Sheryl Sandberg,
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.19_book_cover_1
New York: Knopf, 2013.
228 pages.

Monique Jérôme-Forget,
Les femmes au secours de l’économie: Pour en finir avec le plafond de verre.
Montreal: Stanké, 2012.
187 pages.

It  has been 50 years since Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique and described “the problem with no name.” It has been 50 years since my generation graduated from North American universities determined to “have it all” – and to raise a generation of children who would be free of gender stereotypes.

It is important to keep in mind that my generation of feminists stands on the shoulders of previous generations, with progress being made incrementally over the decades. A hundred years ago, women were fighting to get the vote, own property after marriage and get custody of their children upon divorce. Fifty years ago, the women of my generation made enormous strides in terms of access to work, pay equity, status and recognition, and we take pride in that. Today’s issues appear to be centred on making the workplace more accommodating so that women – and men too – can achieve “work-life balance” and make a real contribution to the economy.

19_book_cover_2By the Oxford English Dictionary definition of feminism as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes,” everyone who believes in gender equality is a feminist. Nevertheless, back in the 1960s, feminism was a bad word in North America, its proponents perceived as unfeminine, unkempt, humourless harridans (which is exactly why beautiful and soft-spoken Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine, was propelled into the leadership of the American feminist movement). Today, feminism seems to have become a bad word once again. Younger women do not want to use that word in relation to themselves, observes Stanford English professor Michele Elam, because gender, along with race, has become delegitimized as a serious field of study, and is regarded as “harboring an activism at odds with disinterested intellectual inquiry.”1 And some women are pulling out of extremely high-powered positions and opting for what they see as a less stressful balance between “work” and “life.”

Call it what you will, but the battles have not all been won and there are still women’s issues worth fighting for in today’s ugly and terror-stricken world. But perhaps it is an opportune time to redefine the battleground.

Issues such as violence toward women in Third World countries and their lack of educational opportunities and struggles of women of colour or working-class women remain central to a broad discussion of the evolution of feminism. However, the two books I discuss here – Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (Time Magazine heralded her book and related website as “the most ambitious mission to reboot feminism and reframe discussions of gender since the launch of Ms. Magazine in 1971,” even though a similar network and website called “everywoman” had been running in Britain since 1999) and former Quebec Finance Minister and Treasury Board Chair Monique Jérôme-Forget’s Les femmes au secours de l’économie – concentrate on the experiences of white, middle-class women in North America. I also draw on my own experiences and those of my friends and our daughters, all members of that class. As a result, this essay is limited to that – admittedly relatively narrow – range of experiences.

The bottom line

Both Jérôme-Forget, a high achiever of my generation, and Sandberg, a high achiever closer to my daughter’s generation, argue that having more women in the boardroom will actually improve a company’s productivity. This is a new approach, based on empowering women and at the same time improving the corporate bottom line, creating a win-win situation. Jérôme-Forget cites McKinsey & Company’s Women Matter to the effect that there needs to be a critical mass of 30 per cent of women in senior executive positions for this to happen.2

But women currently do not make up 30 per cent of boards of directors in the United States or Canada. According to Catalyst, a worldwide nonprofit organization which seeks to expand opportunities for women in business, women make up 17.7 per cent of senior management positions and 14.5 per cent of boards in Canadian corporations.3 Apparently, there is not only a “glass ceiling” denying access to the top, but also a “glass cliff” that prevents women from attempting to reach the top. Both Sandberg and Jérôme-Forget look for ways to scale that cliff and achieve the numbers. Both argue that the workplace must adapt to attract women whose prime career years happen to coincide with their prime childbearing years.

