There are a lot of catch-22s in the working world. There are even more for women. If you don't ask for a raise, you're less likely to get one. If you ask for a raise, and you're female, it has a real impact on how people perceive you. Be ambitious, but not too ambitious. Be nice, but not too nice. Work your ass off to get ahead, but still find the time to parent. Sheryl Sandberg has done a very good job of bringing together tons of evidence about how women experience the professional world, and some suggestions on how to deal with issues that may arise.
They are practical suggestions. They are good suggestions. And at times, the book still irritated me. For two reasons that I can extract from my hunched shoulders.
1) While talking about the difficulties women face in the working world, she accepts as a given the general corporate workplace culture of constant employee availability that I truly believe is not really good for anyone, male or female. (And as an introvert, parts of the corporate culture outlined in this book gave me quite a bit of anxiety.)
2) While she cites great studies about the double-bind women are often in in the workplace, she supplements this with personal anecdotes that are virtually all about how the men she worked for were incredibly responsive to her concerns when she raised them, and mentored and taught her. The personal experience comes through as universally positive. Which, great. I am so glad that she had those experiences. But when the anecdotes are all positive, they tend to overshadow the studies. And they aren't, to use her language, my truth. It would nice to have some balancing anecdotes about the workplace issues for women we know exist. So sit down for a second, relax, and let me tell you a couple of my stories. Because we can only grow stronger when we share our stories, the bad as well as the good. Unceasing positivity is not all that helpful, particularly when it feels isolating to those who have had bad experiences.
I am not going to slam this book as not really being for the vast majority of women. It's true, and Sandberg fully admits it. It's for women who are attempting to dive in at the deep end of the professional spectrum, particularly, but not exclusively, in the corporate world. That audience compared to the number of women who are just trying to make the ends meet is very small. But there is room for a book aimed at the professional class. I just wish there was a tiny bit more acknowledgement that for many women those career paths are inaccessible not for lack of ambition, but due to lack of resources and class privilege.
(You know, speaking as someone working two part-time jobs while I write on my dissertation, and is going to graduate with a massive student debt that may have a very real impact on how I have to approach my job search post-degree.)
Let's return to the first point. I'm all for ambition. I'm trying to make my way in a profession (or will be, as soon as this bloody dissertation is done) that I truly love, and that I will devote a great deal of my time and attention to. But still, I bristle at the idea that in order to be successful, people have to strive for a work-life balance that includes constant work, even when it's at home. Sandberg talks about carving out family time, but it's in the context of still needing to be available on vacations, in the evenings. I'm sorry, taking a family dinner hour as the only time you aren't available to your workplace fills me with dread. Working only 9-5:30 and then leaving loses some of its gloss when you then work all evening, just in another location. That isn't really limiting your working hours to have some life outside work. That's working in two locations, and I think that needs to be recognized. And fought.
Her life makes me feel panicked to just read about. Which is fine. I was never going to be a high-flying corporate executive anyway. But more to the point, I'm not sure that that should be what the workplace environment should require of people. Of anyone, male or female. I read about the corporate workplace, and what it screams to me is not that this is what it takes to succeed. It screams "these people need to unionize, because this is just fucking unacceptable." It screams a need for collective action, as opposed to individual endeavour.
(Of course, we're mostly talking about the managerial class, and a Silicon Valley ideology of individual endeavour and success, so trust me that I realize unionization is not on the horizon. But this is a corporate culture that can grind people into the ground because they are atomized, because they see their successes and failures as purely on their own terms, as opposed to symptoms of a sick system. It cries out for a realization of community and the ability to collectively change things, rather than just say "this is the way it is, it isn't going to change." Yes, I'm left-wing. Why do you ask?)
Also, can I quibble that an open-concept office floor, with no offices or cubicles, means a non-hierarchical workplace? Bullshit. When you have no space of your own to which you can retreat, that pretty much makes it apparent that time to think and reflect is in no way a corporate value. When you have to worry about whether or not you're looking productive enough every time anyone walks by, that reinforces power structures. It doesn't dispose of them. No walls does not make power disappear. And the energy spent on that could be much more usefully be spent in things other than stress because someone walked behind your desk. I say this as someone who has worked in both open-concept offices and had her own office, and was generally a very hard worker.
