Why don’t women lean in more often? Why don’t they assert themselves on the job? Why don’t they work harder to move up in their companies? Why don’t women actively try to gain more responsibility in the business world?
Sheryl Sandberg wants to know. And she is not alone.
Most who have asked this question have arrived at the same conclusion. Sexism has forced women to stifle their potential in order not to threaten the patriarchal order.
Absent sexism, men and women would hold an equal number of executive positions. The world would then become as feminists wish.
Sandberg has suggested that women should assert themselves, be more aggressive, and lean in to take on more responsibility and authority.
It feels like Sandberg is saying: “Yes, you can.”
Of course, Sandberg is not merely offering a pep talk for young women. She has presented herself as a role model. Her glamour shot on the cover of her book, to say nothing of her marriage and family are meant to assuage the qualms of women who might believe that leaning in will compromise their prospects for marriage and family.
This is a variant on a feminist narrative that many women have bought into.
It has been telling young women that when they become successful in their careers they will naturally be more attractive to men.
Women who succeed in business and professions are less needy, less dependent and more autonomous. Since men want women who have their own careers and do not depend on them and who are not around the house very often, they will, by deferring marriage in favor of career, end up having it all.
If a woman does not need a man she will be freed to love him for all the right reasons. She will not love him for his power, prestige or income. She will love him for other, deeper reasons.
And, if she is not a needy clinger herself, a man will love her for who she is, not for her ability to do laundry.
Many women have chosen to live their lives as this narrative dictates. They have postponed marriage in favor of career. They believe that once they have established their careers they will move on to marriage and children, secure in the knowledge that they will have made themselves more attractive to men.
Then, they will, if they choose, easily find a wonderful husband and will have careers that cannot be derailed by the demands of marriage and parenting.
One needs to emphasize that the narrative disrespects women. It assumes that if women do not lean in, there must be something wrong with them.
Most women have bought the message of deferring marriage and childrearing, but they have not become true feminists, in the Sandberg sense of the term, because they have not been as aggressive as she was in advancing up the corporate hierarchy.
And yet, a recent study suggests that women decide not to lean in, thus, that that they avoid more stressful jobs for a reason that has nothing to do with sexism. What is holding them back is: cortisol.
Katy Winter reports the story in the Daily Mail:
The old adage that women can’t ‘have it all’ may have more than an element of truth in it, according to scientists.
A new survey has revealed that high powered career women who have stressful jobs may struggle to find love.
In addition to long hours, which can make finding time for romance hard, the stress of a busy job causes an increase in the level of the hormone cortisol, which research suggests makes women less good-looking to men.
Men were asked to rate the attractiveness of women’s faces and those who had high levels of the stress hormone were rated lower.
So, women who do not lean in are not crazy and are not traitors to feminism. They chose less stressful jobs and avoided tough and demanding assignments because they knew that the increase in stress would raise their cortisol levels and make them less attractive to men.
It should not be news. Everyone knows, or should know that women who develop powerful careers are more likely to remain single and childless.
This does not in any way mean that a woman should choose one or the other path. But, if a woman wants to put career first, and especially to put a powerful Sandbergian career first, the likelihood is that she will have more difficulty finding a husband and having children.
Forewarned is forearmed.