By Amanda Watson, Hippo Reads Contributor
In 2010, at the inaugural TEDWomen conference in Washington, D.C., Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg gave a 15-minute lecture responding to the question, "How are women and girls reshaping the future?" In what would become a tremendously popular TED talk, Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders, she targeted "women aiming for the C-suite" of corporate office.
As a young graduate student in feminist and gender studies, I watched closely as Sandberg, tiptoeing elegantly about the stage in four-inch stilettos, told a room of women in blazers that women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. A related problem, she explained, is that women face more difficult choices between professional success and personal fulfillment--that is, motherhood--than do men. Sandberg described the feeling of her daughter wrapped around her leg, begging through tears for her not to get on the plane.
At the time, I could hardly get a date to respect me as a human being for one evening, never mind follow one of Sandberg's three main pieces of advice: to "make a partner a real partner." I listened, perched at the edge of my fourth-hand chesterfield, longing for a leader as powerful as Sandberg to throw down the gauntlet. But instead of pointing to known ways of addressing the gender imbalance--like universal child care, parental leave, pay equity legislation, and workweek reform--Sandberg spent her talk lamenting women's apparently self-defeating behaviors.
Not all high-profile feminists are ignoring structural reform, though. Anne-Marie Slaughter underscored in her 2014 piece, "The U.S. Economy Does Not Value Caregivers," that if the country valued the backbone of capitalism--care--the way it values capitalism, it would institute high-quality and affordable child and elder care facilities, higher wages and training for paid caregivers, support structures to allow elders to live at home longer, and paid family and medical leave for women and men. Contrast this approach with Sandberg's who, while she advocated women's career advancement, was careful not to comment on structural discrimination or disadvantage, and careful not to advocate for meaningful change in terms of how society values care. Instead, she charged individual women with responsibility for changing their own learned habits.
Sandberg's approach met with serious criticism in the feminist blogosphere, especially from anti-racist feminists. Author bell hooks slammed Sandberg's belief in "trickle-down theory," the notion that having more women at the top would make it better for women at the bottom. hooks also noted that Sandberg's proposal for "all women" to work hand in hand with white male corporate elites ignored the fact that she was talking largely to affluent white women, who often experience more solidarity with wealthy men than they do with poor white women or women of color.
Hooks further insisted that Sandberg's presentation of sexy, vulnerable femininity, her unwillingness to acknowledge feminist work, and her friendly, folksy approach to politics all solidify her position as a spokesperson for the neoliberal ethic of individual responsibility. Far from advocating against structural oppression, hooks argued, Sandberg represented "the new face of faux feminism... never depicted as a man-hating ball-busting feminist nag."
Sandberg was not alone in highlighting the conflicting labor demands facing mothers. In fact, she came to represent what Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey have dubbed the face of "executive feminism." And while we might expect that Sandberg's individualist recommendations would be discarded after decades of feminist research and activism, her talk nonetheless struck a chord with the public. Her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, became an instant bestseller. In 2013, Sandberg launched LeanIn.org, a powerful non-profit organization that "encourages women to continue to be active and ambitious in their careers even as they start their families." True to form, it instructs women to change their self-defeating behaviors in order to climb the corporate ladder while managing the reproductive labor of having and raising children.
The gendered welfare state
The gendered labor burden came into popular awareness in the 1980s with sociologist Arlie Hochschild's book The Second Shift. Hochschild pointed out that most women who work for pay--the majority of women--perform a second shift of unpaid care work when they get home. Men do not. This systemic problem, she showed, diminishes women's financial security and emotional and physical health.
In the 1990s, feminist political theorists interrogated male-centric theories of labor, policy, and citizenship that neglected to probe this gendered labor burden and its uneven consequences. Fiona Williams, professor emeritus of social policy at Leeds University, argued that the focus within citizenship theory on the relationship between the state and the market erased the significance of the family. What got left out was the extent to which social policies either strap women to, or free them from, devalued, unpaid labor--with consequences for their survival. Prior to Williams' intervention, the universal "citizen" in political theory was a male, white, able-bodied, employable, enfranchised individual who relied on the unpaid labor of others to support his contributions.
Political theory still suffers from this conservative, gendered, and heterosexist bias. In 2013, the editors of a special issue of the journal Citizenship Studies condemned the field's ongoing lack of attention to biological reproduction, care work, and natality in discussions of social policy and welfare. Considering that Sandberg views individual women as responsible for their own exclusion from the c-suite--and calls this view feminism--perhaps this oversight is unsurprising. But after decades of feminist intervention, swaths of evidence for unevenly distributed labor burdens, and measurable shifts in beliefs about gender, why are we still having the conversation about women "leaning" in one direction or another? Why are we still spinning our wheels?
The myth of the adult worker
Nearly all modern welfare states developed under the model of the male breadwinner at a time when public and private spheres were strongly demarcated. In this model, women received welfare assistance as wives and mothers (i.e., unpaid laborers), and men, presumed to be paid workers, were the main beneficiaries of social insurance. These social roles, which we now call the gender contract, were linked to ideals of the nation.
