Lean In to Lead Out

I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead in one afternoon. It’s an uncomfortable feeling when you read a 175-page book in a few hours – uncomfortable because, as a writer, I know no book of any size is simply conjured up in a few hours; there is imaginative blood, editorial sweat, and the tears of killing your darlings – and then there is the subject, scale, and magnitude where any writer can sound like a self-absorbed ass. Nobody but an arrogant ass sits down and says they will write the great American novel or the book that will redefine reality.

Sandberg’s subject is critical, socially relevant, and for scale and magnitude, she discusses one half (in concept but not in number) of the American population. Her book is not a bitchfest, though she does point to attitudes and behaviors that have not gone away. The transcript from her TED talk will give you an idea about what this book is about.  She offers observations and some solutions to today’s women and to men willing to read the book. Sadly, the backlash against this book has begun. The critics have come out not with their red pens, but with their sharpened knives.

I suspect that men reading this book will still feel that they are the ‘enemy,’ the suspect; and right or wrong, I know that that is not the design or intent of feminism. I am certainly not the chain-smoking, afternoon-martini-swilling lecher and conquistador of nubile secretaries that Sterling Cooper of Mad Men is – I wasn’t even born yet. I grew up at a time when feminism had gone through one of its generational changes, when the drive for social equality adopted a fierce social rhetoric, a militancy in which rage was directed at men, and all men were seen as potential rapists; society was oppressive and patriarchal. Speaking for myself, I did not think that I was entitled or privileged to anything, other than finding my way in the world and earning my keep. I’m a second-generation American, having grown up in a bilingual household, so my perceptions have had their own unique flavor and coloring. I do, however, see many men in retreat mode. While I have seen feminism reach out to men, I have always sensed suspicion and a lack of complete acceptance. My bad if I am wrong. I know many men who are conflicted because much of what had once constituted and represented manhood does not speak to them, but the expectation from society and women remain the same.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help but think of my mother and my grandmother. I do not think that Sandberg’s book would have spoken to them. Neither my mother nor grandmother went to college. My mother had me at sixteen. I would often go to work with her. I witnessed the not-so politically correct workplace of the seventies. My mother began as a secretary and became her company’s first female executive. Daycare, as now, was not affordable, and my mother would not have survived without the cooperation of both sides of the family, my maternal and paternal grandparents. Nobody can afford daycare. Nobody — and feminism was right to address the disparity then and now. My point is this: everyone was trying to survive when I was a kid (and it was the heyday of seventies feminism). Everybody was trying to make the buck, and live Life. I don’t think that that has changed. In fact, I think it has escalated and widened with desperation, with women and men realizing that they did go to college, did take out the loans and dotted the i and crossed the t; and yet, they go up and down on the carousel horse, the brass ring out of reach, the student debt mounting, and the American Dream but a lie. My mother didn’t have time to listen to what Virginia Slims had to say. Nobody stopped to think about the f-word, feminism, because that would have been a luxury, a philosophical conundrum for middle-class women in the suburbs, because Life was more like Willy Loman’s. If Willy were a real person today he would still kill himself, but not before he went on a shooting rampage. His frustration would start in muted depression and then manifest itself in homicidal rage because his life began with idealism, sustained itself with optimism, but in the end, the face of the Nihilist is reflected back in the mirror. The essence of the problem is cultural and not social.

I thought of my grandmother as I read this book. In two more years, in 2015, she would have been a hundred years old. My grandmother was not a feminist. She was from a different era, plain and simple, and that meant she probably would have a conniption seeing a woman go bra-less or wear a thong, but she didn’t take sh*t from anyone. She wore slacks and did many things that feminists believed in. She came from an era where ‘boy’ either meant a male child, or a black male, no matter his age. She would never ever have used the n-word, or call a grown black man ‘boy,’ but I also know she could never get her head around calling someone ‘African-American.’ Her way was gentle and wise. If, for example, I came home and I mentioned a ‘girl,’ she would say, ‘Does she have a name?’ I would say the name, but the lesson was that no person is an ‘it,’ an object; and I think this is what Leaning In is suggesting remains wrong with the American workplace: everyone is an ‘it.’ Nothing revelatory about that since feminism does address the objectification of women. When you name it, you give it dignity and decency. She also taught me that it was rude to ask someone what he or she did for a living when you first met. People are not their jobs, she would say and, when she asked how you were, she expected an answer and not some superficial response. She was about caring and about integrity.

