Travel reads: gender

More on books! One book,  ‚Lean in‘ by Sheryl Sandberg, has long been on my list, but But I’ve also been skeptical. Sandberg encourages women to ‘lean in’ fully, not holding anything back because of societal and/or internalised barriers and norms. While I still think this is not the major problem underlying the whole gender inequality conundrum, I nevertheless was able to take away a few valuable lessons. Sandberg describes various scenarios in which women themselves hold something back. Thinking of myself as a strong and ambitious woman, I was quite surprised to see myself in these descriptions – holding back, not giving everything. So I would totally recommend the book; it helped me realise that I, too, have these internal barriers, and helped me recognise situations in which they might be at play. The take-away message for me boils down to two quotes: “What would you do if you weren‘t afraid?” And “don‘t leave before you leave”, meaning don‘t cut back because of something (e.g. having kids) that is not yet a factor but might influence your career in the future – only do something when it’s happening, not preemptively and ahead of time.

I was skeptical of the book beforehand, and I still think, while identifying and removing those internal and self-imposed barriers is important, it is by far not the whole story. Putting the emphasis on the women to lean in puts even more pressure and potentially also blame on them. Sandberg discusses this and acknowledges that she does not want to put the women to blame, but help identify things that the women themselves can change, and so empower them. I did find, somewhat unexpectedly, that the book holds lessons to empower me, but in the bigger picture, I doubt this will be enough. First, women who ‚lean in‘ are often perceived as competent but not nice (this fallacy is also discussed in the book), so leaing in might come at a social cost. Secondly, and more fundamentally, our culture does not associate women with power – this is thoughtfully discussed in another book I read, ‚Women and Power‘ by Mary Beard. It‘s a short read, based on two talks the Cambridge Classics professor gave, and powerfully illustrates that starting with the Romans, women have been held away from positions of power, and if they did hold these positions, it was an anomaly, or a caricature. Beard is able to make these arguments much more thoroughly and convincingly, so go and read the book!

Taken together, there are plenty of things women can do to not hold themselves back, but there are also many more things that the society as a whole needs to change. Next time you imagine a politician, or a lawyer, or a doctor, check whether you could also imagine a woman in that position.

In case you haven’t had enough yet, I highly recommend ‚Delusions of gender‘ by Cordelia Fine for a deeper discussion of sex differences, including on how all of us inadvertently treat men and women differently.

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