And as an introvert, it gives me the heebie-jeebies. I may not have loved everything about Susan Cain's book, but please, please, please, Sheryl Sandberg, read her chapter on open concept offices, and why they are bad for everyone, but will particularly handicap your introvert employees, who have some really awesome things to offer your organization!
Now, after a long digression, off to point number two! As I said, I am very glad Sandberg has had such great examples of men in her corporate lives who have been more oblivious than anything else. Her examples are almost all of men who are willing to change when things are brought to their attention. And we need to keep bringing things to their attention. But, unfortunately, I think that many women don't have that experience, particularly at lower levels of the working world. I wish all bosses, male and female, reacted the way most of Sandberg's colleagues have. But I also think we need to discuss, in detail, the bad examples, so we know we are not alone.
When I taught a course on Women and the Workplace, I was amazed and slightly depressed by how many of my students came to me to tell me of their own experiences in the working world in which they had already experienced discrimination. All these wonderful young women in their early 20s that I hoped would have no idea what I was talking about, they already knew. I was glad I was there to listen. I was particularly thankful that the course was there, through which they could see their own experiences in a larger historical context, and take away some knowledge of how these working conditions developed, and the ways in which they have been fought.
So here are my stories, shared in a hope that by acknowledging them publicly, other women will feel less alone. These do no one any good when they fester, and festering in my mind they have been, particularly one.
When I came back to work at a retail store after a bout of mono, one of the floor managers stopped to ask me how I was feeling. That got her reamed out in front of customers by our big boss for having stopped for a chat.
I have been told that my job was "a good one for a second income" by my boss, who knew full well that mine was my family's only income. Wonder if that had anything with the raise they kept promising me every time I applied for another job, but which never materialized?
I have been told that I had "too much initiative" in a formal performance review, because I would go looking for other work to do when I was done my own work. That did not do wonders for my attachment to that job.
And the big one:
I was working at a university office between my graduate degrees when an Assistant Dean decided that an acceptable way to discipline an entire office-worth of women for not having locked the door (the lock was actually broken) was to stage a burglary, hiding all of our computers in the basement.
When one of the women left the office, extremely upset, and met said Assistant Dean on the street, he told her he was "teaching those girls a lesson."
The next day, when he pulled us all together to ream us out for the door, I stood up and said "Yesterday, I felt threatened. I felt vulnerable. Do you think that is acceptable?"
He said yes.
He said he would have done it to anyone.
The only two of us in the office who were willing to speak up and call him out, or to pursue taking this to the ombudsperson's office were, unsurprisingly, the only two of us who didn't desperately need to keep our jobs. I already had my acceptance to a Ph.D. program in my hot little hand, and she was re-entering the working world after some time away. While she wanted a job, her husband's income meant she didn't need to keep this particular job.
This is not a coincidence. This is how power works to silence people. When you are scared for your job, you don't speak up. I don't fault the women who didn't. I do fault the fucker who put us in that position in the first place and then refused to admit he'd done anything wrong.
By the time the school took this seriously and brought in someone to look into it, the other woman and I had moved on. My friends who were still there told me that they felt pressure in the interview to minimize what had happened, and to downplay the impact it had had on their emotional and workplace wellbeing.
When the report came out, it was summarized to me by one of my former co-workers as "those women need to learn how to take a joke."
And no one was left to make a fuss.
This happened almost ten years ago, and yet it still makes me shake to remember it. I remember being terrified when we thought we'd been robbed and didn't know if a burglar was still in the building. I remember shaking when we found out what had happened. I remember shaking when I stood up to ask my question, and being aghast when I got my answer. I remember days of not sleeping, and such anger. It's not a subject about which I am particularly polite, but this incident has come, in my mind, to symbolize what a sick workplace culture can look like.
And that's my truth.
I hope women find help in Sandberg's book. I found some very helpful specific advice. But it is also part of a corporate culture that fills me with dread. But I do think we need to share our stories, as women, as workers, as part of this world. It's the first step to changing it. I'm glad Sandberg shared hers. And here are some of mine.