Rosa Brooks has a great piece up at Foreign Policy that gets to the heart of one of the most troubling features of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy. The issue, basically, is that Sandberg’s prescription of relentless workaholism, and her chirpy acceptance of the dystopic hell of a work culture that requires employees not only to put in long hours at the office but to be on call 24/7 during “non-work” hours, don’t do much to advance the cause of feminism, in the end. Her critique is similar to Kate Losse’s insightful take on the book.
Brooks’ essay is witty and delightful, and I strongly urge you to read the whole thing. Brooks is Barbara Ehrenreich’s daughter, and let’s just say the apple did not fall far from the tree.
There’s a lot of great stuff in the piece, but I’ll cut to the chase, which is Brooks’ analysis about why “leaning in” is not a great strategy for the advancement of women in our society:
Ladies, if we want to rule the world — or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions — we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us.
Here’s the thing: We’ve managed to create a world in which ubiquity is valued above all. If you’re not at your desk every night until nine, your commitment to the job is questioned. If you’re not checking email 24/7, you’re not a reliable colleague.
But in a world in which leaning in at work has come to mean doing more work, more often, for longer hours, women will disproportionately drop out or be eased out.
Why? Because unlike most men, women — particularly women with children — are still expected to work that “second shift” at home. Men today do more housework and childcare than men in their fathers’ generation, but women today still do far more housework and childcare than men.
It’s hard enough managing one 24/7 job. No one can survive two of them.
So what’s the answer? Brooks says we must resist the culture of overwork, which research shows is inefficient, and even dangerous, in any case. All of us, men and women, need to fight for the right to work an 8-hour day, and then go home, kick up our feet, read a novel, and have a life. I will add that people have literally died for that right.
I have a few more thoughts:
First, if we lightened the work burden and didn’t require so much overtime for so many jobs, that might go a long way toward solving our nation’s now (apparently) chronic unemployment problem. Job-sharing programs and a four-day work week shouldn’t be considered utopian daydreams. They are practical solutions could greatly alleviate a number of serious problems in our labor market: high levels of unemployment, unreasonable overtime requirements, and persistent gender inequality.
Second, slacking off unjustly gets a bad rap. People often enhance their abilities to think independently, to develop their own interests, and to do creative work when they’re not on someone else’s clock — when they’re just doing stuff they enjoy on their own time. It’s scary that our 24/7 economy seems to be allowing less and less time for that (at least, for those who are employed). I pity the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world who, as Kate Losse noted, appear to place little value on “pleasure and other nonproductive pastimes.”
Finally, Brooks wryly observes:
Oh yes: By incredible coincidence, parenting was discovered to require the near-constant attention of at least one able-bodied adult at just about the same time women began to pour into the workforce in large numbers. Sorry ’bout that, girls!
Yeah, I noticed that too. Indeed, it is quite a coinkydink. The phenomenon is no doubt overdetermined. I think it does have a lot to do with creating an excuse for keeping us l’il ladies at home where we “belong.”
But I also have a theory about that trend that’s related to the central theme of the great 1989 book Fear of Falling, by none other than Barbara Ehrenreich. Fear of Falling is about how growing economic insecurity caused many Americans to become terrified that they — and especially, their kids — would fall out of the middle class. If people were worried about it then, you can only imagine what those fears are like now.
Anyway, I think one way middle class people deal with that fear is by assigning the mom the role of full-time, stay-at-home parent. Her job is to groom the kid to succeed in middle class life. As such, she needs to be around to chauffeur her little darling to after-school activities, to attend to the kid’s emotional needs, make sure he/she is doing homework, smooth out problems at school, etc. The goal is to make sure the kid gets into a good college, and thus (presumably) gains a foothold into middle class life. I don’t believe having a stay-at-home mom actually increases the odds that the kid’s life outcome will be any better (and the research I’ve seen backs me up on this), but it does give the parents the illusion of control of their kid’s economic fate. The “fear of falling” phenomenon also helps explain the rise of helicopter parenting.
But enough from me. Go on and read the Brooks piece if you haven’t already. I’d love to see Brooks write a book based on the ideas in this essay. But by all means, she should relax and take her time with it.