Speaking of Women's Rights: How do the Struggles of Professional Women Look in the Shadows of the Myths of Silicon Valley and the Meritocracy?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How do the Struggles of Professional Women Look in the Shadows of the Myths of Silicon Valley and the Meritocracy?

Guest Post by Jessica Thompson

Fact: Sheryl Sandberg, current Chief Operating Officer for Facebook, Inc., is one of the very few women who have succeeded in the top echelons of Silicon Valley.

Fact: Sheryl Sandberg thinks it is shameful that women are not better represented at the top of every industry.

Fact: Sheryl Sandberg does not believe there is a glass ceiling keeping women from reaching the top.

Fact: Sheryl Sandberg wants *you*, if you are a woman, to take responsibility for making sure you move up and keep moving.

Sheryl Sandberg creates an interesting puzzle for many who care deeply about the current state of women around the world and their progress toward greater equality in all realms. On the one hand, Sandberg is a successful woman who encourages and mentors other professional women to increase their participation at the highest levels of society, industry, and government. She is not afraid to speak out about the double standards applied to women attempting to succeed in a man’s world, and she recognizes the biases that form and persist because women are so often absent from certain spaces.

On the other hand, Sandberg—like many of her peers in the male-dominated entrepreneurial culture of Silicon Valley—believes in the existence of a meritocracy. Sandberg believes that she has succeeded where others have not, precisely because she made different decisions than her female colleagues and employees along the way; conversely, she believes that a large part of the reason other women are not succeeding at the highest levels is that they are *choosing* not to.

And so, Sandberg’s mission is not to blame or change systemic problems, but to convince women to change their own behavioral patterns. She wants women to participate fully and confidently in their professional lives from the start, to always push for more success and opportunity, to find a mentor, to ask for promotions and raises, and to stop doubting their own abilities and expertise—what she calls ‘leaning in’. Sandberg argues that too many women back off professionally well before they have families, anticipating a future need for flexibility, and that when the time comes they have not built a career compelling enough to compete with the socially acceptable alternative of opting out or downshifting for motherhood, a shift that invariably yields permanent professional consequences.

Sandberg’s critics say that she overlooks the many powerful systemic constraints on women’s ‘choices’, and that she blames the victim for not succeeding in a patriarchal system that was not designed by or for her. She is also accused of focusing exclusively on the lives and choices of highly privileged women, ignoring the low paid labor of less privileged women whose little valued labor (caring for children and household chores) enables more privileged women to combine a high powered career and a family. These are all valid criticisms. Sandberg is wrong to insist on a complete meritocracy where choices are unconstrained by powerful things like gender roles and expectations. She is wrong to insinuate that the only roadblock left between women and total success is themselves, and to minimize the role that men must play in achieving change. And she is wrong not to acknowledge the importance and implications of class and privilege.

However, while she may be wrong about or simplifying a very complex and structural problem, she is right in identifying where, when, and how professional women are leaking from the career pipeline in the existing system. If Sandberg can convince even a small number of young women to ‘lean in’ and, against odds, propel themselves away from the path of least resistance, and reach the pinnacle of their chosen professions, perhaps a critical mass of these women like Sandberg might contribute to progressive change for all women in the future. This sounds like a good thing. However, it also sounds like trickle-down feminism. While we can applaud Sandberg’s quest to motivate individual women to prioritize their careers, we have to remember that individual choices are no substitute for structural change, and that the accomplishments of exceptional women are often just that: the exception, not the rule.

Jessica Thompson works in Washington, D.C. as a higher education policy analyst.