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Nick Kristof, Sheryl Sandberg about Women

I like when things look simple. When you can sum it up in one sentence. But in reality, things look quite different and may need a more balanced approach and not a somewhat oversimplified vision with on one side (quoting Sheryl Sandberg in Nick Kristof‘s article: She’s (Rarely) the Boss) ‘women who don’t aggressively pursue opportunities‘ and on the other side ‘[women who] continue to do the majority of the housework and child care‘. Women don’t necessarily have to be power hungry nor desperate housewives. Now let’s take a deeper look at this article.

Kristof is at the 2013 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, and he has no choice but to state the obvious: ‘This year, female participation is 17 percent‘. And he’s not surprised since ‘In America, only 17 percent of American Fortune 500 board seats are held by women, a mere 3 percent of board chairs are women — and women are barely represented in President Obama’s cabinet.’ If even the President of the United States doesn’t set an example, don’t be surprised there is not much incentive to do otherwise. Then Kristof uses an interesting comparison: ‘I’m guessing that the average boardroom doesn’t have much better gender equality than a team of cave hunters attacking a woolly mammoth 30,000 years ago‘. We, indeed, often feel like we live among cavemen. Just read tweets @Everydaysexism for a while and you will better understand what I mean, if you didn’t already.

Now comes the provocative answer from Sheryl Sandberg, who currently is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook Inc and
served as Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google. ‘We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in‘. True fact. But then we should ask ourselves why women hold themselves back, why do they lack self-confidence, why don’t they raise their hands? Kristof mentions that even Sandberg admits in her book ‘Lean In‘, due out in March, that ‘when she joined Facebook as its No. 2, she was initially willing to accept the first offer from Mark Zuckerberg, the founder. She writes that her husband and brother-in-law hounded her to demand more, so she did — and got a better deal‘. I wouldn’t say it is a great example, but even if Sandberg is being honest, please don’t think you have to ask your husband (or boyfriend) first; you can demand more without his support (remember, there’s always room for negotiation; men never forget that and women shouldn’t either).

Gender stereotypes in the workplace are reflecting gender roles in society, and the stereotypes of gender roles in family. Everything starts in the family structure through education. Sandberg says: ‘We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet‘. So true. But when Kristof writes: ‘Sandberg famously leaves the office at 5:30 most days to be with her kids, but not many women (or men) would dare try that‘, I’m afraid it is not only about ‘dare try that‘, it is more about having the power to decide to. I know many women (often single moms) who are working all day long and they have no way to ‘dare try‘ to leave their job at 5:30 unless they want to be fired. It underlines the fact that you can only dare once you’re in charge, otherwise, you work until your (male?) boss says it’s over. Or maybe if you’re lucky; Kristof adds: ‘Nature and social mores together make motherhood more all-consuming than fatherhood, yet the modern job was built for a distracted father. That’s not great for dads and can be just about impossible for moms — at least those who don’t have great wealth or extraordinary spouses.’

Easier said than done, obviously. Especially when education is taken out the equation. From an early age, young girls are given strollers and boys remote controlled cars. Girls play tea parties while boys play with guns (and hopefully, kick the habit later) and get competitive. I know it’s a cliché but last Christmas, once again, one cannot but notice this cliché is still very much alive. So no wonder why ‘we continue to do the majority of the housework and child care‘: women are conditioned to become mothers (note that women don’t have to have kids to exist, too many still think the contrary), and therefore care for their kids, preferably at home while men can freely express their ambition and desire for success. Then you think maybe if parents gave a different education, things would end up different. Unfortunately, I’m not sure everyone is ready to give a stroller to a young boy and a car to a young girl; I’ve even heard parents willing to change things say ‘We don’t want our boy to be gay‘. Don’t ask me why some people always have to go from one extreme to another…

Back to reality. Let’s say women do aggressively pursue opportunities, to cite the example given by Sandberg. If education didn’t stop a woman, if society didn’t stop her either and if, eventually, that woman is successful, you still can’t talk about gender equality; women still have to fight cultural stereotypes. In the workplace, there is a great deal of discrimination that men simply aren’t subjected to.  Simply being a woman makes them less natural leaders, and their stances are often viewed as inappropriate or presumptuous. And I’m not mentioning sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination… And the fact that today, women are still paid less than men.  If only they could raise their hands more often, have Sandberg’s husband and brother-in-law and stop looking ‘at each other hesitantly [while] any man in the vicinity jumps up and asks his question‘, as described by Kristof when he lectures at universities. And the worst part is that we are talking about  ‘privileged’ women living in developed countries. Imagine the life of women outside these so-called modern societies!

There is so much to say on the subject. Nick Kristof concludes: ‘Some people believe that women are more nurturing bosses, or that they offer more support to women below them. I’m skeptical. Women can be jerks as much as men‘. Of course (hopefully, I may even say) women can be jerks as much as men, why couldn’t they? The question is not about women being ‘better’ than men but being different, in the broad sense of the word, just like men are different from women (although this ‘difference’ is just to illustrate, it more and more tends to disappear, for better or worse it depends). The question is about how to make it an objective difference. A source of equality, respect, something that would positively change the world and make it a better (more productive?) place.

On September 2010, I organized a reading group and we discussed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book. In my post: Half the Sky: Moving Individual Stories To Engage People, I explained why talking about women’s rights, discrimination, gender equality is a difficult task. There is no silver bullet solution, we desperately need a global and deep change. Three years ago on International Women’s Day, I posted about those Ordinary Extraordinary Women, and I’ve met some of them. This two-tiered system has to change as we are facing some major issues (economic, environmental, political, social…). It will be a long haul to change attitudes and mentalities; between the mysteries of the Universe (I’m fascinated by dark matter and dark energy) and the contagious bits of a Korean song, gender equality brings us back to the  grim reality of one of the so many issues, we, human inhabitants of planet Earth, have yet to resolve.

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