Jérôme-Forget and others have a lot of practical suggestions that would make it easier for workers of both genders to balance working life with family life and thereby make their companies more productive (because otherwise, why should companies bother?). Jérôme-Forget’s suggestions include:

  • flexible work hours and telecommuting
  • shared workloads and part-time work
  • reduced work hours during non-peak periods
  • banking of overtime hours so that parents can take child-responsibility days off
  • emergency childcare services
  • institutionalized workplace daycare
  • family insurance plans and incentives to join physical activity programs
  • catering services at work – possibility of taking home ready-made suppers
  • “take your kids to work days.”4

Jérôme-Forget tells us that only 20 per cent of Canadian women are able to take advantage of flexible work hours. The New York Times reported that in the United States, “only about a third of employers allow at least some of their employees to work from home on a regular basis; just 2 per cent allow all or most of their employees this option, according to the 2012 National Study of Employers conducted by the Families and Work Institute.”5 And, just to confuse the issue, when Marissa Mayer became CEO of Yahoo Inc. in 2012 she quickly mandated that all employees would have to work in the office during office hours.

It is interesting that these approaches are based on economics: the current thinking is that women in the boardroom will actually increase GDP, therefore, their presence is necessary and must be catered to. In the past we have seen that in times of high unemployment – right after World War II, for example – women were no longer wanted in the labour force and to force them out there was a spread of magical thinking about how the only way to raise sane and healthy children was to breastfeed and stay at home. Canada introduced its “baby bonus” scheme in 1945, while the La Leche League was founded in the United States at the beginning of the 1950s. Fortunately, today we have a vast array of scientific studies concluding that whether mothers work or not is immaterial to the educational, emotional and psychic development of their children.

Aspiring to it all in the sixties

Post–Betty Friedan, my generation of university-educated feminists aspired to more than white picket fences and perfectly scrubbed floors. After reading Friedan, one friend told her husband she was going back to work and he would just have to help with the housework and childrearing. And he did. But Sandberg tells us that her mother, who graduated in 1965 with a degree in French literature, “surveyed a workforce that she believed consisted of two career options for women: teaching or nursing,” dropped out of the labour market and dedicated herself to raising a family.

Jérôme-Forget refers to the “majority feminine professions such as teaching and nursing” available to college graduates at the same time period. One of my friends from that time told me, “Many of us with undergraduate degrees in the liberal arts were still more inclined to be trained as teachers and librarians, as we had been for decades.” To which another friend retorted, “But we changed all that!” To take just a few Canadian examples: Margaret Davidson (BA in English literature + MA) had a very successful pioneering career at CBC-TV current affairs in Montreal; Joan Fraser (BA in modern languages, 1965), became editor-in- chief of the Montreal Gazette before being named a senator. I too started with a degree in French literature (1963), and managed to break quite a lot of ground in journalism before turning to law. When I started law school in 1971, women made up 50 per cent of the class. Only five years earlier, there had been three women in my husband’s law class of 60 and only one of them graduated.

And yet, women’s rise to top positions has not been as rapid or as complete as might have been expected. Why? Are the barriers structural or self-imposed? This is where Sandberg and Jérôme-Forget part company. For Jérôme-Forget, all obstacles are external: traditional values, stereotyped perceptions, a workplace designed to accommodate men’s schedules, the old boys’ network, the difficulty of returning to a promising career after maternity leave, etc. (Here it must be added that Canada seems to be light years ahead of the U.S. in terms of maternity leave.6)

For Sandberg, however, there are subjective reasons why women do not succeed. As she sees it, the problem is that women are not prepared to “lean in” – to use her unfortunate and unedifying choice of metaphor – to actively pursue their career goals. They may be as qualified as their male colleagues, but they are not inclined to advance aggressively. They are therefore not leaping up the promotion ladder and not exercising leadership the way we are accustomed to see it exercised.

“Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face,” Sandberg writes. “Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.” The first chapter of her book is subtitled “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” My daughter thinks we should spend more time debating whether women are fundamentally less confident than men – and, if so, how to fix this (now!).

Likeability and the impostor syndrome (how not to get ahead)

Every woman relates to the impostor syndrome (while most men cannot fathom it) – the feeling that we have no right to be in high-level positions. “They” will soon see through us and denounce us as the frauds we know we really are.7 From discussions I have had with my daughter’s generation, this is not a feeling that is fading away. A friend’s daughter, who became an equity partner in a prestigious law firm before she turned 40 after overcoming all the stereotyped attitudes of both colleagues and clients and finding a way to breastfeed young children while on the job, told me, “My entire career, I have felt like a fraud, that I would not last in a big firm environment longer than a few years, always sure I was going to get fired, never thinking I’d make partner.”

