This week’s TIME magazine cover story featured Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and the author of a new book entitled Leaning In, along with the headline, “Don’t hate her because she’s successful.” Ms. Sandberg’s success is not the reason she rankles many feminists; instead, it is her exhortation that women must try harder and “lean in” to the brutal demands of the corporate world, suggesting that women are responsible for their under-representation in the board room and in politics. The statistics Ms. Sandberg uses to support her argument – women now receive the majority of advanced degrees, yet hold only a fifth of seats in parliaments worldwide and head under five percent of Fortune 500 companies – are certainly lamentable, yet many conclusions can be drawn from these figures, and the suggestion that women are somehow at fault oversimplifies the problem. Ms. Sandberg fails to recognize that these figures represent a generational gap as well as a gender gap, and although there is significant progress still to be made in the realm of gender equality, the improvement will come as a result of more family-friendly policies and not further demands on women’s limited time and energy.
Leaning In arrives at the end of a string of stories from highly successful women questioning the advances that feminism has made in recent years. First, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” was published in The Atlantic after her decision to leave her position as Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department to focus on her family. She outlined the difficulties faced even by those women fortunate enough to have the money and support to achieve the highest levels of success. Marissa Mayer’s appointment as president and CEO of Yahoo! during her pregnancy last year seemed to break one of the final barriers to women’s equality – although her two-week-long maternity leave and decision to restrict her employees’ work-from-home options steps backward for career women struggling to balance family and work. Sheryl Sandberg’s radical suggestion that women limit themselves professionally by choosing career paths which may allow more family time – a decision sometimes made even before marriage or child-bearing create the need to reevaluate the work-life balance – is indeed a concern, yet she places undue burden on the young women she is attempting to help. The causal relationship Ms. Sandberg sees between women’s workplace achievements and their subconscious decision to “lean back” seems to belong to a different century, and does not resonate with the goals and challenges of the women in today’s Millennial generation.
Ms. Sandberg, at age 43, is still relatively young for her position of power, yet she is nearly twice the age of the young women whose career decisions she may most hope to influence to “lean in.” Yes, women graduate from college and obtain advanced degrees at a greater rate than men; however, this generation is struggling to find a permanent career position, much less a place in the boardroom. The good news for feminists is that throughout the Great Recession, female unemployment remained well below that of men, suggesting that perhaps when the Millennials reach their forties and fifties, there will be more women with the experience and history required to fill the top positions at Fortune 500 companies. Furthermore, Millennial women grew up with strong female role models wielding significant power – Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and Janet Reno were all fixtures of our childhood, and Condoleezza Rice provided a role model for young women during the Bush administration. Girls’ education, particularly in the core subjects of reading, math, and science, has been such a priority and such a success that educators now are addressing the need to refocus on young boys, who frequently lag behind their female peers in reading, are more likely to suffer from learning and behavioral disorders, and who are more likely to drop out of high school. While Ms. Sandberg may have grown up reluctant to broadcast her academic achievements because “girls just don’t do that,” today’s young women seem to accept that intelligence and hard work are equally positive traits in girls as in boys.
And yet, once we leave the shelter of academia, the gender gap reemerges. Women still earn roughly 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Politicians tout equal pay legislation as a quick fix for this problem, and while there is certainly wage discrimination against women, the fact pointed out by Ms. Sandberg that women tend to choose lower-paying careers than men certainly contributes to the salary gap. Many of the careers pursued by women – nurse, teacher, secretary – are lower-paid, supporting roles for those traditionally male-dominated careers – doctor, professor, businessman. Yet most nurses would argue that they work just as hard as the doctors they serve alongside, and often have more direct contact with their patients; teachers work eight-hour days, supervise afterschool clubs and activities, and spend hours grading papers each night, making their summer vacations well-earned compensation in a low-paying and time-intensive job; and secretaries juggle the minutia of their bosses’ schedules, often remaining glued to BlackBerries and e-mail long after the business day has ended. These are not career choices made by women looking for a stress-free work life, yet they are routinely derided as “women’s work” and rarely get the kind of admiration that the male-dominated careers command. While some behavioral scientists have suggested that perhaps the evolutionary and biological differences between men and women contribute to these different career choices – women, the great multi-taskers and nurturers, are more inclined towards caring and supportive professions, while men, in their evolutionary role of hunters, choose the aggressive and domineering tracks on aggregate – this smacks of an apologist’s attempt to rationalize inequality and cannot be taken as a guiding principle in determining how to encourage women in the workplace.
