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March 06, 2013 1:34 PM What’s Really Holding Women Back?

By Jennifer Nicoll Victor

Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, is receiving all kinds of attention and reviews—and it’s not even out yet.I’m blogging about it and I haven’t read it yet. But I think it has something important to say. Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and regularly listed as one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in the world.

She argues that the women’s movement has stalled. Women today stand on the shoulders of those who fought for suffrage, reproductive rights, child care, flextime, and won victories in these battles. We take them for granted, but now the progress of women has stalled.Of 197 heads of state only 22 are women,” and women make up only 18% of the U.S. Congress.

Why has feminism stalled? She acknowledges structural disadvantages, inflexible work places, discrimination, and sexism, but these things are already known, if not accepted, and they are not her big contribution to the question of what’s holding women back. Sandberg argues that part of what holds women back, is women.

Women hold themselves back from achieving success in part because people (men and women) tend to see success as a likable characteristic in men, but an unattractive characteristic in women.A successful man tends to be seen as charismatic and having leadership qualities that are appealing. A successful woman tends to be seen as being bossy, selfish, and all together unpleasant to be around. She cites studies, using compelling experimental design, to make this point.

Then, remember this?

“You’re likeable enough, Hillary,” Barack Obama said in Clinton’s defense when she was accused of being unlikable. Apparently, she wasn’t quite likeable enough. The likeable-deficiency that Clinton experienced in 2008 may have held her back from winning the primary, and the presidency. If people tended to like successful women more, might she have become president? It’s hard to know. We may find out in 2016.

Clinton had a likeable and human response to the question of her likeability: “It hurts my feelings.”

Sandberg has some direct advice to women that may help to overcome the stalled progress women have made in achieving success in parity with our numbers. First, she suggests that women should be more assertive about their attributes and successes, promote themselves more, ask and negotiate more. Second, she suggests that women should ask more of their partners when it comes to household work and childcare. Women can’t be equal with men in the world until men are equal with women at home. This is a message women and men need to hear. Third, she recommends that women work hard for their achievements, really hard. And that they should not slow down, or make conscious (or unconscious) strategic choices in favor of a family-friendly career path for children that may not yet exist.Work hard, until you have children, then accommodate.

What’s not clear to me is whether any of these suggestions affect the likeable factor. If women are still reticent to work hard, sit at the table, and ask more of their partners because if they do they may be liked less, then it likely won’t happen. But perhaps this is a sort of collective action problem. Perhaps when there are a small minority of women who are high achieving and somewhat unlikeable (see youtube clip above), success is still unattractive in women. But if all the women are asking more, believing more, and asserting more perhaps as a group we redefine what is appealing in women.

I think Sandberg may be subtly making this point by presenting her work in a very appealing way to an audience that seemed at first skeptical of her sincerity and value.

[Originally posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

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  • Seesea on March 06, 2013 4:57 PM:

    To get to the top one must work hard, really hard (talking 70-80++ hours per work hard). That is a path that leaves everything else in one's life far, far down the priority list - getting to the top is not family-friendly nor is it triathlon-running friendly, volunteering at the homeless shelter-friendly, taking care of elderly parents-friendly, -etc-friendly. Now, I agree with Sandberg's advice not to "leave before you leave" (i.e., lower your career ambitions for a future partner/children that may never actually come along) but I think that everyone has to realize that one thing that may hold some women (and, hopefully, increasingly some men) back is the fact that to get to the top 99% of one's energies have to be directed at the career path - not everyone wants that.

    And, as to the idea that more women at the top will somehow magically transform the world of work into a family friendly paradise? No. Even if 50% of the corporate world were overseen by women (another of Sandberg's in an ideal world hopes) that would not make one bit of difference to other women. A woman who is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company is not in that position for to help other women. She is in that position to make money for the company, to maximize value for the company's shareholders. Period. If maximizing value for the company's shareholders meant, for some reason, firing women, that CEO would do so. Well, except for the fact that that would be illegal (thank you, those who fought on the public policy front!)

