Elite Women Put a New Spin on an Old Debate
Jodi Kantor, NY Times - If a woman has a sterling résumé, a supportive husband who speaks fluent car pool and a nurturing boss who just happens to be one of the most powerful women in the world herself, who or what is to blame if Ms. Supposed-to-Have-It-All still cannot balance work and family?
A magazine article by a former Obama administration official has blown up into an instant debate about a new conundrum of female success: women have greater status than ever before in human history, even outpacing men in education, yet the lineup at the top of most fields is still stubbornly male. Is that new gender gap caused by women who give up too easily, unsympathetic employers or just nature itself?
The article in The Atlantic, by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor who recently left a job at the State Department, added to a renewed feminist conversation that is bringing fresh twists to bear on longstanding concerns about status, opportunity and family. Unlike earlier iterations, it is being led not by agitators who are out of power, but by elite women at the top of their fields, like the comedian Tina Fey, the Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg and now Ms. Slaughter. In contrast to some earlier barrier-breakers from Gloria Steinem to Condoleezza Rice, these women have children, along with husbands who do as much child-rearing as they do, or more.
The conversation came to life in part because of a compelling face-off of issues and personalities: Ms. Slaughter, who urged workplaces to change and women to stop blaming themselves, took on Ms. Sandberg, who has somewhat unintentionally come to epitomize the higher-harder-faster school of female achievement.
Starting a year and a half ago, Ms. Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, injected new energy into the often circular work-or-home debate with videotaped talks that became Internet sensations. After bemoaning the lack of women in top business positions, she instructed them to change their lot themselves by following three rules: require your partner to do half the work at home, don’t underestimate your own abilities, and don’t cut back on ambition out of fear that you won’t be able to balance work and children.
The talks transformed Ms. Sandberg from little-known executive to the new face of female achievement, earning her untold letters and speaking invitations, along with micro-inspection of her life for clues to career success. She hired a sociologist, Marianne Cooper, to help her get the research and data right. When Ms. Sandberg confessed in a recent interview that, contrary to her work-hound reputation, she leaves work at 5:30 p.m. to eat dinner with her children, and returns to a computer later, she earned yet another round of attention, and her words were taken as the working-mom equivalent of a papal ruling.
But her advice also spurred quiet skepticism: by putting even more pressure on women to succeed, was she, even unintentionally, blaming the victim if they did not?
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