"No one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table," said Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in her widely viewed TED talk, "and no one gets the promotion if they don't think they deserve their success, or they don't even understand their own success." In her new book, Lean In, Sandberg promises to expand on these ideas — and people are taking issue even before it’s hit the bookstores. She’s "tone-deaf to the problems average women face," argues Maureen Dowd. Other commentators have suggested that the skills Sandberg wants women to practice — including self- advocacy and negotiation — are the tools of "elites."
We don’t think so. Self-advocacy and negotiation skills, among others, are essential for developing young women as leaders. At Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges, the oldest and the largest all-women’s college in the United States, respectively, 20 percent of students are not "elites" but are the first in their families to attend college – and this reflects a national trend. About 30 percent of the young people attending college (a majority of whom are women) are "first-generation." We realize, based on Annette Lareau’s now often-cited research, that self-advocacy, asking questions of authority figures, and acting as the impetus for change are practices more familiar to individuals growing up in upper-middle-class families — because these skills are often modeled and encouraged. Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles published a study in 2009 showing that first-generation college students were less likely to participate during class, e-mail faculty members and attend office hours, or assist faculty with research for credit — yet these skills are associated with success at college and beyond.
It is with these students in mind that we teach the skills Sandberg recommends. When students learn to construct and voice their opinions — offering a new or conflicting view in class, sharing criticism effectively, or approaching a professor confidently — we believe they will become graduates who believe they’re entitled to speak up and ask for a fair share.
Yes, we said entitled. While the "e" word may call to mind college students who expect a decent grade just for attending class, or entry-level millennials who balk at the idea of working their way up, we see another dimension of entitlement: the recognition that you deserve a voice and a place at the table.
Let’s not forget that women make up less than 5 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and 25 percent of elected officials (even after a big election year for women), and they make 77 cents or less for every dollar a man makes. We are encouraged that all over the country, small movements teach women to feel entitled to push past real but often invisible barriers that keep them from influential positions. The OpEd Project has set a goal of increasing the number of women opinion makers — and that’s starting to happen. The number of women’s voices on the nation’s opinion pages has increased 6 percent in the last six years, because when more women submit their writing, more women’s voices are published. Project 2012 aimed to increase the number of female political leaders by encouraging more women to run — and it’s working. The number of women in public office increased during the last election to 20 women senators, because, when more women run, more are elected. Women need to feel entitled to throw their hats in the ring because when more women compete, more win. It’s that simple.
Sandberg’s advice isn’t just for elite women. It’s for real women, for young women, and especially for first-generation women and women of color.
Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges are both committed to guiding women — who often come from modest backgrounds — to "sit at the table." A Latina student who worked her way from a community college to Smith is now a finalist for a prestigious fellowship; a first-generation college student at Mount Holyoke published an article with her adviser. These pathways start from encouraging students to raise a hand, to apply, to put themselves out there.
Our leadership centers offer training in speaking up in class and speaking up in the media. This year we asked the OpEd Project to talk to our students, and we offered workshops to hone drafts. Last year, we brought an expert to teach a workshop, "Ask For It," to more than 100 students, and we continue to offer workshops on negotiation. Other campuses are expanding their leadership programming. At Texas Tech University, the Women and Leadership program offers female college students opportunities to hone their leadership skills including public speaking and community organizing. At Seattle Central Community College, they offer a range of women’s leadership programs, including one focused on political organizing around women’s rights. From Portland State University to the University of Virginia, women’s leadership programs emphasize confidence through skill-building.
We understand that teaching women from a range of backgrounds to feel entitled to speak up in class won’t change mind-boggling social policies that leave the United States trailing other countries. Showing students why and how to ask for more money in their first jobs won’t change laws that leave working families struggling when a new baby arrives, or when a child is sick.
But when women college students develop the skills that Sandberg argues are most important, they are gaining the capacity to change the world, as decision-makers and opinion leaders. As community members, teachers, parents and friends, we can encourage women in our lives to feel entitled to speak up, to ask for more, to run for office, to shape the media’s message. "Leaning in" is not just a good idea for elite women — it’s a good idea for all women.
Becky Wai-Ling Packard is director of the Weissman Center for Leadership at Mount Holyoke College. Jessica Bacal is director of the Wurtele Center for Work & Life at Smith College.
Submitted by David Vine on September 20, 2012 - 3:05am
After a (completely unnecessary) controversy erupted last week about my American University colleague Adrienne Pine breast-feeding in class, it occurred to me that Karl Marx, of all people, might offer some insight on the matter. After leaving a seminar where some of my students and I had been reading Marx, I sent the class the following thoughts. Although Marxist terminology and obscure academic language of all kinds generally make me cringe, in this case, despite his being (like me) lactation-challenged, Marx's words seemed helpful.
