans to visit all the cabinet-level agencies on her tour to listen to and get to know Washington in the coming weeks, her aides say. They said she relished the chance to serve as one of the president’s chief surrogates on critical policy matters.

“One of the things she does really well is to highlight the benefits of pieces of legislation,” said Jackie Norris, Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff. “She’s really kind of laying out things that are important to the administration. I think she’ll play an active role in supporting the president’s agenda.”

It is a notably different approach than the one embraced by the former first lady, Laura Bush, who like most others steered clear of discussing legislation. Some observers praised Mrs. Obama’s foray into the legislative debate, saying the new first lady, who is a Harvard-educated lawyer and a former hospital executive, was eminently qualified to promote the president’s policies.

Others expressed surprise, saying they had expected Mrs. Obama to focus on her daughters and on the traditional issues she had emphasized in the presidential campaign, like supporting military families and working parents. Her remarks, they said, carried echoes of former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, though Mrs. Obama has said she will not become involved in policymaking as Mrs. Clinton did.

“She went to some lengths to say she was going to be first mom in chief,” Myra Gutin, a scholar of first ladies at Rider University in New Jersey, said of Mrs. Obama. “I don’t think we ever really imagined her edging toward public policy like this. It’s not like she’s making public policy. But it’s a little less neutral than some of the other things she’s talked about focusing on.”

Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center here, countered that Mrs. Obama was successfully balancing her ceremonial role as first lady, her role as a mother and her keen interest in public policy.

“It seems like a combination of responsibilities that fit very naturally with who she is,” said Ms. Greenberger, who attended the signing of the pay-equity law at the White House. “You don’t have a sense that being a mom and being human and being able to understand everybody’s daily struggles has to come at the expense of her intelligence, her expertise and her understanding of the issues.”

Mrs. Obama’s aides say she is still feeling her way as first lady. She is meeting regularly with her staff to plan events and hammer out her policy agenda even as she juggles play dates and goes over homework with her daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. (And yes, Mrs. Obama, like her husband, is keeping her BlackBerry.)

When Mr. Obama stood alongside members of Congress in a White House ceremony to celebrate the signing of the pay-equity legislation, Mrs. Obama found a seat in the audience with the women’s advocates, not on stage with the lawmakers.

And in her speech at the Education Department last week, Mrs. Obama quickly corrected herself when she used the word “we” to describe the educational investments the president hoped to make. “I shouldn’t say ‘we,’ but the administration ‘we,’ ” she said.

Her speeches to government employees have been warm and rousing, something akin to pep rallies, first lady style, as she has thanked them for their work. “I’m visiting — trying to visit all the agencies here to say a few things — one, to say hello,” Mrs. Obama said as the crowd roared back, “Hello!”

Indeed, Mrs. Obama seems to savor her role as a bridge between the White House and the community. Last week, she took time to hug, shake hands with and speak to dozens of government employees — from administrative assistants to agency heads — some of whom said they came close to tears at the sight of her. (“I got a hug!” one woman shouted jubilantly. “I got a hug!”)

Mrs. Obama plans to continue honing her message, her aides say. But she is also eager to get out of the White House and into the city.

Last week, she took her staff to lunch at Five Guys Burgers and Fries, where she had a cheeseburger, French fries and a Coke.

And when a little girl at the charter school visited by the Obamas announced that she dreamed of becoming first lady, Mrs. Obama flashed her self-deprecating wit. “It doesn’t pay much,” she advised.

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Mistresses of the Universe

Published: February 7, 2009

Banks around the world desperately want bailouts of billions of dollars, but they also have another need they’re unaware of: women, women and women.

At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, some of the most interesting discussions revolved around whether we would be in the same mess today if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters. The consensus (and this is among the dead white men who parade annually at Davos) is that the optimal bank would have been Lehman Brothers and Sisters.

Wall Street is one of the most male-dominated bastions in the business world; senior staff meetings resemble a urologist’s waiting room. Aside from issues of fairness, there’s evidence that the result is second-rate decision-making.

“There seems to be a strong consensus that diverse groups perform better at problem solving” than homogeneous groups, Lu Hong and Scott E. Page wrote in The Journal of Economic Theory, summarizing the research in the field.

A fascinating British study supports that conclusion with evidence from the drool of financiers. The researchers, using the saliva of male traders, tracked natural variations of testosterone in the morning and the amount of profits they earned for the firm that day.

“We found that a trader’s morning testosterone level predicts his day’s profitability,” reported the study, published last year in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Higher testosterone meant more risk-taking and, usually, more money.

On its own, that might suggest that men have an advantage on the trading floor. Yet the same study also suggested that elevated testosterone levels could lead to greater assumption of risk; high testosterone levels “may shift risk preferences and even affect a trader’s ability to engage in rational choice.” In other words: when male traders crash ... boy, they crash.

So could it be that the problem on Wall Street wasn’t subprime mortgages, but elevated testosterone?

It’s important to be skeptical of some of the research: often it seems to be conducted or studied by those who have strong views about gender. And it’s generally true that research conducted on matters pertaining to fairness or social justice rarely has the rigor of research conducted on, say, particle physics.