I said earlier that ‘the problem’ is cultural. We are our jobs, and some of us are rebelling against it, or trying to find a balance between work and living life. American business or ‘corporate culture’ – an artificial construct if I ever heard of one – reduces everyone, including women, to a quantifiable something, devoid of humanity because turning a profit is a virtue. There are 2,081 working hours in a year and somebody somewhere is calculating worker productivity that factors in all the obstacles, like maternity leave. Women succeed in business, get those promotions often after 40, not because it took them that long, but rather they are at an age where biological potential does not affect the bottom line.

One last anecdote about my grandmother, which I think is relative to Leaning In. My grandmother owned an ancient refrigerator, which needed replacing, and she informed my grandfather when he had called home on his lunch break one day. Grandpa simply said, “Helen, if you need one then go and pick one out and write out the check for it.” After listening to her overwhelm my grandfather with the make and model, pros and cons, and features of every known refrigerator at the store – she was already of age during the Depression and the dollar was not to be wasted – I imagine my grandfather sighed and said, “Helen, pick any damn one. The money is there. It’s your refrigerator. I have to go back to work.” And so my grandmother selected her fridge, took out the checkbook, and was told by the sales agent, “Let me call your husband to see if it is okay with him.” My grandmother closed up the checkbook, put the fridge on an installment plan, walked across town, got herself a job, and paid for the fridge herself. I know because I went to work with her one summer and sat on a stool and watched her fill plastic bottles with vegetable oil and crate them for the afternoon deliveries. My grandfather, confused as all hell, watched the old fridge die a slow death, but he had a new fridge in no time because my grandmother paid off the fridge ahead of schedule. His wife would have been damned if someone had had to get her husband’s permission for her to make a purchase. My grandmother may not have had the technical skills that some women today, but even back then, when opportunities were limited for women, she had found a way to get what she wanted.

Come full circle, decades later to my own life and reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book. I read the book. I read some of the backlash articles – and I couldn’t help but think back to Susan Faludi’s book Backlash. Over the decades I have watched leadership in feminism celebrate and disown their own as if it were a political party undergoing a purge. Remember the feud between Steinhem and Friedan? I have watched the ‘mission statement’ morph from social equality and justice, telling women that they can have it all, to bizarre arcane and academic forays in anthropology, linguistics, and other areas, which fed and sated American anti-intellectualism and skepticism. Sandberg does say that women can have it all, personal and private, but much of that success is dependent on personal attitude and choice. Surprised? Choice and lack of choice is the bedrock of feminism. But, Sandberg says explicitly that a woman’s most important decision in life is whom she chooses for a mate. I use the biological word ‘mate’ rather than the societal moniker ‘partner,’ and not because the latter is gender neutral. Biology and Society are not one and the same.

I believe that many women will see themselves reflected and refracted as they turn Sheryl Sandberg’s pages. She writes about life, albeit her life and observations from her various jaunts in corporate America, her rare position of privilege, and yet there is an Everywoman tone throughout the book because the same refrain resonates: life for women, work for women, and recognition remains elusive, separate and unequal. Her detractors argue that the collegial tone is misleading and seductive. Her detractors will say that she did not create anything other than repackage her TED presentation, which is ironic because corporate America seems to think money is an endless resource. Yes, Sheryl Sandberg was born to wealth and into a social circle that few of us will ever know, but she does something with her life. She does not claim to have all the answers. I do not have any answers or solutions. I do have but one observation and it is this: corporate America and all those other working bastions are dedicated to one thing: making money, and it does not care about Affirmative Action, compliance, or male or female. Feminism is not at war with patriarchal society, but with a global ideology: Capitalism.

