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.

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