Trickle-down feminism?

Elizabeth Schulte exposes the hype about women corporate leaders Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer--and their advice for the rest of us.

Sheryl Sandberg (left) and Marissa MayersSheryl Sandberg (left) and Marissa Mayers

LEAN IN: Women, Work and the Will to Lead--the new book by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg--isn't for everyone. In fact, a self-help book aimed at helping women reach for the top rungs of corporate success probably isn't for most people, or even more than a handful.

This, however, didn't stop Time magazine from splashing Sandberg across its cover--or the New York Times from featuring a long front-page article on her success story.

That's because, for corporate media mouthpieces like these, the debates raised over books like Sandberg's represent another chapter in what they see as a "post-feminist" era--a time and place decades removed from the women's movement, in which women are now struggling just to be women, balancing the pressures of work and family and dealing with the resulting dilemmas that the movement of the 1960s supposedly never prepared them for.

The media drumbeat about this "post-feminist" era is filled with articles and books with titles like "The Mommy Wars" or "Opt-Out Generation." They rarely address the concerns of the vast majority of women who are a part of the working class. And they almost never address the ways that the women's movement of the 1960s was, in fact, a very good thing--and not a problem--for women.

They measure the success of women at large by the success stories of a few corporate executives or political officials at the top--and argue that these examples of "having it all" will eventually trickle down to all women.

The inevitable focus of these articles and books is what women can do personally to succeed.

The answers they provide are insufficient for working-class women who are nowhere near the glass ceiling. And for that matter, they don't even do much to address the issues facing women at the top--because they ignore the institutional gender inequality that is at the heart of U.S. society.

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JUST TO say, Sandberg considers herself a feminist. In an interview for the PBS documentary about the women's liberation movement in the U.S., The Makers, she said as much, which is refreshing considering the criticism heaped on the word.

This sets her apart from Marissa Mayer, another wildly successful Silicon Valley executive (at Yahoo), who also appeared in the same PBS documentary. "I don't think that I would consider myself a feminist," said Mayer, who recently banned her employees from working remotely--which particularly impacted working mothers struggling to care for their kids.

"I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so, in a lot of different dimensions," Mayer told PBS. "But I don't, I think, have sort of the militant drive and sort of the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. And I think it's too bad, but I do think feminism has become, in many ways, a more negative word. There are amazing opportunities all over the world for women, and I think that there's more good that comes out of positive energy around that than negative energy."

Remember, this was an interview for a documentary about feminism. You have to ask: Why exactly did PBS put her in the same documentary with a woman coal miner who fought her bosses' repeated sexual harassment, or Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to run for president? They couldn't find an e-mail for one of the hundreds of women who organized a SlutWalk or protested rape on campus?

So Mayer would say there's "negative energy" in fighting against sexual discrimination at Wal-Mart, right? Where she was, by the way, just appointed to sit on the board of directors. And where's the "positive energy"? In her own personal success, I suppose.

Hanna Rosin, author of the book The Decline of Men, which makes the claim that women today are succeeding at the expense of men, backed Mayer up in a recent article titled "Marissa Mayer Thinks Feminists Are a Drag" for Slate.

"If someone as smart and successful as Mayer, someone who tours the country speaking to young women, can't comfortably call herself a feminist, then maybe we need to take her objection seriously," says Rosin. Also, Rosin argues, maybe we should jettison all those antiquated ideas about special demands for women, like flex time and maternity leave.

Unlike Mayer, Sandberg seems like she wants to help other women. She acknowledges her privileged position as an extremely well-paid professional who can afford more than just a little help around the house--and she talks about the real barriers that exist for women, including lack of access to affordable child care and sexual harassment and discrimination on the job.

In her TED lectures, as in her book, Sandberg begins by asserting an undeniable fact: there are vastly fewer women than men in seats of power--from the halls of government to corporate boardrooms. Sandberg provides the stats--for example, out of 195 countries in the world, only 17 are led by women, and only 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

And she asks why. It's a good question. Unfortunately, though, her answer is woefully inadequate. According to Sandberg:

We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it's wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.

It is indeed a fact that, in general, women are less likely to assert themselves than men and more likely to be criticized for being "aggressive" if they do. In our society, most women aren't socialized to make the same demands or lead in the way that many men are expected to.

However, Sandberg's emphasis on women's personal choices and mustering their own personal strength--"dismantling the hurdles in ourselves"--lets the real culprit off the hook.

She argues that it's what women do--second-guess themselves, don't raise their hands, don't ask for pay raises--that's the problem. By doing this, she leaves all of the existing institutional aspects of gender inequality untouched. Critical questions like subsidized child care or access to contraception get pushed to the backburner--while what women can do to "improve" themselves comes to the front.

Ultimately, such an answer hides the truth, which is that women's inequality is at the heart of the society we live in--from unequal wages, to discrimination against women on the job, to the unequal division of labor in her home. That inequality permeates every part of society--and it has an impact to varying degrees on all women, even those on the higher rungs.

And the solution--like the problem--can't be found in a woman's personal decisions.

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UNDERPINNING ALL of this is the idea that propelling some women to the top will benefit all women. Sandberg uses the "chicken and egg" analogy, saying she prefers to focus on what she calls the "chicken":

Women will tear down the external barriers once we achieve leadership roles. We will march into our bosses' offices and demand what we need...Or better yet, we'll become bosses and makes sure all women have what they need.

In other words, get women into powerful positions, and that power will trickle down to all women. Of course, it probably goes without saying that this won't work in Mayer's office, but that's not the real question.

The ability of women like Mayer and Sandberg to rise in the ranks wasn't the result of the power of a few trickling down to others, but rather, the empowerment of masses of women flooding everywhere. The women's movement of the late 1960 and early '70s, which mobilized tens of thousands of women and men in support of equal rights, paved the way for women to succeed in the business world.

Fundamentally, it created a climate in which all sorts of aspects of women's oppression were exposed to scrutiny by the broader public--from reproductive rights and equal pay to sexual harassment and access to child care. In an atmosphere where the movement was shifting public attitudes in favor of women's liberation, working-class women could put their demands on the table--and win.

Today, they want the majority of women to wait for power to trickle down to them--and in the meantime, coach us on how to find confidence within ourselves to succeed. However, a recent example from the Chicago labor movement gives us the opposite lesson.

Last year's strike by Chicago teachers demonstrated the power that a predominantly female workforce has to push back when their schools and jobs are being attacked--and to put forth their own vision for public education. Confidence was palpable in every protest and picket line across the city--and that confidence came from fighting together. As Diane Ravitch, the former Education Department official-turned-critic of school reform, described:

[B]y taking a stand, by uniting to resist the power elite, these teachers discovered they were strong. They had been downtrodden and disrespected, but no longer. They put on their red T-shirts and commanded the attention of the nation and the admiration of millions of teachers. Powerless no more, they showed that unity made them strong...The strike transformed the teachers from powerless to powerful.

Call me old-fashioned, but that seems like real power to me.