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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 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'
end up leaving:
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
. 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
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
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
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
, 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
? 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.
Veena Trehan is a DC-based journalist and activist. She has written for NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and local papers.