Then the 1970s happened. Following interventions by Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, white radical feminists like Silvia Federici demanded "wages for housework" as a strategy to make gendered domestic labor visible and revalue it as the unacknowledged backbone of capitalism. These women succeeded in revealing unpaid work as work, but a lack of political (read: white male) will ensured that this ideological shift never translated into sufficient state provisions for care work. Their initiatives also largely ignored racialized labor burdens, an ignorance that persists in Sandberg's brand of white executive feminism.
The 1970s also brought the retrenchment of welfare programs in the US and Canada along with the need for a pool of ready workers in order for countries to stay competitive in the new global economy. What resulted is what Sandberg incoherently celebrates and laments: the myth of the gender-neutral, ideal, flexible "adult worker" overlaying a social system that demands a gendered division of paid and unpaid labor. In the 1990s, to cope with domestic labor shortages--what theorists call the "care gap"--governments recruited and exploited migrant labor, resulting in a "global care chain." What we have now is an oppressive, racialized, and gendered hierarchy of care work at "home," and a popular conversation among executive "feminists" about how to climb the corporate ladder.
Individualism creeping into reproductive labor
In the current era of advanced biotechnology, we see examples of gendered responsibilities to paid and unpaid work taking intrusive new forms. Not only are women responsible for both unpaid domestic labor and paid employment; they are also responsible for the emotional, invisible work of navigating their own reproductive labor in an age of precariousness and welfare retrenchment.
One summer evening in 2011, in Ottawa, Ontario, I attended an intimate dinner party in honor of Carl Djerassi, a renowned chemist and playwright best known for his contribution to the invention of oral contraceptives. My dinner mates swooned over Djerassi throughout the meal. After dinner, we retreated to a formal living room, where Djerassi asked me how old I was. I told him I was twenty-five. He asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I wanted to be an academic or go into politics. He asked if I wanted to have children. I said I thought so. He held eye contact for a moment before telling me, "Freeze your eggs. Yesterday."
Consider the strangeness of Djerassi's directive. Rather than fighting for government programs that reflect the highly variable needs of women, we tell individual women that the responsible thing to do is undergo invasive surgery in order to secure reproductive labor--labor that will, through status quo social policy, make women vulnerable to structural discrimination. We even go so far as to deem access to new reproductive technologies a win for feminism.
In 2014, tech giants Facebook and Apple announced that they were expanding women's employment benefits to include egg freezing. Apple explained that it "cares deeply" about its employees and their families and was providing cryopreservation and egg storage in order to "empower women" to "do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise a family." In fact, these companies stand to benefit from women devoting themselves to their careers during the years when they might be most fertile. Discussions of the benefits of having children later in life do not usually mention the risks associated with ovarian hyper-stimulation and egg retrieval. (The film Eggsploitation, written by Jennifer Lahl and Evan Rosa at the Center for Bioethics and Culture in California, tells the stories of "third-party egg donors" who face serious negative health outcomes--one of their interviewees died at thirty-four--after selling their gametes to earn money while completing their graduate degrees.)
Facebook and Apple are celebrated as progressive, happy, and cool companies. Despite that, both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine refuse to endorse egg freezing as a healthy option for circumventing reproductive aging, citing its potentially dangerous side effects. Not surprisingly, private companies (sponsored by pharmaceutical firms) are aggressively marketing egg freezing as the best thing for women's autonomy since the pill, despite its unknown risks to mothers and babies.
As author Miriam Zoll argued in 2013, "In a world where 'responsible' women freeze their eggs... the complicated problem of reconciling work and family is theirs alone to resolve." In this context, women are encouraged and disciplined to "lean in" to paid labor for the future survival of the species as a whole--despite the potential consequences for their own survival.
In these precarious conditions, family formation is daunting even for folks with economic privilege. For everyone else, it's becoming impossible.
Federici, Silvia. 2004. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. USA: Autonomedia.
Hochschild, Arlie. 2012. The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times. New York: Metropolitan Press.
Lister, Ruth. 2003. Citizenship: Feminist Perspectives (2nd edition). New York: New York University Press.
Slaughter, Anne-Marie. 2015. Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family. New York: Random House.
Tronto, Joan. 2013. Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality, and Justice. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Villalobos, Ana. 2014. The Motherload: Making it All Better In Insecure Times. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
Vosko, Leah. 2010. Managing the Margins: Gender, Citizenship, and the International Regulation of Precarious Employment. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Williams, Fiona. 2004. Rethinking Families. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
Zoll, Miriam. 2013. Cracked Open: Liberty, Fertility and the Pursuit of High Tech Babies. Interlink.
Daly, Mary. 2011. "What Adult Worker Model? A Critical Look at Recent Social Policy Reform in Europe from a Gender and Family Perspective." Social Politics 18: 1-23.
hooks, bell. 2013. "Dig deep: Beyond Lean In." Feminist Wire, Oct 28, 2013,
Lee, Rachel. 2013. "Introduction to Life (Un)Ltd: Feminism, Bioscience, Race." S&F Online 11.3, n.p.
Featured image courtesy of Kaboompics