Are Feminists the New Republicans?

March 8, 2013 § 13 Comments

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This is not, I repeat, NOT a review of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In.”  So there.

Is this what it’s come to?  Fairly or not, Republicans have the reputation of being the party of “My-Way-Or-The-Highway” mentality of policy and politics.  They are famous for closing ranks around the most powerful among them, and flinging anyone who dares to deviate from the standard party line to the ground.  If a Republican deviates, suggests a compromise, or reaches across the aisle he or she is met with derision and accusations of anti-patriotism from fellow Republicans.  Frozen out.  (While this is, of course, not true of all Republicans, and Democrats engage in this behavior, too, it’s a fairly common perception.)  At any rate, as a result of this infighting and the results of the last election, many are (rightly or wrongly) ringing the death knell for the Republican Party.  Are Feminists heading down the same road?

Not only are women slamming Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg for being out of touch with the average worker, we’re slamming each other for slamming them.  How many layers of disgust and venom must we pile on one another before the insanity stops?  Dare to call BS on Mayer’s new Yahoo! policy or Sandberg’s new feminesto (feminist + manifesto = feminesto.  It’s just fewer syllables, k?) and you are a “hater,” “absurd,” and (I loved this one…) “Dowdian.”  As if it were in insult to be quoted by Maureen Dowd.  Dare to support or defend Mayer or Sandberg, and you’re setting back the cause of Feminism or insensitive to the needs of mothers.  Why such polarization?  Is it necessary?  Is it productive?

What are we doing to elevate the level of discourse?  Joanne Bamberger (full disclosure – a friend of mine) wrote a powerful piece in USA Today about Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg.  She cogently argued that the duo is setting standards for the workplace that are destined to foster resentment and guilt among mothers in the workforce.  I don’t agree with everything in the piece (I’m not sure, for example, that Sandberg isn’t interested in giving women a hand up,) but much of it rings true, and I definitely get where she is coming from.  Mayer’s decree is tone-deaf and feels much more like it comes from the castle tower – though as I’ve said before, time will tell if her banning flextime and working from home was a good business decision.  Sandberg’s exhortations that women stand up for themselves in the workplace and not be afraid to ask for more than they’re offered seems to come from a better place, but still leaves a bad taste in the mouths of people who don’t have the luxury of using their vacation days to launch a movement or a book tour.

In the meantime, Joanne was called a “hater” and had her scholarship questioned because she didn’t explicitly state in her piece that she had read Sandberg’s book, “Lean In,” before she critiqued it.  (She HAD read the book, by the way.)  When I heard this, I marched (as much as one can march on a laptop) right over to those other articles, my protective side having been called to the surface, ready to defend my friend.  I read Joan Walsh’s piece in Salon magazine.  Apart from lumping Joanne in with the “haters,”  I actually found myself agreeing with a lot of this article.  I haven’t read “Leaning In” myself, but I certainly would now, just to see whose version I feel it more closely resembles.  I like the advice Walsh described about asking for more than you’re offered, and choosing your spouse wisely so that you are supported in ALL of your important goals, including career, and her defense of Sandberg seems sound to me.  I disregarded the snark (which was definitely there,) detracted from the piece.

Anna Holmes’ piece in the New Yorker also smacked down many who criticized Sandberg, but with much more derisive language and, it seemed to me, outright hostility.  She takes great liberties in her assumptions of the critics (my friend, included).  However, I actually happen to agree with her on other points, particularly when she identifies one important problem with the criticism of Sandberg.  She’s “galled…by the subtext that because Sandberg is rich she can’t possibly be sincere in her advocacy of women.”  So even as I truly disliked the tone and knew some of her presumptions to be false, I found something of value in the piece.

At the risk of sounding like I’m sighing, and saying, “Why can’t everyone think more like I do?” – well, WHY CAN’T EVERYONE THINK MORE LIKE I DO???? I can disagree without resorting to name-calling.  (Though I did call the guy from Suspension Notice a Drama Queen.)  I can hear an opposing viewpoint without taking it personally.  You know what?  I can even hear someone being critical of my viewpoint without being insulted!  Unless, of course, we’re talking about the Mets or the Orioles.  That’s personal.

