Thursday, April 11, 2013

Lean in and Kiss My Ass

Tonight's cocktail is a Caribbean Mule (see what I did there?).

1.5 oz golden rum
1/2 oz lime juice
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
ginger ale

Shake the first 3 ingredients with ice, pour into an ice-filled glass, top up with ginger ale. Jamaican ginger beer is best if you have it, but I didn't. I had a 2-liter bottle of regular ginger ale because my son spent 4 straight days with a stomach bug from hell, and now his sister is sick, too.

Which brings me to the point. I haven't yet read Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In. I already have a giant pile of books next to my bed and an equally large backlog on my Kindle. I read for pleasure and escape, and I imagine that I would find Sandberg's book inspiring and frustrating in equal parts, so I'm just not ready to invest the time. I've read a lot about Sheryl, though, and while I admire her success and believe she means well, she (and Marissa Mayer, and many successful and admirable women like them) fundamentally doesn't get what life is like for the rank and file of working (or would-be working) mothers.

Because you know what? I couldn't lean in for the past 2 weeks, other than leaning over my kids and rubbing their backs while they threw up. I missed 4 consecutive days of work last week because with my ex on a work trip, there was only me. I was able to respond to requests by e-mail and keep things in a holding pattern between puke summonses, but that was about it. And you know what else? Just after I'd gotten dressed for work on Monday morning, actually making an effort to fix my hair and wear something professional, my daughter staggered out of her room and threw up all over me. She's still sick, and I'm home with her again today. If trouble comes in threes, I'm totally fucked.

Thankfully I have a great boss who gets it. Not everyone does. Of course, it also helps that I'm not trying to be CEO of anything - I'm content with my middle management job that gives me good benefits and the flexibility to be available when my children need me. I like my job, and I think I'm pretty good at it. I think this makes me pretty lucky. I chose to jump off the fast track, despite having gone to fancy schools from which some of my classmates have gone on to do Big Things, because I had other interests and priorities.  When I was an attorney with a large law firm, I realized that the whole setup - whether Big Law or the corporate rat race - is a pyramid scheme. Lots of young, bright, hard working people flood the lower tiers. Over time, through attrition, the layers become narrower and narrower, until you are left with the few people who (a) have the physical and mental endurance of farm animals, (b) are extremely innovative and effective, even in a pool of innovative and effective people, and (c) are politically savvy with a hint (sometimes more) of ruthlessness. They earned their view from the top. I don't begrudge them that.

But while the Sheryls and Marissas who've made that climb can provide useful insight and inspiration, they shouldn't think that they are re-inventing feminism. They got where they are because they were able to leverage the existing sexist system. That system assumes that anyone who reaches the top must have the actual or paid equivalent of a wife at home to take care of childcare, meals, errands, cleaning, etc., so that they can throw all their time and energy into their careers. Most of us, unlike Sheryl and Marissa, don't have the resources to pay other people (usually women) to do those things for us, yet they have to get done. We work it out, and hopefully our spouses, if any, shoulder their share of the burden, but it's often a complete cluster, which, on average, does affect our work disproportionately to our male counterparts. Believing in ourselves, while helpful and empowering, won't change our realities. And what about women whose only access to the executive suite is with a vacuum cleaner and trash bags? How does this so-called feminist reboot help low-income women? They're not even part of the equation.

Most working moms, especially those whose spouses or partners earn more than they do, are doing what I call the Ginger Rogers shuffle. As the late Texas Governor Ann Richards once said, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels, but she got less recognition for her work and talent than did her male dance partner. We can have all the self confidence in the world, but when the baby starts throwing up, unless you have extraordinary family support or the money to shell out on an on-call nanny, one of you is going to be calling in sick and missing that important meeting, business trip, or presentation, and if you're the lower earning spouse, chances are you're a woman, and chance are it'll be you more often than not.

My cousin once told me about using the restroom at a grocery store, coming out of the stall to find a sobbing employee trying to hand express breastmilk into the sink because she was engorged. My cousin learned that the employee had had her baby a week before, but she was already back at work, exhausted and still bleeding, because she didn't get any paid leave after using all her sick days, and she couldn't afford not to work. No breast pump paid for by insurance for her, and no clean lactation room or affordable daycare, either. Just 8 hours on her feet, with a 20 minute break to tend to her own physical needs. What would Sheryl say to her?

Sheryl's argument is that when 50% of all corporate CEOs and politicians are women, the world will be constructed with women in mind, and women's lives will become better. To a point, that's probably true, but I don't think it extends as far down the food chain as Sheryl thinks. For example, if a woman were CEO of the grocery store chain I mentioned, maybe it would have a better maternity leave policy, and it would provide health insurance that covered lactation supplies, and there would be a clean room with an electrical outlet and fridge for her to pump milk for her baby. Maybe. But paid leave and better benefits would cut into the company's bottom line, which might affect its stock price, which would resound poorly with shareholders, which could get the female CEO in hot water. Another grocery chain could refuse to provide those benefits, because if its employees didn't like it, they could be easily replaced. The store would have lower overhead, lower prices, attract more customers, make more profits, have better stock prices, and take a competitive advantage, and a few months later, the nightly business report would tell us about how the warm, fuzzy grocery chain's CEO had been canned for failing to make the company competitive. It's all driven by the motive to make a profit, which is not immoral, but it is amoral.

What I'm saying, not as articulately as I would like, is that there has to be a broad cultural shift for women to have an even playing field. Yes, we should take what we've earned and insist on being paid what we're worth, but it goes so much deeper than that for the vast majority of women. Unless the few women who manage to beat the existing, skewed system are willing to fight to change it, life isn't going to get better for working mothers in the mid- and lower levels of the pyramid, much less for the women who clean the pyramid's toilets. I'm not saying Sheryl and Marissa are obligated to make social change - that's not their job. Their job is to make their companies profitable. But, if they want to take credit for re-energizing feminism, they need to understand what life is like for people who aren't like them.

I already believe in myself, thanks.

1 comment:

  1. Amen! You said this so well, and also, you pretty much had me with that awesome drink recipe at the beginning!


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