How can women be expected to fight for their working rights if they are not convinced they deserve any? When my friends and I woke up to the fact that the jobs we fought so hard to get in the 1960s were paying 40 per cent less than those of our male counterparts, we did not run to negotiate a raise. We were so thankful to have those jobs in the first place that we were not going to rock the boat. What a boon we must have been to our employers! Today, despite pay equity legislation that attempts to remove the subjective component in negotiating, pay equity still seems to be far from a given.

It may be that women don’t “lean in” because they have been hardwired to be “likeable” (i.e. not to be perceived as “bitchy”). Or it may be because they genuinely believe other, more inclusive, approaches are as valid. Jérôme-Forget weighs in with a story about two groups tasked with furnishing and organizing a CEO’s office. One group was made up of four men, one of whom assumed the leadership; they discussed where to put the copier, the phone, the desk and chair, etc. The other group contained two men and two women, and its members worked cooperatively at facilitating the CEO’s interaction with his team and making the office a welcoming place for employees. She concludes, “This experiment shows in a somewhat humorous but revealing way that women can bring a human dimension to the study of a problem, and that a less hierarchical approach does not prevent people from making decisions.” The “human dimension” she refers to includes a search for consensus, a weighing of pros and cons before making decisions, attention to opinions of others around the table and a search for solutions that will make everyone happy.

In the 21st century our definitions of leadership may be changing. In 2010 Donna Rosin wrote in The Atlantic, “Researchers have started looking into the relationship between testosterone and excessive risk, and wondering if groups of men, in some basic hormonal way, spur each other to make reckless decisions. The picture emerging is a mirror image of the traditional gender map: men and markets on the side of the irrational and overemotional, and women on the side of the cool and levelheaded. We don’t yet know with certainty whether testosterone strongly influences business decision-making. But the perception of the ideal business leader is starting to shift.”8 If that is so, we can talk about a real evolution of feminism – one where women are not just scratching at the doors of power, but are welcomed in and make an essential contribution. No doubt that is why the Harvard Business School started an experiment in 2010 to make the academic environment more gender-sensitive and give female students a greater sense of empowerment. Reportedly, while it made women more visible on campus it did not do much to boost their access to domains like venture capital, which are still seen as exclusively male.

Having it all

Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, had this to say about “having it all” in her recent book My Beloved World:

“It is interesting to me how, even after all the strides of the women’s movement, the question of whether we can “have it all’ remains such a controversy in the media, as if the ideal can be achieved. Most women of my generation who entered professional life did not forgo motherhood, and many did succeed at both. But they paid a price, one still paid by most women who work outside the home (and men too, I believe, if they parent wholeheartedly): a life of perpetual internal compromise that leaves you always feeling torn, neglectful by turns of one or the other … But as for the possibility of “having it all,” career and family, with no sacrifice to either, that is a myth we would do well to abandon, together with the pernicious notion that a woman who chooses one or the other is somehow deficient. To say that a stay-at-home mom has betrayed her potential is no less absurd than to suggest that a woman who puts career first is somehow less a woman.”

“Having it all” has always come at a price, and that does not seem to have changed from one generation to the next. In fact Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, has just written a whole book explaining why we cannot, will never and should not aspire to have it all.9 What a relief!

In a possible reaction to the unrelenting demands of work, some highly successful young women may now be turning away from the stress of having a high-powered career while raising a family. Abigail Pogrebin, daughter of Ms. magazine co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin, said on the PBS television program Makers, “I’m free to be a mother and I’m free to have a career, but how do I reconcile both?” She felt let down by the feminism of her mother’s generation. She was not prepared for the ambivalence of motherhood and career – apparently her mother did not lay out how complicated that would be.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, who left her job as the first woman director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department to return to her family in Princeton, New Jersey, became “increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet … I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).”10 And Amanda Upton, the Harvard Business School student who had emerged as the most dynamic and articulate leader in the 2010 experiment described above, turned away from a glittering career path and moved to a less challenging job in a smaller city where her fiancé lived. “You can either be a frontier charger or have an easier, happier life,” she told the New York Times.

