“The Myth of the Catty Woman” – A Response

Slice of pie

I read a piece in the NY Times yesterday by Sheryl Sandberg in which she tries to break down what she calls “the myth of the catty woman.” You can read the article for yourself, but her thesis boils down to this: Despite the popular idea that women are not supportive of other women, research shows that at least in business and government, women create opportunities for women.

Here are three pieces of evidence that Sandberg offers up in support:

1. In companies where women are the chief executives, women have a better chance of joining senior management than if the chief executive is a man
2. On corporate boards, women are more likely to be mentored if there is already a woman on the board.
3. In Latin America between 1999 and 2013, female presidents appointed 24% more female ministers to their cabinets than the average for their region.

I have two problems with this argument:

1. Her claim is based on evidence drawn from a very, very, very, very thin slice of the population (Female Chief Executives? Female Latin American presidents?). And
2. She is comparing the actions of women in positions of power to the actions of men in positions of power. Are we really going to hold ourselves to standards set by 6000 years (at least!) of male patriarchy?

I say the metric is off.

Let’s, for a moment, apply these arguments to the example of Barack Obama. Can we in good faith say that we have now debunked “the myth of a racist America” because as a country we elected a Black man to not one but two terms? Sure, we can be hopeful that we are moving in the right direction, but to use words like “myth” plays right into the hands of the status quo.

Perhaps of greater concern is the fact that we continue to try to make “progress” in a system that is rigged in favor of the house. Let’s be real. Hierarchies favor the patriarchy. Corporations favor the patriarchy. And, dare I say it, government (by dint of being both hierarchies and corporations) favor the patriarchy.

I have spent almost my entire professional life in academia, and I have seen this sort of “progress” in action. Whereas more and more women and people of color are being admitted to the institution, the needle is much slower to shift when it comes to retention and promotion. Why? Because the system hasn’t kept pace with the diverse needs of those who serve it. We continue to shove square pegs into round holes, discard the ones that don’t fit, pat ourselves on the back for those that do fit (albeit poorly or at great cost), and call it a win.

In academic, at least, there is a “model scholar” profile, and it looks something like this:

1. Single-minded devotion to career
2. Niche interest and expertise
3. Excellent publication record
4. Record of winning grants
5. Expanded service to the university and/or professional organizations
6. Workaholic
7. Slightly mal-adjusted
8. Difficulty with small-talk
9. No difficulty with work-life balance (work is life–where’s the problem?)

Any deviation from this profile invites personal stress and agitation. There is no room for the professional woman who sets boundaries on her time or who refuses to publish at the child-free-I-have-no-life-but-work rates of her male colleagues. Just the other day I had an SOS text from a distraught friend who asked, “Why do I feel like such a failure? I have accomplished all my goals–earned a PhD, married a great guy, have two amazing kids, am gainfully employed, have a publication record–why do I still feel like I’m not doing enough?”

It’s because the metric is off.

The workplace is set up in very masculine ways–competition, hierarchies, inflexible schedules, bottom-line performance measures that ignore important value-additions such as cooperation and creativity, ways of communicating that disproportionately reward extraversion and assertion, the compartmentalization rather than integration of priorities, the valorization of skills such as single-focus, niche expertise (think “hunting”) compared to broader-focus, multiple expertise (“gathering”), the lack of systematic and structural support for families (since historically that work has been outsourced to an employee’s wife or significant other), and so on.

We (women) are trying to progress in a system that is ill-suited to us. And when we point that out in any kind of public way, we are chastised for not being able to “hack it,” not being able to (sorry, Sheryl) “lean in.”

It is not a myth that women have to play in a system that favors men.

It is not a myth that women have to compete for a limited slice of the pie.

It is not a myth that the vast majority of women have neither mentors nor role models who offer alternate pathways to success.

So let’s not play into the hands of a corrupt system with false hope and palliative statistics.

I have no solutions.

But I sure as hell am not going to sit back and wave cheerfully when the emperor has no clothes!

Categories: Reflections

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