Yet the number of studies reaching similar conclusions from different directions is striking.

One of the shortcomings of any system of men sitting in front of screens making financial bets was reported last year in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, in case you missed your copy. That study found that men are particularly likely to make high-risk bets when under financial pressure and surrounded by other males of similar status.

As for women, their risk-taking was unaffected by this kind of peer pressure.

The study’s authors point to an evolutionary hangover. Across cultures, women prefer high-status men, while a woman’s reproductive prospects depend much less on her social status. Thus, when men of similar status gather, they jockey for an edge and jostle for the alpha role — and try to get ahead with high-stakes gambles.

On the plus side, boasting about these financial bets might make a great pickup line. On the downside, the bank goes bust.

A greater gender balance could reduce some of these unhelpful consequences of male herding. After all, we also saw some unexpected gains from the balance resulting from women’s suffrage.

Skeptics have noted that the first president elected after women got the national vote was Warren Harding — an embarrassment to female voters ever since. Yet a remarkable study published recently in The Quarterly Journal of Economics by Grant Miller of Stanford University indicates that female voters did have a profound and positive impact.

Professor Miller examined states where women won the vote before national enfranchisement. He found that when a state gave women the vote, politicians there quickly began behaving differently — in particular, devoting about 35 percent more money to new public health programs. These programs were seen as a priority for women, and the politicians wanted to curry favor with them.

The same happened at the national level: the 19th Amendment of 1920 was followed a year later by the Sheppard-Towner Act, a landmark public health measure, because members of Congress believed that was what women wanted. The upshot of all this was a sharp decline in child mortality, with Professor Miller attributing 20,000 fewer deaths nationally each year to the impact of women’s suffrage.

I’m skeptical of any effort to force banks to accept more women (one woman on the board for every $100 million handout?). But looking at the evidence of how homogeneous groups go astray, let’s all hope that banks seek a little more diversity on their own — just as desperately as they’re seeking bailouts.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

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A woman traduced by a 'close' encounter

Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch Photograph: Guardian

By Barbara Ellen

The Observer

Does "on the ground female human rights worker" equate with "slut" these days? Are they perceived as wandering around war zones in cocktail dresses slashed to the thigh, hungry for the next thrill, perhaps a hunky military man to devour, humming the old toe-tapper I Love a Man in Uniform? Or could it be possible that these women pour all their passion and intensity into their jobs?

I only ask because of the curious case of Rachel Reid, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan. Last week, it emerged that a senior army officer, Colonel Owen McNally, had been arrested under the Official Secrets Act for allegedly passing classified information to a human rights worker. Unnamed sources were quick to inform the media that McNally was known to be "close" to Reid, who had divulged the secrets after she "befriended him".

Writing in response, Reid says that, far from being "close" to McNally, she met him twice professionally at the military HQ in Kabul to discuss civilian casualties. (Interestingly, Reid had angered Nato by pointing out that these deaths had tripled between 2006-7.)

Now Reid is horrified that her reputation has been dragged through the mud when she is living in a country "where a woman's reputation can mean her life". She is devastated by the "vicious slur" leaked to the media, saying: "They knew exactly what impression they were creating." Quite. And is anyone else getting deja vu?

As McNally's investigation is still going on, the full facts have yet to emerge. However, to me, this seems eerily reminiscent of Andy Burnham's description of MP David Davies and Liberty's Shami Chakrabarti's "late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls" last year.

Intended or not, the impression given was that Chakrabarti and Davies were steaming up Westminster's windows about more than the 42-day detention period. Briefly but indelibly, Chakrabati was no longer just a human rights professional, she was a femme fatale, pouting and wriggling through the corridors of power.

Now here we have another woman working in human rights and more whispers about how she and a man were "close". One wonders how, in 2009, that it can still be the case that the quickest, most effective way to undermine a woman, professionally and personally, is to imply she's "using her sexuality" to get information.

Men are being targeted too, but it is still much more routine for a woman to be sexually slurred. Andrew Gilligan was never accused of being "close" to anyone during the sexed-up dossier episode. "Close" is unlikely to be perceived as a short cut to destroying a male reputation. By contrast, "close" is dangerous for a woman. Some might say, what of it? No one said Reid was having an affair. "Close" could mean anything - platonic friendship, professional rapport, a meeting of minds. Baloney. "Close" here is as loaded as a revolver. A euphemism for sex or at least sexual tension. In this context, "Close" could be a movie starring Angelina Jolie and Javier Bardem. I can see the tag-line now: "Their passion defied Nato!"

This is why Reid was devastated by "close". She would have realised in an instant the impact of the sudden appearance of her sexuality, barging into her professional life like some drunk through the saloon doors in a budget western. How quickly it would undermine her professional persona. Perhaps even put her life at risk.

From her written response it certainly comes across that any emotional involvement Reid feels is towards her work. That her only "crime" was that she took her job seriously, and is attractive with long hair. Only time will tell if the rest is just chauvinistic graffiti, a sneaky way of spraying "slag" across a global wall.

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