Asking for it

One of the greatest and least welcome of surprises of my thirties has been the dearth of women I know who occupy positions of power. Gradually, as I’ve listened to the radio or indeed, read newspapers, I have come to realize that women who write frontpage articles or anchor news shows are in the minority. This may be a naive view but it’s one that was embedded in me by my girls’ school education: I assumed without question that women would succeed in equal measures to men. This truth was evident throughout my undergrad and graduate degrees, and only in adulthood has it receded.

It’s been distressing, and confusing too.

Image from

Image from

So I’ve been excited to see this issue writ large in discussions around the anniversary of Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” and most recently in the buzz about Sheryl Sandberg’s forthcoming book, “Lean In: Women, Work and The Will to Lead.” I haven’t read her book yet; according to early reviews Sandberg argues that women should act with more confidence, speak out and “lean in” more at the workplace.

Already Sandberg has been criticized for placing blame on women rather than on society and – from a different angle – for representing the elite business class and not the ordinary woman.

It seems obvious to me that both men and women would benefit from access to a better work-life balance (this article does an exceptionally good job of outlining the problems facing workers in the US in the wake of spiralling labor hours and disempowered unions). But I’m less inclined to countenance complaints about Sandberg’s status. It may be that privilege enabled her to study at Harvard, where fees run to $52,652, but so did her own hard work and accomplishments, and we should celebrate her resume, not deride it. I also have to wonder why one reviewer (and yes, a female one) chose to pit Sandberg against fellow alpha-woman, Anne-Marie Slaughter, creating an unwarranted cat-fight even though Slaughter states that they hold complementary, not contradictory, attitudes. There is a risk that ad hominem criticism of Sandberg may overshadow the discussion that she’s hoping to stir up.

In their more relaxed moments, some of my male friends appear to think little of making provocative and sweeping claims about the female psyche. One likes to assert that women will always choose to stay at home with children rather than go out to work, if they have the option. Such comments are never going to be entirely untrue – any cliche or stereotype is likely to map onto some reality – but the problem is that they fail to account for much variety or range of experience.

I believe that women need to get better at asking for what they want and figuring out effective ways of attaining higher salaries (if you’re curious about how, check out “Ask For It” by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever). I would also like to see societal attitudes – towards women and men and the acknowledged need to maintain population levels – change.

I’m happy at least to see that this debate is taking place, and I hope it will be a vibrant one. Otherwise, it might seem that all the confidence, and indeed the feminist principals of my teenage years were little more than a girlish dream.

2 Responses to “Asking for it”
  1. Will M says:

    So I fully agree that women always wanting to stay at home is a sweeping generalisation. But men not wanting to stay at home might be less of a generalisation, and I do think is certainly more of the problem.

    Matt Yglesias produced the following research recently: consider two workers: one who has a life partner who also is in employment, and one who has one who isn’t in employment. The former has to spend more time at home with children, chores, etc to balance the time their life partner isn’t at home; the latter doesn’t. The latter thus will be able to give more hours to work, and likely to produce more work. So it can easily be rational to have only one parent work.

    And this is a problem not only for families that decide they only want one parent to work, but also for families that try it the other way – and often find that they can’t make it work.

    • Frieda says:

      Hi Will, thanks for your comment.

      To turn Yglesias’ point around: Isn’t it surely better – or at least as good – for two parties to work than one, even if that one produces more as an individual, since the two would collectively have a greater output? (Not very elegantly put, but I hope my point is clear).

      I like your honesty in suggesting that men simply don’t want to stay at home to take care of the house. Do you think that men would like to spend more time with their children if there was less of a stigma around taking time off? It’s hard for me to argue about this since I don’t have kids and have no idea how I’d feel if I did, but I suspect that if I had a child I would like to go back to work fairly swiftly. I’d like to think that such decisions could be made without reference to gender.

      If childcare were more readily available and paternity-leave a valid option, then individuals would be better placed to make choices on these issues. As things are, it’s not surprising that the birthrate has dropped across most western nations.

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