Lean in? Not even Michelle Obama can have it all

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - OPINION - MARGARET WENTE

Ask any suc­cess­ful woman whether she thinks she’s fig­ured out how to have it all – the happy fam­ily, the great ca­reer, the sup­port­ive and devoted hus­band – and she’ll laugh hys­ter­i­cally. Sure, she may look as if she has it all to­gether. But be­neath the sur­face she’s a de­ranged duck, pad­dling fu­ri­ously.

If you too are pad­dling (and who isn’t?), Michelle Obama has some words of con­so­la­tion. “I tell women, that whole ‘you can have it all’ – nope, not at the same time; that’s a lie,” she said last week­end on a tour to pro­mote her new book, Be­com­ing. “It’s not al­ways enough to lean in be­cause that shit doesn’t work all the time.”

The au­di­ence greeted her re­marks with rap­tur­ous ap­plause. A for­mer first lady used an earthy word to ex­press a down-home truth. Now that’s keep­ing it real.

In fact, not even Michelle Obama can have it all. Dur­ing her time in the White House, she was of­ten vis­i­bly frus­trated by the con­straints of her role. Some­times she looked as if it hurt her face to smile so much.

That in­fa­mous ad­vice to “lean in” came from Face­book ex­ec­u­tive Sh­eryl Sand­berg, now un­der heavy fire for her com­pany’s re­cent mis­deeds in­volv­ing Rus­sia and pri­vacy. In 2013, she pub­lished a book, Lean In, ad­vis­ing women to be more as­sertive to get what they want at work, whether it’s a raise, a pro­mo­tion, or bet­ter work­ing hours to give them more time with the kids. The book was a best­seller, and in­spired “Lean In” cir­cles across the United States.

From the start, Lean In was widely ridiculed. New York Times opin­ion­izer Mau­reen Dowd called Ms. Sand­berg a “pom­pom girl for fem­i­nism.” She was harshly crit­i­cized for be­ing too elit­ist, for ig­nor­ing or­di­nary work­ing women and women of colour, and for be­ing too cred­u­lous about the power of in­di­vid­ual women to make a mean­ing­ful dif­fer­ence to women’s sta­tus in the work­place. As Wash­ing­ton Post re­viewer Con­nie Schultz wrote, her ad­vice “sounds like a pre­scrip­tion for how to lean in un­til you col­lapse from ex­haus­tion.” The crit­i­cism smacked of a com­mon note in fem­i­nism, where highly suc­cess­ful women in cor­po­rate life are of­ten sus­pected of sell­ing out.

In fact, the book is a mostly clear-eyed de­scrip­tion of re­al­ity. “Hav­ing it all. Per­haps the great­est trap ever set for women was the coin­ing of this phrase,” Ms. Sand­berg writes. “In­stead of per­fect, we should aim for sus­tain­able and ful­fill­ing.” That sounds rea­son­able to me.

What doesn’t sound rea­son­able is Ms. Sand­berg’s def­i­ni­tion of “suc­cess” as a 50-50 gen­der split in all as­pects of life – in the C-suite, in the board­room and in the house­work. That should be the goal, she main­tains, of women’s drive for equal­ity. The prob­lem is that it’s based on the premise that men and women are iden­ti­cal in their pref­er­ences, as­pi­ra­tions and ap­ti­tudes, and that any dif­fer­ences be­tween the sexes are solely due to nur­ture and there­fore ar­ti­fi­cial.

But that’s wrong. It’s no ac­ci­dent that kinder­garten teach­ers tend to be fe­male and con­struc­tion work­ers tend to be male. There are rea­sons why more men than women are will­ing to work 17-hour days to climb the greasy pole, and not all of them are so­cially con­structed. Some women ac­tu­ally prefer to stay home full time with their chil­dren. Yet de­spite decades of pros­e­ly­ti­za­tion, hardly any men do.

No one will deny that women in the work force face more ob­sta­cles than men. But men’s and women’s dif­fer­ent pref­er­ences and de­sires make a dif­fer­ence, too. The goal of equal­ity be­tween the sexes shouldn’t have to be equal out­comes. The goal should be to max­i­mize hu­man flour­ish­ing – so that that all of us have a chance to shape our lives as we see fit.

Al­though things are far from per­fect, work­ing women to­day have never had it bet­ter. The pay gap is nar­row­ing and, de­spite #MeToo, work­places are far less sex­ist than they were three decades ago. Women are in de­mand for C-suite jobs and boards of di­rec­tors, where there are still many times more men than women.

Yet, the truth is that hardly any of us can ever have it all. There are al­ways trade-offs, and some­times they are trade-offs that men don’t need to make. That’s what Michelle Obama dis­cov­ered when she went to live in the White House. She be­came a smil­ing cap­tive in a fancy house. Now, Sh­eryl Sand­berg is pay­ing the price for be­ing COO of a pop­u­lar mo­nop­oly that ev­ery­body loves to hate. Will any­body fire Mark Zucker­berg if things get too hot? Nope. They’ll prob­a­bly fire her. As Michelle says, lean­ing in doesn’t al­ways work.

EMILY BERL/THE NEW YORK TIMES

For­mer first lady Michelle Obama is seen dur­ing a talk at the Bev­erly Wil­shire Ho­tel in Bev­erly Hills, Calif.

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