Instead, what I find most damaging to working women – and men – is the corporate world’s constant demands of time and attention, to the detriment of the family. Most Americans dream of “having it all,” in the words of Anne-Marie Slaughter – the house with the white picket fence, two lovely children, and (in an important and telling distinction from earlier generations) two successful working parents. That this vision is so unattainable today – that the picture must lose something in reality – is a policy problem, and not a women’s problem. Studies show that men and women split housework more equitably now than they ever have before; stay-at-home-fathers are commonplace enough that TV shows like “Up All Night” can feature them without the typical slapstick, “Mr. Mom” humor that could have been expected from Al Bundy’s generation. Men and women both want satisfying professional lives and happy home lives, but when the two collide, the question of compromise is increasingly left to the individual couple to decide. Sometimes Dad decides to stay home with the children or pursue more flexible work so that he can be a greater presence in his children’s lives; more often than not, Mom makes that sacrifice. Perhaps this is because Mom has already chosen a career path that earns less money or is less fulfilling than Dad’s, but the problem is not what either partner does for a living – the problem is that the American workplace does not allow for parents of either sex to advance their careers to the highest levels while also remaining active parts of their children’s lives.
The demands on parents today are incredible. As Hillary Clinton discovered in the aftermath of her misguided comment on housewives who did little more than “baked cookies and had teas,” most parents are extremely involved in their children’s lives. They coach sports teams, drive to music lessons, arrange play-dates and yoga classes and Mommy and Me time from infancy – all in the pursuit of a more well-rounded child who will achieve great things academically and professionally. When parenting becomes such an all-consuming task, it is little wonder that one parent must dedicate his or her entire time to the job – and as that job historically has gone to the women, those men who take some time off to play larger roles in their children’s lives find themselves labeled “effeminate” by their colleagues and supervisors at work. The near-lack of maternity leave policies, subsidized day care, and limits on the work week further exacerbate the problem, as families frequently must perform a cost-benefit analysis as they plan for child-rearing. Parents who regularly work over 40 hours a week, whose day care expenses consume half their income, and who receive no time off work to recover from the physical exhaustion of childbirth and to bond with their infant in those crucial first weeks are at an immediate disadvantage – something must give. This is not a question of “leaning in;” this is a question of being overtaxed and undersupported by a society which values monetary gain above all else.
Do women want to have successful professional lives as well as happy homes? Of course they do. But when women who have reached the pinnacle of success in their careers admonish those still struggling to balance work and family, they are contributing to the problem. Ms. Sandberg seems to hold herself up as a model for other women, but the circumstances of her success – two Harvard degrees, stints at McKinsey and the World Bank, a husband who gave up his career to follow her – are truly extraordinary. By not recognizing the source of the problem – a society still structured around the traditional male-breadwinner, female-homemaker roles that we abandoned after World War II – Ms. Sandberg has placed more pressure on those women she purports to help, implying that somehow, by pushing just a little bit harder, they too can have it all. Instead, I would like to suggest that it is in our long-term interest to pull back a bit – taking vacations without the BlackBerry, spending evenings with the family instead of at work – as a way of increasing gender equality and pursuing personal happiness. When society encourages men and women to achieve a genuine work/life balance, we will discover many more women able to “lean in” to all the opportunities they now have.