Saturday, March 9, 2013

Is it fair to blame Sheryl Sandberg for what passes for feminism?

Sheryl Sandberg's new book "Lean In" is not out yet but the media have been busy. There have been two general schools of thought--one from women like Linda Hirshman and Joan Walsh who insist she is right on and the "haters" don't get it.  The other is from women like Sarah Jaffe and Melissia Gira Grant who argue they don't even care very much about Sandberg and her ilk, it's just what she has to offer to not useful for most women. Who is right? Is Sandberg  going to " . . jump-start the laggard feminist movement" or is she just another woman fighting (individually) to break the "glass ceiling"?
Walsh argues that it's not fair to blame Sandberg for the fact she doesn't address all social ills--and that the advice she gives is useful, albeit not for every woman. Hirshman suggests that Sandberg's plan has "all the hallmarks of success" including political framing, focus, "moral high ground", and will have weekly meetings (emphasis in the original). On the other hand Jaffe and Grant consider feminism to be an integral part of a movement for economic justice and glass ceilings to be beside the point. Grant points out that:
"To the extent that someone who benefits from that business culture espouses feminism, it will be ruthlessly friendly to the corporate enviroment in which it is exercised."
By all accounts, Sandberg is all about the corporate culture. Even leaving aside the issue of just how many women aspire to that corporate culture I would question the idea that women in positions of corporate power help other corporate women. This is a central tenet of Sandberg's "Lean In" philosophy, but is there any evidence to suggest that the actions or policies that Sandberg or her tech counterpart Marissa Mayer have helped any females at Facebook or Yahoo?  I don't think that there is, my guess (not having much knowledge of either company) that both work like any other tech company. Which is to say there is an emphasis on working patterns and characteristics which are in theory gender-neutral but frequently favor men.
While I don't like to suggest it is only mothers who are in need of progressive polices it is easy prism to view a company's value on a female employee, and society in general. Like any mother who considers herself a feminist I winced at the news that Mayer would take no maternity leave after the birth of her first child--and in case you thought that was a fluke she also ended telecommuting. As CEO Mayer can do what she likes but the obvious implications are that maternity leave is a luxury, as is work flexibility--most people would consider both of these integral to keeping mothers in the workplace. It's worth noting that 20 years after the Family Medical Leave Act--you remember the thing that was going to destroy American business--getting time off for family reasons (let alone getting paid for it which is the norm in the industrialized west) is still difficult and frequently at the whim of the employer. From what Walsh suggests Sandberg is very focused on what women can do to advance themselves, and suggests that that Sandberg " . . . would never face this kind of rage for writing a how-to-get-ahead book." I agree, because I think Sandberg did write that book but framed it as book to help all women. As Grant says, if the book had been framed as something 'by and for women in positions of corporate leadership' this conversation would not be happening. There is nothing wrong about writing a book to help ambitious women but what feminists like Grant and Jaffe object to is the idea that this is all there is, that more women on corporate boards and in business leadership will help most, if not all women.
Whether this is true or not it would appear to get TO that leadership position you need to be well, not like a woman.  Hirshman is explicit in this, explaining how women's lower position is a result of social polices and "self-limiting behaviors, which are entirely in the women's control". Hirshman goes on:

"In refusing to buy into the women naturally love their children more narrative, Sandberg wound up in the opposite corner from former State Department honcho Anne-Marie Slaughter, who quit her job to take care of her 14 year-old-son. . . . old lefty fantasies that men are going to tax themselves to pay for full-time day care and say women can make come of the change themselves."

This is awful on a couple different levels, most mothers, especially those with professional backgrounds   want to be able to work and be there for their children, and want to see changes in policies to make this happen. Women's choices are not always in their control, childbearing for example is safest and easiest when women are younger, probably before they are "established" professionally. Yes, I do expect that both men AND women will contribute to these changes, whether it be by taxes or (more likely) forcing corporations to bear some of the burden. Although much maligned by the working-class feminists I found Slaughter's story useful, because her story helped show how having women in positions of power does not help other women, at least not significantly. Having female boss did not significantly change the dynamic for her to keep her job, and she notes that all the men on the Supreme Court have families, the women do not. Most of the women who have served the President (Obama and Bush) do not have families. It's fine if women do not want to have families but where did it become an axiom that if you want to be a "successful" (re: an occupation that commands a high salary or high respect) woman you can't have children, men certainly to not have to make this choice (and if you do marry you better be to the right kind of man). Hirshman goes on in this vein, it is important be be focused only on getting women into leadership positions, this is "moral high ground" as opposed to  . . . well I won't pretend I understand what she is trying to get it here. She seems to see this push for women in leadership to be something everybody should be able to rally around, as opposed to, "choice" I guess? There are plenty of people in power who don't see this as moral high ground, but again the idea that getting women in leadership will automatically help other women is questionable.
Since she just wrote a book "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution" I'm guessing Hirshman is supportive of Christine Quinn, a front-runner to be New York's first female and openly gay mayor. She is also on record for blocking paid-sick leave. This is moral high ground? This is helping women? To be fair other women are taking her to task for this but business does not want it, and guess who gives campaign contributions. (For a good description of how implementing a comprehensive sick-leave policy in a major city might look like see here.) Hirshman finishes with the final insult, the fact that in order to achieve this it depends on "weekly meetings" by which she really means women OF means getting together on this moral high ground to fix everything. Because "the revival of feminism" cannot come from ". . . the second-shift-working, overburdened, underemployed and often single parenting female masses . . .". Well maybe if they could get some paid sick days, paid maternity leave, and livable wages they might be able to go to meetings too.
In Jaffe's article she stresses that the majority of woman are these masses, they compose the majority of professions such as those in the public sector, teachers, home care workers, domestics and the like that are under attack from various quarters. For these women, the only way to get ahead is by organizing, and for many of these professions they are not considered worthy of consideration by mainstream feminists. As in almost any topic you can think of the mainstream emphasis will be on those with power, and those who look most like those in power. It is interesting to compare the dynamic of Walsh and Hirshman who insist that power can trickle down, versus Grant and Jaffe who insist it must come from below. Who is right? Well, where are the majority of women--up or down? Exactly what is the magic number of women in power which will result in a shift of the political dynamic to benefit all women? The fact is, if the overburdened masses get what they deserve--living wages, essential benefits--then ALL women will get them. It won't matter who is in charge.

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