Working Women Blues

27 Feb 2013

written by Carolyn

Women in Economic Decision-making: Sheryl Sandberg

There’s been a lot of talk in the media lately about women in the workplace. From Anne-Marie Slaughter’s complaining about not “having it all,” to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg exhorting women to “lean in” to their careers (translation: suck it up) and not let little things like babies disrupt their rise to the top, to Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer boasting about her two-week maternity leave and cancelling the company’s telecommuting policy — op-ed pages and Facebook news feeds are full of people, mostly women, debating who has it right, wrong, or in-between.

There’s much about this “debate” that irritates me.

I’m really annoyed that Slaughter, Sandberg and Meyer are the faces of women’s workplace issues. They represent a very narrow, elite segment of women in the workplace. Yes, there are still barriers to women making it to the top of organizations in both the public and private sector, and those issues are worth discussing. But it seems the issues of elite women workers are the only women’s workplace issues we ever get to discuss.

Take, for instance, Yahoo’s new ban on telecommuting. I disagree with Yahoo’s policy, but let’s face it — Yahoo’s policy has zero impact on two classes of workers — executives in the C-suite, like Meyer, against whom no one is going to ever enforce this policy; and lower-wage workers such as security, cleaning, mailroom, factory workers, and administrative staff — workers at the lowest levels of the corporate food chain, whose jobs are always among the most vulnerable , and for whom telecommuting isn’t an option, anyway.

Positioning Slaughter, Sandberg and Meyer as being anything other than on the same side of this faux “debate” is delusional. They are all privileged women at the top of their fields. All have influence and access to resources beyond what most women can even dream of.

And none of them is using her power and influence to shed light on the real issues that affect the majority of women in the workplace.

According to the U.S. Census, the number one job for women today is administrative assistant/secretary, same as it was in 1950. The second most common job for women is cashier, and the third is elementary or middle school teacher. These women aren’t leaning in to their careers — they’re trying to stay afloat. These workers are among the least protected members of the workforce. And the issues that matter most to these women — minimum wage, fair pay, maternity and child care, sexual harassment, and job security — either aren’t discussed, or are framed through an elite lens.

That’s what infuriates me the most. The “women in the workplace” discussions generally are limited to the concerns of married, cisgendered, heterosexual women, who have the luxury of either choosing to work, albeit perhaps at a lower salary grade than they would have otherwise preferred, or choosing to leave the workforce and live on their husband’s salary.

We women who complain that Sandberg, Slaughter and Meyer have resources we don’t, usually fail to acknowledge that our own resources far exceed those of most working women. For this, I can look to myself as an example. I’m a unicorn in my environment — a single mother of two children who has reached executive level status in a Fortune 500 corporation, without the support of a husband and/or extended family. But I’m hardly representative of single working mothers, especially single working mothers of color.

I gave up being a law firm partner after the birth of my second child because, under the circumstances I faced at the time — having two small children and a rapidly decomposing marriage, with no extended family support — I couldn’t make being both a full-time mother and a law firm partner work. Maybe it’s not fair that I had to give up being a law firm partner because my workplace was not as accommodating to me, as a soon-to-be-single working mother, as it might have been. Maybe I married the wrong dude (okay, there’s no maybe to that one.)

Knowing my own competitive nature, I doubt I would have left my law firm’s partnership a decade ago if I’d worked in an environment that supplanted the need for that supportive husband who was willing to stay at home, or who had a large enough income to pay for additional child care — resources many of my higher-achieving law school classmates have. I know that the lack of external support is why my current title is “VP” and not “SVP” or “EVP.” Maybe I should have “leaned in” and figured out a way to remain partner, or “leaned in” and gone for a general counsel position  instead of staying at the VP level so I would be able to raise two kids by myself, with no help beyond the outside help I could pay for from time to time.

But to look at my own situation as representative of the hardships faced by women workers strikes me as the worst form of elitism imaginable. “Giving up” meant I left the law firm partnership and moved on to a pretty lucrative in-house job. It meant giving up the prospect of pulling in 7 figures. It didn’t mean being resigned to poverty. And I was able to pay others for the help my ex-husband refused to provide, and that my family, hundreds of miles away, could not provide. Many lower-income working women simply do not have that option.

Unlike many working mothers, I had extremely generous maternity leave — six months — with both kids. I was blessed to have healthy pregnancies, and worked close to the end of my term with each one. It never occurred to me that women today are still at risk of losing their jobs if their pregnancies require workplace accommodations, because, as a working mother, I never had an at-risk pregnancy, nor worked in an environment where my job was at risk because of my being pregnant. I have never  worried that I’d lose my job because I had to leave work, or work from home, to deal with a sick kid. I even took two weeks off work when my mom died in 2009, and didn’t have to use vacation time to do it. The majority of America’s working women cannot say the same.

Women like me don’t think about issues like pregnancy discrimination because we’ve been deluded into thinking that those are the issues of the bad old days. We see Joan and Peggy struggling with workplace discrimination on shows like Mad Men, and we comfort ourselves into believing we have overcome. We focus on the issues at the top because we’ve been fooled into thinking the issues at the bottom already have been solved. Perhaps if we pay more attention to the issues faced by women at the lowest income levels in our society instead of only wringing our hands about the injustices still suffered by women at the top, we can effect real, meaningful change for all workers.

