Female opportunity cost and the audition for the role of ‘acceptable woman’

Photo: Joel Gillman

Two recent, exceptional and highly shared articles by women have highlighted women’s experience afresh — one about pain during intercourse and the other about women and dating. Two quotes in the articles particularly struck me:

“Next time you see a woman breezily laughing in a complicated and revealing gown that requires her not to eat or drink for hours, know a) that you are witnessing the work of a consummate illusionist acting her heart out and b) that you have been trained to see that extraordinary, Oscar-worthy performance as merely routine.”


“Date nights start feeling like a series of auditions for the role of girlfriend, performed for the benefit of a judge who ultimately determines whether or not his commitment is on the table.
And unfortunately, when she reaches a point when she can no longer stay in character, when the implicit demands of the role become straining, she asks the director where this thing is going, and too often walks out in tears.”

To me, these concepts resonate well beyond the red carpet or dating. The #MeToo movement started in Hollywood where women explicitly audition but women all over the world in homes and workplaces have been submitting for an audition where there is no script and no notes for as long as anyone can remember: women have been auditioning for the role of ‘acceptable woman’ for most of their lives.

I get that men also have to ‘audition’ and in some ways, this struggle is what is sometimes called, ‘life’. Most people — male or female — have to prove themselves repeatedly throughout their existence.

However, it’s not difficult to argue that the audition for women is more difficult and relentless for two key reasons.

First, the dominance of men in positions where they get to determine the outcome of the auditions (such as employment or media) means that men usually get to audition for other men who are more likely to share their experiences of the world. Women don’t get to audition for others who share their lived experiences, instead having to prove themselves to men who have a much more limited idea of what women must do merely to arrive at the audition in the first place.

Secondly, the extra “Stuff” that women must do to arrive at the audition is harder, or at the very least, there is just a lot more of it, which gives the audition a degree of difficulty of which the man sitting behind the metaphorical casting desk is simply unaware

Yes, we all know women do Stuff. But wait, do we?

Talking about the daily experience of being a woman with my male friends revealed that their understanding of this day to day experience of women is, somewhat understandably, limited. It is generally hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes but in this case, given that more than half of the population has those shoes, it feels out of kilter when the group in power has been cultured not even to try.

In light of #MeToo, many of my female friends have had conversations over the last few weeks where we reveal to a close, intelligent male the experiences we have regularly about which they are oblivious. They simply don’t know that we put huge effort into something or bite our tongue regularly about it. Sometimes they think we find it sufficiently fun doing ‘feminine things’ that they don’t perceive it as a burden.

Having had so many of these type conversations recently, I wanted to document just how relentless and time consuming the Stuff of being a contemporary woman in the Western world is. When you list it out and think about what all of this Stuff means in real time, you stop thinking about why more women aren’t represented in decision making forums or on company boards and start to marvel that any of them make it there at all.

What is this Stuff you are talking about?

So let’s examine this Stuff women are doing instead of creating a unicorn startup. Even for my most woke male friends who want to understand, how can they, if we can’t at least document what we’re talking about?

Some of the list below will seem trivial, privileged and heterocentric but so be it: I invite you to look at the volume and absurdity of the total list. Other women have other lists. Some women don’t worry about all this Stuff but many do and virtually all women worry about some of it.

It’s not that any one of these individual things defeats women or is even unknown to men, but the enormous weight of Stuff is not personally experienced by men and they do not understand its unremitting impact.

Here is a list of the Stuff that occupies my mind and body that just isn’t happening to men.

1. Pain and Discomfort: like fun but the opposite

Photo credit: apenny

Imagine not talking about extreme pain that you are experiencing. That’s what women are doing. One in 10 women has endometriosis which can lead to pain so bad that you can’t feel your legs, and this pain is happening for many days per month. The (male) Australian Minister for Health recently went so far as to apologise for the pain women were enduring from endometriosis. Even regular period pain can be debilitating.

Nearly one in three women will also have had at least one episode of urinary track infection (UTI) requiring antibiotics by the age of 24 years. Almost half of all women will experience one UTI during their lifetime. These infections are described by women who have them as being like “like a razor sharp knitting needle is stabbing your urethra” or like urinating glass. UTIs in men are rare.

Women don’t talk about this pain even when it is gruesome; they take a painkiller.

They are told that women who talk about pain — especially period pain — don’t get ahead. Men experience pain; most don’t experience it habitually, every month.

Hey now, sometimes you’re not in pain; you’re just itching so badly from thrush that you can’t think about anything else and can only think about how long it is before you can get to a pharmacy to buy some cream. 50% of women have thrush at some point of their life. A little under one in 10 women have recurrent thrush.

