Sheryl Sandberg has earned an important executive position in an American corporation. As COO of Facebook she has amassed great wealth and power.
And yet, she is alone at the top. She counts as one of the very few women who hold similar positions of executive power in American, or, dare I say, any nation’s corporations.
Looking for new territory to conquer Sandberg has decided to rebrand herself as a feminist heroine. To support her crusade she has written a new book called, Lean In. It will be published next week.
Sandberg refuses to accept a world where a few women here and there can become corporate honchos. She envisions a brave new world where equality reigns:
A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes. I believe that this would be a better world.
Sandberg has every right to dream the impossible dream, but there is no reason to believe that enacting her vision would produce a better and more functional world.
Most utopian visions, when translated into reality have produced dystopias.
As Sandberg knows, the problem does not reside in sexism. The problem, if you wish to call it that, resides in motherhood, in the fact that a significant number of women reduce their work load in order to be better mothers.
In a competitive corporate environment, working less can make all the difference between making it to the executive suite and remaining a middle manager.
Of course, feminists have long suggested that if men took over half the housekeeping and parenting responsibilities then everyone would be happy.
Unfortunately, corporate manager of any gender who takes time off will be giving less to the job than will a manager whose spouse assumes most of the responsibility for housework and childrearing.
As reported on this blog, the phantom egalitarian marriage, where housework is shared equally and where both partners contribute equally to the family treasury is far more likely to end in divorce and to contain abuse.
Sandberg’s message might work for a woman whose has a househusband or who can afford a permanent staff, but otherwise it is impracticable.
For that, among other reasons, women are not rushing out to join Sandberg’s cause. In fact, Michelle Golberg reports, more than a few woman writers have taken vigorous exception to Sandberg’s attempt to become their feminist role model.
Some are happy with their choices to spend more time with their children and believe that Sandberg is disrespecting their decisions. If she has the resources to live her life a certain way, they do not. Some women are offended at Sandberg's suggestion that they sacrifice themselves or their children for a cause.
At Facebook, Sandberg is the only woman on the Board of Directors. Would anything change if half the seats were reserved for women?
But, Sandberg is not the chief executive. If she decides to devote herself to her favorite cause, she will not become one, at Facebook or anywhere. Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! is the CEO and she has famously declared that she is not a feminist.
Speaking of female executives, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher must count among the best. So should Queen Elizabeth I.
Interestingly, both women surrounded themselves with men. Neither of them mentored women who would follow in their footsteps. Would either have been as effective if they had been surrounded by equal numbers of men and women?
Look at it this way. Many professions and careers are divided along gender lines. Nurses, psychotherapists, veterinarians, social workers and teachers tend, more often than not, to be female. Soldiers, techies, FBI agents and business managers tend to be male.
Female dominant professions emphasize caring. They also allow women to have the maximum control over their time. Male dominant professions emphasize teamwork and organization. They are less individual and more group oriented. They are more likely to be organized hierarchically.
Most people recognize that when a profession that had hitherto been male dominant attracts a certain number of women it might reach a tipping point and become a woman’s profession. Over the past few decades this has happened in the world of psychotherapy and in veterinary medicine.
When that happens, the profession’s status and prestige diminish. Then men, who are acutely attuned to their place on a male status hierarchy start avoiding it.
Sandberg notwithstanding, women who rise in corporate hierarchies often sabotage other women who would follow their lead. I have written about this in a previous post.
Yesterday, Peggy Drexler observed that women who rise to the top in male dominant professions tend actively to undermine younger women. As a result, young women prefer to work for male bosses and to have male mentors.
In Drexler’s words:
This generation of queen bees is no less determined to secure their hard-won places as alpha females. Far from nurturing the growth of younger female talent, they push aside possible competitors by chipping away at their self-confidence or undermining their professional standing. It is a trend thick with irony: The very women who have complained for decades about unequal treatment now perpetuate many of the same problems by turning on their own.
Drexler uses a term that had been concocted by other researchers and calls these women “queen bees.” As analogies go, it doesn’t quite work. The queen bee’s power lies in her fertility. Women who rise to the top in corporate hierarchies seem not to want to draw attention to the fact that they are also women.
How pervasive is the problem? Drexler answers:
A 2011 survey of 1,000 working women by the American Management Association found that 95% of them believed they were undermined by another woman at some point in their careers. According to a 2008 University of Toronto study of nearly 1,800 U.S. employees, women working under female supervisors reported more symptoms of physical and psychological stress than did those working under male supervisors.
Drexler points out, correctly, that women undermine other women in ways that do not seem obvious to men:
What makes these queen bees so effective and aggravating is that they are able to exploit female vulnerabilities that men may not see, using tactics that their male counterparts might never even notice. Like Jane's gossiping about Erin's personal life. Or when Kelly's boss would comment on her outfit: "Who are you trying to impress today?" Or not-so-gently condescend: "Did you take your smart pill today, sweetie?" Their assaults harm careers and leave no fingerprints.
Call it cattiness if you like, but Drexler is highlighting the fact that when women interact with other women the nature of the conversation changes. It becomes girl talk, focusing on appearance, on emotions, on romance, on family and on home.
For whatever the reason, when women talk to other women they talk about matters that are affirm their womanhood.These conversations often exclude men.
At what point, we can ask, does the number of women in a meeting or in a company transform the culture and the conversation? At what point does the conversation become more intimate and personal and less corporate and businesslike. At what point does girl talk threaten the functioning of the business?