Written by Mary Buffett
The lead-up to and publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, has brought a tsunami of controversy about women and work and I must say, we are long overdue for a national conversation surrounding gender inequality.
Books like this push everybody’s buttons and often reignite arguments from the 1970s and 1980s, when women were non-existent in the boardroom because we were simply winnowed out as the career ladder moved upwards. Sandberg shines a light on the unspoken conversations and unwritten agreements men and women have shared since we entered the professional class in greater numbers, and her observations are dead-on.
I would also add that we all have choices. Do what you love first. I know many women who broke the glass ceiling but years later, had no children or even a partner in life. So, it’s my opinion that we all have to consider the realities of where we want to be and what we are willing to give up for it. It’s also OK not to be in the boardroom, but have a equal-paying job and live a balanced life.
Above all, I believe Sheryl Sandberg brings something new and different to the table, perhaps a non-ideological and almost a boardroom approach to feminism. Perhaps her example can be the first steps toward a “Fourth Wave Feminism,” where women who have tasted power and success can fully leverage it without falling prey to the self-sabotage that comes from the subtle tugs of pre-existing social norms. There were no federal court orders that brought Marissa Mayer to Yahoo! or Ursula Burns to run Xerox, but they are rare examples in corporate leadership that is largely white and male.
Lean In grew out of a TED Talk that generated roughly 2 million hits on YouTube, but it also contains a tough message that women need to hear as we take an honest look at ourselves.
First, the controversy around Sandberg is a great thing. As a young girl, I grew up with the Woman’s Movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. When you recall how the mainstream media dealt with any conversation surrounding gender equity, it was met with scorn, derision and disbelief that these women, who were living lives that their Depression-era mothers could only fantasize about, could somehow remain unhappy. In the minds of male reporters, it was a problem for a psychologist, not the courts. In a very famous moment, ABC News Anchorman Harry Reasoner was forced to apologize on air for comments about the launch of Ms. Magazine, suggesting that it was doomed to failure, even though its first run sold out within days.
I lived it, too. Long before I married, I had a robust career within the music industry and enjoyed the feeling of being empowered while the next generation was coming on line. Within a short period of time, I built many successful companies, and held various positions from marketing director to consultant on to founder, President and CEO. I later became a best-selling author.
Where does the ‘big picture’ take us? It’s been less than a century since the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. It has been half a century since the modern women’s movement grew out of the pages of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the best-selling primal scream our mothers (and some of your grandmothers) read. It ripped the veil of silence from the lives of Freidan’s classmates at Smith College, who, while well-educated, lived lives of spiraling depression and unfulfilled loneliness within their well-designed neighborhoods and perpetually clean houses.
Careers for everybody else never materialized beyond elementary school teaching, nursing or the steno pool. Women were given “pink-collar” temp jobs and once the baby train arrived, were reduced to the invisibility of homemakers and caretakers while their husbands commuted into their invisible jobs.
And God forbid if you wanted make something of yourself professionally, because in the early 1960s, those doors were often locked from both sides. Both Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, law school grads who rose to the highest rungs of their profession as Supreme Court Justices, could not find jobs because law firms would not interview women. With O’Connor and Ginsburg, law school classmates ranked below them fell into partner-track position in law firms with ease.
Thank God things got better, but there are still miles to go. It took legislation and lawsuits but most importantly, it took the strong shoulder pads and long hours of women in the workplace to trailblaze our way into once all-male domains. We fought for inclusion and then joined ranks to move beyond tokenism. At that time, it seemed like The Equal Rights Amendment, once thought as a shoe-in for ratification, ran into stiff headwinds as the nation moved to the right. It was ironically done in by another careerist, conservative Phyllis Schlafly. Perhaps the feminists of that era won the argument but failed to win over the overwhelmingly male state legislators needed for ratification. By 1982, the ERA was dead.
This brings us back to the present and Sheryl Sandberg’s book. Feminism never meant that 50% of the jobs of any company should be distributed to women because of their gender; it meant that women should have an equal shot at any positions based on their abilities, regardless of their gender.
Sandberg’s book addresses some very basic questions that others, like Hanna Rosin, have discussed at length. We now live in a nation where a majority of college undergraduate degrees and seats in grad school belong to women. Within entry level and middle management, the gender balance within most companies appears to be far more normalized, but as you get to the higher altitude of power and corporate influence, it still remains a white male preserve. The numbers of women in the C suite (CEO, COO, CFO, etc) or on boards remains the same as it was a decade ago but the lack of C-suite women within financial services really gets under my skin. I take that personally.
Let’s be honest. The most egregious of the barriers have been removed, but the subtle ones remain and they are the most insidious. The notion that woman are the default caregiver is a battle any woman has to fight regardless if she chooses to stay at home or continue her career. At a time when economic power within each household reflects earning power, there is still an imbalance on the home front. It multiplies further when a single parent has to do it herself after divorce. Books like “The Second Shift” detail that even today, the “double burden” of child rearing still falls into our laps. According to Sandberg, that is where many women exit the fast lane and aim for so-called “Mommy Track” positions that are often the first to go when layoffs come to town. Multiply that example by millions and that becomes the tough lesson that Sandberg is trying to impart on us; we have to do it ourselves.
Maybe this book will shake young women out of their ambivalence because it revives a debate that needs to rise to the forefront of our hearts and minds. Perhaps it’s even a victory of sorts when prominent conservative women can trash the women’s movement, even though without it, they wouldn’t be able to get a credit card. It’s a victory that comes at too great of a cost to have been worthwhile for the victor,
One last note. One criticism launched at Sandberg surrounds her wealth and success, because she served a senior player at Google before becoming COO at Facebook. Some say that it’s yet another Rich White Woman who is telling us servantless American women how to live our lives. She earned two Harvard degrees, has been mentored by the toniest figures of the American establishment and enjoyed opportunities far beyond what most women will ever experience.
However, there is more here than meets the eye. She did not come from wealth, but rose to the top of her classes through hard work. She made the most of opportunities presented to her and impressed all around her. Yes, she has a nice nest egg with a CEO husband, but she could have also remained quiet and collected sizable checks until retirement. This is a story of meritocracy in action that should be modeled and replicated.
It has been decades since the Women’s Movement crystallized around Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialism, Betty Friedan’s anger and Gloria Steinem’s brains. Only Steinem remains alive, but she is nearly 80. Perhaps it is time for a new generation to take up the mantle. Perhaps Sheryl Sandberg offers a glimpse of the road ahead.