Are these attitudes to be seen as setbacks to women’s progress or are they part of a natural evolution? Sandberg quotes Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and the first woman to serve as president of an Ivy League university: “My generation fought so hard to give all of you choices. We believe in choices. But choosing to leave the workforce was not the choice we thought so many of you would make.”

“In the face of these retrenchments,” says Meryl Streep, narrating Makers, “older feminists have opened the question why their daughters’ generation is not marching in the streets.” The obvious answer is that the younger feminists are not street marchers or bra burners. These women are more sure of themselves than we were, have a greater sense of entitlement, and do not appear to believe in confrontation as a tactic. They may also have more accommodating partners.

That young female law partner attributes her availability for “the brass ring” to the devoted and competent presence of her loving husband. She told me, “In all cases, there is no way they can do the job they do and be the primary caregiver at home. Just not possible. Something has to give. What gives is the role of the spouse. They are stepping up, are tremendously involved in childcare, domestic duties, shopping, you name it. I doubt this would be common in my parents’ or your generation. If a mom worked in your generation, she was also expected to do the bulk of the domestic responsibilities at home.”

How to go forward

I think it is safe to say that we did not have it all, nor did we raise a generation completely free of gender stereotypes.

It may also be safe to say that the work my generation did in the sixties and seventies to bring women into the workplace has done surprisingly little to change a corporate culture that still makes it a challenge to balance work and families.

Have we white and middle-class feminists made a better and more interesting world? Are there fewer armed conflicts now that women can fight on the front lines and women have occupied the positions of Canadian provincial premier (and even – briefly – prime minister), U.S. secretary of state, national security adviser and chair of the Federal Reserve, or U.K. prime minister or chancellor of Germany? Are countries better run with women leaders?

For Sandberg, “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.” I find this unrealistic and possibly even undesirable. Unrealistic because, like it or not, men and women are hardwired differently and do not have interchangeable aptitudes and skills. Undesirable because it would reduce countries, companies and homes to an indistinguishable lowest-common-denominator, one-size-fits-all model.

Anne-Marie Slaughter expressed Sandberg’s sentiment with a more qualitative nuance, writing, “Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.”

I do, however, agree with the proposals both Sandberg and Jérôme-Forget make to even up the approach to the career ladder, remembering what President Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1965: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say you are free to compete with all the others, and still just believe that you have been completely fair.” That was the start of affirmative action in the United States.

In his recent book on the Supreme Court of Canada, Philip Slayton contrasted the approaches of justices Bertha Wilson (1923–2007) and Beverley McLachlin (born 1943). In a perfect metaphor for the ideological evolution of feminism, he said that Wilson, the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court (from 1982 to 1991), “saw women as a disadvantaged group requiring especial protection” while McLachlin, appointed to the Court in 1989 and Chief Justice since 2000, “began from the position that men and women were equal.”11

Is it time to stop fighting for gender equality? Hardly. But if we can frame it as a positive contribution to society instead of a negative, the new generation will be much better equipped to both pick and fight their battles.

Continue reading “W(h)ither feminism?”

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. New York: Henry Holt, 2009. 532 pages.

Robert Hutchinson, Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007. 376 pages.

Reviewed by Susan Altschul

There are two new books on Henry VIII’s indomitable minister Thomas Cromwell, “the most hated man in England.” One is a scholarly biography by Robert Hutchinson of the University of Sussex, the other an inspired interior monologue by Hilary Mantel that won the Man Booker prize in 2009: Wolf Hall. Both books tell the tale vividly: Cromwell’s very humble beginnings as the abused son of a blacksmith, his somewhat shadowy adventures as a soldier in the French army fighting the Spanish in Europe (“the wrong side”) and his subsequent rise to statesmanship at the English court.

