Weighing In: Sandberg, Slaughter, and Women in the Workplace

The debate about career advancement and women in the workplace has recently been re-ignited by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In.” The WIIS blog asked readers to comment on Sandberg’s approach, especially as compared to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s famous op-ed in The Atlantic last summer. Readers are welcome to weigh in by commenting below.

Both women have been criticized as offering narrow perspectives of extremely elite women in this country.  But their perspectives are a mere jumping off point for a wider debate that I hope will help us start to address the root causes of underrepresentation of women at top levels of their fields.   I agree with many of the points that Sandberg makes about our tendency as women to self-doubt ourselves and self-eliminate from challenging opportunities.  But my main concern with Sandberg’s standpoint is that, while she emphasizes what women are failing to do for themselves and what they could do better to succeed, she places little if any stress on the deficiencies within our laws, organizations, and leadership approaches that obstruct women’s advancement potential.

Yes, we can all benefit from professional development and leadership development, and mentors and sponsors are absolutely critical for success; but structural and cultural change inside the workforce must go hand and hand with these individual actions. Putting the entire responsibility on women to “fit in” to the current paradigm fails to recognize that there are many aspects of the workforce that need to change.  At the most basic level, the U.S. remains near the bottom of the world and woefully out of step with the realities of modern families with its outdated maternity and paternity legal framework.  Furthermore, women (and men) often encounter significant push-back inside the workplace.  Whether it is because of child-rearing, aging parents, or other personal issues, there is still entrenched resistance to part-time options, telecommuting (e.g. the recent Yahoo decision), etc. and it has pushed many women to lean out or get out altogether.

Leadership is a big part of the solution.  We need visionary leaders who question existing workplace frameworks and rigid concepts of “success” and who take the necessary risks to institute innovative change that focuses on the greatest asset for organizations — the people.  Let’s not be lulled into believing that self-improvement for women is the silver bullet.  We all need to be advocates for much deeper rethinking and reform which is needed to support the full potential of women and men.

-Jolynn Shoemaker

We need to ask: Can “working parents” have it all? Using the framework of “can women have it all” continues to create dichotomies between working women and working men, acknowledging that the workplace currently is beneficial to no one involved, men and women alike. Slaughter is correct in saying that the workplace needs to shift from traditional norms to more flexible work hours such as more opportunities to work remotely, but Sandberg is also correct in saying that women need to continue to strive for more, lean in and have more confidence in ourselves.  Pitting Sandberg and Slaughter against one another is dangerous and continues to divide the feminist movement as a whole. We need to acknowledge that they have different perspectives, but that they are both valid and should be taken into consideration.  Additionally,  I have heard from several of my friends that they can not and will not ever relate to or look up to Sandberg because she comes from an extremely privileged background and her arguments are generated from a place in which many average American women/mom’s will never be able to relate.

-Madeline Murphy Hall

What frustrates me about this debate is that it misses the role that policy plays in these decisions. Not just company policy, which allows flexible working hours and telecommuting, but federal and state policy which creates standards for everyone. That’s what we should be fighting for. It’s hard to ‘lean in’ to ‘have it all’ if the policies aren’t in place that allows you to do that. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act, which lets workers take leave to care for a sick child or spouse, or bond with a new child. However, the FMLA has huge holes that leave lots of people, especially women, out in the cold. First of all, it’s unpaid, which makes it really difficult to take if you can’t afford to go three months without pay. Also, FMLA only applies to companies above a certain size, so those are working at small businesses don’t have access to this minimum protection.

One of the things that most outrages me is in the U.S. is that we’re one of four countries worldwide who don’t offer any form of paid maternity/paternity or sick leave. Any. While many companies, particularly white-collar companies, do offer this leave, it is by no means universal nation-wide. Maternity leave can help keep new mothers in the workforce, while paid sick leave is good for public health, as sick workers are able to stay home and not risk a paycheck. I’m happy we’re having the debate about women’s opportunities and expectations, but we need to remember that our lives are shaped not just by our decisions, but by the world we live in. We need to change that world and bring paid family and sick leave into the conversation.

 -Elizabeth Scott

The debate continues: whether, if, how, and when women can “have it all”. But I would submit that the other part of the question is whether women want to “have it all?” What is “all”? I can’t be sure, but I know that I often hear that women want it. The problem is we also see women who “have it all” and they often confide that its exhausting. This begs the question whether ”all” is what women really want after all. Rather than dealing in extremes, maybe we should be discussing women’s right to choose and their entitlement to be fully supported and encouraged in their decisions – whether that be work or family. Decisions related to women’s careers, potential children (or not) and any other thing that matters to them should be equally looked at through the prism of how those in the various communities they belong to can help and play a role in facilitating their choices. Husbands, friends, daycares, parents, co-workers, sisters, and brothers all have a unique role in this new puzzle. Since its not only a mother that a child needs – they need this whole community.

One thing is certain – it is a timely, open, and honest debate we must have together as we get closer to figuring out how women can be empowered to decide the terms of their ‘success’. Its a discussion that has to, in equal part, address how we shape modern society and family structures at the micro-level. And on a larger scale we must transform corporate culture, upgrade government services and shake legislative bodies to provide structural changes to ensure women’s successes. These are all essential elements in reshaping how we understand and create the most successful, engaged, confident, and loved children. To do this, we all have to work together to take the onus of responsibility off of women’s shoulders. We can solve this.

-Eszter Sipos


Further Reading:

Pando Daily: In this corner there’s Sheryl Sandberg. In this corner there’s Anne-Marie Slaughter. And then there’s reality.
The Washington Post: Let’s give Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer a break
The Washington Post: Review: Sheryle Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ is full of good intentions but rife with contradictions
Slate: Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” Circles Completely Miss the Point on Workplace Maternity
The New York Times: A Titan’s How-To on Breaking the Glass Ceiling
The New York Times: Yes, You Can [book review by Slaughter]