Maybe it’s because it’s Women’s History Month; maybe it’s because of Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg’s much-discussed new book, Lean In; maybe it’s because of VIDA’s 2012 results demonstrating the shocking (but also not) gender inequality in the literary arts; but feminism has been much on my mind.
Did you know that women have had the same percentage of leadership jobs in the US for the last 10 years? Did you know that last year The New York Review of Books had 215 male reviewers and only 40 female reviewers? Seriously, look at the VIDA numbers.
I’ve been thinking about the chicken and the egg problem between institutionalization and bold individuals taking action in spite of the numbers.
Reading the Salon interview with Sandberg, I was struck by how she described the differences in ambition she perceived between men and women while working at Google.
“I saw women falling behind their male peers in the workforce, because there were all these men and women who worked for me, and at every stage, the men were aggressively trying to get to the next stage in their career. And so many times I was talking women into things. And the men come in and they’re like, “I want the new job, I want the new office,” when I would sit down with the women and say, “You should take the new job, you should take the new office,” they would say things like, “I’m just not sure,” or, “I’m still learning from my current job,” things I’d never hear from men.”
I read this and I imagine the response from certain peanut galleries being something along the lines of: “Well, women should just speak up more if they want to get ahead.” And it is just this sort of response that makes me angry. Because the argument that women just need to be more outgoing and vocal like their male counterparts is laughable and frustrating and simplistic. While this would no doubt be beneficial, the reality is not so simple.
These are ingrained behaviors disguised as choices.
What are the internal processes that cause a majority of women to hang back and a majority of men to charge forward?
While there are, very likely, evolutionary processes that contribute to this phenomenon, I would tend to argue that, to some degree, these behaviors are unconsciously encouraged in children, starting from a very young age. That, directly or indirectly, throughout a child’s development, the numerous societal institutions they pass through are contributing to the unconscious notion that men are supposed to be vocal and aggressive and women are supposed to be quiet and polite. And throughout this process, television, magazines, the internet, teachers, friends, and even parents act as unwitting agents reinforcing this notion. So that by the time a woman has entered the working world, unless she happens to have had the good fortune to be surrounded by people who have provided alternative views, the lens through which she sees the world and the avenues available to her has been largely concretized. And through perhaps zero conscious action on her part, a woman, due to external factors, is likely to be far more passive than her male peers, which means not getting the raise, not getting the promotion, and not occupying a leadership role.
It is this quasi-invisible process that needs to be changed.
It is a major chicken or the egg problem. The way to change this subconscious psychological indoctrination in which we all take part, is to create a new paradigm in which balance exists, where women occupy leadership roles, and where such a thing is not remarkable, but entirely normal. But without more women in leadership roles to change these unconscious perceptions, how to create such a world?
I think Sandberg’s assertion is right on the money. Everyone, male and female, would benefit from such a change. The irony is, perhaps, that the aforementioned peanut gallery voice which so angers me, also contains a kernel of truth. Until more balance exists, and the top leadership roles start to be less male-dominated, it may be that an essential component of change is for pioneering individual women to raise their voices and be bold and claim their part of the pie.
Hence the reason books like Sandberg’s are so important. It draws the issue into the limelight. It calls attention to the astounding fact that such inequality still very much exists, in spite of the blasé, commonplace ignorance that the glass ceiling, and sexism, (and racism, and all the other -isms), are part of the old way, and have been largely stamped out. And most importantly, it encourages action. It gives permission, as it were, for things to be other than they are; for those women, who might not otherwise, to stand up and be strong and to make their voices heard.
And to this I say: Hell Yes.