Women and the Banning Bossy Campaign

This week (and it’s only Wednesday!) has been a study in contrasts.  On Monday, I attended Senator Chris Coons’ Opportunity Africa Summit, attending sessions on business opportunities in Africa for small and medium businesses, and a session on women and power in Africa. In one session, the used a quote from Nelson Mandela, saying “As long as outmoded ways of thinking prevent women from making a meaningful contribution to society, progress will be slow. As long as the nation refuses to acknowledge the equal role of more than half of itself, it is doomed to failure.”

Yesterday, while I was filing paperwork to run for public office, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of “Lean In“, launched an initiative yesterday to “Ban Bossy“, which is already stirring up many debates online and in the news.

There’s a good argument to make that on some level, Mandela and Sandberg are talking about the same thing- empowerment of women. Mandela looks at the problem as one of raising all boats and one where the success of all depends on the success of women.  In contrast, I think the blow back facing the Ban Bossy campaign is read as “Here’s another tirade about how men are oppressing women, or there aren’t enough women doing X” by some folks, and it has a bit of a whiny undertone that I think grates on some people.

Back in law school, I had a debate with my roommate.  She thought some of the teachers weren’t calling on the women as much as the men in the room, and some of the other female students agreed. I countered with “Every time I raised my hand, I’m called on” which didn’t seem to settle well with her. Was I delusional?  Didn’t I see the discrimination that was happening? While there certainly were more men than women in class, I didn’t see anything that looked or felt like discrimination to me, and when I wanted to talk to a professor, in or out of class, they treated me like an engaged student.  My experience was that if you wanted to be called on or express your opinion, you needed to help make that happen, not wait to be selected at random from a crowd.

In the tech and social media world, we often hear people talking about making your own opportunities and doing what you love without waiting to be “discovered” by chance by a Hollywood producer while sitting at a lunch counter.  This is true in all walks of life.  You need to be always doing what you love, if you can, or working towards that goal, maximizing your talents along the way.  That way, even if you do get asked or picked to do something that seems outside your usual comfort zone, say, running for political office, you are ready.  You are ready to step up and take your turn at leadership.

I almost never hear the word bossy.  When I do, it’s usually when someone is impatient, and whats something done NOW and in the EXACT way that they want, no deviations.  Bossy is a close cousin to nagging,  which is what I get accused of when I remind the kids for the fourth time that the garbage won’t take itself out and it’s better to take it out before rather than after dark.  But even in this mundane circumstance, I’m imposing very specific constraints on my request, after I have already made the initial request and it just isn’t getting done to my liking or preference.  I have to remember when asking for something to be done, to be specific about the task and the time frame, as well as any other parameters, if they are important.  If not, I also need to let go, and give the other person a chance to do it, do it their way, on their time schedule, and be satisfied with that, rather than trying to micromanage the situation at hand. That’s being a good manager, and avoids the negative pitfalls that make other people roll their eyes in the background.

Women can step up- but we also have to take the opportunities when offered, and be willing to raise our hands and participate.  We can’t wait for an engraved invitation all the time.  We need to make sure we’re going to conferences where we want to speak, and get to know the people in charge, so we become part of the list of people they think about when looking for speakers.  We need to put in applications for jobs we know we’d be good at even if our skill sets don’t match the job description completely.

In every way, small and large, we need to help teach girls of all ages, that it’s okay to be in charge.  But it also means tolerating that everything might not be done to our exacting standards, and then we have to make a choice- is the job done good enough, or do we really need to critique versus coach the person towards improvement?  With kids, often the coaching approach works so much better, working towards goals, rather than grading everything on a pass/fail curve.

Leadership should always be about consensus building versus coercion- in any sphere.  No one group or person has a monopoly on good ideas, and we have to work together to find solutions.  As Bill Clinton said at the Opportunity Africa conference on Monday- the places in the world that are working together to creatively solve problems are prospering; where conflict reigns, progress is slow or nonexistent.  That’s true whether we’re talking about countries, governments, classrooms, or families.

Remember, we’re all playing on the same team for the human family here in the long run.  Let’s make sure we act more like a family, including taking turns running the show, and stepping up to solve problems or make a difference, when and where we can.