When I got home tonight, I realized that Adrienne's saga can be explained, at least in part, with the help of Marx. The precipitating incident -- breast-feeding her child in class -- was only necessary because Adrienne didn't have any child-care options for her child. Child care is part of what Marx calls the "reproduction of labor power," or reproduction, necessary for humans to sustain themselves as workers from day to day -- and biologically from generation to generation. If there is no one to watch her child during the day, Adrienne (and many others) generally can't work. If Adrienne works and doesn't have someone care for the child or if the child gets limited care or if the child doesn't get fed, the child literally may not survive to see the next day or make it to adulthood to become a worker herself.
The child care -- itself a form of labor -- necessary to sustain Adrienne and her child from day to day costs something, of course. Adrienne has to pay this cost as her employer (i.e., American University) does not (as far as I know) provide any child care for children under 2 1/2 (and only on a limited, space-available basis above that age).The cost then of the child care, of the labor necessary to sustain herself and her child, comes out of her wages. However, the rules of Adrienne's child-care providers say that Adrienne cannot leave a sick child with them. Again, Adrienne's employer (i.e., American University) does not provide emergency child care for sick children -- another kind of labor necessary to sustain workers and their children from day to day -- forcing Adrienne to find another solution (in this case, laboring doubly by teaching and caring for her child simultaneously -- no easy feat, but manageable with a child under the age of one, allowing her to maintain her high-quality teaching).
According to American University's statement to The Washington Post, the administration apparently thinks Adrienne endangered student health by bringing her sick child to school and that she should have taken earned leave or sick leave on the first day of class. Putting aside the dubious public health claims -- a walk down a dorm hallway is surely far more dangerous than a baby with a slight fever at the front of a lecture hall -- earned and sick leave are both employee benefits -- that is, part of the total wage Adrienne gets as a worker from her employer (i.e., American University). Which means the employer (i.e., American University), like most employers, wanted Adrienne to further subsidize the costs of reproduction, of sustaining herself and her child, by giving up some of her earned time off. Which also means that the employer (i.e., American University) wanted Adrienne to rob her students of the value (economic, intellectual, spiritual) of an important first day of class, either in whole (if Adrienne had been unable to find a substitute) or in part (even if she could have found a substitute, it's hard to imagine one who could have done justice to her first day of class).
That Adrienne's and my employer (i.e., American University) is now criticizing her publicly is a sign that the employer's leaders are more concerned with 1) maintaining the price and what Marx calls the "exchange value" of the commodity they're offering (i.e., the tuition the university can charge for academic degrees), and 2) ensuring a steady demand (i.e., students) for that commodity than they are concerned about what Marx calls the commodity's "use value" (the quality, utility, or usefulness of the teaching and learning involved in earning degrees). Ultimately, I suspect that this public relations strategy of publicly criticizing one of its workers to try to maintain the price and demand for its commodity will backfire. The employer (i.e., American University) and its leaders will come out looking worse than they do already 1) for attacking a female worker trying to fulfill her work expectations and sustain herself and her child, 2) for perpetuating sexist cultural norms that prevent women from feeling safe breast-feeding in public when they should have every right to do so, and 3) for perpetuating the masculinist idea that the classroom and the workplace are spaces where the bodily and personal needs of workers have no place.
That anyone, whether students or employees of the school newspaper or others, thought Adrienne's breast-feeding worthy of commentary in the first place also reflects some of the embedded sexism in our society: from the general forced subordination of women to men under capitalism (which Friedrich Engels shows us) to the simultaneously hyper-sexualized objectification of women's bodies and fear of those same bodies when women expose them on their own terms. So too, the saga reflects the double burden placed on women workers forced, historically under capitalism, both to labor in the workplace and to do most of the unpaid work of reproduction, of sustaining themselves and male family members in the kitchen, in the laundry, in the bedroom.
There is more to be said from a feminist Marxist perspective about how our society shames breast-feeding women and forces them to veil their breasts, about how women should be allowed to breast-feed everywhere and anywhere, including in the workplace, but for now, I need to care for some of my own daily reproduction work by going to sleep so that I can labor again tomorrow for my employer (i.e., American University), who could have avoided this whole saga by purchasing the labor-power of its employees (like Adrienne) at a reasonable price that would include more of the basic costs of reproduction (like child care, ordinary and emergency) that so often fall on women's uncompensated backs (and, frankly, breasts).
David Vine is assistant professor of anthropology at American University.