Leaning In to Equality

The last week has seen several excellent articles that locate feminism quite nicely among various other examinations and challenges of exploitation. The first two are prompted by Sheryl Sandberg’s Leaning In and the idea that women need to be doing more. “Feminism’s Tipping Point: Who Wins From Leaning In?” is by Kate Losse, who used to work at Facebook. Losse notes correctly and astutely that women are not the only factor in their relationship with work and that giving advice predicated on the idea that they are perpetuates the inequalities that advice purports to solve.

Sandberg has penned not so much a new Feminine Mystique as an updated Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Where other feminists focus on articulating the amount of free or underpaid labor that women do, Sandberg places a priceless value on labor itself and encourages more of it, whether paid, unpaid, or poorly paid. “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask which seat,” she says, quoting advice she received from Google executive Eric Schmidt.

[…] But what if women, even in a company like Facebook, are still paying a gender penalty that nothing but conscious, structural transformation can cure?

I came up against such a penalty in my career at Facebook, which spanned from customer support to international product management to Zuckerberg’s writer: in late 2008, after working my way up from the support team to product management in the engineering sector, I was promoted to a more demanding managerial position. But there would be no raise. “You’ve already doubled your salary in a year and it wouldn’t be fair to the engineers who haven’t had that raise” (never mind that a year earlier engineers had been earning anywhere from $70,000 to $140,000, as opposed to $38,000 like I had). Far from being equitable, the concept of fairness was being deployed to explain why I needed to work for less so men wouldn’t feel resentful, as if my rapid career rise posed a threat to them, which it didn’t. At Facebook of all places, there was plenty of money and career growth to go around. If this kind of salary containment was happening to women there, I can only imagine what justifications are used in less cash-flush companies to level women’s salaries downward.

The second article, “Feminism Called. It Wants Its Movement Back” by Pamela Haag, explores the claim that by criticizing Sandberg, Losse has failed to “support women”.

To be fair, Sandberg can be a role model.  For women who want to achieve in corporate America, and who define success in this way, then she’s an example of how to do this. She also reiterates points that many researchers have made before; namely, that girls get penalized for being ambitious and “bossy”—this still happens today. It’s useful to have Sandberg amplifying that point, and a few like it.

And I applaud her insight that women are doing themselves a disservice, whatever their goals, when they start fretting about husbands, children, and families that they don’t even have yet. The best insight that I take out of Sandberg’s work—and it’s a crucial one—is that young women should follow an ambition rather than prematurely killing it, whatever the dream may be, because they think it will be impossible to fulfill if they have kids or a family. Again, it’s a point that’s been made elsewhere, but is always good to underscore.

But here’s the obese elephant in the room: class. In America, we eradicate sex inequalities so that class inequalities are then free to thrive, among women, although many have a tin ear for class, and imagine that class is erased by sex unity. This isn’t backlash—a war between men and women–but whiplash, a war among women, whose fortunes have diverged dramatically since the late 1970s, based on education, earning power, and marital and parental status.

The final article, “What If Everyone Involved in the Adria Richards Incident Was in a Union?” by Natasha Chart, is a fascinating look at the ways that employment insecurity and arbitrary corporate practices fed into what happened.

Stripping the initial incident down to its barest facts, two men sat behind a woman and made a series of innuendo-laden jokes and remarks that she got tired of hearing. She complained about one of the jokes on Twitter. One of the men was fired. There was a public firestorm, and she was fired.

If they’d all had union representation, it’s possible that no one involved in this incident would have been fired, and we barely would have heard anything about it.

For one thing, most union contracts establish a grievance process that has to be followed before any covered employees are fired. This means you can only be fired for cause; your union will work to get your job back if your employer fires you without sufficient evidence of cause.

This last article also talks about the ways in which union representation help lead to more equal treatment of men and women at work, nicely taking us back to our first point. I highly recommend reading all three articles. There is plenty of food for thought in all of them.

Leaning In to Equality
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6 thoughts on “Leaning In to Equality

  1. 1

    Yeah, I loved all of these articles, especially Haag’s. I feel like feminism has become really diluted over the past 20 years or so; many people now take it to mean “GIRL POWER!!11!” and supporting other women no matter what they do. Yeah, no. Feminists have always called out fellow women when they felt the need to do so. To me, feminism isn’t really about “sisterhood” or “solidarity” among women (though it can certainly include that) so much as pursuing certain goals–namely, dismantling systems of oppression.

  2. 2

    To me, feminism isn’t really about “sisterhood” or “solidarity” among women (though it can certainly include that) so much as pursuing certain goals–namely, dismantling systems of oppression.

    I think sisterhood is vitally important. Women need to reach out to one another across the lines that divide us, and work together.

    The thing is, sisterhood doesn’t, shouldn’t, mean never criticizing another woman. It doesn’t mean supporting everything somebody does or says because she’s a woman. It doesn’t mean we ignore the fact that some women are misogynists, and some have chosen to ally themselves with sexism and anti-feminism.

    I think Haag gets it exactly right.

  3. 3

    Sandberg has penned not so much a new Feminine Mystique as an updated Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

    I think Losse might have misunderstood Weber’s work. He certainly was not promoting either the Protestant Work Ethic or the Spirit of Capitalism; especially the latter, which he thought condemned people to a meaning-less existence in a consumerist iron cage.

    What Sandberg really wrote is just another self-help book “with a twist”. Quite frankly, I’m quite sick of trying individualist solutions to systemic problems; and I’m quite sick of this kind of “feminism” merely confirming the opinions of many women that feminism is for upper class white women. Because Sandberg’s “self-help feminism” is certainly not for anyone not trying to climb the highest reaches of corporate ladders.

    Which, fine. as long as we have corporate ladders, women should be able to climb them. But that doesn’t make this “leaning in” thing something revolutionarily feminist, and it shouldn’t take that much spotlight when it helps those who need the least help. This is ass backwards.

  4. 5

    I think the concept of sisterhood has oddly come to mean “everything other women do, we have to support”. That’s not quite what it’s supposed to mean. It’s also not supposed to mean “let’s brush disagreements under the carpet, for the sake of unity”. The concept of sisterhood in my mind is important in terms of solidarity: patriarchy is so good at isolating women from each other by making it seem as if all other women are competition/enemies*, partially because it blames women for the behavior of men, and partially because it rewards women for spitting in the face of other women. Consequently, the idea that other women are your allies and will have your back, and will stand with you in solidarity is essential to any attempt at fighting structural problems.

  5. 6

    I love the final article and I think it covers ground that we in america have been trained by 34 years of Reaganism to overlook. The tech sector is especially vulnerable to these kinds of misdeeds by corporations because so much of its business model is based on expropriating the underpaid work of potential “entrepreneurs”.

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