Okay. So, in an op-ed that ran in Saturday’s New York Times, former Portfolio (the now defunct biz title from Conde Nast) editor Joanne Lipman lamented the place of women in society today. Sort of. After reading it several times, the best way I can describe it is not especially well thought-out. (With an impossible to explain reference to 9/11.) But apparently, I’m being far too kind. Lipman’s piece has been ripped apart by Jezebel, Gawker, and the NYTPicker. Each is entertaining, in its own special way, but Foster Kramer, a (male) writer at Gawker, goes for the jugular:
It’s inaccurate, intellectually offensive, and gratingly pompous… Lipman’s essay actually reads like a subversive ‘Portfolio failed not because I was at the top, but because a woman was at the top in a still very male-dominated world’ tome.
So hostile, Mr. Kramer. (For a saner take on the reported inaccuracies of Lipman’s piece, check out the NYTPicker.)
Regardless of Lipman’s own situation and the arguments in her piece (incohesive as they may be), the facts remain: by certain measures, the place of women in society today is indeed lamentable. We’ve covered that. Of course, considering how far we’ve come, it’s also pretty impressive. We’ve covered that, too. This post is about neither of the above.
And this post is about neither of those above, either.
What struck me as most interesting was an observation that none of the haters cared to hit upon, when Lipman wrote (after detouring into a mini-rant about women being portrayed as either “witches or bimbos, with pretty much no alternative in between”):
I’ve been puzzled by these screeds, which are so at odds with the real achievements documented in the Shriver Report and elsewhere. And then it struck me: Part of the reason we’ve lost our way, part of the reason my generation became complacent, is that many of us have been defining progress for women too narrowly. We’ve focused primarily on numbers at the expense of attitudes.
She then proceeds with the advice portion of the entertainment: ask for raises and promotions! have a sense of humor! and don’t be afraid to be ‘a girl’! By way of response to that, I’ll quote Jezebel’s Anna N, who enumerates the problems thus:
Yes, women could use workplace assertiveness training. And yes, teachers and parents should be raising girls to be active rather than passive, and not to expect “unrealistic perfection in every sphere, from beauty to housekeeping.” But why does the conversation about women and career advancement always have to be framed in terms of women asking for raises and promotions? I get that in today’s world it’s a necessary career skill, but a common critique of America’s educational system is that it values obedience and docility, qualities that supposedly come easier to girls than to boys. Parents and other advocates use this as evidence that the school system needs to be changed to be more male-friendly–but women are still expected to change to be more workplace-friendly. I don’t believe that boys are naturally less obedient, or women naturally less assertive. But we are still socialized differently, and the culture of many American workplaces is dominated by values developed and perpetuated by men–including self-promotion and aggressiveness. Again, plenty of women have these qualities in spades. But for those who don’t, why can’t workplace culture change to, say, reward hard work instead of repeated demands? Why do women always have to be the ones to budge?
She makes some good points. But there’s something there that doesn’t quite wash. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
But first: the place Lipman could have gone, the place I wish she would have gone, is where she started to go when she said this:
Women define success differently; for some it may be a career, for others the ability to stay home with children. They also define themselves differently. I’m in the unfortunate position of witnessing many friends and colleagues laid off over the past year. But the women are less apt to fall apart–and this goes even for the primary breadwinners–because they are less likely to define themselves by their job in the first place.
And I think that’s something to think about. (Okay, I’m busted–I’ve talked about this before, too.) As women, we are different. Not different bad or different good, just different. And I think a certain level of our frustration has come as a result of the fact that we’ve been loathe to own it. (And therein lies my beef with Jezebel’s Anna N.: reread that quote above, and notice how quick she is to back off.)
When we first began making inroads, we were necessarily preoccupied with breaking down barriers, gaining some level of acceptance, blending in. To focus on what makes us different would have been a risk–to concede a point or two to those who’d happily count it as ammunition in the “See, you don’t want to be in the boardroom, sweetheart. Wouldn’t you rather be at home making that nice tuna noodle casserole you do so well?”
But we’ve proven we can play their game. So why the reluctance now? Is to claim a difference necessarily to claim a weakness? Or is to do so to forfeit our feminist card? Or have we been brainwashed so thoroughly that we’ve allowed ourselves to remain blinded to what may be our biggest strength of all: The fact that we are different?
I love what Cristine Russell wrote in “Girls, Women and Double Dutch” Monday on The Atlantic‘s web site:
Perhaps it’s time to realize that achieving “equality” is an elusive goal. We are indeed making immense progress in women’s rights and opportunities, but the goal posts keep moving. They always will–and should. In fact, for most women, real progress is the journey, not the destination, in the experience of becoming a successful woman, regardless of your own definition of what constitutes success. It’s an ongoing, complicated conversation.
Ongoing, complicated conversation. I know a few women who are pretty good at that.