Anne-Marie Slaughter, care, and men

October 31st, 2013

"Care is socialized out of men. We don't value men as caregivers. We value them for the amount of money they make." - Anne-Marie Slaughter

I just got back from a panel on women and work held at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. It starred three big names in this arena, the biggest, in the US at least, being Anne-Marie Slaughter of Why Women Still Can't Have It All fame, accompanied by Alison Wolf, who appeared in my penultimate show, author of The XX Factor: How Working Women Have Created a Far Less Equal World, and Debora Spar, president of Barnard College and author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. If you come here at all you'll either have heard the podcast featuring Alison or read about her, so I'm not going to repeat her points here, although I do recommend her book - it's a fascinating read. I haven't read Debora Spar's yet but I'm keen to interview her.

L to R, Merit Janow of Columbia University, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Alison Wolf, Debora Spar

It was Anne-Marie Slaughter whose ideas I found most compelling today. She talked about how the response to that piece in The Atlantic in 2012 took her completely by surprise. "I did not choose to devote my life to this issue," she said. But as a result she was flung into the world of gender politics, and has come out the other side with a completely different view than the one she went in with. (One audience member called her "the chief gender strategist", to which Slaughter responded half-jokingly, "I'm going back to foreign policy." "It would probably be easier," said the woman.) Anyway, she's come away from her "130 talks" to various types of women's group with the firm belief that American society doesn't value care. 

"I now see this [whole issue of trying to balance work and family] as a problem of not valuing care. We as feminsits were taught to de-value that." She said her generation of highly educated women would never have given up a top job, like her old one in the State Department, just because they had kids who had to live in a different town. No way. (Slaughter eventually did just that, as she famously described in the article.) She now spends a huge amount of time thinking and writing about our caregiving culture in the US, and particularly how men play into it. She talked about the pretty pathetic family policies that exist here, and the fact that maternity leave is barely existent here, let alone paternity leave. Yet in Norway, where men get two months' leave, Norwegian company heads are starting to look on men who don't opt to take their leave as the kinds of people they may not even want at the company. There is pressure to take that leave. Here, as The Wall Street Journal described fairly recently, it's quite the opposite. Take it from someone who moved here in her twenties: American culture values work above all else while giving much lip service to family. Or, as I sometimes think of it, the US still thinks of family as the thing from the 1950s, run entirely by the woman while the man went out to work. It hasn't yet come to terms with the fact that's not the way things are any more.

Slaughter talked about how great her husband is with their two boys and how close they are to him. She's written elsewhere about this too. And she made an excellent point that can sometimes get forgotten in all the focus on women's progress, or lack of it. 

"If I had daughters I would be raising them with more choices than my sons," she said, i.e. in today's culture women are told they can be anything, stay-at-home mom, professional woman without kids, professional woman with kids. "I'm basically raising my sons to be breadwinners. In terms of social norms it used to be girls who couldn't have choices, but now it's boys who are only socialized that way."

Men are always approaching her saying, basically, "this conversation is all about women, but we [men] feel we can't see our families", because, essentially, their role in society is to work, work, work. Caring? To many, including plenty of women, men who do it are slightly suspect - not quite man enough. Jennifer Siebel Newsome, who made Miss Representation, is making a film about attitudes to masculinity and the pressure to be macho. It's called The Mask You Live In

Both it and Anne-Marie Slaughter's book on America's work and family dynamic come out next year.

In search of executive presence

October 31, 2013

Joanna Barsh fought perceptions of being 'young and bouncy'

"I tried for many years to be taller, more serious, having gravitas as if I’d just come from a funeral…but that’s just not who I am.” - Joanna Barsh

Last week at the Working Mother conference, I was in a session on women in leadership and found myself in a small group discussing the idea of ‘executive presence’. We’d just heard a lively presentation by Dana Vandecoevering of Intel. She mentioned that Intel has a program in place for its women employees to essentially coach them so they stay on an advancement track and don’t ‘fall out of the pipeline’ as so many women do, leaving us with the sparse population of women at the top we’re all so used to hearing about. I was fascinated to hear that one of the things Intel coaches its women on is how to develop executive presence, that elusive quality you need to convince others you’re ready to lead – that you’ve got the goods in the form of your persona, your bearing, your appearance, and so on.

Executive presence, though, can be subjective. It’s something other people see in you, and it’s a lot harder for women to be seen to have than men, simply because as a society we default to seeing men – usually white men – as leaders. One woman at my table told the story of someone she knows who went grey early, in her twenties. The woman’s mother begged her to dye her hair but the woman, who was ambitious, refused, as she was on the fast track at work and felt that as she was young, she very much needed that grey hair to be taken seriously. We then got into a conversation about how you develop executive presence (see this Harvard Business Review piece for one author’s take) and how you even start that conversation with someone in whom you see potential.