I’m a big believer in diversity of opinion and background being a strength rather than a weakness.  The intense pressure to conform to the thinking of whatever the group troubles me deeply.  Joanne has every right to be critical of Sandberg and Mayer without being labeled a hater.  Holmes and Walsh have the right to disagree with Joanne’s criticism, and can do so very eloquently WITHOUT the name-calling and baseless accusations of her not having read the book.  Why must we make this PERSONAL, people?  Shouldn’t we, as women and feminists, be setting the standard for mature discourse – given the appalling LACK of it from our predominantly male legislators?

Maybe I’m naive, but I believe everyone has something to contribute.  Furthermore, I feel a responsibility to distill the information and discussion down to what speaks to me and helps me learn.  To take from the criticism what makes sense, and maybe call BS on the parts that don’t – while doing my damnedest to be respectful of the people with whom I’m disagreeing.  The more rational the critique, the more powerful in my eyes.  But when was the last time rationality sold magazines?  That might explain why I don’t make enough to file taxes…or buy a copy of “Lean In.”

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Leaving Gender at the Door

February 26, 2013 § 110 Comments

Interviewer:  So, why do you write these strong female characters?
Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer:  Because you’re still asking me that question.

What I see whenever I sit at my desk at home.

What I see whenever I sit at my desk at home.

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NSFYE (Not Safe For Yahoo! Employees)

So, Marissa Mayer banned working from home for her Yahoo! employees. Hilarity ensued.  Not really. More like polarization between women has intensified.  I have a vague sense male CEOs and workers are sitting down with popcorn to watch the catfight and go “Rawr.”

I worry that our reactions, no matter how well-intended and articulate and based in truths, aren’t wholly productive.  Why is it more outrageous for a female CEO to ban flextime than for a male CEO?  I don’t think it is.  It’s a questionable business decision, and only time will tell if it is a good one, but would the outrage be as severe if it came from a man?  I doubt it, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Let’s talk about the policy itself.  It constricts parents of both genders.  It constricts adults of both genders.  It constricts any male or female who would like to enjoy the benefit of staying home with a sick kid, taking an aging parent to the doctor, or giving blood at a time that is convenient for them.  In this post I wrote last June, I posited the following:

Ideally, in order for one spouse to have true flexibility in and control over his or her scheduling, the other spouse would have it, too.  Because for every mother I know who needs flexibility to support her career, I know a father who needs flexibility to support his family life.  For every mother who needs control over her schedule so she can present a case in court or put on a hard hat and climb into the sewers, there is a father who needs flexibility to leave work early to coach his daughter’s softball team or make dinner while the mother is making closing arguments.

Let’s talk about the person who issued the policy.  Marissa Mayer never claimed to be a pioneer/crusader for the family-friendly workplace.  Au contraire.  I think she made it very clear from the time she was hired that work was her priority. Frankly, this policy change doesn’t surprise me at all.  My friend, Elissa Freeman, wrote a piece defending Mayer, and even expressed the hope that

(m)aybe, just maybe, Mayer has a grander plan. Once she has the credibility of saving a company and winning the respect of Wall Street, she will have the potential of standing on an even grander soapbox for carving out family friendly policies. Policies that even the old boys will have to take into consideration.

Maybe, though I doubt she will, because that is not who she claimed to be or what she claims to want.

I understand having higher hopes for a female CEO of such a large company.  (I, too, cheer a little louder for the underdog when they break through barriers, whether it is a female CEO, a gay couple getting a marriage license, or the New York Mets breaking .500.)   Yet, just because a person is in possession of a uterus doesn’t mean she also possesses wisdom, empathy, or vision.  As a matter of fact, I know of plenty of women who hurt the causes of gender equity and families in general.  Last January, I decried a new rule by the Federal Reserve making credit cards available based on individual, rather than household income. In that post, I was urging women to get more involved in politics.  Then, I did more research on the Federal Reserve.  Three of the five members at the time were women.

It’s understandable women feel thrown under the bus by one of their own.  I’m disappointed, too.  But I’m inclined to be cautious with my criticism.  I fear we do more harm than good by having different expectations for women in power than men.  I worry when we criticize a person rather than a policy.  I don’t want to cloud the very important issue of family-friendly work-places and productivity by calling Marissa Mayer on the carpet for being a FEMALE who made a certain decision rather than a CEO who made a certain decision.  Counterintuitive as it seems, advancing gender equity might be better achieved by leaving gender OUT of it.

Is There No Way to Win?

July 18, 2012 § 10 Comments

Stop the madness.

