The first seven years I lived in the US, I really did not enjoy it too much. Yes, you heard right. The first seven years. Seven. SEVEN YEARS!
I found the Americans fake, I hated the supermarkets, I hated the food, I hated political correctness that I found stifling, I hated the day to day complicatedness, that everything was so much more expensive ($100 or more cell phone bills each month, seriously?), I feared the religious and alternative right (I am an atheist liberal lefty damn-it), I was tired of dealing with the bureaucracy that they call health care, I was worried about equality, I hated their helicoptering style of parenting, and and and…
It took me seven years to find my spot. I learned to appreciate the moments and groups I was able to relate to. My running group, my friends, and our general aim for more equality, women’s rights, personal freedom and choice, and the pursued of happiness. I loved that you can try new things in the US and are being cheered on sometimes even by strangers. I ran a marathon, something I never would have dared to do in Germany. I dared to approach people, make new and unexpected friends, dared to try yoga, traveled, volunteered, pursued a career, and other challenging adventures at work… and felt genuinely happy just putting myself out there. Not everything was easy, but I allowed myself to fail occasionally. My attempt of joining a soccer team did not really result in much. I only once was able to run a marathon in under 4 hours and had to explain to my colleagues each time why I did not succeed in my goals. Embarrassing? Not really; just a miss of a goal and an opportunity for a new try. I did not succeed in getting a few jobs I wanted or failed at getting a specific promotion I desired.
I love the kindness of the Americans. The general encouragement you get for putting yourself out there. The generosity to allow failure if you are not as successful as you need to be. I loved that I was allowed to be different. It was okay to be a little more introverted, someone that liked working, and someone who had her initial struggles in being a mother and parent, someone with her own style and ideas.
The other things I did not like initially? I still did not like them, but I found ways around: I found supermarkets I was able to tolerate or ordered online, I did not participate where it did not add value to my life, I found good friends with whom I was able to talk about politics, religion, and my desire to create more equality and strive for equal rights in life for everyone.
I generally found a place that was kind to who I was and that allowed me to explore who I wanted to be.
The reverse culture shock hit me hard when moving back. Not only did my country change into a direction I was not anticipating, I also did not like how the country, society, and my friends saw me.
Remember when I said that I was a liberal lefty, atheist, and striving for equality?
I was in shock how much more religious Germany appeared than I remembered. Abortion, women’s role in society, school teachings… Why does the first day of school for every German child seem to involve a church visit? Why do Germans still feel so much a woman needs focus her life around motherhood? The religious aspect was even more dominant looking at the Muslim students at my daughter’s school. My daughter is the only girl in her class not a Muslim. Some of the mother’s are fully veiled; there is something really odd when you are in a parent-teacher conference and the person you are talking to is not showing her face. it is even odder if no one talks about this and the elephant is in the room. Pink and bright for all to ignore. It was apparent we did not pick the right school for our daughter, when we learned that only one of the other girls was allowed to participate in parties or privately organized after school activities by non-Muslims. The two years in Germany my daughter had to give up her social life with her class mates and find friends outside of school through her sport clubs.
We picked the school to do our active part in teaching our kids open-mindedness, friendliness, tolerance, and create exposure to different thinking. We received the opposite. Instead of a friendly mix of kids from various backgrounds, segregation in our city is very apparent. The separation seems to be by religion. Christians in one school, Muslims in the other. We as belonging to neither faith are somewhat in the middle.
I was also in shock how far I was away from being a liberal lefty in Germany. Political correctness? Wow. Germany has a problem with open conversations. There seems to be a trend towards one opinion – collectivism – in Germany that I am no longer used to. Some harmless comparisons: In the past I had always laughed at Germans really, really absorbing fashion trends… If there is a type of shoe that is in fashion, it is very difficult to buy any other kind of shoe as these are not available. Every single radio station plays kind of the same music… Germans will claim this is not true, but who once lived in the US and can choose a channel to for example listen to Heavy Metal or Country and nothing else. they can very easily find that. In Germany you can only find random mixes of various different popular songs from various genres from the last 30 or 40 years. The exact mix might vary, but that is about it. I gave up on radio after a while back. I also gave up on German TV. Once my husband pointed out that German acting always involves people yelling at each other. And since he mentioned it I could not unsee it — Every time I tried to watch a German show, I ended up turning it off when people started yelling at each other.
