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The Rise of Executive Feminism

Harvard Business Review

In the aftermath of the publication of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, two things are becoming clear. One: we are in the midst of a powerful new feminist movement. And two: the backlash has already begun.

Led by high-powered women like Sandberg and Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, a new wave of executive feminism has emerged aimed squarely at the highest levels of the professional world. And it's becoming increasingly clear that's sorely needed: Only 21 Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Women make up 15 percent of Fortune 500 executive officers and 15 percent of law firm equity partners. They make up 30 percent of doctors, but comprise barely more than 10 percent of doctors in each of the top five highest-paid medical specialties.

For a while it looked like this problem would fix itself, but at this point we've being waiting for top-level women to emerge from the pipeline for forty years. Waiting isn't working. Women earn more college degrees than men, make up about 46 percent of the labor force, and hold more than half of managerial and professional positions. But men still run the world. (Literally — women make up 18 percent of the United States Congress, and about 20 world leaders out of 193 United Nations recognized states.)

Women leak out of the pipeline well before they reach the top. To take one example, women's law school enrollment peaked in 1993, at 50.4 percent. Twenty years later, when these women should be reaching the peaks of their careers, they make up barely 15 percent of law firm equity partners.

It's not your mother's gender inequality — but it's no less real. At current rates, it will take nearly three centuries for women to reach parity as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Here's where we stand: Women can get low-paid jobs. They can get middle-management jobs. Very few have jobs at the top.

This is the new frontier of feminism. Quite suddenly, some of the women who have reached the top are speaking out about just how hard it is for women to get there. Executive feminists like Sandberg and Slaughter have eschewed the long-held wisdom that leading an open discussion on gender bias is a bad career move. They follow Mika Brzezinski, who led the way with an impassioned book about gender bias in pay in 2011.

Research shows that women who succeed in jobs dominated by men, not surprisingly, often do so by distancing themselves from other women. What's impressive is that Sandberg, Slaughter, and Brzezinski aren't following that conventional wisdom. They are embracing change with the argument that maybe executive feminism is just what we need to jump-start the stalled gender revolution. More women in power might well lead to greater success in other arenas: note that every female GOP senator voted for the recent reauthorization of the Violence Again Women Act. The people in power are the people who shape policy, whether in business or in politics or in the neighborhood garden club. It's as simple as that.

The conversation these women have started is easy to dismiss. One line of attack is implicit in the gleeful (and exaggerated) coverage of Sandberg and Slaughter's differences: Typical women, whining and catfighting. The other criticism is that executive feminists are out of touch with regular people — they all have nannies; what do they know about an average woman's struggles? The backlash against executive feminism gets at the heart of what's really holding women back: the kind of subtle bias that has stalled women's progress.

The first major theme, the catfight narrative, has persisted despite the lack of evidence to support it. To hear many people tell it, Slaughter and Sandberg are at each other's throats; Jodi Kantor in The New York Times claims that they have "quietly developed perhaps the most notable feminist row since Ms. Friedan refused to shake Gloria Steinem's hand decades ago." Her evidence? Unnamed sources, and a statement by Slaughter that Sandberg's book "has made a real contribution, but it's only half the story." Since when is "real contribution" an insult?

Meanwhile, Slaughter has been tweeting compliments, and wrote a positive review of Sandberg's book for the New York Times Book Review. The day Kantor's story was published, Slaughter enthusiastically recommended Sandberg's book to a roomful of young women at Yale Law School, where Rachel is a student. It's deeply important to watch these patterns play out at such a visible level. Women from all walks of life have watched as a disagreement they've had with another woman gets twisted out of proportion and recast as a petty blood feud. Having smart and savvy role models hash these biases out in the spotlight helps women far beyond the boardroom.

The backlash's second theme highlights society's lingering discomfort with powerful women. No one would ever think of scoffing at Warren Buffet for failing to consider his janitor's perspective in telling his life story. But that's the criticism that was leveled at Sandberg in an op-ed in the Washington Post. Over at the New York Times, Maureen Dowd made a baffling leap from the fact that Sandberg is an extremely talented businesswoman to the inference that Lean In is a cynical marketing move. A blogger for The Wall Street Journal compared Sandberg to Marie Antoinette. The message: wealth is unseemly in a woman.

What do Slaughter and Sandberg know about an average woman's struggles? Not much. Between the two of them, they have more wealth and political power than most small towns. That's what we can learn from them.

Scolding wealthy and powerful women for their ambition, for themselves and others, reflects the 19th century notion that the only suitable public role for women is an extension of their role as the "Angel in the House," selflessly dedicating themselves to the welfare of others. We don't think care work should be devalued — but an important step in changing that norm is to get women who understand the problem in positions of power. Then you get voices that can critique the low value given family work on a national scale, which is exactly what Slaughter did.

Women will never reach, or thrive in, positions of power as long as their wealth is shameful or their opinions belittled. Executive feminism recognizes that even wealthy and powerful women run into gender bias — and the resulting clog in the pipeline affects all of us. If our automatic reaction is to criticize these women for being too powerful and too successful, that doesn't mean she's doing anything wrong. It means we are.

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