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Running for Public Office

House_Legislative_Interactive_District_Map -_Legislative_RedistrictingFriends recently asked me to run for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, for the 160th District.  This was a total surprise to me, since my political involvement to date has been as a campaign volunteer, and of course, talking about politics with friends.  My first thought was that I was flattered that they thought of me, and that I would need to think about it.  However, the biggest issue ahead has been that there is only about a week to collect the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot.

I took a little over a day to think about it, and weigh the pros and cons.  On one hand, politics is now a game that’s more brutal than ever before.  On the other hand, as a good friend said to me, if we discourage people who are thoughtful and bright from running for office, we’ll get a government made up of people less concerned about the people they govern, and more concerned about the game itself.  That’s not the kind of State or Federal government any of us really want or deserve.

Sometimes you don’t always get asked to do thing when you are ready for it.  Sometimes you’re asked to do things that place you outside your comfort zone.  While I’m always encouraging people to “Go For it!” and live their dreams, it doesn’t mean taking bold steps is easy, and it’s a lot easier to encourage from the sidelines than take the steps yourself.  I have sometimes joked with friends “Take my advice, I’m not using it!”, a quip I borrowed from one of those cute post-it notes you can buy at a gift store.  But I also know that my real strengths are in helping people navigate complex systems, and this is where I feel I can make a real contribution as a Representative.

There will be a lot of posts here in the near future about the issues in the Campaign, and how we can work together to make our Government more agile and responsive to its citizens.  For those who know me, I’ve spent the majority of the past few years volunteering, working with our school district, and running Hoffman Digital Media, helping businesses and non-profits navigate the social media world and develop strategies to help them reach their goals.  Now I’ll be putting all of those tools to work for a campaign.

This is not going to be easy.  Steve Barrar has held this seat for almost 20 years, and he has done a lot of good work to bring the issues of our volunteer emergency responders to the fore in Harrisburg.  While I agree with Steve on almost all of those issues, I think the health of our public schools and ensuring our children are college and career ready are also critical and need to take a front seat.  We need to make sure our businesses thrive, and I’m excited to see new businesses opening in our District.

As part of that, we also need to make sure our community is well informed, beyond our individual townships and counties, about what is happening and how we can work together, and that communication has been lacking.  We’re a community of neighbors, and what happens in the Chester County part of the District needs to be as relevant as the Delaware County portion.  We shop and support our neighbors regardless of County or Township lines, and our representatives need to treat us all as one large community, and coordinate information regardless of these arbitrary lines on a map.

Join me in helping to make the 160th District a more unified whole, and one where everyone will feel they have a voice and an opportunity to participate meaningfully if they wish.  We need to push our elected officials to be more open with their constituents, and I hope that will be a hallmark of my campaign.

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How Do We Judge Quality?

Fox News posted an article recently that said many more people are using online ratings in order to choose a doctor.  Apparently 59% now say these ratings are either somewhat important or important when choosing a new doctor.  Similarly, The Guardian recently had an article about how we should be evaluating the quality of education at the University level.

The core problem with rating systems and key information statistics and the like is that often, the rating systems are biased both due to the people who choose to participate in the rating systems, and that as we gather more and more data, we’re not always sure of the markers of quality, assuming we can define quality well.

Let’s take the physician example.  Patients who leave reviews online are either thrilled with their doctor or disgruntled, or they have been specifically asked to leave a review.  So you should expect, on average, to see wildly great recommendations or really awful ones, but not a lot of middle ground, which probably is more indicative of patient experience.   On top of that, we know that no matter how great a doctor is technically and no matter how well educated, other things like office wait time and “front of house” staff also help bias a patient’s view of the experience in the office.  If you come to see a doctor and you are nervous and worried, and that’s compounded by seemingly indifferent office staff, loud daytime TV and antiquated magazines, it’s natural to think the doctor is not spending enough time managing the customer service portion of the business, so how well is he managing the patient care aspect?  However, in many offices, especially in hospital based practices, the doctor may have very little to do with the hiring or management of the front office, so these markers are entirely irrelevant to the quality of care delivered.