The worst part for me in this reverse culture shock that I am experiencing is the lack of kindness and encouragement. Whenever you make a mistake, a German will point it out. If you are trying to get a German to participate in something new (running, yoga, a dance class), their knee is too weak. I mean half of Germany should be on crutches considering how many people are complaining about knee pains. If you are talking about a new plan or idea, so many Germans have a tendency to tell you why the plan will fail or why your idea is bad. If you voice criticism on these traits or point out trends, there is always a German who will blame you for generalizing. A dialogue is often only possible with a few friends or colleagues who love to learn and share thoughts. Too many are just dismissing otherness or different thinking. And so I find that equality is really lacking in Germany. Just in 2016 a law was introduced that enabled the principle “no means no” as a step into the right direction for rape victims. Keep in mind a law that had existed in most western countries for years. So there is hope. However, in daily and public life you still will find opinions and thoughts being dismissed just because they are coming from a woman, a gay, or another ethnicity. All political followers are at fault: left, right, middle. Often using appearance or tone to dismiss what was said. Yes, the US has similar problems; my personal experience sees the problem so much more persistent and more widely spread in Germany as so many are so dismissive towards differing opinions, though. Germans feel morally superior and that is a problem, because they are just not.
So, it appears my thinking is not as left in Germany as it is in the US. Yes, it is true that compared to my old High school peers who have fermented their leftism over the course of 12 years like a good old Kim-chi, I am now center with right thoughts. Apparently, whether you are right or left is a question of the reference points,
Yes, I am fully aware that after 12 years in the US. My cultural shock will last longer than a few weeks. I am now back for two years. Considering it took me an initial 7 years to feel at home in the US, I am fully expecting it to take a little longer before I can embrace my Germanness again. However, there are values I do not want to give up: I want to live in a kind and encouraging environment. Equality is a must for me. There are compromises I am not willing to make regardless of where I live. I am not willing to tolerate intolerance.
Feeling morally superior is dangerous. It drives ideological thinking and politics. And it drives censorship and restriction. I generally want to live in an environment not dominated by these limitations. Opinions need to be discussed. Fears need to be acknowledged and taken serious. Otherwise equality is a farce. And equal rights will not exist.
I am often tired in the morning and getting out of bed is not easy. I do not have a sleep problem. In fact I actually fall asleep quite easily and I also sleep well. So, I know that probably my only chance at being less tired in the morning is by actually extending my sleep hours. Since my kids have to go to school and I indeed may have to show up at work on occasion, the only real way of extending the sleep hours is by going actually … (gasp) … going to bed earlier.
That will leave me with fewer hours to get things done or to enjoy TV or to read or to just hang out with myself or to read my phone or to … or .. or …
I am not looking forward to reducing my awake time, because I really enjoy my evening hours. I am worried I will lose out. I get less done. That I will not be by myself enough and drain my self of valuable “me time generated energy”.
Yet, getting more sleep is somewhat important. I am often tired. Sometimes so tired that the drive home from work is … well… let’s call it less than ideal. Falling asleep while driving is definitely not a good thing. Not only bad for me. But bad for everyone on the road with me. Not that I ever did just that… fall asleep while driving…, but I got extremely close.
So, I started an online course to help me do better, be less stressed out, be more focused, and get more things done while doing less. The first suggestion in the intro is, you may guess it, to increase your sleep by 30min. Sigh. Here we go. First assignment and I am already thinking about spending my money on a different online course. Maybe art? Maybe physics? Something with actual homework no matter how hard that I can do late at night… ?? Wouldn’t this be more impressive, anyways, earning a degree in math while being a full time employee and mother? Would it sound better if I actually got another engineering degree?
Doing less is hard for me. Adding things onto my busy schedule always seems to work better.
