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Lean In, Women; Corporations and Government, Brush Off Your Hands

By       Message Veena Trehan     Permalink    (# of views)   7 comments

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Fifty years ago, Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" explained how wives were not fulfilled by homemaking and childrearing.  Women couldn't get credit, were fired when their pregnancy showed, and held mostly assistant or teaching positions in the 1960's. We've come a long way. [[IMG2]]

Today, women comprise 58 percent of college students, 33 percent more college graduates than men, and a strong presence in most industries. Yet they make up only 20 percent of Congress, 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, and 15 percent of senior executives. The new mystery is how America has created a society where women are unable to make full use of their talents to the detriment of us all.  

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has a solution: women should "lean in". Sandberg wants groups of 8 to 12 women to form "Lean In" circles that are carefully managed. Her education materials encourage them to go after top spots with male management techniques -- negotiate harder, stick out your chest, take credit -- and get their husband to do more work at home. The newly empowered women will tell each other stories with "happy endings".   Corporate partners can sign on by providing "little more than a quote and a logo" instead of maternity benefits, telecommuting, or promotion targets.

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It's recycled   "Dale Carnegie Training". There are benefits. As a teaching assistant in that program, I encouraged a woman who fainted when she spoke publicly to practice til she stopped doing so. I also coached a chronically hoarse man who translated for Boris Yeltsin in front of Congress.  But women's workplace issues won't be solved by drawing out one shy professional at a time. And they won't be transformed by consciousness raising circles vastly different from those of the past. In the 1970's, women were encouraged to see personal problems as political problems; earlier quilting circles secretly promoted women's suffrage.   In contrast, Sandberg's scripted mini-groups are designed not to rock the corporate boat but to place most of the onus for change on women.

America, you've been Bright-sided.
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Barbara Ehrenreich explains how American culture -- especially corporate America   --     blames failures on the individual in "Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America". Predatory practices, limited healthcare access, indiscriminate outsourcing, less government services and corporate taxes, and corrupt corporate practices aren't at fault. Like an 8th grader struggling with algebra, we're told hard work and good cheer will bring us success.

Corporations love their new champion. Sandberg largely absolves them from responsibility, though what they do here is strongly dissonant from practices abroad and the wishes of more than half the workforce.   Almost 2/3 of full-time working women would prefer part-time work. Many give up their inflexible jobs when their spouse works long hours.   For the 30 percent who opt out, often because they can't find a suitable job, they pay a steep price.   Women who prioritize kids over work lose over $1 million of lifetime earnings and lower their chance of finding full-time professional work to under 50 percent. Yet like company executives, a surprising number of women have voiced support for Sandberg. So happy are they to start talking about the issue, many fail to highlight these contradictions.  

Individual, voluntary and small scale action is no substitute for movements that profoundly change society.   As such, Sandberg's championing of personal agency is harmful on five counts.
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First she ignores the numerous women who have leaned in. These are women who offered innovative ideas and called out program risks, only to be kicked off the leadership track. Corrupt practices and short-term profits often take precedence over mission and stakeholders. Droves of ethical women leaders who slam the door on their way out might have risen to the top of organizations truly worth leading. Second, as women are generally perceived negatively when they pursue leadership, they often protect themselves by gaining consensus. Third, women's pursuit of all-encompassing jobs leads numerous women to change careers or drop out of the workforce. Fourth, society, business, and government need to change to make professional, lucrative work the norm for women. It's stunning a senior executive at Facebook wouldn't advocate using technology to change corporations and to power movements.   Fifth, the narrow focus on small groups of professional women distracts from major issues affecting females and workers.

Let's revisit these points in detail.

First, Sandberg argues, women just don't try hard enough. Yet I've seen in numerous organizations just the opposite. Scores of women lean in. They invest more than men in doing the hard work of leadership. They actively identify risks, explore alternative business models, and include all stakeholders in their decision-making, from low-wage employees to customers. They call out companies on their corrupt practices. And for this, especially without a male sponsor, they pay a heavy price. Their ideas are ignored and they are personally belittled and marginalized, until they leave. In fact, the departure of these female mid-level managers from government agencies, investment banks, consultancies, and corporations is often a harbinger of bad news: a government investigation, a negative news story, or a scandal.  

Sandberg cites the lack of women in executive positions as resulting from their lack of their motivation and savvy. I say many businesses are dominated by males precisely because they are doing things that will lead to grilling by government panels, numerous lawsuits, or the destruction of public health and wellbeing. The almighty dollar is simply less of a motivator for women.

Many women are fine with their gender's absence at many Fortune 500 companies. In the last 10 days, JP Morgan has been sued by Freddie Mac for manipulating interesting rates, found in a report to "bully regulators", and settled with MF Global for over $500 million dollars. Many of us are happy CEO Jamie Dimon isn't female. The company whose six heirs own as much as the bottom 42 percent of Americans, that destroyed jobs in numerous cities, and was subject to the largest class action lawsuit in history (from women) also has a male CEO, Wal-mart's Mike Duke.   Likewise Goldman's CEO is Lloyd Blankfein; McDonald's, Don Thompson; and Coca Cola's, Muthar Kent. A big thank you to those leaders for not being one of us.    

