Men have never questioned MTV star Susie Meister’s career goals, but plenty of other women have.
Sheryl Sandberg’s media tour for her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Live has encouraged a lively dialogue about women in the workplace. Sandberg has been vilified by some and praised by others for her stance that women need to stop “leaning out” of leadership roles and professional advancements as they prepare for and grapple with family demands. Some see her position as lacking nuance and avoiding the real systemic issues plaguing the workforce. Others have been inspired by her suggestion that women need to assert themselves by negotiating for pay raises and promotions.
In talking with several successful women about this book, I have been struck by their frustration with Sandberg. They said by telling women to assert themselves she is reinforcing the idea that “masculine” traits are the answer and that this is a women’s problem. I certainly can’t speak for every woman, but in my experience, women are the problem (GASP!). I have found the way women see the “balance” of work and family for themselves is different than how they see it for men, and the language they use reinforces the stereotypes they claim to be fighting against.
While a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies, I got pregnant with my first child. Countless women inquired as to what I was “going to do” about work now. Not one man asked me that question, and nobody asked my husband what he was “going to do” about his job. When I was nine months pregnant, I defended the dissertation prospectus in which I outlined a timeline for my research project. My female professor said, “Don’t you think you’re being a little ambitious for a new mom?” My male professors thought the timeline was reasonable (despite my apparent child-induced disability). Other women consistently call me a “working mom,” while no one calls my husband a “working dad.” I have been asked by many women if I “love being a mommy” (to which I say, “No, being a ‘mommy’ is hard and kind of sucks sometimes, but I really love my son.”). I’ve never heard anyone ask my husband if he “loves being a daddy.”
Maybe I am just hanging out with the wrong people, but I suspect there’s something more to it. The way women talk to each other, and the implicit expectations dripping from the language they use, is doing all of us a disservice. Furthermore, I think the perpetual debate by women about whether they can “have it all” is part of the problem. And yes, I do recognize the irony of me writing this very article while telling women to shut up about their work and family woes. But maybe if we stop talking about “balancing” work and family, and just do whatever it is that works for each of us, we would all be better off. At the very least, maybe we could stop asking working women things like, “How DO you do it?!”
My larger point is that, in my experience, I have never had my career goals and ambition questioned or doubted (at least openly) by a man. My male colleagues, professors, and bosses, have simply assumed I was capable, committed, and driven, and they’re right. I wish I could say the same for other women. In fact, the dialogue raging about Sheryl Sandberg and other female writers writing about women such as Anne-Marie Slaughter (“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All“) speaks to my point: if we quit debating about it and focused on our jobs (at home and/or at work), perhaps we wouldn’t be in this position to begin with.