So, here comes the true test. Will this online course by Arianna Huffington actually get me out of my comfort zone? Will I actually feel better by doing less?
The first assignment to do is to read her book “Thrive”. Good. I can do this. I can read. I can do this late at night or while driving (I got the audio version). Let’s get started.
I will keep you posted.
Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and I took the day off. I have planned a day of me time which includes running and eating what I like. I am training for the next marathon on April 1st (hoping it will not become a joke) and am quite excited for the opportunity to have this day to myself. The last LSD before the race — Long Slow Distance.
I have been thinking for a while on this. I am a good runner. I will not win the marathon, but I usually make it into the top ten of any local running event. And I am proud that I actually dare something so challenging at times. Every year while I am running my annual marathon at around 14 miles in I start cursing myself, confirming that it will be my last time ever… just to find myself a day after the race already planning the next running event. Surviving a challenge, beating yourself… this energizes me.
I have been in a slump for a few months now. I hate my new gig working in Germany. The office is more sexist, I am not getting the same respect I did in the US, and I am tired of being treated as anything less than the expert I am in my profession. This constant questioning of the value I add by myself, and the direct push back from some of the upper (male) management here has taken its toll.
It is so amazing, because whenever I am in US-only meetings the tone is so different. Dialogues happen. And there is a genuine respect in any conversation while here in Germany things are different. These obvious differences might occur in my company only. But, man, my company has a respect issue. In particular towards women. They simply do not exist in Germany’s top management here in my organization and stop in middle management with less than 20% representation. The way people talk down to women or see them as worker bees is frustrating. Outspoken women are not called bitches here; they simply do not exist — No clue why. Women literally sit in meetings and do not talk unless addressed directly. It is sad for someone as educated, ambitious, and outspoken as me. Being able to participate in something big that in a large organization like this and shaping future business and potentially industry trends is really exciting to me. I typically spend an immense amount of personal energy on making work a better place and really bringing the business forward.
The subtle sexism is draining me of this energy. Too often I am asked to step back and let the men speak (yes, that is happening). Too often I am asked to stay quiet and listen more on items that I am the expert on in favor of letting almost always male newcomers talk (yes, this is happening also quite often). Too often: I was warned, I was given an explanation…
So, I am staying out of it for one day. I am taking the day for myself. And I will run…to regain energy. Because running is objective. I am measured like everyone else and there is no denying that I am good at what I am doing and that I am getting better the more I do it.
I wish everything was so objective.
… nevertheless, I will persist.
This is probably the most difficult post I have ever written. I know I will be criticized for it. There will be people who disagree with me, people that will attack me, and people that probably feel I should not be allowed to voice my opinion on the topic. I do so anyways. I believe in freedom of speech, freedom to choose your religion, freedom to become whoever you want, but I also believe in equality and female rights. I am a feminist. I am an atheist. And I support human rights for everyone.
There is a picture going around on facebook that is instrumentalized by various ideological groups: a woman in a full veil (niqab) and a drag or trans woman with bright red hair are sitting next to each other in some sort of public transportation minding their own business. There are some claiming that is the future they do not want. Others claiming that exactly this diversity is the liberal future they want.
What I know is simple: Yes, I want for both women to be safe and happy in our society. I want them to be able to get around without being verbally or physically attacked. I want them to feel welcome, be greeted and thanked, be allowed to go to whatever bathroom they choose to go to, and be treated with the full on respect that every human deserves.
What I do not know is the following. I have no clue if the trans woman is forced into her red hair every day, if this is a wig, and if she secretly wants to wear her hair black but does not dare to because her partner is against it.Or if she is even trans or if she is just wearing an outfit she likes. I do not know if she belongs to a religious group that wants all women to put on make up and be sexually available to anyone who asks. Living in a western society it is probably safe to say that the definition of a woman comes with certain expectation: to wear make up, to wear feminine clothes, to generally be the gender stereotype. I have heard of women receiving critical remarks if they do not conform. But I also know that there are plenty of women who choose not to conform and do not receive punishment. And I have not heard of anyone choosing to be trans or being forced into female gendered clothing when being male. I know that sexual preference or orientation is not a life style choice like many seem to claim. And I have never heard of anyone being forced into dying their hair red.
