How the ubiquitous “have it all” and “lean in” debates hurt women

Now that I am a member of the “professional” workforce in a career-obsessed town, I suppose it’s natural that I have taken an interest in discussions—whether in person, in print or online—on how to achieve long-term success. As a feminist who has feminist friends and reads feminist publications, I am well-versed in myriad of ways that professional advancement can be complicated by gender. Still, even I have noticed that gendered dialogue about the workplace is increasingly saturating the mainstream media market—complete with trendy catchphrases such as “have it all” and “lean in”.

On one hand, the penetration of topics such as the leadership gap and pay inequity into popular debate is good for women—simply being conscious of these issues might motivate them to start taking action. On a personal level, understanding some of the societal factors that influence the pay gap encouraged me to approach my salary negotiations with more confidence when I landed my first full-time job. Similarly, my knowledge of the statistics on how few women hold leadership positions—in government institutions, nonprofits and businesses across the board—has given my career path a stronger sense of purpose. I don’t just want to have a fulfilling career anymore—I want to be a leader in my field. As cheesy as it may sound, I feel like I owe it to successive generations to make a dent in the leadership gap.

But as great as it is that more people are talking about these issues, I see plenty of problems with their coverage in a media landscape that is so often characterized by soundbites and oversimplifications.

Whitewashing the debate

The fact mainstream media coverage of the workplace equality debate are mostly relevant to upper-middle class (mostly) white women is an obvious concern that has been brought up by numerous feminists. Melissa Gira Grant highlighted the way Sandberg’s “lean in” narrative alienates working class women in a Washington Post opinion piece, noting that that the book’s prescriptions are “isolated to actions individual women can take to support their own ambitions and desires, rather than wondering about the ambitions and desires of, say, the women who keep house for the women spending their time ‘leaning in.’” Kezia Willingham echoed this sentiment in her post on xojane. “From the very beginning, the choice to stay home for a poor, single mother or father is non-existent,” she writes.  “Welfare recipients are mandated to accept the first job offer they receive.”

In some ways, the elitist tone characterizing popular writings of the “lean in” variety reflects the readership of major publications that tend to attract mainly upper-middle class audiences. Take the Atlantic, which published Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” in 2012. The median household incomes of the publications’ print and online audiences ($105,618 and $76,800, respectively) are far above the median household income of our country overall ($52,762).

But even taking the class issue into account, articles highlighting the leadership and wage gaps between genders generally gloss over the equally glaring race gap. I have pretty much memorized statistics such as those cited in Judith Warner’s recent New York Times article, “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In”—women comprise about 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 17 percent of corporate board members, 19 percent of members Congress, etc. These numbers are pretty embarrassing, but not as embarrassing as the numbers for women of color—and for people of color overall. Let’s take the lack of diversity among Fortune 500 CEOs as an example. 22 CEOs, or 4.4 percent, are women. Only six are black (1.2 percent), and of those only one is a woman (0.2 percent). There are eight Asian CEOs (1.6 percent), one of whom is a woman. There are eight Latino CEOs, and exactly zero Latina CEOs. Lumping women of color into the statistics pertaining to women overall—or simply accompanying these statistics with an obligatory “women of color have it especially hard” comment unsubstantiated by similar figures (e.g. Leslie Bennetts’ piece in The Daily Beast)—essentially sweeps the unique challenges faced by women of color under the rug.

More harm than good   

The internet is brimming with mainstream articles offering advice on how women can “get ahead” in the workplace. The problem is, these articles are often contradictory, and potentially harmful to the very women they aim to help. Kelsey Meaney sums up the debate pretty accurately on The Daily Beast: “As it turns out, when it comes to leadership and a woman in the office, the whole world—from scientists to computer technicians—has absolutely no idea.” From how women should act to how they should dress, it seems like women simply can’t win. In a 2009 Forbes article, Laura Sinberg attributes lackluster professional advancement among women to a slew of fashion faux pas, from dressing “too sexy,” to wearing clothes that are too large or not tailored, to not displaying enough “individuality and personal style.” The jury is also out on the relative merits of stereotypically “male” traits or stereotypically “female” traits—should women “act like men” or should men “act like women?”

I do think these conversations are important to have. There is certainly some truth in the assertion by Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely, and Deborah Kolb’s in the Harvard Business Review that “when women recognize the subtle and pervasive effects of second-generation bias, they feel empowered, not victimized, because they can take action to counter those effects.” Still, this constant barrage of contradictory information might also cause women to second-guess themselves at every turn, wondering whether their natural inclinations are appropriate, or if they are acting too “masculine,” “feminine,” assertive, passive, friendly, independent, etc.

The problem with the prevailing conversation on how women should act in the workplace is that it’s focused on how women should act, not on how the workplace can evolve to a place where women’s choices, wardrobes, personalities and management styles are no longer picked apart ad nauseam. In the end, these conversations miss the most important point. The problem isn’t that women aren’t “leaning in”—they are. The problem is that the workplace they “lean in” to is stacked against them, no matter what choices they make.

Thought experiment

What if, instead of talking about how women should act or how men should act in the workplace, we focused more on how people should act? What if we used words like “assertive,” “strategic,” “collaborative” or “motivational” to describe successful employees and leaders, without the need for gender modifiers? What if we could give a women advice on how to have a successful career, without adapting that advice to fit the additional obstacles she will face in executing that advice, simply because she is a woman? For example, what if we could tell her that it’s important to negotiate her salary, without cautioning her that she will need to negotiate differently than if she were a man? New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “[L]et’s encourage young women to “lean in,” but let’s also change the workplace so that when they do lean in and assert themselves, we’re directly behind them shouting: ‘Right!’”

You do You

Shortly after I started my current job, I was talking with a friend about how the “lean in” debates were starting to make me second-guess myself at work. “They literally tell you to do opposite things!” I complained. “How do I know what advice to follow?”

My friend looked at me with a puzzled expression. “You do you,” she said. I marveled at how such a simple statement could put an end to such a complicated argument.

Women, especially women of color, will continue to navigate a landmine of glass ceilings, double-standards and hypocrisy for years—if not generations—to come. I know that navigating this dynamic will get frustrating, confusing and downright maddening. And in a world where I can’t win no matter how I act or what I choose, the best defense I have is to stay true to myself. Because if I lose sight of who I am, the patriarchy wins.