Many of us are proud to count among us visionary leaders like Children's Defense Fund founder Mirian Wright Edelman, her prote'ge' (and more) Hillary Clinton, host of Democracy Now! Amy Goodman, and Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins. In fact, many women who realize they failed to follow Watkins' advice end up leaving:  

"Work for a company that is proud of its products or services. Don't work for a company where it's all about the money. When you're looking for a place of employment, listen to the water cooler talk. If the talk is always about the stock price, this year's bonus, or the amount of stock options you have, it's not the right place to work. You won't be fulfilled. Money chasing ends in an empty sack. It really should be all about the product and services. Be sure you work for an institution that prides itself on its products and services."

Second, Sheryl wants women to throw their chest out (literally) and embrace male leadership model of taking personal credit for successes. Beyond the well documented problems of this male style of non-inclusive leadership, it's flat-out risky for women's careers. Women who assert themselves are often ignored in meetings.  Researchers found women who tried to lead mixed-sex groups got glances away and frowns while men received nods and smiles, even though they spoke the same words.  Women who promote themselves are viewed as more competent but less likeable; men remain liked. Women envisioning themselves as leaders believe they will be perceived as "aggressive", "power hungry", and "bossy". In short, women need to walk a tightrope: be perceived as attractive but not too sexual, competent but not threatening, and assertive but not aggressive. Otherwise, their careers suffer.

They also strongly benefit from a sponsor. Sandbergs' include Larry Summers (who said women's underrepresentation in strong academic institutions was due to "innate differences" and whose actions contributed in a major way to the worldwide financial crisis) and Mark Zuckerberg, who has suggested removing all age restrictions for a technology that contributes to cyberbullying and depression. Yet many women might choose to question the ethics of such actions rather than embracing such mentors. Or, as families often need two salaries to achieve a professional dream of retirement and college savings, they might step back. Not jeopardizing their careers in organizations with a double standard and a laser-like focus on corporate profits can make perfect sense.

Third, many who "Lean In" -- like doctors, lawyers, and consultants -- often find their job options not sufficiently compelling. Huge numbers of women drop out of the workforce despite education from a top 10 university. Post-kid options are often "part time": translation full time-plus, including late nights and weekends, despite a 40-hour work week passing in 1938. I -- and many other graduates of top schools -- have seen numerous women who "leaned in" going back for graduate education in teaching, business, writing or nursing. They start up businesses or work in a less demanding field, while doing the valuable (and otherwise paid) work of tutoring, cooking, and cleaning.

Speak to many 30- and 40-something women (even those who don't have children) and you'll hear a common theme. They've lost faith that their work has the power to make a difference. Those who leaned in are now told they need to work many hours for a job that matters little, in their eyes. The calculation might be different were they leading the implementation of single payer health care, planning the wholesale transition to renewable energy, or making a documentary that would end sexual violence. Trying to figure out how to cut more American middle-class jobs or rip off banking clients often takes a back seat to raising kids.

Fourth, women can't count on infrastructure and benefits largely present in the developed world. Our land of opportunity is the only one without paid maternity leave. Contrast that with virtually any other country, including Finland and 50 countries that offer paternal leave. We have weak and often expensive child care offerings. Thirty percent of the decline in female labor participation, which dropped from sixth to 17th among 22 OECD countries over 20 years, was because we fell behind other nations in family-friendly policies. Yet women with ever poorer job security are supposed to negotiate alone for benefits?

Fifth, "Lean In" is a distraction from all of the above and more. The failures, by and large, are those of corporate culture, job structure, and benefits. They are related to numerous societal issues that affect women. A women sticking out her chest and demanding more pay will not achieve equity for women. It's time for a broader movement to promote female opportunity.

How many of us support the struggle of fast food workers, 2/3 of whom are women and many who earn $11,000? How many of us are active in getting mandatory paid maternity leave, or even think about it before becoming pregnant? How many are working to end the "rape culture" which saps the energy and focus of many talented young women?   How many fight for GMO labeling, which would cut down on shopping time and make preparing healthy meals for kids easier? How many have pushed for stronger whistle-blowing protections that would protect women who choose integrity over advancement, and would change corporate culture?

Talented women should be able to hold professional jobs and lead balanced lives. To not be able to do so robs our society: from women inspired by dreams unconsciously shaped by Friedan, to businesses that need their innovation and perspective, to families who would prize their income, to children who benefit from their example. Our efforts must aim to create a society where unfair treatment is called out, a strong infrastructure supports women, and ethical companies that comprise the norm embrace females in all their potential. These absences speaks to an immeasurable loss. Their presence would bring unimaginable gain. 

 

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Veena Trehan is a DC-based journalist and activist. She has written for NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and local papers.

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