One of my favorite interviewees on The Broad Experience was Joanna Barsh, a long time senior partner at McKinsey and Company and an author of much of their respected research on women in the workplace. What I loved about talking to Joanna last year was that she was open and willing to talk about herself and how she’d either been let down at work or let herself down. Going back over my notes, and my tape, I found a part I didn’t use during the show she appeared in, where she talks about ‘senior presence’:

“I happen to be incredibly short…I’m also an incredibly bouncy, energetic person and despite my old age I don’t have any grey hair…so here I am bouncing through as a senior consultant and there were many, many times where the organization in evaluation meetings said, ‘Does she have…senior presence?’…I tried for many years to be taller, more serious, having gravitas as if I’d just come from a funeral…but that’s just not who I am.”

Joanna let herself age into her gravitas, and it worked. She recently retired but is still very outspoken on women in leadership.

Of course this entire conversation gets us back to a question many women ask all the time: why should women have to be anything other than themselves? Why should they have to change their voices, their posture, their hair, anything, in order to fit in? Why can’t the corporation meet women where they are instead?

All I know is that because we still live in a world, and particularly a work world, that defaults to ‘male’, women still need to fit into that world to get anything done. Only when more women are running things will we skew more female in our thinking. But to get there, those women rising up the ranks today still need to work with largely male groups, and that means going at least some way to communicating in a way men understand. 

Sheryl Sandberg and the politics of leaning in

February 22, 2013

I was up earlier than usual today and read this New York Times piece on Sheryl Sandberg's plans to revolutionize women's career progress at about 7a.m. It already had several comments then. As I type, seven hours later, the count is up to 500.

Sandberg really gets people talking.

She's also beginning to polarize people. I'll be honest: most of the reason I started The Broad Experience is because, like Sandberg, I believe women are really good at sabotaging ourselves at work without even realizing it. I have done this time after time. I made career mistakes that I had no idea were mistakes. If you'd told me even five years ago that talking up my achievements at work was a good idea, I would have been horrified. How vulgar! Good work, I had always been told, spoke for itself. There was no need to hammer on about how wonderful you were. 

Wrong. If you don't underline your achievements to the people who matter, don't be surprised if you're passed over for promotions. I believe everything Sandberg says about 'leaning in', speaking out, etc. In short, I am a recovering career mess. But she makes some people's blood boil. For one thing, all this advice is coming from the mouth of a multi-millionaire who has tons of household help and had an elite education. What about 'earthbound women', as the Times' writer, Jodi Kantor, refers to us? The other thing is that many are angry that Sandberg appears not to address the other side of women's (lack of) progress in the workplace: government policies, corporations themselves and the existing old boys' clubs that would like nothing more than for everything to stay the same. Thre are lots of comments on the Times piece by women who claim they've done everything right but still can't get where they want to be. This piece by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox in the Harvard Business Review takes a frustrated swipe at Sandberg.

I can see how Sandberg's 'Lean In circles' could also raise eyebrows. Here's a quote from the Times article:

...“Lean In Circles,” as she calls them, in which women can share experiences and follow a Sandberg-crafted curriculum for career success. (First assignment: a video on how to command more authority at work by changing how they speak and even sit.)

Having reported on the way women speak, I know how polarizing anything to do with changing ourselves can be. As far as many women are concerned, women should not have to change a thing about ourselves: society, instead, needs to get used to us. Despite being 51 percent of the population, we're still not society's default setting. Men and male-run companies, these critics say, need to adapt to the female way of thinking and acting. (But that quote reminds me to book Harvard's Amy Cuddy for the podcast as soon as possible.)

I disagree. Yes, it's aggravating and unnatural to have to adapt ourselves to the male way of doing business. But business has been male for hundreds of years. It will not change overnight, no matter how much 'soft skills' (bleurgh) are said to be a vital part of our new world. We can't just sit here and hope the male mindset will suddenly alter and adapt itself to us. The business world will become more feminized, but only when more of us are running it. For more on making male management more aware and appreciative of the way women *tend* to think and do things, check out Caroline Turner's work at Difference Works. She appears in episode 9 of the show on ambition and power.

I have tried to book Sandberg for The Broad Experience, but this week her publisher declined my request for an interview, claiming her slate was full. So instead I plan to convene a panel of women to discuss the book and use that debate as a podcast in itself.

Another aspect of this, of course, is that so many women are out there juggling away like crazy but are virtually unaware of the Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter debates. They don't have time to be aware of them. They're just trying to get through their days, dysfunction and all.