Versed in the law, cunning and manipulative, and an adept at the art of torture, Cromwell knew how to lean with the wind and turn any crisis into an opportunity. If Thomas More was the “man for all seasons,” Thomas Cromwell was arguably the spin doctor of 16th-century politics. He had learned at the feet of an expert, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. But Wolsey fell from favour when he failed to get the Pope’s approval for dissolving King Henry’s first marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Within two years Wolsey was dead, his protégé Cromwell left to navigate through the irreconcilable currents of Henry VIII’s wish for a divorce, the resistance of the Pope, the Spanish court and the Holy Roman Emperor, and the self-seeking interference of the French king. Not to mention all the factions swirling about Henry’s court, all the dukes and earls with marriageable daughters and all the religious leaders of different stripes clashing over how to worship. It was a world where no one’s position was safe, and “early retirement” (as well as “divorce”) usually involved a date with the executioner.

In 1975 Neville Williams brought Cromwell’s story to light in a lively and informative double biography called The Cardinal and the Secretary. It was the definitive account for more than 30 years, until both Mantel and Hutchinson pounced on the story and filled in the gaps, each in their distinctive way. As a result, the story now becomes how a man of state walks the tightrope between power and the pit.

Robert Hutchinson, working from original sources, gives us a detailed glimpse of 16th-century England much as Alison Weir does in her many nonfiction books about this period. He takes us inside Cromwell’s house, reads the household accounts over his shoulder, tells us what he ate, what he wore and how he furnished his rooms. Hutchinson explains how bribes were conveyed (often in the fingers of gloves presented as gifts), and shows us what happened to all those unfortunates who were dispossessed as wave after wave of the king’s bullies plundered the monasteries and country houses of England. If we think the Tudor period was disorganized and corrupt, we should have seen it before Cromwell’s many reforms, as Hutchinson shows us through the eyes of those who lived it. Memorably, he describes the popular entertainment of jousting as “Tudor testosterone.”

Hilary Mantel looked for another way to tell the story, and with her poet’s eye and novelist’s skill she has gone inside Cromwell’s head, turning him into a completely understandable, principled and rather likeable human being. In an article in the Sunday Times in April 2009 Mantel wrote,

When I set out to find Cromwell, I discovered a man who succeeded by toughness and unremitting hard work, by ingenuity, suppleness and flair; a gregarious man, generous and cultured, good at making friends and watchful of their interests. There was a touch of the mafia boss about him: once you were part of the Austin Friars family, you would be protected, made useful and often made rich …

I saw him, initially, through the mirror of other people’s perceptions. Then I tried – because this is what a novelist can do – to step through the glass and see the Tudor world from behind his eyes.

Like Henry himself, he is less like a historical figure than a figure from myth, an adventurer, a trickster, a chancer; one of those strange beings who transcend anything that could have been predicted for them, and who change the shape of the world before they leave it.

To present this sympathetic and engaging portrait, however, Mantel has had to be selective with the facts and also assume that we already know all the background. How fortunate, then, that Hutchinson’s book makes the perfect complement and allows us to fill in the gaps. To take just one small example, Cromwell was beholden for his Commons seat of Taunton to one of the chief players in the court intrigues and the man who would ultimately bring him down: Thomas Howard, third Duke of Norfolk, uncle to not one but two of Henry VIII’s wives. The story of that arc of influence would have been fun to pursue.

Nevertheless, Mantel’s poetic voice makes Wolf Hall a compelling read. The use of the unreliable narrator allows us a real insight into the characters, both major and minor (on a closely related theme, Margaret George pulled this off brilliantly in The Autobiography of Henry VIII). There are delightful thumbnail descriptions, such as “the sickly milk-faced creeper” Jane Seymour and a worried Anne Boleyn, looking “small and tense, as if someone has knitted her and drawn the stitches too tight.” More tells Cromwell, “This relentless bonhomie of yours. I knew it would wear out in the end. It is a coin that has changed hands so often. And now the small silver is worn out, and we see the base metal.” Mantel puts an amazingly apt and succinct comparison of Cromwell and the king into the mouth of Katherine of Aragon:

I know that he needs to be on the side of the light. He is not a man like you , who just packs up his sins in his saddlebags and carries them from country to country, and when they grow too heavy whistles up a mule or two, and soon commands a train of them and a troop of muleteers. Henry may err, but he needs to be forgiven.

