Thursday, April 14, 2011

Women are Worth It

I already have a post about Women in the Workplace, so I needed another title for this post. This is my second post inspired by TED talks, however, this time it is very much a direct response to the video in question. As such, I ask that you watch Sheryl Sandberg talk on "Why we have too few women leaders," at least if you want to understand this post. It is a nearly 15 minutes long talk, and I am sorry to ask for this much of a time commitment, but I think it is well worth watching. If it makes you feel better, I have watched it three times now, once two weeks ago which gave me the idea for this post, once this afternoon to remind what it was I wanted to address, then again right afterward as it became clear that I needed to make notes on specific points throughout the video. So, go watch it please, the next paragraph will still be here when you get back.

First off, while I disagree with this talk in some fundamental ways, I want to emphasize that, given Ms Sandberg's premises, I think this is a wonderful talk. She explicitly notes that the goal is limited to helping women stay in the workplace (2:47) through personal strategies rather than structural changes (3:04). Because her talk is aimed at helping women in our current power system, of course it will not address problems with that system, that is not her purpose. She wishes to help women within the current power system, a classic liberal goal, but I think the entire power system should be examined, and ultimately altered, a more progressive stance.

One problem with helping women succeed within our current system, is that women are penalized for succeeding within our system. Have you ever heard the saying, "can't win for losing." It refers to a Pyhrric victory, a success that ends up costing the winner a horrible price. As Ms. Sandberg notes, people tend not to like successful women (7:15). However, it is worse than that, as the story of Heidi Roizen demonstrates (7:46). It isn't that women have to act differently than men do in order to succeed because the system is somehow biased against women, apparently the means a women uses to succeed which make people dislike her are traits that people find admirable when performed by a man.

This is a problem that cannot be solved by the individual women seeking professional betterment, to whom Ms. Sandberg addresses her talk, because it is a problem that exists on a cultural level. We expect women to be nurturing and men to be successful, so a man who does what is necessary to attain high power will be viewed as normative, while a woman who implements the same strategies is much more likely to be criticized as being "out for herself," because of the context that women are not SUPPOSED to be out for themselves.

Because she is only trying to help women rise to the top in our current power system, Ms. Sandberg can only advise women to be out for themselves and ignore the backlash it creates. However, since I am criticizing the entire system I would like to both point out the fundamental injustice of expecting women to adhere to "traditional" but ineffective strategies, and to point out the utter dysfunction of a system in which self-aggrandization turns out to be a more successful strategy than communal nurturing.

Lest I be accused of being a gender essentialist, and in order to fully disclose my own stake in this, let me directly say that I do not by any means believe that "communal personalities" are restricted to women, and I tend to empathize with them. For example, the story about hand raising (9:07) hit home because the same thing has happened to me. If someone says that they are done taking questions, and you decide to keep your hand raised anyway, doesn't it seem like you are, in some sense, saying that your desire for recognition should take precedence over the speaker's stated desire to end questioning? Furthermore, I have almost always found that I can go and ask the question after the talk if it continues to irk me. So, while valuing communal personalities may have the happy result of increasing the number of women high up in our system of power, I think the valuing of communal personalities in itself would have beneficial effects on our system of power.

This is, probably, the biggest problem I have with Ms. Sandberg's talk. She is encouraging women to succeed by adopting a "masculine personality" strategy rather than questioning a system that is rigged to promote the "masculine personality." Since I have rather little use for the traditional "masculine personality," this seems like a particularly dysfunctional "solution." Made all the more so by the fact that the system is further rigged to favor "masculine personalities" in male bodies. Ms. Sandberg may, "think a world... where half of our countries and half of our companies were run by women, would be a better world," (14:17) but if they get there by acting like traditional alpha males, I fail to see how the world would be likely to change.

However, Ms. Sandberg does make some points that I consider very important. As I have noted, one of the reasons that feminism is most important to me is that it tends to reject gender essentialism. One of the ways that expresses itself is in the politics of housework, something Ms. Sandberg addresses. However, in order to share domestic labor more equally between sexes, not only do women need husbands willing to do their share, which already hints that structural reform is necessary, but also, "we have to make it as important a job... to work inside the home for people of both genders." (11:13) Here Ms. Sandberg is finally forced to abandon her call for women to reform themselves and blatantly call for true structural reform.

My final note on this topic is that, the idea that, "men are reaching for opportunities more than women," fundamentally undermines the notion that our society is a meritocracy, which weakens many of the justifications for our current power system. The last thing I wanted to address was the tendency for women to underestimate their competency. In the anecdote she provided (4:43), I wonder if the Dunning-Kruger effect might be explanatory. Furthermore, should it really be bad for people to acknowledge the help they had acquiring their skills and expertise (6:38)? While more women in places of power may eventually lead to a restructuring of our power system, I do not think it is inevitable if women are forced to "buy into" the power system in order to succeed. Consequentially, I think it is necessary that we remain vigilantly critical of the flaws in our overall system of power, and move to address them as we are able.


elfarmy17 said...

I was going to be the annoying blog reader and not bother to watch the talk. Upon reading the post, I realized that I already had some months ago, so yay.

In thinking about what to write in this comment, I've realized that none of my explanations/reasonings behind some of your objections to the talk can be said without resorting to gender roles, which isn't something I want to do, since I share in your belief that they shouldn't really exist in the first place (other than women being the ones to give birth, since there aren't many ways we can get around that- ha).

However, my "theme of the year," as I suppose you could call it, is "People are people." People of one group aren't necessarily all that different from people from another. They might have different views and such, but they're human beings nonetheless, and are to be interacted with as such: not as men or as women, but as fellow humans.

Kenny said...

Not going to watch the talk, yeesh, how busy can you be? ;) Kidding.

So, are you saying that if you were to try to explain away my objection, it would require gender roles, or if you were to try to explain why I have my objection it would require gender roles? Anyway, in regards to birth, I know that some feminist Utopian novels require artificial wombs as a precondition of true sexual equality, as otherwise females are always given the role of childbearing. Not sure where I stand on that thought, but it is interesting.

I'll agree in principle that people are people. However, the different experiences that different people-groups experience (women, minorities, people from a specific nation, people of specific sexual orientations, etc.) seems to lead to statistically different expressions of our underlying humanity in members of different groups. What I mean is that someone who has different experiences than I may turn out differently than me, despite the fact that I would have turned out the same in the same circumstance. So I think it is worthwhile to consider organizing people into large categories, but not separating them into those categories (if you know what I mean). And certainly not making any essentialist reductive assumptions about those categories.

elfarmy17 said...

If I were to explain away your objection, it would require gender roles. (Busy enough that I read your post instead of watching Wheezy Waiter- it's easier to find your place in a bunch of text than keep track of a speaker's words when frequently pausing the video.)

Agreed about the categories.

Kenny said...

Reading me instead of watching Wheezy? My beard is honored!

elfarmy17 said...

Lol, yep.