My Guardian column this week is about Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Lean In, and how I was prepared to totally hate the message but ended up pretty impressed:
Like nearly every feminist tome before it, it’s not a perfect book. But it’s a very good one, and it’s a crucial call to action.
It’s also coming from an unlikely place. There are very few women at the top, and many of them got there by figuring out how to play nice with the boys. Penning a feminist manifesto is not exactly the way to win friends on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley. Sandberg did what feminists are always asking powerful women in business and politics to do – stand up for gender equality – which is why it’s so disappointing to see many in the feminist camp essentially telling her to shut up and sit down.
Will more women at the tippy-top of our institutions of power and influence mean more woman-friendly policies and increased gender equality generally, as Sandberg suggests? I don’t know. There are so few women in positions of power that all of them are by definition outliers, and their actions aren’t indicative of much. But the more powerful women exist, the more normalized female power becomes. And the normalization of female authority and influence is good for all women.
Which is why I’m glad Sandberg is speaking out. I’m glad she’s using her platform to help give women the tools to succeed, and to encourage all of us to go out and get what we want. The real strength of Lean In is in its Rosie the Riveter 2.0 message: “You can do it! Here’s how.”
There has to be that balance between You Go Girl cheerleading and clear-eyed assessment of the challenges women face. Women today receive startlingly mixed messages about success. Barbie might be a doctor, but women can’t “have it all”. We should be good smart girls who work hard in school, but everyone hates Tracy Flick. We can be whatever we want to be, but if we enter the professional world we’re treated to endless female-centric panels on “work-life balance” – as if balancing work and life is solely a women’s issue. We should achieve highly, but we shouldn’t be ambitious or self-promotional or competitive with men. We need to perform better than our male peers, but we can’t be too threatening – smile, sister, and wear a more feminine suit.
In the real world, women are under-payed at every level of employment. We’re disproportionately concentrated in poorly-compensated “pink collar” jobs that often involve care work. Americans live in the only developed nation that offers no federally mandated maternity leave, not to mention sick days or vacation. Federally-funded childcare seems like a pipe dream; livable wages, comprehensive benefits and collective bargaining arrangements for all workers feel similarly far off.
Men gain innumerable benefits simply by virtue of being men. They’re perceived as more competent and more hirable, are offered higher starting salaries than identical female candidates, and tend to be promoted on the basis of their perceived potential, while women need to show past accomplishments. As women become more successful, they’re perceived as less likable; for men, it’s the opposite. Only 9% of dual-earner households report equal sharing of childcare and household responsibilities, and full-time working mothers do 30% more house work and 40% more childcare than their husbands.
Almost all of the above paragraph, by the way, is culled from information in Sandberg’s book; some issues, like the likability gap and the lack of parity on the domestic front, get their own chapters.
Women face very real barriers, men are given very real unearned benefits, and these are collective social problems. This isn’t all in our heads, and it can’t be fixed with an individual attitude adjustment. But on an individual level, we can take steps that both better our own lives and help pave the way for institutional changes. We do need to focus on our own completely logical but ultimately self-defeating internal responses to all the external cues we receive. Advocating for ourselves, taking risks and staying in the game may not always work out in exactly the way we want, but it’s better than shrugging our shoulders and waiting for The System to change itself.