Episode 91: Sandberg vs. Slaughter

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, we look at two influential women – Sheryl Sandberg…

“To tell women who are bumping up against these intractable and structural problems that it’s all about you…is just extremely frustrating in the end because it’s not all about you.”

And Anne-Marie Slaughter…

“How can we effect change so that everybody can have this blend of care and competition so the world is more integrated?”

Coming up – will change come through individual efforts, or is it more about the system?

Back in July I released a show called Selling Empowerment – it was all about the cult of the women’s conference. We asked whether those conferences really had any positive effect for women long-term.

During my interviews for that show two women’s names kept coming up – Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter.  You’re probably familiar with them. Sandberg of course became famous after publishing her book Lean In in 2013. It’s a call to arms for women to push themselves forward at work. Anne-Marie Slaughter is a former US State Department official who wrote an article for The Atlantic in 2012 called Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. Last year she published a book that grew out of that article – it’s called Unfinished Business – Women, Men, Work, Family.

It’s hard to exist in this world of women and work without hearing these women’s names bandied about all the time. And Sandberg in particular evokes strong feelings – even among people who haven’t read her book. Many women resent a woman of Sandberg’s background and wealth apparently telling them how to tackle their work lives.

What I got from Lean In was take some of it, leave the rest. For instance, for me, it was a bit annoying that Sandberg seemed to be talking only to women who had partners who could help them out. She seemed to assume every grown woman had one. I didn’t. But I found plenty of other stuff in the book useful.

And of course now Sandberg doesn’t have a partner herself. Her husband died in an accident last year. They have two children.

I asked you to tell me how you felt about Sandberg and Slaughter and their messages. And I discussed it with business journalist Sheelah Kolhatkar when we spoke for the show on women’s conferences.  

“Well I think both Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter are really important and I admire them personally, what they’ve accomplished and done, in terms of making this issue part of the conversation, and we needed that, I’m thankful to both of them for that…I think they also on some level represent these two ways or approaching this problem, of women’s lack of progress in different parts of the modern world. Sheryl was really preaching individualism, self- improvement, I’m gonna work on myself, I mean that whole idea of leaning in, she wasn’t saying the whole office should lean in, she wants you personally to lean in harder and do what you need to do, and not leave before you leave, and just take the big job, and push push push. I think those are important points but they’re not going to solve the problem. And I think yes, she’s obviously immensely wealthy…and I’m sure she’s a billionaire many times over because of Facebook, but to tell women who are bumping up against these intractable and structural problems that it’s all about you – and you through personal behavior change and self- improvement can plow your way through is just extremely frustrating in the end. Because it’s not just about you. It’s about a whole bunch of other things that have nothing to do with you.”

And Sandberg didn’t address those – the limits of your particular workplace or bosses and the system as a whole – which after all was designed by and for men. There was a lot about you changing your approach to things…and I think this is really interesting because it’s my theory that the older you are the more OK you are with making some personal tweaks. The younger you are the more it rankles – this idea of fitting in with an existing, male-dominated structure.

I heard from one of my listeners on this, Aesha Williams. She’s in Chicago.

“I strongly believe that institutions need to change and it really rubs met the wrong way if I’m listening to a show or reading a blog or whatever and it suggests women should just suck it up and maybe change their way of dressing or their way of being because men won’t take them seriously.  That’s a real problem for me. I don’t understand how anything is gonna change if we have to continue forcing ourselves into a male world instead of the world changing to accept women and their habits and their behaviors.”

 I hear her. But I also think at least some of the advice in Lean In is worth a try if it’s going to get you more money or something else you want.

I asked Claudia Chan about Sandberg’s message too. She was my other guest in that show on women’s conferences. She’s a longtime entrepreneur.

“I see Sheryl, even in reading Lean In, obviously she has a very traditional – like Harvard, right, to State Department I believe, to Google, to Facebook…and so she’s had this very traditional corporate upbringing. So her story in many ways probably will resonate with more corporate women. But to me Sheryl did not have to do the book, she did not have to do any of it. She was rich enough. She already had enough recognition and fame. So I believe it was really generous of her to share that story.  And really she’s young, she’s beautiful, she runs one of the coolest companies in the world. So she had the microphone to attract all that media attention, right, and she really did in many ways resuscitate this modern conversation around feminism – or the conversation around modern feminism.”

It’s true. When I started this show the year before Sandberg published Lean In, women in the workplace felt like a niche topic. Now, it’s huge.

Dawn Edmiston teaches at William and Mary College and she’s a former guest on the show. She was galvanized by Sandberg’s message.

“Did I agree with everything that was said in her book? No. But we rarely agree with everything that is said by others. As a college professor I have had the privilege of teaching hundreds of women who of course are very fortunate to even have the opportunity to have a college education. But they’re also very fortunate to have a woman like Sheryl Sandberg who is creating her own path and empowering women to think differently about their own lives and how they choose to define themselves.”

But many women’s ire grew from the fact they’ve been leaning in, sometimes for years – and they still aren’t where they’d like to be. Who was the privileged, highly connected Sheryl Sandberg to tell them how to climb the ladder? People got up in arms about the parenting side of the book because of course Sandberg and her late husband had plenty of help at home. Help a lot of people can’t afford.

