Societal pressures lean in on career women
It’s telling that Hillary Clinton opened her new book Hard Choices—a fascinating political memoir on weighty issues like Benghazi and Bin Laden—with reflections on balancing the demands of work and family. In doing so, the 67th U.S. secretary of state wasn’t just making a folksy appeal to voters, she was tapping into a major cultural moment for professional women.
Clinton, who may well become America’s first female president, is no doubt aware that we’re in the midst of a heated debate over women in the workplace, and one that’s playing out in publishing: Debora L. Spar’s Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection; Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time; Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know; and, of course, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
All champion different strategies, but all grapple with what Sandberg refers to as “the blunt truth”: that “men still run the world.” Of the world’s 195 independent countries, she points out, 17 are led by women; just 20 percent of all parliamentarians are women; women hold only 14 to 17 percent of the top jobs in corporate America.
Fifty years on from Betty Friedan’s landmark book The Feminine Mystique, why are so few women in positions of power? And worse: why is it that this minimal progress has come at such a cost to women’s well-being?
The narrative goes like this: the desperate housewives of the 1950s woke up, raised their consciousness, marched, demanded rights, smashed (some) glass ceilings, and proudly sent their daughters off into the world, telling them that they could do anything, be anything, and—here’s the awful kicker—have everything.
Fastforward five decades, and the depressed homemakers of yesteryear have become the anxious, iPhone-addicted working moms of today. These frantic females race from demanding office jobs—where they are paid 77 cents on the dollar, and where face-time-obsessed bosses resent the imposition of family life—to join their children at supervised play dates and/or Mandarin lessons. They then enjoy the infamous second shift at home, where they are now expected to, among other things, make gluten-free bread and organic jam from scratch (in a nut-free environment) for school fundraisers, respond to office emails all night long, sleep with their kids to foster maximum attachment, and (still) perform the majority of bathroom-cleaning and laundry-type tasks. These women must somehow also find the time to maintain the looks, body, and grooming of a 25-year-old, well into their 40s.
And all of that is if they have been lucky enough to find a partner, and at a point when they’re still fertile. Lots of women these days are finding that the basic life events that their mothers took for granted—dating, marriage, children, all tied up in a bow before age 35—are bizarrely out of reach.
What these single, childless “career women” gain in opportunities and free time (to work more), they lose in social stigma. Consider this gem of a stereotype from Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin, authors of Midlife Crisis at 30: How the Stakes Have Changed for a New Generation—and What to Do About It: “We were about five years away from morphing into the angry woman on the other side of a mahogany desk who questions her staff’s work ethic after standard 12-hour workdays, before heading home to eat moo shoo pork in her lonely apartment.”
Hard choices, indeed.
Interestingly, it was one of Clinton’s own staffers that kicked off this conversation. In the summer of 2012, public-policy expert Anne-Marie Slaughter penned an Atlantic cover story, ”Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, explaining her decision to leave Washington and arguing that the only women who have successfully juggled motherhood and professional life are superhuman, rich, or self-employed. It hit such a nerve that it became the publication’s most-read piece. Ever.
White-collar women rushed to respond, making a range of excellent points. Many agreed with Slaughter that widespread changes in government and corporate policy are necessary, along with massive shifts in cultural attitudes.
Others, like Sandberg, placed the responsibility mainly on women’s shoulders. Troubled by “the ambition gap”, she urged young women to lean into their careers—to work at a fever pitch until the very second they give birth (and, it’s implied, resume their efforts immediately afterward, like Sandberg herself, who was back on email from her hospital bed the day after delivering her first child).
This is problematic for many reasons. The premise that women lack the will to lead is absurd. A quick glance through any of the above books swiftly confirms that women are, in fact, the glue that holds society together, continually tending to the needs of children, family, friends, and community. Is that not a form of leadership?
But the main reason this is so offensive is that it serves to obscure another issue, and that is the end of the 40-hour workweek and the new norm of around-the-clock accessibility and institutionalized unpaid overtime. For instance: the fact that Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, has stated publicly that she got where she is by working 130 hours a week, sleeping under her desk and being “strategic” about her showers, is troubling not because she’s a woman, but because this is something that our culture now finds acceptable.
Maybe the question shouldn’t be Sandberg’s “Why don’t women want the top jobs?” but rather “Why would anyone?”
The new “problem that has no name” is not a woman problem, actually, but a human one. And so it’s fitting that the book that best addresses it isn’t geared specifically to women.
In Arianna Huffington’s Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, the Huffington Post founder—who once awoke in a pool of blood, after collapsing from exhaustion at her desk—envisions a very different work world from the one we’ve become accustomed to in the 21st century, with its “epidemic of burnout and stress-related illnesses”.
In this new world, workers are paid for their judgment, not their stamina. This leaves people free to get adequate rest every night, be creative and productive during the day, and then unplug from technology at 6 p.m. to go out and enjoy all that life has to offer: romance, friendship, family, community, art, spirituality, good food, laughter, sunshine, the joys of giving back. It’s a compelling vision, and one worth pursuing for the good of women—and men—everywhere.