Likewise, there are many doctors I know who are wonderful and terrific people, but I hear stories from other physicians and nurses about their level of attention to detail or general practice styles that would make you very wary of sending a friend or neighbor to see them.  In other words, medicine’s core skill set- observation, diagnosis, and treatment decisions- are less likely to be observed or adequately evaluated from the patient’s perspective, although you will get a good sense of bed side manner perhaps or office efficiency.

Now let’s look at school.  Just because we all have been to school, and are armed with both positive and negative experiences from our years in education, gives us very little experience with understanding different pedagogies, ways to teach, or curriculum design.  Very few parents even understand basic child development and psychology, let alone the best way to teach a subject to a specific child.  While I think students should have a voice in teacher evaluations, since they are in the best position to see what it’s like to sit in a teacher’s class every day, this information has to be filtered as well, as students will be as likely as the rest of us to judge a teacher’s effectiveness based on their treatment of us as individuals.  For example, a few years ago, my son had a run in with a teacher that was unusual in its scope and difficulty.  But that teacher has been teaching for years, and for most students, there isn’t much of a problem.  Should her career be determined by whatever her conflict with my son was about, or should it be looked at as a whole, and all the kids she has helped?

The bottom line here is that we can only expect so much out of online rating systems, and even recommendations by friends.  The best we can hope for is an opinion from someone who knows the profession well enough (peer to peer) to give a more educated and nuanced evaluation of quality, and data to consider regarding trends of interactions and experiences.  This is not to say that there aren’t external markers of quality that can be created and benchmarked- things like c-section rate, or common assessment test scores- but these are just one among a group of factors that make up what we can call quality or competency at a job, particularly one that is so dependent on personal service and interaction.

As much as I love the internet, feedback, reviews and rating systems, I also know some of them are biased and colored by extremely good and extremely bad experiences, some of which may not even reflect on the business itself.  (Let’s not even talk about people gaming Yelp reviews.)  And I become more and more concerned when people are evaluating services that have long term, life altering consequences like education and medical care.  If I have a bad experience with a plumber, I can try a new one.  If I have a bad experience with a cardiologist, I could die.

Take those reviews, especially when everything important to you is on the line, with a grain of salt.

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Framing The Question

I’ve read a couple of interesting blog posts over the past few days that have really got me thinking.  The first was from my friend CC Chapman, on the YSN blog, asking whether apps will kill work ethic.  The other was about iPads in education by Matt Levinson on the Edutopia Blog.  Both have a common theme about learning, and both have an underlying message as well- what is happening with the switch to mobile technology and instant answers in the world of education?

I read CC’s post and thought about the past week, where we were without power for almost five days in temperatures below freezing.   The lack of electricity meant entering a world of scarcity- conserving power on each device we had until we could get to someplace to recharge; spotty connections on phone lines and to data, because all the cellular networks were overloaded; and even with the power of Google, we had to solve our own problems about keeping our house warm, making sure pets were ok, and pipes didn’t freeze.  Facebook helped us connect with friends, and we received lots of help, support, and offers of help that were invaluable on every front.  While Facebook took over and was more efficient for connecting people to resources than the phone might have been in the old days, many of the issues required good, old fashioned driving around and gathering supplies- with the phone simply saving time and trips.

In an emergency, you can’t always rely on your social networks, apps or the internet to solve problems for you.  We had an incident where unexpectedly hot coals were put into a receptacle that, if not caught, could have caused a fire.  No one thought about googling that issue before it became one, or during the emergency, and it was by experience and past knowledge that it was solved and taught to the next generation. A lot of lessons were learned, but not one of them involved a search online, even if we had power.

I say this because often we’re so focused on efficiency and solutions we don’t always focus enough on the problem itself and formulating good questions.  For example, when Matt Levinson talks about teachers’ frustration with iPads, it’s because the person is expecting the iPad to solve all problems or be something it is not.  It’s not the iPad’s fault.  It’s like trying to use a screwdriver as a hammer.  You can kind of get it to work, but it might not be the best tool for the job.  However, the iPad has a lot of great things going for it, including the ability to capture photos and videos to integrate into projects on the fly- great for making sure your observations in a science experiment, for example, are accurate.