What I also do not know is if the veiled woman chose to wear a veil or if she is forced into one. I do not know what she thinks or if she even is religious or atheist. I do not know where she was born, her nationality, or sexual preferences. I know, she is allowed to wear this veil and if she wants to can continue to do so every day.
What I know, though, is that there are a lot of women in Arab countries that do not have the choice to wear a veil. Where the veil is used to get the woman out of public sight. I know that the veil is a tool of oppression in these countries and there are many women fighting for the freedom to not wear one. This is why I personally question the choice of any woman to wear a veil voluntarily. I think this is a poor choice and not in solidarity with other women who are oppressed into this form of clothing. Not everyone will share this opinion and that is fine with me.
And it is not just the veil that causes me to cringe at times when people talk about choice. It is also other forms of cultural or religious choices people claim others make. Why do Hasidic women shave their heads? Why is genital mutilation acceptable (boys and girls)? What other means of mutilations have been used to make women into an ideal: feet binding, neck rings, lip plates, fattening, thinning, tattooing? Why are some educational rights different depending on gender?
I apply typically two tests to see if there is oppression involved: Are man and woman equally asked to conform? If the answer is no, this is not an act of equal rights and responsibilities. What happens if you do not conform? If the answer is punishment, it is not done out of free choosing.
As I stated before: choice matters. Treat your choices as a precious good, because not everyone has the same choices you do. Do not game with your or the rights of others with whatever choice you make!
Things that have been said directly to me at work:
Just smile more. You need to say Hi to the other managers more. Something is off with your personality. You should not sound so confident when talking about a plan. Let your work speak for you, no need to tell others about your accomplishments. You need to listen more. You have long legs for your body. You have a really great ass. Would you please send out the meeting notes? The cookie jar is empty, could you refill it? Are you here on an internship? Could I speak to the engineer? Big boobs won’t solve everything. You are difficult to work with. Well, my dick is on the larger side. You are a small person, you do not need more space. I have never seen a woman drink beer. When are you planning to have kids? This is not about showing cleavage.Your smile is so nice. It is not like you need the promotion with your husband’s salary. You are not a single Mom, why do you need more money? You work too late, who is taking care of the kids? You are high strung. This guy always leaves his desk after you have been here to jerk off. You cannot go abroad, because women are not respected there. You are too aggressive. You are too results driven. My wife and I decided it is best for kids if the mother stays home. You have to learn to take feedback and listen more. I was actually expecting a man. You are the token woman. One day you will get kids and leave. You cannot work in that department, they do not want woman there. You were made the team lead, because you write the best meeting notes. I do not want to be your friend if there are no benefits. I am sorry for the naked women pictures, I will remove them by tomorrow. You look great in Jeans. You need to talk less.Be patient.
The skills you need to leave the working poor are not the same skills you need to succeed in the middle class.
Working class children that have successfully made something out of themselves often have some common traits. They are intelligent, rebellious, do not mind working against the grain, and often have a very cynical outlook on life. They learn early that in order to go to college they need to be prepared to lose family, friends, and home. Many kids from a working class are in a constant fight to explain to their family and peers why they think they are better than them, why they are betraying their upbringing, why they are so ambitious, and why they are so egoistic.
In order to succeed without the support from your surrounding you have to fend for yourself, are often lonely, and require a lot of persistence and also stubbornness. Most kids at one point or the other have to fight against the authority usually in form of their parents.
When you then have it made and are leaving college with best grades and best intentions, you often are less successful than you thought you would be.
Being a rebel, being different than others, being a loner, and cynical might have worked in your favor to leave the old life behind, but those character traits will not help you succeed in business when you are working for the man.
