Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg hopes her new book “Lean In” will start a new wave of feminism. Fine by me, as long as working-class women don’t get swept out to sea.
Sandberg is the latest iteration of post-feminism, we’re told, less militant, more upbeat. One of the few topic-tier female managers in America, her aspirations extend far beyond book sales; she wants to empower entrepreneurial women through collective consciousness-raising.
She follows on the designer heels of another high-powered professional with something to say about achievement at the pinnacle of success. Anne-Marie Slaughter has even parlayed her attention-grabbing article for the Atlantic, “Why Women Can’t Have It All,” into a new career: she now gives speeches on the mirage that is having it all, at least for women. It should be noted Slaughter seemed to being doing well as she ascended, at least within the rarified academic community at Princeton. Then she entered the high stakes, high-stress world of diplomacy via an upper-level State Department appointment. A move to Washington left her separated from her family and working without rest, a balance she found she couldn’t sustain, especially with two teenagers who needed her attention. Some things are harder even than corporate ladder-climbing; public service tends to consume its favorite sons and daughters
Sandberg’s West Coast lifestyle appears slightly less onerous and a tad more cushy. She seem to be able to call the shots, leaving the office at 5:30 p.m. to be home with her young children and flying them to a conference last year on a private jet. No surprise her message is more upbeat: you CAN have it all — you just have to lose your low self-esteem and try a little harder. Don’t push but lean in and make yourself known. This isn’t new: everyone from Betty Friedan to Oprah Winfrey has suggested that women need to speak up for themselves. Sandberg doesn’t account for sensitive feelings engendered by being seen as a bitch; nor does she acknowledge the guilt those mothers trying to “have it all” might experience.
Slaughter has accused Sandberg of proposing unattainable standards for women; the two impossibly successful women are now engaged in a feminist version of “Clash of the Titans.”Meanwhile, many working women may wonder how much leaning can be done while trying to manage a home, cover for a spouse who may soon be out of work, and put away half a million dollars per child for projected college tuition?
I watch this latest argument like the spectator I am, alternating between bemusement and regret. At this point in my life, I don’t have a dog in this fight. There are no kids and career issues to balance, no corporate ladders to climb, no glass ceilings to shatter. I’m not even sure I’m in a position to lend a hand up.
But if I’m feeling less than successful because I didn’t storm the mountain back in the day, imagine how twenty, thirty and forty-somethings feel. Hell, Harvard didn’t take women back when I was getting ready for college. Now they do, so how come you don’t have an MBA from Harvard? You must lack either self-confidence or that all-important fire in the belly—or both.
Women are already pretty good about feeling bad about themselves. As my friend once told me, “Men blame women; women blame themselves.” That may be a bit facetious but type “men, women and guilt” into a search engine and see what the referenced studies say about women’s impulse to feel guilty. Consider that women are still expected to, in some fashion, be the mother their children need them to be and you can see why someone like Slaughter was facing more than a little pressure, especially as her kids hit puberty.
But self-induced or even peer pressure is nothing compared to the kind of socio-economic bludgeoning experienced by those working in the service professions. Women hold the majority of such jobs, which are routinely undervalued, even for social workers or nurses. These “pink collar” jobs involve what Sharon H. Mastracci, author of Breaking Out Of the Pink Collar Ghetto, calls “caring work.” The challenge for women seeking fair wages is employers who “are taking for granted that you care so much you’ll be there no matter what.”
Sandberg and Slaughter appear to be two smart and privileged women with two vastly different experiences. What they share is the luxury of considering how far, how fast and how much is possible for a working mother when the work, the house, the husband, and the finances are in place. How to make it to the top and whether it’s possible to stay there is a valid topic for discussion, albeit one that plays to a relatively small portion of the working (and sidelined) female population.
I’m more interested in how those women in rare positions of power might lead a movement to increase the social and economic value of the “soft skills” required of counselors, social workers, home health workers and yes, teachers. As they discuss whether women can “have it all,” maybe they could take time to consider how all working women can simply have enough.
Guest contributor Nikki Stern is the author of Hope in Small Doses and Because I Say So: Moral Authority’s Dangerous Appeal. Nikki’s articles have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, USA Today, Newsweek, and Humanist Magazine, among others. She’s currently working on a book of short fiction. http://nikkistern.com