Trickle Down Feminism Doesn’t Work
A few months ago, a friend suggested I glean advice and encouragement on “having it all” from Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. As a Christian historian long committed to social justice, I struggle against our cultural assumption that men are the default human beings. I read a great deal in the genre of feminism, and expected that Sandberg’s book would be a little like Estelle Freedman’s No Turning Back, or even Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. I expected to find that this new “feminist manifesto,” as Sandberg described it, offered new suggestions for institutional change so that women might survive and thrive in the public sphere. For example, we wrestle today with different problems from those of our mothers. Women are now encouraged to pursue graduate study and enter traditionally male fields. Peak fertility coincides with peak moments for career development, and parental leave is often very limited (if available at all). How can we work through this challenge which discourages many women from entering all but the highest-paid professions?
Or, to take another problem: work in the service professions continues to adapt to the reality that women often want to leave and re-enter the workforce around their childbearing years. Yet, these jobs have historically paid less than a living wage because they have been filled by women without families, people of color, or married women whose husbands already provide a “breadwinning” salary. How can we change the stigmas surrounding feminized and racialized work so that men and women can continue to serve as teachers, nurses, librarians, social workers, and counselors, and still be paid a breadwinning salary themselves? To what extent does the feminist movement really need to prioritize good pay and benefits for middle-class working professionals?
And, perhaps most important of all: in order for a family to afford childcare, another person has to accept a smaller income than that of the working family. This often means that working class and minority women must continue to accept significantly lower wages so that other women can afford to keep their jobs outside the home.
To my disappointment, Sandberg’s book did not scratch the surface of any of these practical, real-world problems of middle-class and working-class women. Instead, she dedicates the book to women striving for top-level executive positions, and diagnoses the greatest problem of all women in the professions as a lack of will to lead. The solution she offers women is the tired aphorism, “Believe in yourself.” We should not assume that being female will limit our options for success in careers. Rather, she says, we should work hard, value our contributions at work, reach and climb for better positions, build equitable family partnerships and equally share in caregiving, and not worry that all this will undermine our role as parents and caregivers. Being female should not be understood as an obstacle to one’s career. Her expressed hope is to make women’s success in the workplace feel more within reach.
In my estimation, though, Sandberg’s book does not address the feminist challenges experienced by most middle-class and working-class women in American culture. To the extent she recognizes that women have disproportionate responsibilities within families, she suggests that this can change with equitable partnership philosophies and good, on-site daycare. There are two obvious problems with this reasoning.
First, is this affordable? In the upper-class world where Sandberg lives, families can pay nannies, housekeepers, counselors, restaurants, and nurses to care for their homes, families, and aging parents, and still bring home enough money that work outside the home is affordable. Women in Sandburg’s world really can refuse to follow the gendered scripts of female domestic duties, for they can pay someone else to get these jobs done. For most of us, though, the cost of childcare is a large portion of our paycheck, and the responsibilities of housekeeping, cooking, and caring for family members is not something we can afford to outsource. Basically, our work outside the home is not compensated much more highly than that of a housekeeper, chef, or nanny.
And secondly, if we’re not outsourcing the labor of housekeeping and cooking, or the relational work of caring for loved ones, is it likely that men and women in “equally shared” partnerships really will split these responsibilities halfway? In the world I live in, men and women do not, generally, share equally in the relational work of a family. Women disproportionately care for loved ones through patient listening, comfort, and hands-on care. We disproportionately cook, clean, and feed children. We disproportionately get up with children during the night. We disproportionately care for our own parents and in-laws as they age. We disproportionately listen to our friends on the phone and in person as they suffer from the pains of loneliness, loss, and rejection. We disproportionately sacrifice work for family gatherings. We disproportionately comfort chattering, angry, and crying children. We disproportionately give birth, and then breastfeed and pump milk for hours each day for months afterward. Is this all by choice? Sometimes, maybe. Many, many families I know who claim “equal partnerships” still allow domestic labor to fall disproportionately on the shoulders of women. The women I know all want their male partners to do more at home.
Can male partners perform relational and domestic labor at an equal rate when they are not getting paid to do so? Of course they can (except for childbirth and breastfeeding). But I think we have a long way to go in changing gendered scripts of male and female domestic and relational responsibility. Increasing women’s ambition outside the home does not automatically compel male partners to get the necessary domestic work done, especially when men have not been socialized to think about domestic and relational work as a priority. All of us have stories of chores which have gone unrecognized in our absence. We need to start changing the scripts of gendered behavior before we can blame women for failing to be more ambitious at work after they accumulate family responsibilities.
