We Need To Talk About Women

September 28, 2013 § 4 Comments


leaninLean In – Women, Work and the Will to Lead (Sandberg, Sheryl)

As I write this, there are two gender controversies churning up froth in the popular media. One is about a woman who has been blogging about her mission to make 300 sandwiches for her man, at the end of which he has promised to propose to her. The other is about a professor of English in Toronto who has declared that his course will only cover male heterosexual authors. My immediate reaction, like that of any self-respecting modern-day person of a liberal persuasion, has been one of incredulity and moral disgust. But then I decided to pause and examine the matter further before rushing to pronounce judgment.

Let us look at the professor first. David Gilmour apparently said in an interview that he would only teach the works of ‘serious heterosexual guys’ and this has earned him the wrath of practically everyone. All of Canadian academia is up in arms, as is the entire Canadian literary world, and possibly most of Canadian womankind. His employers have distanced themselves from his position and his peers have roasted him roundly. My question is, how many of us have actually read the interview in question? What he seems to have said, in a fairly muddled and inarticulate way is the following:

  1. I teach the ‘stuff I love’, not what is on the curriculum.
  2. The people I love are Chekov, Proust, Elmore Leonard, F Scott Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, Henry Miller, Philip Roth. As a middle-aged man, I relate to their material very well, and I believe I do best as a teacher when I relate well to the material
  3.  None of the people on my favorite author list happens to be a woman. Well, except Virginia Woolf, and she is too sophisticated for third year students.
  4. If people want to study these authors, I ask them to go down the hall to other professors

I don’t think Gilmour is saying that he has picked Chekov and gang because they are male and heterosexual (Proust was a homosexual, of course); he says he picked them because he loves their work, and they all happen to be male and heterosexual. I think this is a critical difference. Bear in mind that Professor Gilmour teaches an elective undergraduate course in modern short literature. He is not a high school physics teacher who refuses to teach students Newton’s Laws of Motion on the grounds that he has an acute dislike for 17th century Englishmen wearing wigs. In literature, as opposed to physics, you can teach Maya Angelou, for example, without ever having to build up to her by teaching William Shakespeare. And it is possible for someone to relate to Angelou more than to Shakespeare, or the other way around, and still be credible as an expert.

Presumably, Gilmour does not make assertions to his students about why the authors he teaches (and only these) are the best in the world of literature – he makes no such claim in the interview. (If he has done so elsewhere, he is obviously an idiot) Presumably as well, alternatives exist in the same college, for students who want to study other authors.

At any rate, in my mind, what is up for debate is Professor Gilmour’s professional competence– is his course of any use to his students in its present form? Are the authors he has chosen meaningfully representative of modern short fiction? And if Gilmour cannot articulate a position clearly to an interviewer, how does he get through to his students? These are questions for his employers and his students. In my own opinion, someone who can teach a few things passionately and well can be a better teacher than someone whose knowledge is all-embracing, politically correct but flat – but I can understand there being two schools of thought on the matter. But is this debate really about whether the Professor is sexist, racist, anti-gay or any of a hundred epithets that have been hurled at him? Today, happily for him, I read at least one article from a student of his, who has stood up for him. Perhaps Professor isn’t at fault, but nor are those who have been quick to condemn him. In a world where true equality has existed for a while, we would be less conscious of differences, less sensitive about omissions, and less judgmental about personal preferences. This is why nobody is berating the professor for not having Canadians on his list – the worth of Canadian writers is not at stake.

Sexism at work (Courtesy leftycartoons.com, via filipspagnoli.wordpress.com)

Lean In, You’ll Fit Right In (Courtesy leftycartoons.com, via filipspagnoli.wordpress.com)

Now for the sandwich lady.  For those who haven’t kept up: Ms. Smith has been told by her boyfriend that he will agree to marry her when she has made him 300 sandwiches – and she is giving it a go, and blogging about it. Cue howls of derision from every quarter (for example, the Huff Post huffs and puffs here). Is this the 1950s? How disgustingly chauvinistic of the man to demand that she slave away in the kitchen for him, in return for which he will do her the magnanimous favor of accepting her as his lawfully wedded wife; how sickeningly submissive of the woman to want this fate. And yet, on reading her blog, I felt perhaps things aren’t as black and white as they appeared to be at first sight.

