Warning: Women at Work

Three white, privileged and rich women have recently taken to writing books about how they have made it to the top either by leaning in, leaning out or  by “being so good they wouldn’t be ignored”. Enter Sheryl Sandberg, Helena Morrissey and Megyn Kelly. Always a sucker for good advise, I sat down to read their thoughts in “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead“, “A Good Time to be a Girl” and “Settle for More” respectively (I wrote about Kelly’s “Settle for More” earlier).

While American Sandberg and Kelly are more or less household names by now, those of you who do not read the British Vogue as religiously as I do, might have skipped the recent introduction of Helena Morrissey, one of the few female top bankers (former CEO of Newton) in the City of London, an inspirational equality activist and, rather surprisingly, a pro-Brexiteer.

Sandberg, a Harvard University alumna and responsible for, ahem, making Facebook turn more profit via advertising as the company’s COO (though she surely is not solely responsible for the rather awkward situation facing the Facebook HQ at the moment), wrote “Lean In” in 2013 which quickly became one of the top women at work -bibles of the 2010s. Sandberg encouraged women to ditch the barriers that stood between them and career advancement and to lean in to positions of power. So far so good.

Megyn Kelly also gave career advise, mainly in the vein of “dontcha worry if your (male) boss regularly goes our for drinks with your (male) colleagues and does not invite you – turn this into a fabulous opportunity to work your arse off in the meanwhile so that you become so good that they cannot ignore your anymore and then you will get promoted”. This, also, is very straightforward.

Morrissey states it flat out on the cover of her book: don’t lean in. No, what we must do is to change the system. She explains the setting up of the “30% Club” – business initiative that she founded in the UK a couple of years ago, the aim being to have more gender-balanced company boards. The initiative has gotten traction in the UK and counts many businesses as members. Morrissey herself does not advocate gender quotas through legislation, but is basically pushing for a quota via voluntary measures. Fantastic if this works out. Morrissey is big on involving men at all levels of her work – she says repeatedly that women talking exclusively to other women will not get us anywhere. 

Morrissey’s husband is a stay-at-home-husband (they have nine kids) who also gets his say in the book. I find this relevant to her story, because her family has turned the traditional gender roles upside down on many levels (let’s not forget that Morrissey not only is the breadwinner but also works in a highly male-dominated industry). As befits the 4th wave feminism, she also writes about diversity more generally, not just from a male-female point of view. 

What I like about all three –  Sheryl, Megyn and Helena –  is that they sat down and wrote these books. It’s important for us mere mortals to be able to read their stories, even though some of the advise does appear relevant only at the point where one actually has become the COO of Facebook. There are enough women who reach superstardom during their careers and at that point stop rooting for other women, possibly because they feel they never got any sisterly help themselves. 

However, I cannot help but think how interesting it would be to see more books for men about changing the system, as Morrissey calls it. It’s tricky for us women to change everything on our own, though we’ll get there this way, too, it will just take much more time. We tell each others at the same time to play by the rules (to be one of the guys), to change the system, to lean in and to lean out. Nobody tells the men what to do to change the system to have more balance (I liked the bit where Morrissey wrote how often she needs to justify the business case of having more  diverse management. Funnily there has never been any business case to have 100% male boards and company managements). 

While none of the three books are meant to be feminist manifests and shouldn’t be read as such, they remain very shy about really making a big effin’ deal about gender imbalances on company management and executive boards, and rather push the responsibility to women. For anyone who asks why we should give a flying fuck whether there are a few more overpaid female company execs on boards or not – yes, we should and it does matter. Company rules for maternity- and parental leaves, promotions, salaries etc are decided by the management boards. That’s why women must sit on them.

In matters of advice on life it’s often useful to check the privilege (including my own) and it applies here as well. I think all three books are actually good in their niche, and while the authors are white, privileged and rich, I suppose their target audience are women working in the same industries, ie. tech, media and banking, and who identify with Sheryl, Megan and Helena. There could be far worse idols and career totem animals than these three. 

To conclude I’ll give you a soundbite from Morrissey’s book that I liked – though am fully aware that it can also be interpreted as being supercharged with wealthy privilege. Even still, here you are: Leap before you look.

The picture below is taken of a photography artwork by Jenny Boot called “Ode to Vermeer” that was displayed at the Affordable Art Fair in Brussels a few weeks ago. More information: www.publichouseofart.com 

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