While I think the issues that limit women from holding leadership positions in the private and public sector are worth discussing, these are not the only issues facing women in the workplace. I really want to see more focus on the women who need the most help.

That’s not women like Slaughter, Sandberg, or Meyer.

Or me.

13 Comments on Working Women Blues

  1. Carol

    So, so true Carolyn! So funny. When I wrote about Mayer over at Lifetime, one of the first comments was something like “I built Mayer to be my hero” or something. To which I literally LAUGHED OUT LOUD. As a former single mom, Latina, woman of color, mother of 3, none of these women, Mayer among them are anything like what a hero of mine would EVER look like. I love that you talked about the socio-economics of this issue, because it is DEAD ON, and my obsession with these issues is because I WAS that worker too – the administrative, the secretary, the receptionist, the assistant and the most vulnerable. My opportunities of moving up were more than just my lack of ambition or ability to “lean in” and though as a single mother i would’ve benefited greatly from telecommuting, it was never, ever an option for me – though it certainly was for my higher ups. Great, great read.

  2. Tara

    Perhaps if we pay more attention to the issues faced by women at the lowest income levels in our society instead of only wringing our hands about the injustices still suffered by women at the top, we can effect real, meaningful change for all workers….. Brilliant!

  3. Sarah Buttenwieser

    This piece highlights what’s most amazing about you Carolyn Edgar: your fairness and honesty and smarts and compassion abound. What you call this essay: must-read.

  4. Jennifer

    I agree with what is said about the economics of it all and that this hardly addresses the plight of all women. BUT, Edgar says this:

    While I think the issues that limit women from holding leadership positions in the private and public sector are worth discussing, these are not the only issues facing women in the workplace. I really want to see more focus on the women who need the most help.

    So why is it that we can’t support a woman (Sandberg) who is trying to get a conversation going about these exact issues? Yes, there are terrible inequities in our country and they deserve attention, too. But my bet is that the most effective way to remedy those inequities (which I don’t see the majority of the people in this country rushing to remedy) is to make sure women are in positions of power in both the public and private sector. Maybe then we’ll see some improvement for all women – and all people – in this country and beyond. The economic disparity and lack of options have been a disgrace for a long time. Is the point that Sandberg’s two options were to write a book about that or not write a book at all? Since the book isn’t out yet and nobody has seen it yet, why don’t we wait until it comes out, read it, and then have a discussion? Rather than jumping on the ‘women bashing women’ bandwagon that has been killing us for so many generations already.

  5. Robin

    Spot on. Most women do not have the option of working from home. And that is the least they have to worry about at work. The cashier at the discount store who dares to speak up about workplace conditions only to be fired immediately. The mid level manager who is competent but has a boss who is insecure and proceeds to make life miserable. And let us not forget those women with male bosses where sexual harassment and job security go hand in hand. Again, spot on

  6. Jessica Smock

    Yes, I don’t think many social movements were started and sustained from the top down. The entire “work from home” debate does make me uncomfortable. Working from home is great, if you can afford an excellent nanny to be there at the same time, have a job that requires a home office, and have an equipped home office in your house, to begin with.

  7. Carolyn

    Jennifer: Ph.D. candidate and writer Tressie McMillan Cottom uses the phrase “trickle-down feminism” to describe the notion that if we have enough women in positions of leadership, they will work to improve matters for all women. Trickle-down feminism has proven to be about as effective as trickle-down economics — that is, not terribly effective at all. Having women in positions of power in the public and private sector is important, but if the women at the top focus only on the concerns of women at the top, they’re not doing much for women as a whole. The point is, we talk too much about women’s individual choices, and not nearly enough about the systemic problems and inequities that force women into making those choices in the first place.

  8. Jennifer

    I’m not sure how disproven this concept of “trickle-down feminism” is since we (women) have never had a critical mass in any position of power to try to make change. So I’m not sold on that. I’d like to see how this country would look if approximately 50% of congress, fortune 500 and middle managers were women. My guess is, the conversation for all women would be quite different.
    But either way, I’m not sure why you think Sandberg’s goal is to only focus on women at the top getting to the very top. Sandberg does not appear to have done any press on this book yet. The book is not out. The website is not live. Everyone seems to be guessing what this is about and what goal she has – and for whom. I’m guessing her book isn’t going to try to solve all the problems faced by all women, but does that mean she can’t write a book about her experiences?
    I don’t like that this entire conversation (throughout all media outlets, it seems) about Sandberg and her book has women fighting, yet again. And either you are in the “out of touch, elite” camp or the “misogynistic” camp. There are a lot of complex issues women face – women of different income levels face widely different ones at times. But Sandberg appears to be tackling one of them; one she claims she hopes will tackle another. Men write books about success and getting to the top all the time. They are never slammed or questioned. Nobody seems to be slamming the content of the book, since nobody has read it yet. People are slamming their image of her and what she might be saying? Give it a chance. Let’s go easier on each other and see if there isn’t something we can take away from this book. And if you want to talk more about the systemic problems and inequities that force women into doing anything – then start that conversation! I’m on board! Let’s do it! But I’m not sure why that means Sandberg can’t write her book, too.

  9. Carolyn

    Thank you, Jennifer. Please feel free to send the link to Anna Holmes, if you’d like.

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