Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Lean In To Power

There is a lot of discussion of the new book by the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandbergh. Lean In is a brief and breezy book that gives advice about leadership and negotiation. My only comment on the recent discussion is the emphasis on gender at the expense of everything else. Sandbergh writes from a position at the top of the corporate hierarchy. Fine. But a woman, or a man, making millions of dollars in compensation giving us advice while most people are struggling to get by has its limitations. As a guide to the corporate elite it is useful but since most of us do not inhabit this rarefied world the advice is limited. As an early memoir by a successful executive, no doubt with excellent editorial help as befits a corporate titan, it is acceptable. A guide for other woman, I think not. And yet much of the discussion is about the book as if it was a guide for women in the plural, as if the gender category can paper over a variety of experiences. Gender is entwined with race and class and age and sexual orientation. In terms of life chances a rich woman is different from a poor woman, their shared gender separated by a chasm of economic, political and social difference. The single category of woman is just too broad a term to stretch over the vast and often deepening fissures of social difference. Sandberg is a rich white women, not just a woman and while she shares the same gender as a maid working for minimum wages, their differences outweigh the singular similarity of gender. And any argument to the contrary is blather.  

There is lot of this type of blather about single categories, such as race, as if the intersection and combination with other categories of social difference, such as class and gender and sexual orientation, are unimportant. The single categories, such as gender or race, do not trump other forms of difference despite the tendency for movements to settle on these single issues. The world is more complex and we are more diverse. Consider Oprah Winfrey, a very, very rich black woman. She is as similar to Warren Buffet, a very, very rich old white man as she is to someone who only shares her ethnicity.The blather has a purpose.  It is the meat and drink of aspirational societies because its delusional assumption is that with hard work, a few tweaks, or perhaps the advice from someone successful, we could all make it to the very top. Hearing from a rich white women is thus supposed to give nurture to all women. This aspirational tosh allows an easy focus on single issues such a gender or race, without locating them in a wider socio-economic context or inserting them into broader and deeper issues of power and its distribution. And it has the underlying anti-progressive assumption that if we have more women as CEOs or more blacks or more gays then that is social advancement for all women, blacks and gays.

The real issue facing us is not about the gender of the elite or the race composition of power brokers; it is about how we transform the very relationship of power. The real struggle is about extending the rights of full citizenship to as many people, as possible and extending the limits of this citizenship. It is not about changing the composition of the boardrooms, it is about making the boardrooms less powerful.