The True Cost of Being a Woman (Trigger Warning: Unpleasant Truths Discussed)

Photo by Mary Curran Hackett

Photo by Mary Curran Hackett

My definition of a feminist is a man or woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.’ All of us, women and men, must do better.
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists


There's been a lot of chatter lately about the role of woman and the inequality they face in the workplace, in the political arena, and the world as a whole. Depending on your political proclivities or the news sites you frequent, the statistics vary.  When I have posted articles in the past highlighting the disparities between pay for men and women, I've been called out. I've had peers tell me that it is nothing more than "statistical gymnastics" and that inequality between men and women simply doesn't exist--no, not in our United States of America. Impossible.

Though countless reports show that indeed women pay more for basic hygienic items, hair cuts, dry cleaning, clothing, and even maintenance services--like oil changes, tune-ups, and tire rotations--and so much more, people still deny that men and women are treated unequally. And despite that worldwide studies show that women, more than men, lack access to education, healthcare, and basic human rights, people still want to argue with me and have even gone so far as to gaslight me, saying that the inequality I see is all "in my head.” (Questions to ask in order to doubt if it’s all in my head: What percentage of women have been U.S. Presidents? What percentage of the House and Senate to do women currently represent? What percentage of Fortune 500 companies are run by women? If the answer is not 50%, then I assure you, it is not in my head. We have work to do, people.)

So instead of providing scientific and statistical evidence, to which many people will still refuse to accept, I thought, I would share just a few of the costs I have had to pay as women in the twenty-first century America.  When I ran through these costs with my husband a few days ago, he asked jokingly, "Don't you think this is the cost of being Mary? Not just a woman?" I laughed, but then I said, "No. Absolutely not." If a white, middle-class women, with a good education, and a great family to support her, faces these injustices and is struggling, imagine what it's like for those who haven't had my advantages? And it's crazy to think that this "could only happen to me." If it's happened to me, I assure you, it's happened to someone else. So let’s break it down, shall we?