This is why in our school district, we’re trying to take the “device” out of the equation when we’re talking about technology in school.  What a teacher wants to accomplish, what the learning goals are, needs to come first.  A variety of tools, ranging from mobile devices to computers to cameras, tablets, overhead projectors, etc. can then be selected to get the job done as efficiently as possible, while enhancing, not detracting, from the educational goals.    In other situations, we have to look at whether ownership of technology- ie personal versus borrowed, makes a difference in both how the tech is treated, but also how the students learn to use and master it.

It’s not unlike the difference between your personal car and a rental.    Your car is likely tailored to your personal preferences and needs, ranging from the radio station selection to the contents of the glove box (where often no gloves actually reside!)  The personalization helps define your ownership and the idiosyncratic way you use the car, while simultaneously treating it well because it has to last a long time.  Compare that to most rentals, which are often driven in more extreme ways than personal cars, and even if you take care of the interior and exterior to avoid extra costs, your involvement and investment are minimal and temporary.

So back to making decisions like Bring Your Own Technology for schools.  School can’t be expected to be The Apple Store, Microsoft Store and Radio Shack for every device under the Sun, but as more students and faculty have their own devices, the less need there may be for this command and control approach.  The more opportunity kids have to customize and kick the tires on their own personal devices, the more adept they will become with them, and the easier it will be for them to use.  There’s investment in this set of tech tools this way, versus borrowed technology.  And in the end, there will be more investment in making the device, whether its a tablet or laptop or projector, to reach farther out to the edges of the devices capabilities.  That’s a good thing.  We should know what device to choose for the job at hand and be able to use a wide range of them, in any environment, rather than just one- it’s just like learning multiple languages, or knowing what tool to select from the aisles and thousands of choices at Home Depot.

CC’s starting question is whether instant gratification and making everything easy had long term effects on how we think and react to challenges.  I know with the power outage, I began to think that full time access to electricity has in some ways made me soft and less resourceful.  Yet I also know that often when I face a problem, I mentally go through my friends and family members I can ask for help if I need it; I don’t always Google a solution first, even though I know I could.  Why?  Sometimes my social network seems faster, the advice better or more personal, or perhaps asking also helps build social bonds and friendships that are more important in the long run than googling an answer.  Sometimes people are much better at helping you find the right question and answer, when you aren’t really sure about the boundaries of the challenge at hand.

That said, we should help everyone – kids, friends, everyone- learn to ask the next question, help solve their problems, and learn to develop a stack of resources, real and virtual, to rely on when you don’t know the answer.  Google and the internet are getting more crowded every day.  Search algorithms that prioritize information based on your past searches and your social networks sometimes gets you closer to the answer, but often may cut you off from new and novel information you need.

I love the internet and search, and that so many people share solutions to their own problems, in order to help you when you run against the same challenge.  But there’s still no substitute for having enough knowledge on hand, in your head, to make sure you are properly diagnosing and identifying the problem itself, and can ask the right question.  If you ask a fuzzy question, such as “what is this spot on my arm?” you could get an answer ranging from bug bite to melonoma, and treatment for both are radically different with lots of pros and cons, not to mention costs attached.

In the end, I think we need to get better at question formation, and struggling with asking better questions, all the time.  We also have to teach our kids these skills, so they, too, become better critical thinkers and analysers of problems, before they just try to pitch solutions at problems, hoping one sticks, rather than using the right tool for the job.  Often that just makes the problem more complex and more difficult than it was at the start.

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Seeing Unions Through The Eyes of Teachers

This past weekend at Educon 2.6, Kevin Jarrett and I hosted a session entitled “How Unions Can help Foster Education Reform”.  This was prompted by a question I have had for a long time, which is whether the public view of unions aligns teachers more with hourly wage employees and less with professional, knowledge workers, to their benefit or detriment.  I come to this conversation not as a teacher, like Kevin, but as a parent, with concerns about education quality, progress, reform, and innovation.