It takes a particular talent to distill the dry facts of history and present them on such a high literary level, a level that verges on poetry. Wolf Hall is also studded with the small, telling details that bring the 16th century vividly to light, sound and smell. We learn more about burning at the stake than we care to know, and page through some disgusting illnesses and executions. Cromwell’s past experience as a cloth merchant provides charming reflections on fabrics and embroidery. Some readers are put off by the fact that Mantel uses the third person singular and the present tense. She may want Wolf Hall to read as a play – all the world being a stage, after all – perhaps in homage to Shakespeare and to Robert Bolt, perhaps presaging a screenplay.

What is more distracting is some of the spelling forms she uses – Wykys for Cromwell’s wife’s name instead of the more familiar Wickes, and Rafe instead of Ralph Sadler. An explanation of what Praemunire meant would have gone a long way (Hutchinson explains that it is the accusation of the offence of serving a foreign dignitary such as the pope, thereby committing treason). And so would some mention of the fact that Cromwell managed to redefine “treason” in English law so that it encompassed even “malicious denial” of the royal title and, in the end, brought about his own disgrace.

Cromwell’s administrative and religious reforms are only hinted at in Mantel’s book, while they are given the space and consideration they deserve in Hutchinson’s:

What Cromwell did achieve was to widen the access of ordinary people to their religion by providing worship in their language …

His real attainments, however, were in government. He reformed the royal household and machinery of administration in England, laying down the foundations for today’s departments of state. His loyalty to Henry was unquestionable: all his inventive measures, all his punitive actions were directed at safeguarding the Tudor dynasty … Cromwell was determined that his England would never be torn apart by internecine rivalry between aristocratic power bases; he thus ensured that the nobility’s loyalty was purchased by the redistribution of monastic property. The proceeds of that privatisation also spread to a new class of emerging gentry, who became stakeholders in the peace and tranquility of a prosperous England.

Cromwell may appear authoritarian, cruel and malevolent to our modern eyes, with a cynical contempt for Parliament and justice but his actions were always motivated by what he perceived to be the best interests of his royal master and his realm … No doubt Thomas Cromwell would have felt comfortable in the government of a twentieth-century totalitarian state.

Maybe, and maybe 500 years ago he could have taught Machiavelli a thing or two in terms of power grabs and political spins, but there is indeed another side to the story. Thomas Cromwell is the man who reformed the poor laws and made each parish responsible for its own beggars. (He also instituted the practice of registering baptisms, marriages and deaths in the parish records). Thomas Cromwell regularly fed between 100 and 200 people who came to his gates every night in search of charity. Thomas Cromwell took in waifs and strays, protected them, gave them an education and a way of earning a living. Thomas Cromwell was loyal to his protectors and his country, and most of his actions were in furtherance of a higher end. If, in the process, his pockets – and gloves – got nicely lined, which of us is perfect enough to cast a stone?

In a world where ideologues like Thomas More carve a straightforward path through history, and today are prized for standing on principle (More has recently been canonized as a saint by the very church he went to his death opposing), there is always room for the fixers and pragmatists like Cromwell. Indeed, a case can be made that without the fixers and pragmatists the machinery of state would grind to a halt.

Wolf Hall ends in 1535 with Cromwell at the height of his powers. Anne Boleyn is still on the throne but failing to produce a male heir. Jane Seymour is waiting in the wings at the Seymour family home, Wolf Hall. Mantel is planning to finish the story in a sequel that she is calling The Mirror and the Light. Unfortunately it will have to portray Cromwell’s downfall and eventual execution as he too falls from favour and Henry utters his famous, hollow words: “Upon light pretexts, by false accusations they made him put to death the most faithful servant he ever had.”