  1. The Cost of Healthcare: (Nothing like starting with an innocuous topic, right?) OK, buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Since so many people want to discount how unaffordable it is to be a woman in seek of health and wellness, I thought I would share just a couple of stories of just how screwed (literally) women are by the healthcare system. My most profound memory of being screwed by the dear old healthcare system came a month after I was raped. I received a large medical bill from the ER, where I was treated for my injuries and where my rape kit was administered. After haggling with the hospital I was told I signed a paper that said I consented to treatment and therefore agreed to payment. In short: I had to pay or I would be sent to collection. So for the next several months, I dutifully wrote a check out to the ER for the “date of services rendered”—which happened to be the worst night of my life. The rapist did not have to pay for what he did, but, I did. Later, when I was pregnant and single, and receiving no child support, I had to scrape money together to pay for my office copays, my prenatal vitamins, and various uncovered prenatal tests. When my daughter was born, I paid for many expenses related to her birth. Because I was not insured at the time, and still receiving no child support, I had to go back to work right away. There was no maternity leave, no pay, and therefore no way to pay for my child. So off to work I went.
  2. The Cost of Daycare: Perhaps there is nothing more screwed up in America than its current childcare and education situation. I know I am going to catch flack for this, but it’s absolutely without a doubt true. Whether by choice or not to return to work after having a baby, there is no discounting the unbelievable price tag a woman must incur to do so. By the time my daughter was five years old, I had paid over $60,000 in daycare expenses. By the time her brother came along and needed to go to daycare that was another $60,000 for the next six years. All told, by the time my children were of school ages, I had spent nearly $120,000 in daycare. Then in subsequent years I paid on average $6000 a year for after-school care programs and summer camps—totaling $72,000 over the course of the next six years. Yes, that’s $200,000 by the time the children were 12 years old. (And that’s not including their extracurriculars, their clothes, food, housing, or school supplies). Yes, that price tag is just the cost of their care if their mother must (or chooses to) work. The alternatives are few, if none at all—especially for single mothers, who have no choice but to work. Let’s not forget, this disparity effects men too. The price women and families have to pay for women to have a career is at a breaking point. It’s simply not sustainable.
  3. The Cost of Working: OK, lots of women, Sheryl Sandberg, most notably, have spoken quite eloquently on this topic—namely how much less women are paid, how much is expected of them, and how their behavior is evaluated on a different set of criteria. I could write a book. (And just might). After 20 years of working alongside men, I still make not 30% less, not 50% less, but nearly 70% less than my male colleagues who are the same age, have the same level experience (in some cases less education), and who work less hours. (If you’d like to see my pay stubs, I’ll happily supply.) At 40 years old, after working two and sometimes three jobs, and after publishing two books with a major U.S. publisher, I never broke $50,000 a year. (I know, oversharing and impolite in certain circles). I don’t care. I have sat in the same office cubes with men, ran circles around them, producing work at a more efficient rate, receiving higher satisfaction ratings from customers, praise from colleagues and clients alike, and in some cases clandestinely doing the work for my male supervisors, who were incapable of doing the work themselves, meanwhile, grocery shopping for office supplies, stocking and cleaning fridges, taking out garbage, cleaning up after office parties, and running various errands for my supervisors—all before attending presidential level meetings, where my insights, ideas, and problem-solving were also required.  Phew. Additionally, in my over my 20 years of office work, I have witnessed men explode, swear, name call, and carry on (one epic tirade went on for over twenty minutes when a printer did not comply). I have been shouted at and demeaned. As a waitress, I was often groped by fellow workers and customers, and had to turn down physical advances on a nightly basis--from the age of 16! In the office, it didn't get much better. Though there was no groping, I’ve been asked if my bra and panties match the color my dress and what bra size I wore by a male coworker. Soon after I joined the corporate world, one coworker asked me to have sex in his car and locked the doors so I couldn't get out--until I threatened to scream--or call his wife. And, yet—and yet—if a women says damn, shit, fuck—it is unbecoming, an outburst—the standards by which she is judged completely and unequivocally different--in fact she may even be fired or dismissed. If a women speaks, gesticulates, “leans in”—she is either being “threatening” or a "seductress."  There is no in between. If a man does it, he is “commanding the room.” The standards are different, and the let me assure you, the costs are high. Too high. 
  4. The Cost of Stress: I have a pacemaker—one of the perks of having a heart condition. It’s come in handy over the years because, when I go in to appointments to get it checked, my doctor is able to see my heart rates in real time—and even episodes that are timed stamped. One day, my technician alerted me to something disturbing. He asked me: “Are you a doctor or a an EMT or something super stressful?” I said, “No, I work in an office.” He shook his head. “Are you serious?” I said, “Yes.” He pointed to a screen and asked me to look. He said, “See all of these arrhythmias (there were hundreds)—look at their time stamps.” I looked. Every single one of them happened between 9 and 5—Monday through Friday. “That’s bad. That’s really bad.”  Work was literally killing me. “You’re lucky you haven’t had a stroke.”  I shook my head and understood. I broke down and explained how impossible all of it was—-the demands at work, the money, and then running around for hours after work to get the children to and from their various extracurriculars, meetings, and events. And then there was all the cooking, the housekeeping, and the lack of sleep. He nodded. “Sounds like you need help.” Well, DUH! Who doesn’t need help? I have a husband. I have daycare. I have friends, and it’s still not enough. Then he added, “All I am saying is if you don’t change something, you’re body will change it for you.” And, with that I knew he was right. All the headaches, all the joint pain, weight gain, and sleepless nights—all of it—was because my body was telling me what I couldn’t accept: This is too much for one woman. Too damn much. The price was too high. My life or my job? The answer seemed pretty simple. Only it wasn’t. Without the job, how would I feed my family? How would we survive? Most of us don't have the luxury of a choice.

Yes, the cost of being a woman is simply too high. And I don’t know what the answer is. But, I know it starts with me. It starts with me speaking the truth. It starts with me saying enough is enough. It starts with me saying, it’s time we all start doing something about it and talking more candidly about it. It’s time we start holding our institutions, government officials, and policymakers accountable. It’s time we, as women, get behind each other and start sticking up for each other—not just for our own sake, but for the sake of our daughters and our sons—for the world that we will be leaving them someday. 

I also know now this is not the cost of being Mary. I know it’s the cost of being a woman. And, as a woman, I am here to say to all other woman out there: I’m here. I care. I understand. And together we can make this world better. Let’s do this. Let’s command the damn room. 


A Bad Day at the Office

For nearly twenty-four years I've worked in offices of some kind or another. As a teenager, I worked in various doctors' offices. As a college student, I was an assistant in my school's law department. During grad school, I was a research assistant to several professors. After grad school, I settled into corporate life as I worked my way through three different organizations over the course of seventeen years.

Each place had different height cubicle walls, different ergonomic swivel chairs, different acronyms for team meetings, but by and large, all came with same basic nonsense. Yes, each came with a their own cocktail mixture of office politics, territory wars, egos, incompetent leaders, competent employees, pointless meetings, stacks of paperwork, bottomless inboxes, and constant change. The one thing you could get used to in all work places was that nothing stayed the same.

