In the third season of the political comedy Veep, U.S. presidential candidate Selina Meyer and her staff panic when they’re forced to develop a stance on abortion. One staffer suggests that Meyer take a personal approach when addressing the media by prefacing her comments with, “As a woman . . .”
Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, shuts this idea down immediately. “I can’t identify myself as a woman,” she replies. “People can’t know that. Men hate that. And women who hate women hate that — which, I believe, is most women.”
Sadly, this humour reflects a real-life truth: that women in power often downplay their femininity to avoid being victims of sexism. In some cases, like Meyer’s, doing so is a way to guarantee a promotion or a successful career track.
Two prominent books, in fact, have recently advocated for a shift in women’s workplace behaviour. Women, they argue, can (and should) own their opinions and act more confidently in the corporate world to realize their leadership potential.
In the 2013 bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg poses this question: why, despite the advances we’ve seen, are only 23 of the Fortune 500 CEOs women? These days, it’s not hard for talented women to land jobs, but many struggle to work their way to a corner office.
Sandberg’s advice to women? Make sure to “lean in” and “sit at the table.” In other words, speak up when you have something to say, don’t be modest and stop worrying about whether others like you. These issues, she argues, hold women back more than men. The “sit at the table” pointer stems from a real-life scenario Sandberg encountered, when she noticed high-ranking women at a corporate gathering take seats around the edges of a boardroom, leaving the table chairs for the men. Lean In is about not being afraid to ask for what you want, whether it’s a promotion or just (literally) a seat at the boardroom table.
Over the past year and a half, Lean In has spun into a full-blown movement of corporate feminism. “Lean In Circles” are being founded in offices around the world, where groups of women meet to support one another’s workplace goals.
But the book has also sparked criticism for projecting an elitist brand of feminism. Sandberg is comfortably settled in the executive suite at Facebook, after all. It’s hard to imagine a single mother struggling to keep a roof over her head identifying with Sandberg’s day-to-day challenges. Bell hooks, the noted feminist theorist, has called Lean In’s message “faux feminism,” accusing Sandberg of ignoring diverse racial, class and gender identities.
Sandberg — who, to her credit, acknowledges her privilege in Lean In — would argue, however, that the real way to incite change is to begin at the top. The more women we have in leadership positions, the better it will be for all working women. As she puts it, “The more women help one another, the more we help ourselves.”
Yet how realistic is this idea of “trickle-down feminism,” as critics have labelled it? How can we trust that female leaders are going to make change for less-powerful women when it may not be the logical corporate thing for them to do? While Sandberg herself may have the best of intentions, she’s looking at the corporate world — whether male- or female-led — through rose-coloured glasses.
Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance focuses less on the workplace than Lean In but is more than applicable to the setting. Kay and Shipman delve into the science of confidence: are we born confident, they ask, or is it a learned trait? They conclude that it’s a bit of both — and it’s also something more women lack than men.
They too offer ways to bolster confidence, leave your comfort zone and challenge discouraging inner thoughts. In this way, The Confidence Code complements Lean In’s premise, offering a more scientific and research-based look at human thought and behaviour and how female and male brains differ.
Confidence, they say, is turning thought into action. They encourage readers to embrace failure as a learning opportunity. “We need to fail again and again, so that it becomes part of our DNA,” they write. “If we get busy failing in little ways, we will stop ruminating on our possible shortcomings and imagining worst-case scenarios. We’ll be taking action instead of analyzing every nook and crevice of a potential plan.”
Kay and Shipman, who both work as on-camera television journalists for major U.S. networks, face the same challenge as Sandberg in relating to average women. All three offer some vulnerability in their narratives to help them better connect with readers. Kay and Shipman write about their confidence struggles both in their careers and in raising their children. Sandberg is frank about the divorce she had when she was young. While these personal stories may resonate with some, there’s no doubt that less-privileged audiences could still feel unacknowledged.
Though their books focus on individual empowerment, all three authors are quick to acknowledge the systemic struggles women face. Sandberg details research from 10 years ago that shows successful women are liked less in the workplace than men who have enjoyed the same success. Kay and Shipman discuss how women are penalized when they act as aggressively as many men do.
These books are about changing behaviour: not necessarily to conform — like Meyer does blindly in Veep — but to get ahead. The systemic struggles women face are very real, but these authors argue that women hold their own internal barriers as well.
While Sandberg, Kay and Shipman don’t represent the average woman, they may be the most effective authors for this type of book. Today’s workplace sexism tends to be covert and needs a spotlight to bring it out of the shadows. These women are using their prominence to do just that: uncover the issues, put them on the table and gather a crowd.
Alison Shouldice is a journalism student at Ryerson University in Toronto. She was The Observer’s summer intern.
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