Apparently, the knavish knight in question is a great cook, and has cooked most of the meals during their courtship, while the damsel confesses that she is actually better at cleaning after him. Leave them be, I say. If the man had proposed marriage and the woman had asked him to cook her 300 meals, or to use the same stereotype, if she had asked him to paint the roof, fix the washing machine, take the garbage out, and stay on a steady job for 300 days before she commits, I don’t think we’d be as scandalized – we’d call her sensible. If she had told him to go run a marathon or climb a mountain, it would have been slightly less practical, but we’d have understood it. All of us are programmed to go ‘awww’ when the princess in the fairy tale sends the knight off on a heroic, if pointless, quest with marriage as the end goal. Why not a gender bender version of the story? In an intriguing way, this woman’s aggressive and determined pursuit of the man she loves can be seen as romantic, in an equal world where either sex can go hunt themselves a mate, and either can decide to be passive and get wooed. Is it not our antiquated notions of propriety and conventional gender roles that makes us demand chivalry of the man?

This brings me finally to the book under review. Lean In is my wife’s contribution to our Family Book Swap event, and it is impossible that I would have spent as much time thinking about gender equality if not for having read it. Sandberg, of course, is the COO of Facebook, and one of the most respected business leaders in the world. Before that, she was a senior manager at Google. Before that, she was Chief of staff to the US Secretary of the Treasury. Before that, she graduated summa cum laude from Harvard. And between her junior and senior years in high school, she signed up with her local Congressman to intern with him in Washington.

What did I do between junior and senior year? While I do recall some angst about college admissions, my strongest memories of that summer involve the sun and the beach. Good times, good times.

Sheryl Sandberg is clearly very good at her job, and frighteningly single-minded – as all successful people in every field tend to be. What kind of book does such a person write – confident, strongly opinionated, boastful, dismissive of lesser mortals? Not Sandberg. Her book is an easy read, and she comes across as charming, disarmingly honest, and gently persuasive. She draws her lessons more from her mistakes than from her many accomplishments. Her message isn’t complicated. She isn’t at all prescriptive about what men and women must do. All she says is, if you are good at your job and passionate about it, stick to it, and don’t let social pressure regarding what you must or must not do hold you back from living up to your full potential. To that end, you will have to make compromises in other areas, and so you are best served by finding a supportive partner. Stated in those terms, the message is applicable to men and women, and it does not make adversely judge someone – man or woman – who prefers home-making and child-rearing to success at the rat race. It is unquestionably a blueprint for true equality. And I know we are far from it today. I know from personal experience that Sandberg is right about sexist attitudes at work – successful career women are usually disliked at work by both men and women, because they don’t fit our conventional mental models of lady-like behavior.

I have read some criticism of Sandberg’s work on the internet. Some people have pointed to her privileged upbringing, and how the problems she speaks of are trivial compared to the actual, gut-wrenchingly tragic problems that women face on a daily basis in remote parts of the world. But she (somewhat like the learned professor Gilmour) makes no claims of universal applicability. Within her context and the audience she wishes to address, I cannot think of a flaw in her argument.

I know of women who have found the book hugely inspiring. The men who have seen me reading the book have all said something slightly condescending, and I don’t think they’ve read the book. As for me, it has made me think more about social attitudes to gender than I ever have before, to question whether my gut-feel opinion on gender debates is being tempered by conventional straitjacketing. It has influenced my opinion on what true equality will feel like; on the art of sandwich-making and that of teaching undergraduates English Literature.

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§ 4 Responses to We Need To Talk About Women

  • GunstheGlourious says:

    Interestingly, my reaction upon reading this was disagreement not against your opinion of the book (having read it, I agree with you) but rather as relates to your second example of (so-called) gender discrimination. You stated that the reason we feel this is so wrong is because it was the man asking the woman rather than the other way around. However, I disagree. If the man had asked the woman to run a marathon or climb a mountain (or if the woman had asked the man) then the objective would have been to prove that the other had dedication and willpower, that they were ready to go through pain for the other person. Making 300 meals… ahm… none of the above. It doesn’t even prove that the woman is a good cook; or at least such could be proved with one meal (and even that might be seen as sexist). Getting 300 meals before the man generously agrees to propose is A) stupid and B) certainly sexist.