Just get used to a software? Guess what, we're upgrading this year! Like your new boss? She's so good, she's being promoted!  Like your office? Super. But, we're gonna need that one for someone else. Yeah, about that job of no longer exists. Ba-bye. 

Change is something we can all count on in. Being able to roll with it, makes for a good employee. Most of us get that. We know if we smile enough, nod politely, do a great job, and feign excitement every now and then, we're sure to get that gold star. Maybe a raise. (Who we kidding?) Okay, maybe we won't get fired or asked to "step down." 

But, sometimes, yes sometimes, smiling, nodding, doing a good job, and feigning excitement become impossible. Sometimes it's all too much. Sometimes, people can be real jerks. They're human after all. And humans can lie. Humans can steal. Humans can deliberately harm other human beings, and it's time to say: Enough is enough. It's time to call in the top brass and get some help. 

But what if they fail you too? What if they too know that the rules to stay ahead of the game are to smile, nod, feign excitement, and pretend everything is OK?  Maintain the status quo at all possible costs, please. What if their job is on the line? Their reputation? Why would they put their neck out to help you? 

It takes courage. It takes integrity. It takes a person who knows the right thing to do. It takes a supreme sense of justice, and a willingness to stand up and say: The buck stops with me. It takes a leader.

It takes someone like my dad.

Throughout those twenty-four years of work in an office, another thing besides change stayed the same: It was a picture I hung up next to me in every office that I've worked. It's the picture I have posted here of my dad, who was then a father of six (he eventually had eight). I am the one looking at him in awe.

And I still look at him in awe every day. 

The reason I kept that picture by my side is this: Shortly after this picture was taken, two of his best friends died in a fire. That is what defined (for me) what a bad day at work was and always would be. It gave me perspective. It served as a reminder--that whatever I am experiencing at work or in life--it will never ever be as difficult or as intense as my father experienced it.

My dad had monumental bills to pay supporting eight kids--most of whom went not just to college but graduate schools and medical school as well. On top of that, he had days where he was unable to save a toddler from a swimming pool, or several children from a burning house, or a teenager from an engulfed car fire. He had days when he had to call home and tell my mom, my brothers, or my sisters that one of the people he saw die or seriously injured while he was on duty, was one of their friends. 

Nevertheless, my dad went to work every day with a smile. He loved what he did. He always said, "I never went to work a day in my life, when I was a firefighter. It's not work when you love it." 

My dad worked extra shifts. He worked long nights. He fought hard for his union and his men. He was no wilting flower. He earned his nicknames "The Pitbull" and the "Toxic Avenger" honestly. You didn't want to be on the wrong side of the argument that Phil Curran was fighting. He knew what was right, what was just, and he sure as hell wasn't going to back down. (Though as a teenager, I sure as hell gave it a try!)

Every time I thought I was having a bad day at work, I looked at my dad's picture. I looked at him balancing a baby on his lap, smiling, and not knowing that when he walked out of the door that day if it wouldn't be his last time. I thought of the lives he saved and touched. I thought about the battles he was willing to fight to make sure his men had access to health care and pensions. I thought of his inexhaustible sense of duty, his commitment to his family, his belief that work was one of the noblest ways to serve his Creator. And those thoughts centered me. They made me realize there are really no bad days at the office. Though when I saw injustices and things worth fighting for, that picture gave me courage. Granted I didn't need the kind of courage it requires to walk into burning buildings, but we all know that just living life requires courage all the same. 

When I left my office job for the last time on Monday, the last thing I took was the picture of my dad that I had taped to my shelf. I looked at him and smiled. He got me through another day at the office. I thanked him for it. I thanked him for his smile. His compassion. His courage. I thanked him for the work ethic he instilled in me and in everyone of my siblings. I thanked him for giving me the ability to roll with the punches. To hold my head up high. I thanked him for showing me that when you do what you love, it's never work. It's a gift. It's an honor. It's just a another day at the office. Just a day. And the beauty of that is tomorrow is another one too. And if you're one of the lucky ones you get to wake up, and live it. 

So I am happy to announce today, I am moving my Dad's picture to my own office. From now on, I too will never be going to work--because I'll be doing what I love--day and night: Writing and reading, reading and writing.

Thanks, Dad, for your courage, your bravery, your strength, your leadership, your willingness to fight the good fight,  your hard work, but most of all, thank you for showing me how to live a life I can be proud of and spend every day doing what I love. Slainte.

My home office. 

My home office. 