All over sudden you will have to learn to listen, to follow, to network, to make friends, how to be well liked with a proper set of manners following an etiquette that no one ever taught you. People might call you quirky or rude, or they simply know you do not belong. Your rough edges might get ignored initially, however, when it comes to promotions you easily get overlooked and traded in for someone with a more smooth upbringing. You are competing against those kids who have been introduced to the higher society at an early age. Who learned to say yes and thank you. Who have benefited from their parents connections and tested the waters in some cool internships. Who have been tutored, mentored, and received support all their life. You need to play catch up and that is rough.
Essentially you will learn that all your intelligence and persistence counts for nothing if you do not know how to connect with people.
Catching up with privilege is not easy.
Some days it feels that all that is left for us, the women of Generation X in our 40s and 50s is to get a bunch of cats and become the crazy cat women.We can sadly call one of the cats “Hillary” and also “Bernie” makes a good cat name. However, it feels like this is it. It is less of a wake up call, but more a DNF (did not finish), a dropping out of a race, because the raced was rigged to begin with. Finding a better, a more comfortable chair, to see the men of our generation finish the race.
As so many other women of my generation I grew up in the 70s and 80s of the last century. Believing to the fullest that equality was within reach. I seriously believed for the most of my teenage years that the few remaining misogynist men would die out. In the 90s I experienced the last naked women pictures to be taken down in the manufacturing halls of the two companies I worked for, we all participated in sexual harassment work shops, and I was never led to believe I would not be able to become what I wanted. Neither were other women that I met throughout the years. We received best grades, collected experiences in other countries, worked hard, did volunteer jobs, and internships. Our resumes are reflections of our passion, energy, and ambition.
Yet, most of these women have since stepped back or received the one or other cold water splash. Too few are now in leadership positions or with any significant career progression. It is different for the men. The men just slowly bypassed us. Mediocre grades, less inclined to seek skills, no extracurricular activities. They were promoted, because they fit the mold, because the male management team could relate, because they would not get pregnant, they could laugh about jokes, they could go and drink a beer after hours… whatever the reason, we were told it was performance and skill. They just carried themselves as leaders. While we were too aggressive, too bitchy, too bossy, our personality too off-putting, … Everything we are has been just a little to “too”. We just never really fit in.
The Generation X Women are now painfully aware that the openly displayed misogyny has morphed into something creepy that only lurks in the shadows. Something that is displayed in code words. The job requirements are just assessed differently when it comes to men and women.
- He is coachable vs. She has just not proven she has the skills.
- He has leadership skills vs. She is bossy or aggressive.
- He is passionate vs. She is too high strung
- He is bringing a new perspective to the table vs. She is not listening enough to what others think
- He really is committed to the company sacrificing a lot of his personal time vs. She works too much
- He is such a great father vs. She will need more time off to care for the kids
Twenty years ago, we bought career advice books just to learn that the given advice typically backfires for women. When we speak in “I”terms of our accomplishments, we are told that we need to become better team players and use the word “we”. When we go and have that social beer with our colleagues, we are subjected to being felt like an invader, accused of affairs, or constantly having to justify who is now caring for the kids.
When we, the Gen X women entered the workforce, there were one or two female managers typically around making us believe that a successful career was just a question of wanting it enough and putting in all the work. So we did. We worked harder and made sacrifices.
We are the generation that was told we had it made, because of that did not learn to watch our backs. We were betrayed by the successes of the generation before us. The open display of sexism was gone. We had to fight their lingering ghosts. Haunted by every mistake we may have made screeching our careers to a halt, while men’s mistakes were far too easily forgiven or considered learning opportunities. Every mistake we made proved we were not good enough, we did not work hard enough, we do not have what it takes.
Stereotyping and bias is not easily overcome. We are still too far away from real equality.
And now that wrinkles appear or grey hair, we seem to even further invite scrutiny. Like our female brains age faster and more disastrous than male. Like the experience we gain gets overcompensated by menopausal craziness.
Let’s fight back. Let’s not hoard cats. Let’s not give up.
We are stronger and more accomplished than we have ever been. Let’s show them that we are just getting started.
Women over 40 — Unite!
Let’s make this career marathon an ultra! Trust me we can go longer, we can go further, and we will leave those misogynist breathless behind.