This story originally appeared in the Carolyn Edgar blog.
There’s been a lot of talk in the media lately about women in the workplace. From Anne-Marie Slaughter’s complaining about not “having it all,” to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg exhorting women to “lean in” to their careers (translation: suck it up) and not let little things like babies disrupt their rise to the top, to Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer boasting about her two-week maternity leave and cancelling the company’s telecommuting policy — op-ed pages and Facebook news feeds are full of people, mostly women, debating who has it right, wrong, or in-between.
There’s much about this “debate” that irritates me.
I’m really annoyed that Slaughter, Sandberg and Meyer are the faces of women’s workplace issues. They represent a very narrow, elite segment of women in the workplace. Yes, there are still barriers to women making it to the top of organizations in both the public and private sector, and those issues are worth discussing. But it seems the issues of elite women workers are the only women’s workplace issues we ever get to discuss.
Take, for instance, Yahoo’s new ban on telecommuting. I disagree with Yahoo’s policy, but let’s face it — Yahoo’s policy has zero impact on two classes of workers — executives in the C-suite, like Meyer, against whom no one is going to ever enforce this policy; and lower-wage workers such as security, cleaning, mailroom, factory workers, and administrative staff — workers at the lowest levels of the corporate food chain, whose jobs are always among the most vulnerable , and for whom telecommuting isn’t an option, anyway.
Positioning Slaughter, Sandberg and Meyer as being anything other than on the same side of this faux “debate” is delusional. They are all privileged women at the top of their fields. All have influence and access to resources beyond what most women can even dream of.
And none of them is using her power and influence to shed light on the real issues that affect the majority of women in the workplace.
According to the U.S. Census, the number one job for women today is administrative assistant/secretary, same as it was in 1950. The second most common job for women is cashier, and the third is elementary or middle school teacher. These women aren’t leaning in to their careers — they’re trying to stay afloat. These workers are among the least protected members of the workforce. And the issues that matter most to these women — minimum wage, fair pay, maternity and child care, sexual harassment, and job security — either aren’t discussed, or are framed through an elite lens.
That’s what infuriates me the most. The “women in the workplace” discussions generally are limited to the concerns of married, cisgendered, heterosexual women, who have the luxury of either choosing to work, albeit perhaps at a lower salary grade than they would have otherwise preferred, or choosing to leave the workforce and live on their husband’s salary.
We women who complain that Sandberg, Slaughter and Meyer have resources we don’t, usually fail to acknowledge that our own resources far exceed those of most working women. For this, I can look to myself as an example. I’m a unicorn in my environment — a single mother of two children who has reached executive level status in a Fortune 500 corporation, without the support of a husband and/or extended family. But I’m hardly representative of single working mothers, especially single working mothers of color.
I gave up being a law firm partner after the birth of my second child because, under the circumstances I faced at the time — having two small children and a rapidly decomposing marriage, with no extended family support — I couldn’t make being both a full-time mother and a law firm partner work. Maybe it’s not fair that I had to give up being a law firm partner because my workplace was not as accommodating to me, as a soon-to-be-single working mother, as it might have been. Maybe I married the wrong dude (okay, there’s no maybe to that one.)
Knowing my own competitive nature, I doubt I would have left my law firm’s partnership a decade ago if I’d worked in an environment that supplanted the need for that supportive husband who was willing to stay at home, or who had a large enough income to pay for additional child care — resources many of my higher-achieving law school classmates have. I know that the lack of external support is why my current title is “VP” and not “SVP” or “EVP.” Maybe I should have “leaned in” and figured out a way to remain partner, or “leaned in” and gone for a general counsel position instead of staying at the VP level so I would be able to raise two kids by myself, with no help beyond the outside help I could pay for from time to time.
But to look at my own situation as representative of the hardships faced by women workers strikes me as the worst form of elitism imaginable. “Giving up” meant I left the law firm partnership and moved on to a pretty lucrative in-house job. It meant giving up the prospect of pulling in 7 figures. It didn’t mean being resigned to poverty. And I was able to pay others for the help my ex-husband refused to provide, and that my family, hundreds of miles away, could not provide. Many lower-income working women simply do not have that option.
Unlike many working mothers, I had extremely generous maternity leave — six months — with both kids. I was blessed to have healthy pregnancies, and worked close to the end of my term with each one. It never occurred to me that women today are still at risk of losing their jobs if their pregnancies require workplace accommodations, because, as a working mother, I never had an at-risk pregnancy, nor worked in an environment where my job was at risk because of my being pregnant. I have never worried that I’d lose my job because I had to leave work, or work from home, to deal with a sick kid. I even took two weeks off work when my mom died in 2009, and didn’t have to use vacation time to do it. The majority of America’s working women cannot say the same.
Women like me don’t think about issues like pregnancy discrimination because we’ve been deluded into thinking that those are the issues of the bad old days. We see Joan and Peggy struggling with workplace discrimination on shows like Mad Men, and we comfort ourselves into believing we have overcome. We focus on the issues at the top because we’ve been fooled into thinking the issues at the bottom already have been solved. Perhaps if we pay more attention to the issues faced by women at the lowest income levels in our society instead of only wringing our hands about the injustices still suffered by women at the top, we can effect real, meaningful change for all workers.
While I think the issues that limit women from holding leadership positions in the private and public sector are worth discussing, these are not the only issues facing women in the workplace. I really want to see more focus on the women who need the most help.
That’s not women like Slaughter, Sandberg, or Meyer.