3 Steps to Having Everything: Eat S@#t. Fall in Love. Do the Work.

Besides being a writer, a blogger, and mom, I have a day job too. It just so happens that I work in higher education at a Jesuit University. Though I work mainly in an administrative role at a Center for Innovation, I get to teach storytelling and Design Thinking. (BTW, Design Thinking is simply another way of saying, I teach an approach to problem solving, critical thinking, and empathizing with others). Design Thinking helps creatives be creative, and it helps people who don't think they're creative access their demiurgic selves through a deliberate process. It helps one empathize, ideate, create, communicate, and finally, test out new ideas and processes. Simply put, I get to spend my days helping others "figure stuff out." I work with students, faculty, staff, corporate clients, startups, and all sorts of neat people who are bursting with passion and enthusiasm, but happen to be wrestling with defining, containing, or expressing their big ideas. 

It's, in a word, awesome. At least it's awesome, when I get to do what it is I love to do. 

Granted we all have to eat the proverbial "shit sandwich" that Buddhists (and now Elizabeth Gilbert) so wisely speak of.  Yes, we all know the shit-sandwich well. These are the tasks that one must bear down, bite through, and get over with before getting to the good stuff. No birth comes without the sweaty, horrendous, bloody final push.  No adorable baby comes without dirty diapers. No work of art comes without cleaning brushes. No decision gets made without the dreaded committee meeting.  No marathons get run without training on hills. You get the picture.

We all have to do things we don't like.  Me? What are the shit sandwiches I have to chew on? The usual. (I'm pretty sure no one likes to do them.) Emailing. Processing paperwork and invoices. Navigating office politics. Meetings. (And let's not forget the added double-decker shit sandwich that I as a women get to eat.) Yes, like most women, on daily basis we all must contend with (inside and outside of our institutions) big egos, misogyny, the random sexist comment, and still for many of us, unequal pay, and higher work expectations. And like most women, I have to bear down and bite through all the b.s. every day and serve it up with a smile. YUM! More please!  Lest I be perceived as ungrateful, angry, "difficult," or the dreaded "B" word. 

So what makes eating the shit sandwich possible? Bearable? 

The answer is simple: I am in love.

What? How did we go from eating shit to falling love? 

Let me explain. One of the perks of working at a Jesuit college is everyone is drunk on what I lovingly refer to as Je-ju (Jesuit Juice.) Students, faculty, and staff are well-versed in all sorts of mindful and meaningful quotes and practices that promote the examined life. One of my favorite quotes was just read aloud during a student award ceremony. The quote by Father Pedro Arrupe says, quite beautifully, 

What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.
- Pedro Arrupe, S.J.

The answer is I am in love with learning. I am in love with curiosity. I am in love with art. I am in love with creativity. I am in love with students, their passion, their curiosity, their eagerness to learn too. I am in love with the learners mindset. I am in love with books. I am in love with writing. I am in love with others' minds, which I learn so much from. I am in love with photography. I am in love with life. I race out of bed each morning to read my favorite books, write my 3-5 pages, connect with the friends who I love on social media. I spend my evenings in love with my kids, with my husband, and my home. I am amazed daily by the incredible students I meet (like my intern Ese, who just won the Student Employee of the Year), the trees outside that are blooming, the poetry I read each day, the food I get to eat and the coffee I drink. I spend each night before I close my eyes counting my blessings--thinking of all the people, place, books, ideas and moments I was able to experience during the day. 

By knowing what I love, and spending time with the things love, I have, as Arrupe so brilliantly pointed out, decided everything. I have decided what is important, what matters, and what I will fill up the days of my life with, what I won't, and what I will put up with (the shit sandwiches, if you will). I am lucky that I have more love than shit in my life. But, I'd venture to say it is a bit more than luck. It takes work--hard work--to fill yourself up with good things and things you're in love with. It means making some hard decisions. It means putting down the phone at 9 p.m. and going to bed. It means getting up early. It means attending the meetings and completing the paperwork. It means showing up, every day. It means being a professional. 

I often wonder, when I hear people complain about their lives, why don't they just don't fall in love. Why don't they do what they love? "I don't have the time," they say. "I can't," they say. And I understand. I was like them once. I too was once afraid to admit what I loved. It's a scary thing. It takes courage to go after the life you love. It takes strength and fortitude to bite down on the shit sandwich, in order to get to the good parts. It takes dedication. It takes work. 

But, it's worth it. 

Because, it's your life, we're are talking about. YOUR LIFE. Let me repeat: YOUR LIFE. If your life is is more shit than love, then what are you doing with your day? How can you change it? Or better yet, ask yourself before you do anything: Do I love this? Or, do I love (x,y,  or z enough) to eat this shit sandwich and do the necessary work?

If the answer is no, then get out there and find out what you love: It will decide everything.