Get past your best child bearing years and take a break from period pain but instead discover the discomfort of menopause.

2. Menstruating: worse than you imagine

Photo: Aaron Fulkerson

A thing you wouldn’t enjoy doing if you were a woman is wondering whether your sanitary products have failed and, despite your best efforts, you are bleeding onto your clothes or worse, onto a seat. Try to wrap your head around how distracting that could be in a key negotiation. You should be aware that if you do bleed through, no one will congratulate you with, “Wow you really bled the heck out of that period!” People will look uncomfortable and you will feel like you failed.

Think also about what it is like to go to visit a person you don’t know when you are menstruating and worry about what to do with the used tampon. Pro tip: it is not acceptable to flush it down the toilet.

Do you throw it in the bin? What if the bin doesn’t have a lid? How do you wrap it up so no one can see it? Do you put it into your handbag and hope it won’t bloody up other things and no one will look in your handbag and discover you are (gasp) menstruating? Or do you have to have a special, quiet conversation with another woman about what to do with it? Why are you hiding it at all? Why can’t we you walk out and put it in the bin like you would if you had cut your finger and had a used bandage? No one puts a used bandage in a sanitary disposal bin.

Think about the effort involved every month in hiding your use of tampons or pads from men (and mostly, other women). How few times have you seen a woman openly carrying a tampon or pad to the toilet even though you know that women are taking these items to the toilet potentially several times a day for a week every month in every workplace?

Think about buying tampons, sanitary pads and pregnancy tests — just the time associated with it. But also, think about buying them in a situation where they are required urgently. The fact that toilet paper is provided, free of charge in toilets all over the developed world but tampons — equally necessary to a woman’s existence — are something she personally has to buy and get into the toilet, adds an extra piquancy to the mix.

There is no male equivalent to tampons. Men have never had to rush out to buy their own tampons before a meeting.

You will also get to worry about how long your tampon has been left in and when you can break to get to a toilet to change it. And whether you are going to die of toxic shock syndrome. Hey you! You might die just for forgetting to change your tampon. Keep that in the back of your mind while you are looking at a spreadsheet with an urgent timeline.

3. Grooming: expensive and time consuming

Photo: pumpkincat210

Putting on make up takes time. Messing it up, taking it off, starting again, getting it in your eyes, looking too made up and unnatural, or not looking like you have enough on takes time too.

Having to blow dry, straighten, curl or generally ‘do’ your hair rather than just putting a product through it and scooping it off your face takes, say, 30 minutes at least twice a week. Every six to eight weeks, you’ll also take three hours instead of one hour at the hairdresser because that is how long it takes to colour and cut a woman’s hair. Reduce that by an hour if you don’t need colour (yet).

Every five to eight weeks, you may contemplate getting waxed: your pubic hair, your eyebrows, your upper lip, your arm pits, your legs, even your nose. You will swap tips with other women about which beauticians make this 20 minute experience less painful. Pro tip: none of them can make it not painful. In between you may be spending extra shower time every morning shaving, and then applying various expensive creams to mitigate the impact this activity has on your skin.

4. Clothes: a mine field which is also time consuming

These shoes are exceptionally uncomfortable

You will start by taking 16 minutes on average to select an outfit that says professional but still attractive but not too attractive; not mannish but not girly. You should know that increased visibility of flesh leads men to a decreased perception of agency, mental ability and self-control.

You may worry about or experience public bra failure. Your breasts may pop the buttons on your shirt quite unexpectedly. In fact, any range of wardrobe malfunctions are possible: you rarely see men hooking their underpants out of their bottom but women’s underwear is sometimes made this way for sexy reasons.

You may have to stop to buy band aids for blisters caused by high heels. You may not be able to walk as fast as you wanted to because you have made a poor choice of shoes. You will not think about foot binding while you do this because that would be ridiculous and you might cry.

You will most likely take one and a half times longer in the toilet than men: longer to wait for a stall, and longer to get your clothes off which are more complicated than flopping out a penis.

Every month or quarter, you’ll repack your handbag to make sure it’s not so full of stuff as to give you back pain but that it has all the right stuff you need to be ready for periods, for reapplying your makeup so you don’t reveal your tired/real face, for dealing with your endometriosis, or for managing a problem with your pantyhose. You will not have time to ask why do women have to carry handbags at all.

One in four times you wear them, you will have to get to the shops in a break to get a new pair of pantyhose because yours has a hole in it and you didn’t put clear nail polish in your bag. Sometimes you will leave the ladder in your pantyhose and someone will say, “Is that a ladder or a stairway to heaven?” You will have to pause for a beat to hear this banal line.