I learned more than I can probably express here from teachers and union representatives that were in attendance.  One of the positive things we came away with is that Unions could do a lot more to serve as a hub of information, professional development, and innovation than many do today.  Trade unions often have halls where their members can come and learn new practices in their trade, trade ideas, try out new skills and the like, but less of this seems to happen in Teacher’s Unions than say, for carpenters or plumbers.  Unions could do a lot for their public image if they began to host, sponsor and encourage meaningful professional development among teachers and foster a sense of excellence and continuous improvement.

It’s clear that the public hears a lot of negative things about unions and teacher’s unions in particular.  There’s a sense that tenure is granted too soon (usually within three years) making it hard to get rid of teachers who may not yet have proven their dedication or even proficiency in their profession in that time period.  There’s a sense that some teachers continually go above and beyond what is required, but others work “bell to bell”, never doing anything other than they are required to under contract.  In a day and age when so many people are working well beyond their paid hours, the perception of teachers working a shorter day, having summers off and the like, fuels a sense of disrespect that’s often not supported by reality.

Reality included teachers taking part time jobs after school and in the summer to make ends meet financially.  Reality included paying daycare costs for young children that approaches what they are earning teaching.  Reality includes working in an increasingly hostile environment, where teachers are routinely looked down upon as babysitters rather than as skilled knowledge workers we entrust our children, and their futures, to every day.  All of this is much different from the picture painted in the media.  Reality includes teachers in Philadelphia public schools having to buy all their copy paper themselves, making it literally personally expensive whenever a child needs to print out an assignment or needs a copy of a handout.  All of this leads back to a discussion about Unions.

Unions exist to both collectively bargain for contracts for its members, and to ensure safe working conditions for teachers- and therefore, students as well.  Every time a teacher lodges a complaint because a building is in disrepair, or there are rodents in the hallways, this is not only reasonable, but it is something parents should be grateful for as well, as the teachers are looking out not only for their own welfare but that of their students. Every time a teacher looks to the union to help provide advocacy on their behalf to ensure a professional and enriching work environment, they are actually taking affirmative steps to ensure the environments in which our children learn are better as well.

We look at an education system that is underfunded, in part because the government deferred making contribution to pension plans in the past, that are now catching up with us during a time of economic contraction.  And while it seems logical to paint this escalating cost structure on pension plans and unions, it is our government officials who never adequately funded the plan in the past who are to blame.  It is the fact that people live longer than when the pension plans were developed that is in part to blame.  However, the teachers themselves have spent years giving of themselves to help raise and nurture our kids.  Like firefighters or police officers, they went into the profession thinking they were getting one thing, but ended up with something quite different.  Every time we ask them to take less, we are also asking our children and ourselves to get less and expect less in the process.

My favorite quote is an old African proverb, told to me by Rick LaVoie: “When the elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets trampled.”  When the adults in the system are at war, whether it’s districts, unions, teachers, parents, governments- the loser is our children.  The negativity breeds anything but the nurturing learning atmosphere we want for our kids.  They receive both the benefit and the burden of every argument and dispute, in the form of low morale and energy even from the best teachers, where generating that energy to invent, create and put more into your job seems pointless if its not recognized and appreciated.

Teaching is more like what my husband deals with as an OB GYN.  He has two patients to care for- the mom and the baby, and sometimes its necessary to balance the needs of one with the needs of the other, but they are inextricably tied together.  Likewise, as we look at our education system, we can’t ignore that the fate of our teachers and the fate of our children are inextricably ties together, and that if we hurt one, we in turn harm the other.  I don’t think I appreciated that as fully as I needed to before this weekend.

That said, I think teachers do have to ask their Unions to be more than lawyers and negotiators, but to be the center of what’s good for education and kids.  It should be helping teachers become better professionals every day, and help coach beginning and more experienced teachers alike to learn new techniques.  They should be a place where teachers can seek help and moral support when they have a particular challenge, but also be held accountable for improving and doing better when they struggle.  Unions can be so much more than what they are portrayed, but they have to see themselves in that role of professional coach and trainer, not just as a contractual negotiator and standard bearer.  The Union could be so much more, and could help to bring us together not only for the sake of the teachers, but for the sake of the children as well.  If that happens, I think you’ll find more parents and communities standing behind both teachers and unions, and less seeking to find ways to undermine them at every turn, in any way possible.

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