It’s the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. I’m not sure if I’m speaking for all of us in saying this, but I haven’t even read it: I live it.
Friday morning, I shut the door in the face of my crying child who was yelling, “Mommy! Mommy! No go!” with guilt-inducing gusto. I was leaving her in order to go into New York to tape a television show which discussed, in part, feminism and work-life balance. Ah, irony: you’re so subtle.
It’s not just me, of course. The discussion on women in the workplace was kick started on the national scale this week.
On the one hand, prominent consulting group McKinsey has started quietly reaching out to female former employees who left to start families to see if they are now ready to come back to work. Goldman Sachs also runs a “returnship” program: paid short-term jobs for professionals who’ve been out of the workforce for a few years. In a 2010 report, the Wall Street Journal noted, “female senior executives cited the ‘double burden syndrome’ of balancing motherhood and work as the main obstacle to women attaining more top roles in companies.”
Remember Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who made headlines last year when she was hired 7 months pregnant? Everyone hoped she would be a vanguard for women’s and family rights in the workplace. Well, that hope smashed its head against a really thick glass ceiling this weekend, when Yahoo announced their new policy of disallowing telecommuting completely. If you work for Yahoo, the upshot was, your butt has to be in a chair in the office. So much for flex-time.
And in the meantime, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s impending book release of Lean In looms, which has been billed in the New York Times as a modern manifesto on women in the workplace. In it, Sandberg espouses her ideology of rebooting feminism with “Lean-In Circles”: professional support groups for women in which women would carve out special time to meet and watch presentations by academics and corporate leaders on how to better attain professional success.
As Jodi Kantor correctly notes in the New York Times, however, “Even [Sandberg’s] advisers acknowledge the awkwardness of a woman with double Harvard degrees, dual stock riches (from Facebook and Google, where she also worked), a 9,000-square-foot house and a small army of household help urging less fortunate women to look inward and work harder. Will more earthbound women, struggling with cash flow and child care, embrace the advice of a Silicon Valley executive whose book acknowledgments include thanks to her wealth adviser and Oprah Winfrey?”
Sandberg contends that women do not succeed as readily as men in business do “because women face invisible, even subconscious, barriers in the workplace, and not just from bosses. In her view, women are also sabotaging themselves. ‘We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” she writes, and the result is that “men still run the world.”’
I haven’t read the book, but to me, this excerpt reads a little more like a Harvard Business School class syllabus than a realistic treatise for most working women – who may feel they are working hard enough to balance work and family without carving out a few MORE extra hours each month for the “Lean-In Circle.” “Leaning in” may prove pretty difficult when you’re already shouldering that “double burden” referenced earlier. And especially when WOMEN, of all people, are curtailing flexible workplace schedules, as in the Yahoo/Marissa Meyer case.
Family, as Kveller readers know, is a huge – arguably the most important factor – in our career health and decisions. So many family-related factors play into our work decisions — childcare availability and the feasibility thereof, flexibility of scheduling, health care benefits coverage of fertility treatments. The list is nearly endless – that doesn’t only apply to parents, but also to people who have elder or hospice care to consider. None of those are a confidence problem – instead, it’s a con game problem, stemming from telling women they can “have it all” without figuring out exactly how the hell that is going to happen.
Personally, I have several degrees hanging on my wall, but the “problem” is those little fists that bang on the door behind me when I leave the house. To my mind, feminism can only be advanced in reality rather than simply rhetoric by measures on the ground. There should be family leave policies that respect employees rather than throw them under the bus. More workplaces should provide flex-time arrangements, telecommuting and/or on-site childcare.
And yes, more companies should do the good work of McKinsey and Goldman in realizing that the most valuable commodity – talent – can exist in women even after they have become parents. Show me what you’re doing to keep that talent happy, and then maybe more of us will have more time to talk about leaning in.