Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 29 October 2020

Equality is a goal for working women - after the laundry

A new book raises questions about feminism and working parents.

My husband and I are both professors, with professorial teaching schedules, which means we are not in the classroom every day. When our two children were younger, we alternated our teaching days and joked that between us, we created the illusion of one full-time parent.

We couldn't afford a nanny; we occasionally hired sitters for those emergencies when professional commitments couldn't be shoehorned into our tight schedule. Our lives resembled a baton relay race, with our children as batons.

I remember at one point requesting an exemption from jury duty because I was the full-time caregiver for my children, even though I was also working full time.

You do the maths. Full-time plus full-time equals overtime exhaustion.

I thought about those early days of working and parenting as I read Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which she says is a "sort of feminist manifesto".

To say that there has been a media firestorm about Sandberg's book would be an understatement - the backlash and the backlash to the backlash began even before the book was published, with some saying that she's set feminism back a generation and others congratulating her on speaking out about the gender gap(s) in the professional sphere.

I came to the book sceptically, with an attitude similar to the way I think about Gwyneth Paltrow's website "goop", which recently featured "everyday" bracelets that retail for upwards of Dh1,300. I'm not sure whose "everyday" that is, but it's sure not mine.

Sandberg starts by saying that the gender gap presents a chicken-and-egg problem: the egg (or hard nut) of cultural biases that make it difficult for women to advance, and the chick(ens) who are not taking enough responsibility for their own advancement. Lean In focuses on what the chick(en) can do to improve her position: to get, as it were, not only across the road but into the driver's seat of the tractor in the barnyard on the other side. Policy discussions are relegated to the last chapter, which is dense with statistics. It is the least engaging (but perhaps the most important) chapter in the entire book.

The rest of the book concentrates what looks like good advice for us chicks: be serious about our ambition, insist on a seat at the table, act confident even when we're not, stop waiting for a "mentor" to solve problems, and, of course, find a "life partner" who will support our ambitions.

That sort of advice is a lot more useful than an expensive bracelet.

But to read the book is also to realise that it's been a long time since Sandberg ran the working parent relay - if, in fact, she ever did. She acknowledges that she has the resources to "hire all the help she needs", which gives the book a "do as I say, not as I do" flavour that is occasionally hard to swallow. One of the many writers to comment on the book notes that for two-career couples, it takes a village to raise a child, but in this era of far-flung families, "most of us have to buy the village" - for many, an unaffordable luxury.

With or without the village, however, Lean In has restarted an important conversation about men and women working together towards a more egalitarian society. Sandberg seems convinced that as we transform our professional lives, so too will society be transformed. But I, for one, am sceptical: for every Hillary Clinton putting women's rights at the centre of foreign policy, we have (in the US, anyway) Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, staring straight back to the 19th century.

I also wonder if the Lean In conversation isn't too exclusive: Sandberg's advice targets US women who are mostly white, mostly straight, mostly educated and are already parents or planning to become parents. That's a pretty small group of leaners.

I am writing this column at home, while my children mill around with the aimlessness that only kids on spring break can have; they want help with a science project, they want a snack, they want amusement. I can't buy the village; there is no all-day camp that will house my children during the holiday while I am working; my generally supportive spouse is travelling in China.

I'm wanting to lean in, Sheryl, and I'll get right to it - after I put in another load of laundry, finish this article, break up the squabble in the other room, find the glitter for the science project, answer the student emails piling up in my inbox, and figure out what to cook for dinner.


Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi

Online: mannahattamamma.com

Updated: April 15, 2013 04:00 AM

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