Women Are at the Table, So Now What?

Women Are at the Table, So Now What?

The focus of feminism has long been on inclusion and equality: giving women access where they had been shut out, ensuring the same opportunities and rewards as for men. This focus can distract from a harder, pertinent question: How would everything in the world be different if the female half of humanity had not been more or less locked out of its design?

It is a tricky subject. Many arguments for equality flow from the premise that gender differences have historically been overstated. To suggest that women have a distinct way of thinking is, in this view, to flirt with the kind of logic that held them down.

And yet other arguments for equality suggest that limiting the diversity of any gathering curtails the range of life experiences and perspectives in the room, and results in narrower, dumber decisions. In this view, it is at least plausible to maintain that the way meetings are conducted, wars are waged, books are written — that these ways were influenced by the absence of those without a direct voice.

At a high-powered gathering in a Manhattan drawing room this month, several dozen women (and a few men) discussed what some ambitiously billed as a new wave of the women’s movement. If the first waves sought to secure women seats at the table, this purported new wave was framed as a logical next step: an attempt to reimagine what goes on at the table, now that some women are sitting there.

The summit meeting’s hosts, the television anchor Mika Brzezinski and the media entrepreneur Arianna Huffington, invited attendees to focus on the meaning of success. Has the definition of success historically been hijacked by myopic men? Are women now in a position to expand it? What are the perils of women’s doing so, and of suggesting that their definition of success is different?

In recent months, American elites have been consumed by discussions of women and work. The scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter stirred a raucous debate with an article questioning whether women could really “have it all” — career, family, joy. The Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg published her book, “Lean In,” urging women to shed fears and assert themselves more forcefully at work.

The meeting in Ms. Huffington’s apartment departed from this ongoing debate about how women should or shouldn’t be, what they should or shouldn’t seek. Its underlying assumption was that the culture of work in general is in a bad way, and that women’s struggles to find balance are only glimpses of a larger problem: “These women are the canaries in the mine,” said Elsa Walsh, the author of a book about successful women’s struggles.

In other words, we may all be working and living wrong. Perhaps women, in coming late to the modern work force, are better able to see what’s amiss.

Various diagnoses were offered throughout the day. There was widespread agreement that the culture of “time macho,” as Ms. Slaughter has called it, and of white-collar American professionals bathing in the pride of being “crazy busy,” are pervasive and harmful. Technology, in bringing the office calendar and whiteboard into bed with you, only worsens things.

A pair of experts who study multitasking tried to resolve the old debate about whether women or men do it better: There is no such thing, they argued. “You’re not multitasking,” said Donna Rockwell, a psychologist. “You’re just not doing anything well.”

Much of this is related more to a hyperconnected, globalizing age than to differences between women and men. But there were recurring suggestions that men have built a world of work that is fundamentally unbalanced, excessively focused on money and power, dismissive of the body’s need for renewal.

John P. Mackey, co-founder of the Whole Foods grocery empire, argued that men’s metaphors for business have tended to derive from sports, war and Darwinian ideas. He called for women’s metaphors — once again, a tricky business: What are women’s metaphors? — to infuse business and improve it.

The new world conjured at the summit meeting remains vague and sketchy. But it seems to involve things like meditation before meetings and nap rooms at the office; flexible arrangements to allow all workers, not just women, to sell an employer as many hours of labor each week as they wish; “digital detox days”; and full, impregnable nights of sleep.

An oft-repeated concern was that calling for such things is perilous for women who have only recently succeeded in gaining access to Fort Privilege. Can women simultaneously argue for their ability to work as hard as men and suggest that no one should work that hard?

The key, many suggested, was to frame the new ways of working as performance enhancements. That would make them appear gender-neutral. Terms like “renewal” are better than “breathing” or “transcendental meditation,” perhaps. “Renewal is not for slackers,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri.

Of course, there is risk in this approach, too. To make the case for greater attention to well-being in terms of its effect on work performance may be to win the battle and lose the war. The victor remains the idea that what is good for work is good for us. Read more…

© The New York Times/Anand Giridharadas

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