At times, Sandberg’s cheerleading is still motivating. She says we should cultivate mentors we can use to advance our careers, climb hierarchies like jungle gyms, and forget about being liked. She encourages women and girls to feel comfortable taking charge, leading, and being the boss. She encourages women to apply for jobs we could perform competently, even when we fear we do not yet have the experience. (Men usually get hired on potential, not experience, she says. Women get hired on experience, and this is why women get fewer promotions.) Even her encouragement to deal with family responsibilities when they come, not by anticipating them and making unnecessary changes years ahead of time, is very good advice. In fact, as Sandberg says, most successful women are not single, but thrive within supportive families.
But much of Sandberg’s advice is oversimplified. There are a great number of factors that really do paralyze women’s careers, despite their working hard and taking charge. These include questionable immigration status, chronic health problems, poor credit history, having children young with limited resources, and even taking responsibility for ailing family members. At times, Sandberg’s cheers sound like the aloof pep talks of a middle-aged football coach who was never a teenage football player. To illustrate how it’s not that hard to combine breastfeeding with work, Sandberg tells a story of how she cleverly blamed the noise of her breast pump on a firetruck during a conference call. She takes for granted, of course, that she had the rare privileges of a private office, an expensive portable electric breast pump (before they were covered by insurance through the Affordable Care Act!), and no boss carefully micromanaging her time. As a “how I made it” memoir, the book resembles Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, and Barack Obama’s autobiographies. It’s time executive women wrote these types of books, too. But this is no feminist manifesto.
The real problem with the book is the claim that it is a “feminist manifesto” toolbox for women of every background. Sandberg writes, “I am acutely aware that the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families. Parts of this book will be most relevant to women fortunate enough to make choices about how much and when and where to work; other parts apply to situations that women face in every workplace, within every community, and in every home. If we succeed in adding more female voices at the highest levels, we will expand opportunities and extend fairer treatment to all” (10).
Will the growth of female executives “at the highest levels” ultimately help all women striving for satisfying and well-paid professional work? For me, this is the feminist question of our generation. Sure, it might make breastpumping, on-site childcare, maternity leave, and flexible work hours more widely available. Feminists in upper management may even inspire more women to be promoted, get paid equally with men, and get opportunities for professional development at equal rates with their male colleagues. This is what Sandberg wants for younger women, and she suggests that her position as an executive has begun to change the male standards of leadership within the corporate culture of Facebook. If these kinds of accommodations are all that feminists need to enjoy satisfying work and family lives, then Sandberg is right that leaning in, climbing on, and pursuing executive partnerships ought to be first on the feminist agenda.
But I am not convinced — at least not yet — that professional women’s success in the corporate workplace will trickle down to helping middle-class and working-class women find a balance of professional and domestic work and downtime. The more professional women there are who can afford nannies, housekeepers, and prepared meals, the more working class women will have these jobs available to them. Will these be well-paid, breadwinner jobs, or will they continue the trend of underpaid “women’s work”? Will women executives get women librarians, teachers, social workers, childcare workers, and customer service workers enough pay and benefits that the executives’ nannies can be independently middle-class, without a second income? Will women executives re-subsidize public schools so that working-class and middle-class families can afford to offer their children opportunities for social mobility so that they can grow up to be executives? Or, will women executives continue to climb, in Sandberg’s words, “the jungle gym” and look out for the success of number one? Until the women we hire to do the things we do not want to do also earn the same benefits and pay as we do, I don’t think we’re getting anywhere as feminists.
I also want to point out that Sandberg’s consistent advice to limit the burden we as women should take on in serving others (through professional mentoring, childcare, wife-dom, etc.) and maximize the opportunities to “climb the jungle gym” of the corporate workplace runs directly against the thrust of Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and Luke 6. Jesus emphasized the blessing that comes with being poor, hungry, pained, and reviled in the worldly sense. In the kingdom to come, Jesus said, the last will be first, and the first will be last. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,” Jesus said. “Woe to you when all people speak well of you,” he went on, for God can reverse social authority structures in a moment. At the crux of Jesus’ ministry were the two commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 10:14). Ambition for the sake of peacemaking, justice, and service is one thing. But, we serve a God who said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Is looking out for oneself without thinking of justice for the most meek consistent with this Christian mandate? I think not.
I see average women like myself striving daily to balance household, relational, and workplace responsibilities with a modicum of rest. We try our best to get a job outside the home which pays a breadwinner’s salary. Folks like Sandberg who value productivity and “taking charge” continue the trend of undervaluing the relational and domestic work historically performed by women and people of color. They encourage all of us to act like successful white men, for they know that the work of women and people of color has historically been sold at a price far under its value. Like the famous men who have come before her, Sheryl Sandberg looks upon her empire of power and influence, and attributes it not to all the people who did the work she did not want to do, but to her own hard work and determination.