And since Sandberg became a widow last year she has said, I didn’t get it before – I had no idea how hard it was to keep all the balls in the air at work when you are the only parent. It was an admission that she had been in a bit of a bubble.

And especially if you work in America, you need help. It’s a workaholic culture. There’s very little government or company support for working couples with kids or single parents. Here’s Sheelah again.

“And that’s where Anne-Marie offered a more relatable, more honest assessment, or philosophy. She said, that’s all good but in fact there are these structural problems, we in fact have a barbaric policy system with regard to family leave. We’re telling women to leave, if they’re lucky enough to get 12 weeks of unpaid time off, which very few people do in an economy where most people’s salaries have not gone up since 1990 and the cost of living has soared – to tell these women to take your 12 weeks of time off and then leave your 12-week- old baby in a ridiculously expensive daycare or in a totally unregulated black market nanny economy, is just barbaric.

And then they get to work and there’s no accommodation for the fact they’re new parents and there’s this sense they have to put in face time, and there are no women they can look at above them who managed to do this. And of course women get frustrated and quit when they can. We have this huge proportion of households headed by single mothers…who are in an impossible bind, and that’s even more acute if you go down the income ladder. So Anne-Marie at least was acknowledging these things we all know are true which is the system is not right. It’s not fair, it is stacked against women, it is not a reflection of the way the world is. It was all designed on a 1950s ideal of a man going to work every day, long hours at the office, and the women at home taking care of the home front. And that is just not the way the world is. And our policies and corporate culture have not changed.”

And she says they won’t as long as women are trying to address these things through their personal behavior.

Another listener of mine, Karen Lock Kolp, says she’d barely followed Sandberg until recently. She read Lean In this summer and found a lot to like when it comes to self-advocacy. But she’s a bigger Slaughter fan.

“I love her emphasis on care.”

She likes the way Slaughter challenges traditional views about who should work and strive for promotions, and who should look after others…

“She suggests that people need to think more about care and competition together. So if we think of these two worlds as care has been the women’s purview and competition has been the men’s, we need to think about how those can blend. Because we live in world where care is extremely important and it’s not getting the kind of emphasis that it should be getting. Everyone needs to care for their families whether it’s aging parents or young children or spouses, friends, anything like that.”

She appreciates that Anne-Marie Slaughter has raised this question…

“How can we effect change so that everybody can have this blend of care and competition so the world is more integrated? And I just love that idea, I’m so completely taken with it.”

But of course to have that more integrated world…attitudes at the office need to change. Not to mention political attitudes.

Sheelah Kolhatkar says Slaughter could have done more in her book to tackle exactly how that change might come to pass. 

“I would have liked to see her go farther in terms of practical advice and suggestions and the fact that she didn’t I think reflects the fact that it’s actually really difficult to address.”

Also, as I see it from my perch as an ex-pat, not everyone in the US wants this kind of change. The whole country was founded on this idea that you help yourself. A lot of people look on government as a clunky, overweening force…something that’s far likelier to mess you up than help you out.  

AM-T: “And this is speaking as someone who didn’t grow up here, the cult of the individual is a very American thing. You know it’s not the same… I think the UK is closest to the US in terms of culture, of the European countries. But it’s a given there as in so many other European countries that you get some help from the government.”

“Right, no, sure, there’s obviously a strain of American culture that says I don’t want help from anyone. However, there are a lot of people getting help and big companies are certainly getting a lot of help. It always shocks me that women’s issues and childcare issues – I hate to just call them just women’s issues, but family issues, don’t become more prominent in political campaigns, and I think now with Hillary Clinton as the apparent Democratic nominee for president, I think this is going to become a bigger part of the conversation, but that’s what it took for it to even get talked about. Year after year I’d say why aren’t women organizing and demanding certain things? There are other groups of people pushing their rights forward, which is very good, but why are women not doing that too, why are they not saying no, we refuse to live with this situation anymore? And in fact there are many men who feel the same way. They want to have family lives, particularly younger men coming up into these companies now. They do not want the old system where they worked till 8p.m. and don’t ever see their children. Most of them do not want that. So it’s going to take everybody demanding that companies be more flexible and that public policy change to reflect the way the world has changed and not pretend we’re in a 1950s white male utopia. It’s just not like that any more.”

 Sheelah Kolhatkar – she’s now at the New Yorker.

I’m particularly interested to know what you think if you don’t live in the US – do you think the status quo here is crazy? Or does it also feel hard to have a sane existence as an ambitious female where you are, even if public policy is on your side?

As usual you can comment on the website or on the show’s Facebook page or you can email me – I’d love to hear from you.

And if you’re interested in Lean In – even if you’re a hater - you might want to download an early show I did called Leaning In – it was a 6-woman debate on Sandberg’s book and there were a lot of different opinions.

Thanks to all those of you who have given donations to this one-woman show – you are helping to keep it going. If you’d like to join them, go to the support tab at TheBroadExperience.com.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.