    So. Fine. What Sheryl Sandberg's book. And her "Lean In" groups. Whatever. This kind of thing will not make a damn bit of difference to 99% of women. Sandberg is harmless but not particularly helpful (as is her right).

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on March 07, 2013 9:00 AM:

    What’s not clear to me is whether any of these suggestions affect the likeable factor.

    Hmmm, maybe it's not necessarily the "likeable factor" peculiar to the individual per se, rather the perceptions of others around her as to whether she is "likeable". I'm just brainstorming but maybe society needs to re-evaluate how we judge "likeable factors" in women. We'd all be blind to not realize that on terms of "liking" women and men are not judged the same. Women are expected to be physically attractive, loving, emotional, forgiving, etc, in order to be likeable and if these qualities are lacking--despite the presence of other positive qualities--they're deemed unlikeable, see HRC. We're judging turnips for not being strawberries.

    But on this front, I think women unknowingly perpetuate the negative stereotypes about women by assuming that all women are/should be alike, i.e., all women are emotionally loving, all women are catty, or all women just want to have fun, or whatever archetype women ought to neatly fall into. But to counteract that, women need to be more supportive of women who are NOT like them. We need to support women who choose to have families and work as well as women who choose to work and not have families. Some women are successful because of their cold efficiency (HRC), others for their heart-warming empathy (Gabrielle Giffords), and others for their fund-raising/power networking capabilities (yes, even the likes of an Ann Romney). But we shouldn't try to say that one should stop being the way that she is and be more like another.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on March 07, 2013 9:33 AM:

    Work hard, until you have children, then accommodate.

    While I understand the seemingly practical logic of this advice, there has to be a biological reminder that women aren't biologically able to have children at any point in their career/life (if you exclude willingness to adopt/freeze eggs). Whereas men can bust their asses until their in their 40s before starting the baby-making business, women don't have that convenience of time. My older sister (an attorney) who isn't even 30, developed a condition this past year that basically gives her a 3-5 year child-bearing window, if that, before she has serious fertility problems.

    That and the fact that the US doesn't have comprehensive legislation for maternity/paternity leave. I think this would make the entire discussion about work/family balance a moot point. We can't ask men to stay home if their employers don't feel as though a new birth warrants their being away from the office for longer than a week. And as long as women aren't guaranteed reasonable maternity leave, we'd be seriously playing into employers' hands. What fat cat wouldn't love a league of hard-working, ambition women who know not to get themselves knocked up so they can demand time off? With the intricacies of family leave, a woman of child-bearing age wouldn't be prudent if she didn't bother to have a back-up plan for childbearing and simultaneously keeping her job. In some cases that may involve not just setting aside time to drop the brats off to daycare, but literally moving to entirely different locale with a more favorable child-rearing environment (proximity to schools, parks, grandparents, etc.)

    In sum, I do appreciate the practicality of this advice for the way things are right now, but it still screams of sexism in the work place. Much like if a woman is being sexually harassed, we tell her to just not dress so "suggestive".

  • JoanneinDenver on March 07, 2013 10:53 AM:

    I absolutely want to thank Seesea and Gym Bunny for their thoughtful and comprehensive analysis. I echo everything they say.

    I would add that this culture demands that women, in order to survive economically, adopt the male pattern of reproduction: Women must separate the act of reproducing from the process of nurturing. The nasty little secret that is not mentioned is that women may be far more productive, in the work place, after their child bearing years are over. But, they are also less sexually attractive, for biological reasons. So, if they haven't advanced during their younger years, there is no path to success as they grow older.

    Women in other cultures/countries who are professionally and politically successful depend on the cheap labor of other women to care for their children and their households.

    Taking care of children is a 24/7 job; someone has to do it. So far, there is not a mechanical device that allows children to just be "parked" in suspended animation for 8-10 hours per day. I expect to see the development of such a device championed shortly.