I would love to get Anne-Marie Slaughter and Marissa Mayer in a room together.  They could commiserate about how their personal life choices are the subject of such public scrutiny and criticism.  They could play a drinking game wherein every time someone cheers for them to succeed they take a shot.  Every time someone insists they’ll fail (or has already failed) they take two shots.  Before you know it, they’d be sitting back-to-back on the floor, totally blitzed and eating pizza and giggling at crazy cat videos on YouTube.

Need me to back up for a sec?  Okay.  I am talking about two women who have caused quite a stir in the last month or so:  Anne-Marie Slaughter, for leaving an extremely high-powered job in Washington, D.C. to be more present for her teen-aged sons and to return to her (merely) extremely demanding job as a full-time professor at Princeton; Marissa Mayer for taking an extremely high-powered job as Yahoo!’s CEO at the same time she announces she is pregnant.

These women can’t win for trying.  Anne-Marie Slaughter is honest and forthright about the toll such jobs take on a parent, and realistic about what is best for her family.  Marissa Mayer is brilliant and ambitious – much the way I imagine Slaughter was at the same age – and confident in her ability to manage an insane career with having a new baby (her first, by the way.)  Both are being cheered and jeered – just from opposite sides.

Prof. Slaughter faces criticism and condescension from her peers and fellow feminists for asserting that women can’t have it all.  She is being thanked by exhausted women who sacrifice for their kids, either by staying home with them or having a job, or both at the same time.

Ms. Mayer is criticized by women who are smugly saying “You think you’ll be back to work after 3 weeks?  You’ve NO earthly idea what is about to hit you,” and judgmentally saying “Fine, I guess if you never wanna see your baby and have him raised by strangers, go for it.”  She’s garnering praise from the same group criticizing Slaughter – “She’s the poster girl for having it all!  She’s the beneficiary of all we’ve worked for!  You GO, girl!”

Let me propose an alternative response to each.

To Anne-Marie Slaughter, I’d say, “You are a brilliant, incredibly accomplished woman.  You’ve shined a bright light on some of the real problems even successful working women face.  You’ve politely and respectfully asked millions of woman to step back and evaluate their choices and paths, without being judgmental of others who choose differently.  You should be supported and applauded as you make this transition out of public service and back into private education and a closer family life.  Use your considerable power for Good.”

To Marissa Mayer, I’d say, “You are a brilliant, incredibly accomplished woman.  You’ve shattered the glass ceiling in the heavily male field of technological innovation.  You’re about to have a baby.  You should be supported and applauded as you try to forge a workable balance between career and new motherhood.  Use your considerable power for Good.  (And if when the baby arrives, you decide you need more than three weeks of maternity leave, I hope you allow yourself the flexibility to take it.  I hope the those on Yahoo!’s Board of Directors collectively chuckle and say, ‘We thought you might need more than three weeks.  Take as much as you need and your job will still be there for you.’)”

To Yahoo!, I’d say, “Great job hiring the best person for the job, even though you knew she is pregnant.  Now’s your chance to make a high-profile and meaningful change to improve the lives of working mothers in your company, and set a real example.  Like my new friend at Lizrael Update insightfully advocates, help her show the world that Corporate America thrives when its families do.  You can do it.  Be like this guy, who pays his employees $7,500 to take their vacation time, and use it to really get away from it all.  Take care of your own.  Because seriously, people, today’s workplace culture and economic climate are not exactly cutting it.

Understandably, cries of classism permeate the discussion of both women.  For Prof. Slaughter, it’s “Sure – she has a CHOICE of picking the job that lets her spend more time with her kids.  Must be NICE.”  For Ms. Mayer, it’s “Sure, she can stay at her job – she’s a BAZILLIONAIRE, and can have nannies out the wazoo.  Must be NICE.”  No matter how justified the resentment, this attitude is toxic and counterproductive.  I wish it would stop.

People, you want these women to meet with success in whichever path they choose.  Here’s why.  We NEED women in high-power positions to succeed.  We NEED them to run for office.  We NEED them to have a seat at the table so they can advocate for a supportive workplace culture.  We want them to thrive so that they can put in place innovative policies that TRULY support a work/family balance that works for BOTH genders.  So they can fight for fairness in health care and family leave, and fight against discrimination in the workplace.  So that every woman, every family, can have at least a few healthy and fulfilling life options to pursue.  THAT would be true choice, would it not?

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