Some corporations have become like terrorists, moving and regrouping where they can on the planet to maximize their monetary success. Money is IT and you, whether you are John or Jane, the reality is that you are not empowered because you are there in the cubicle to serve one purpose only: make money. Is this too harsh? I direct you to the downward economic trend for working Americans. While the American lower and middle class live far above a standard of living than most people in this world, the gap has widened at an unprecedented rate in the last thirty years. That is the issue at hand and not some ‘false flag,’  like gun control in which the first defense is that tyrants seized the guns, when in reality history shows that the Nazis and Fascists armed the citizenry and sought out to destroy the middle-class. The paramilitary Italian youth group, the Balilla, had a motto: ‘libro e moschetto fascista perfetto.’ ‘A book and a rifle make the perfect Fascist.

I know those sentences are a bunch of cynical bon mots, and might seem out of scope, but the pensions are gone, the one job for life is gone, and the Social Contract is gone, and American individualism is back stronger than ever and self-reliance is too, but the prevailing cynicism has it that all failure resides in one place: in the person. It is all about the money. Feminism celebrates the individuality of the female, tries to redress social injustices that affect everyone, especially families, but the paradox is that it runs counter to the American cultural definition of success. Feminism calls for cooperation, for sisterhood, in a society predicated on individuality. Historically, the nation’s past shows examples of cooperation only in times of extreme duress.

America is a worker’s society, often out of balance, confusing ‘values’ with ‘rights,’ ‘working to live’ with ‘living to work.’ Health care, for example, is a citizen’s right and not a luxury. The root of evil is not money, but in hoarding and in the desire for it. True, not all workplaces are created equal. Workers are fired for trying to form a union, middle-management types hide behind closed doors to avoid making decisions, and managers hammer their staff for numbers and quotas at the expense of safety and sanity, because it is all about ‘productivity,’ which means doing more with less, and reducing margins. Are not all of these ills a variation on themes that early feminists fought for in the Progressive Era for better working conditions? Is Upton Sinclair still relevant? I’m afraid that it is all about Money and pleasing the shareholders.

I wish Sandberg had talked about horizontal violence, the vengeance and viciousness of women terrorizing women in the workplace. Women do it differently. It seems like the white elephant in the room and it is a global phenomenon. Suzanne Gordon discusses it in her books about nursing, the ‘pink ghetto’ of the American workforce. My grandmother’s voice drifts through my head. Hell starts when you are nothing more than an ‘it.’ Then again, Grandma would have thought it foolish for any one person, male or female, to think that they could have it all. Is it really a generational thing? I don’t think so. Reducing anyone to “it” makes many things easier. The Nazis proved that. All that energy spent, Grandma would say, for what? Nobody cares about your titles, how much money you earned, or how big your house was because you die just the same. For her, Life was her family, and I suspect that is the same for many women; but the economic reality is different these days. Can a family exist on one income? Or thought of another way: expend all that energy to ‘survive’ is not Life. Sure, Life is cruel and unfair. I know that sounds harsh and reductionist, but I think what my grandmother was trying to say was that Life has not changed: you live and you die regardless of gender and race, and, while reforming society are noteworthy and valiant, the problem lies in not making distinctions rather than comprehending the fundamental fact that you are human. Society and the office space are not a stagnant Utopia where everyone will have perfect communication and everyone is an actualized human being. That is not to say sexual harassment should be tolerated or lynching is an acceptable form of justice. But unfortunately, survival is what motivates human behavior; society compels anxious agreement on parameters, but culture is what illustrates that we are more than animals, that we have a spiritual element at the core of our existence. Art has no overt social function but it is crucial to the human spirit.

Does Sandberg speak to all women? Does feminism? Do both alter the daily reality of a Muslim woman or a Chinese laborer, or a woman somewhere in Latin America? No. Third-wave feminism, which started in the 80s and 90s, is an attempt to reach out to non-white, lesbian, gay and bisexual women, and all other women who did not fit middle-class American feminism as it was defined decades ago. Culture distorts and divides. Since we live in a particular society where the image speaks loudest, Sandberg has made herself an icon, a spokesperson, and a role model for some women. She has written a much-needed book and reiterated a much-needed affirmation that women can and should be leaders in the workplace. The question is whether everyone wants to be that kind of woman, a high-powered business success. Many are opting out because Life is not a business meeting.

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About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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