Women at the top should not forget sisters lower down

Opinion: Facebook figure Sheryl Sandberg has climbed the corporate ladder but we need to listen to those at the bottom too

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in Dublin last week.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in Dublin last week.

Mon, Apr 21, 2014, 01:00

Sheryl Sandberg was in Dublin last week at the office of Facebook, the company for which she is the chief operating officer. Most people know Sandberg as a head honcho in Facebook who wrote Lean In , a great book about women, careers, gender equality, sexism, and becoming a leader in the workplace. Like any sane person, Sandberg wants more female leaders, and says one of the ways to get them is for women to “lean in” and assert themselves more. Go for the major gigs, take on the big boys, be ambitious.

In the spectrum of feminism, there’s room for the Sandbergs, the Saudi women filming themselves driving, the women-only farming co-ops of Nepal, the Everyday Sexism projects, the girls writing to toy companies asking why their products are so gendered, the academics, the community campaigners against domestic violence, the unionised sex workers, the students sick of sexist nightclub themes.


Bottom of the rung
It’s not a one-way street. It’s a spaghetti junction. But while it is interesting and informative to digest Sandberg’s learning, we also need to broaden the perspective. Sandberg has already “made it”. Perhaps we should listen more attentively to those on the bottom rung, because they’re the ones who need the assistance. Our obsession with the Rising Star, or the Leader, sidelines the “others”. And it fosters a crude belief that if one woman can “make it” on the basis of their own individual initiative, then that is the case for all. But that’s an individualistic approach, not a collective one.

While Sandberg was in Dublin, she made an interesting remark about gender quotas, which was reported as, “Even when they’re used, and used successfully, they have not moved other metrics.” This is true to some extent. But it’s also giving quota critics a stick to beat quotas with. The problem with conversations around gender equality is that we’ve become obsessed with quotas. Quotas are not the be all and end all, but they are useful. In Irish politics, even the thought of them looming is already working. But quotas cannot function in isolation if other factors aren’t addressed too. They are just one valve on a much greater engine.

This is the modern resistance to gender equality in the workplace. The argument that if one woman made it, therefore every woman can, is like wondering why a homeless person in a lively employment market doesn’t just get a job.

It’s like being mystified as to why people from all socio-economic backgrounds aren’t represented equally at university. They all do the same test, right? The fees are all relatively small, right? Then how come there are more people from PoshLand in Trinity than there are from PoorLand? Oh, maybe the people from PoorLand didn’t work hard enough.

This type of reasoning is blinkered. It positions all of us as identical atoms floating in space oblivious to any mitigating or conflicting environmental factors or circumstances. Life is much more complicated than that. When a woman makes it, she is exceptional. She has been battling her way through waves and surf and riptides, while the lads have been zipping along on their jet skis, oblivious.

Unfortunately, considering it’s so hard to “make it” as a woman, there’s a strange thing that happens to some women when they get there. It’s been so difficult, so stressful, so time-consuming, so draining, that when you get there, you don’t look back. You made it, so anyone can, right? They just need to work as hard as you did.


Colluding in oppression
This is where we get to the very sticky problem of women colluding in their own oppression. To the successful women who don’t think quotas and their ilk are a good idea, I get it. You got there without them. You’re brilliant, seriously. But wouldn’t it have been better if it was easier? If you had more support? If you could have just swung the door open instead of breaking it down? That’s what we’re talking about when it comes to gender equality. It’s not about the already successful – although they have valuable lessons to teach – it’s about the potentially successful. How do they get there en masse after you got there in isolation?

I will heartily high five any man who acknowledges the incredible disparity in gender equality across every arena. Well bloody done. All you men who marched for women’s reproductive rights, all you straight people who marched for LGBT rights, all you white people who marched with African-Americans? Well bloody done. What you’ve managed to do is step outside your own experience and realise that it’s just that: your own. And that there are others who face a completely different set of issues in their lives to yours. That requires an incredible amount of emotional intelligence and perspective. Because in addressing inequality across every spectrum, the main starting point isn’t just finding the right tools we can use to enable people, such as quotas. The starting point is empathy.

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