Via Ethecofem, I came across a lecture by Sheryl Sandberg on the dearth of women in positions of power.
She mentioned the usual suspects: Women underestimate their abilities. Women don’t raise their hands. A new study shows that 57% of men negotiate their first salary after college, and only 7% of women do the same. To remedy all this, Sheryl said women should advocate for themselves because: “A world where half our countries and half our companies were run by women would be a better world.”
This lecture made me think about a career book that came out back in the nineties: Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead But Gutsy Girls Do. The author, Kate White, said some of the same things Sheryl Sandberg said about women not advocating for themselves. The “good girl,” according to Ms. White, is a product of a culture that silences women and encourages them to put other people’s needs ahead of their own, thereby sacrificing their career prospects:
The most widely known research on what happens to school-age girls is by Carol Gilligan, professor in the Human Development and Psychology Program at the graduate school of education, Harvard University. In studies Gilligan found that there is a “silencing” of girls that occurs as they move from the elementary grades into junior high. Up until that point, she says, they seem filled with self-confidence and courage, and they’re candid about what they feel and think and know. But as they enter midadolescence and become aware of society’s expectations of them, they start to get more tentative and conflicted. The conventions of femininity require them to be what Gilligan calls “the always nice and kind perfect girl.”
– Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead But Gutsy Girls Do, Kate White, p. 18
In passing, Ms. White notes that many men fail to assert themselves as well:
[T]here’s a helluva lot (excuse the macho talk) to be learned from men. I don’t mean all men. Interestingly, there are plenty of guys who are good girls… and they end up stuck in middle-management jobs for decades.
The ones you should pay attention to are the gutsy ones.
– Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead But Gutsy Girls Do, p. 31-32
What I think is important here is that Kate White explains women’s lack of assertiveness in terms of the culture. Men’s lack of assertiveness, on the other hand, is something she notes with seeming puzzlement – it’s “interesting” – but then brushes aside by saying, in effect, that it is the “real” men that her reader should emulate.
Yet explaining only women’s underachievement in cultural terms has consequences. When women’s underachievement or lack of assertiveness is explained by the culture, then shy or unassertive women are seen as having potential, as being potential leaders if given the right motivation and mentors. (So far, so good.) But when a lack of assertiveness or confidence on the part of a man is unmoored from any cultural context, then such men are simply written off as a sad cases. And there are consequences to writing off underachieving men who could, with the right encouragement, be enlightened leaders.
Which brings me back to what Sheryl Sandberg said in her talk: “A world where half our countries and half our companies were run by women would be a better world.” I assume she meant that such a world would be better for everybody, and not just women. But why would such a world be better? The obvious answer is that an equal number of women running countries and companies would change not only the gender composition of leadership positions, but also the personality composition of leadership positions. And in what way would the personality composition of leadership positions be changed for the better? In the final analysis, I think the idea is that women in positions of leadership – and men influenced by women in positions of leadership – would be more thoughtful: more likely to suspend judgment rather than leaping to unwarranted conclusions; more likely to be just rather than to quickly judge others; more likely to wait patiently for all the facts rather than erroneously making shit up. And this is a good thing. Historically, men in power (and the occasional woman in power) have tended to purchase power and leadership at the cost of thoughtfulness, fairness, and healthy skepticism. The cost of this, on the mundane level, has been stupid decisions, petty office politics, and toxic work environments. On the grand international stage, this has sometimes led to war.
So, when Sheryl Sandberg says that a world with more women in power would be a better world, it’s important to keep in mind that the real goal is a world led by those who are more thoughtful, sensitive, perceptive, and wise. More women in power is a means to that goal, but not an end in itself.
Yet there can be an inherent tension between, on one hand, being thoughtful, perceptive, and sensitive, and, on the other hand, advancing oneself within the social hierarchy. In a slightly different context, guest blogger Friedrich Nietzsche explained the reason why:
The beings that did not see so precisely had an advantage over those that saw everything ‘in flux.’ At bottom, every high degree of caution in making inferences and every skeptical tendency constitute a great danger to life. No living beings would have survived if the opposite tendency – to affirm rather then suspend judgment, to err and make up things rather than wait, to assent rather than negate, to pass judgment rather than be just – had not been bred to the point where it became extraordinarily strong.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, tr. Walter Kaufman, p. 171-172
In the modern context, “a great danger to life” can be read as “a great danger to one’s career prospects.” But we want a better world, so it’s time to evolve. And more women in leadership positions is part of that evolution, but only part. The other part of that evolution, I would argue, can be advanced by encouraging a different kind of man to be more assertive and advocate for himself.
Think again about the study that Sheryl Sandberg mentioned: 57% of men, but only 7% of women, negotiate their first salary after college. The first impression one gets from this is that more women should advocate for themselves. True enough. Yet what’s also true is that 43% of men don’t negotiate their salary. Which means that there are an awful lot of men who aren’t advocating for themselves either.
The fact is that many men feel every bit as alienated and amputated as women when trying to create an identity for themselves in the so-called “man’s world.” And yet some feminists greatly overestimate the extent to which our culture is custom made for men. And in doing so they greatly underestimate the number of marginalized men who could contribute to a more enlightened culture, not just as stay at home dads (although men should have that option) but also as leaders.
Consider the following career advice by New York Times Op-Ed writer Joanne Lipman:
One final suggestion: don’t be afraid to be a girl.
Women do have a different culture from men. And that can give us some tremendous advantages. Women are built to withstand hardship and pain. (Anyone who has given birth knows what I’m talking about.) That’s a big benefit at a time like this, with the unemployment rate at 9.8 percent and rising.
Women define success differently; for some it may be a career, for others the ability to stay home with children. They also define themselves differently. I’m in the unfortunate position of witnessing many friends and colleagues laid off over the past year. But the women are less apt to fall apart — and this goes even for the primary breadwinners — because they are less likely to define themselves by their job in the first place.
When Ms. Lipman says “women have a different culture from men,” she posits the existence of a “guy culture” in which most men presumably feel they can be themselves. Problem is, this “guy culture” is chimerical. There’s no such thing. The intimacy women have in their own relationships has a male equivalent in… what exactly?
And so I cringed when I read “don’t be afraid to be a girl.” I cringed because such advice assumes that women, and only women, can be both ambitious and desire emotional intimacy. I cringed, because if career oriented women have the mindset that “women have a different culture from men,” then they are very likely to overlook worthy men who could be their friends and allies. In a sense, it’s the disturbing flip side to the idea that only the so-called “gutsy” men are the ones to whom career minded women should pay attention.