    • psriblog says:

      Dear Guns,
      Only the couple in question can assert with any level of certainty what the intention of the gentleman was when he set the 300-sandwich challenge. If, as you seem to suggest, it was so that he could verify either her culinary skills or her subservience to him, that does sound rather strange. If on the other hand, it was just to see if she cares enough for him to keep up a slightly pointless and painful activity for over a year – well, why not? And she has the right to demand exactly the same of him. Besides, it is their life and only theirs – neither my approval nor your disapprobation should matter.
      Hope you agree
      PSri

  • ravi says:

    I confess I have not read the book, and I find your summary of her book different from what I have read elsewhere i.e., you write that her book is not prescriptive (apart from the title?) but a call to persist at your job against odds. Other reviews such as Slaughter’s in the NYT paint a different picture of the book and Sandberg’s aim (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/10/books/review/sheryl-sandbergs-lean-in.html?pagewanted=all). Is it perhaps primarily biographical with a message derived from those life experiences for other women?

    What worries me is not so much Sandberg’s book itself (as you point out in your penultimate paragraph) but the fact that in some circles it is proclaimed as a new feminist manifesto. That is alarming to me at two levels: the life experiences of an upper class individual and the message that can be learnt from such experiences are, I would submit, only marginally applicable to the large swathe of women (including those in the USA) toiling as single moms on multiple jobs — in a “meritocratic” society and workforce, the majority will always remain rats. Second, feminism (to me) has always been part of the larger project of the Left, of creating a fulfilling life for all people.

    At the risk of derailing your measured analysis with polemic, I am inclined to quote George Carlin, who adversely judges both choices outlined above :-):

    “I also like it when feminists attack these housewives who think there’s nothing more to life than sitting home, watching TV and pumping out a baby every nine months … but what’s the alternative? … pointless careerism? Putting on a man tailored suit with shoulder pads and imitating all the worst behaviour of men? This is the noblest thing that women can think of? To take a job in a criminal corporation that is poisoning the environment and robbing people out of their money?”

    But, yes, as you write, this is likely not in the context of the intended audience of her book.

    • psriblog says:

      Oh hey Ravi – thank you very much for reading my piece and posting the comment. Thanks for pointing me to Slaughter’s review in the Times. I don’t think she and I differ at all when it comes to describing the book. Her point, at the end of the review, that it isn’t nearly enough for women to ‘lean in’, it is equally important or perhaps more, than organizations provide for conditions that allow more women to balance their work and life and yet not be overlooked for leadership positions, is a point Sandberg makes as well. Her position, if I understand it right, is that social change ’emerges’ when a critical mass of women manage to make it up the ladder and then influence org. change, making it easier for others to follow, so it is important to keep pushing the agenda at both the organizational as well as the individual level. Merely waiting for times to change for the better is probably not the best strategy. She makes it very clear that while her book is focused on the individual woman, concerted effort is necessary at the other end of the chain as well.
      The book is largely autobiographical, but while there is some serious name-dropping of the rich and famous involved, she charmingly recounts dozens of anecdotes of her own failings and inadequacies, and those are what she uses to make her points. You never feel overwhelmed by the feeling that this intensely successful person is talking down at you and has no idea what failure or insecurity means.
      With regard to your next point, I suspect that you’ve hit the nail on the head – a large part of the discomfort people have with the IDEA of the book is of the feminism movement being usurped by one of Them.
      I’d recommend you read the book – she does claim to be a feminist, but doesn’t claim to be a messiah. And she repeatedly mentions that corporate rat races are not for everybody, and that if a woman chooses to exit it to raise a family, that’s the most fulfilling choice for HER. Sandberg’s main point is one of individual choice. IF a woman was good at her job and aspired for leadership, she must not hang back, feel guilty or drop out because of what society feels she must do. It isn’t a manifesto of feminism because it covers only a small cross-section of the female population – but she knows that and calls it out. So she definitely is not the kind of confused feminist that George Carlin is talking about.
      Here’s where I connect the book with the 300Sandwiches story (not sure it came out well in the post): in final analysis, the left believes in individual choice, the freedom to find fulfillment in what you do without being prescribed a role or made to feel guilty about one’s choices by society. If a woman wants to make sandwiches for her boyfriend, or if she wants to sit in a corporate boardroom while he makes the sandwiches at home – its their choice.
      Hope it made sense. Please do keep checking in, and feel free to disagree vehemently.
      PSri

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