5. Pregnancy and motherhood

Photo: Joe Goldberg

Whole books have been written on pregnancy and motherhood’s toll on women so I’m not going to capture it here but some things that stand out are: worrying about being pregnant, doing costly pregnancy tests repeatedly (you are paying for them), worrying about not being pregnant, worrying about staying pregnant and feeling terrible about all of it.

Hooray! You got pregnant, you stayed pregnant, you had the baby and you even returned to work. Now you might have the chance to worry about where you are going to pump breast milk and how you will find the time to do it (let’s say 15 minutes each breast, at least once in a work day). You will probably have a man ask you how long exactly this will take when you have no real idea and cannot speed it up.

You will have to hide the fact that you are lactating because it’s embarrassing to leak milk through your bra, like as if you lost control of your bladder which incidentally is also common after childbirth, except you have no control over lactating and may splurt out milk just by thinking about a baby. Any baby.

6. Second guessing yourself and other fun parlour tricks for ladies

That’s all the physical stuff out of the way. Let’s now turn to your complicated concerns about how you are being perceived, which are associated with being a woman. Start by getting yourself a glass of water at a meeting table but now debate internally whether you should offer one to others because that’s polite or whether it will inherently demote you to ‘server’ in the eyes of men.

Photo: Mark Hillary

Try to get heard at a meeting but resign yourself to being talked over repeatedly or keep talking loudly until the interrupter thinks that you are interrupting them rather than just having the temerity not to peter out when they interrupted you. Experience all of the attendant behaviour such as a man taking credit for your idea or repeating it and only then people listening. You will know that male executives who speak more often than their peers are deemed more competent (by 10%), while female executives who speak up are considered less (14% less). Men outspeak women in virtually every setting. Worse, most people think women are speaking more and ‘hogging the floor’, even when they’re not.

At home, you will be the de facto manager of the household in many if not most matters. You will bear the ‘mental load’ of the household, even in the statistically unlikely event that your male partner does half the household chores.

The current zeitgeist means that for the first time, men are starting to wonder more often about how they will be perceived; it is starting to be problematic to be sexist in some environments and not ok to sexually harass women. This makes some men feel on trial and stressed that they don’t know how to behave. Welcome! We’ve been at this party for a while.

What is the Female Opportunity Cost?

There’s no comprehensive study on the time this behaviour takes but we all know it takes time. If a woman spends on average 45 minutes every day of her life doing the things from the list above, by the age of 50, she will have lost more than a year of her life to those activities. Each time she spends that 45 minutes, that opportunity cost also impacts on her level of preparedness for other activities, which in a professional sense, likely compounds over time. That time is real time that is lost to women. The mental load is also significant and has its own opportunity cost. Women are thinking about this stuff when men are not.

The inexorability of these requirements is exhausting for women and we have been doing it for so so long. Why does it take so much time and effort for women to make themselves acceptable? Why is our audition so hard? Why do we have to pay this opportunity cost every day?

Stop doing all this Stuff already, Ms Complainy Face

Now sure, you might say, you could wear flat shoes, no make up, no pantyhose, cut your hair short, back-to-back The Pill to avoid periods, wear the same clothes every day. Maybe I should do that and court judgment (and invite discomfort) in a different way. I acknowledge that I am part of the problem and entirely complicit in some of this behaviour. There’s no misogynist party like an internalised misogynist party!

But is this a real alternative? If I show up without makeup, people will think I look old/less attractive and it is well documented that people perceived to be more attractive earn more money and are more successful. I literally cannot afford to look old at my audition.

Some Stuff above is virtually unavoidable. But even for the Stuff that could be avoided, it feels like an elaborate game of Prisoner’s Dilemma: should I personally be the one to reject this Stuff, knowing that it might save time for me and be helpful for women generally but that it will likely also personally penalise me?

Even talking about the Stuff in mixed company is embarrassing. When someone says, “You look nice today,” women don’t say, “Yeah it took me the 45 minutes I otherwise would’ve spent reading the Economist.” We are supposed to have created this appearance and dealt with our tampons and pantyhose and misgivings about some stupid jug of water effortlessly and on our own time.

I want to conclude with a worse reality. All this Stuff is nothing compared to the dramatic other challenges that women face in terms of violence and economic clout. Those things are worse than the Stuff.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge the Stuff until we’ve sorted out the other problems; we can’t tackle every issue facing women in order of priority because we would not get through the most egregious one and never get to the others. We are facing the Stuff every day and it is exhausting and far reaching.

I can’t fix this problem right now because I have 45 minutes of Stuff to do. But it would mean a lot to me at least if we could start by acknowledging the boring weight that this Stuff has on women and their exhausting daily opportunity cost.

We are very tired.