May 6 2013
Women’s groups measure overall female success in terms of power: the number of women CEOs, for example, or the number of women in government leadership positions. It is an accepted doctrine that the main goal of feminism is to ensure that women rule as many institutions as men do. This makes sense, as feminism has always been interested in power and, in particular, the power struggle between the sexes. But does this overemphasis on management promote happiness?
An article in The Atlantic revisits findings from the famous Grant Study, which followed over 200 men from their undergraduate days (in the late 1930s) to their nineties. The study finds overwhelming evidence that both human happiness and success is dependent upon the quality of personal relationships. Further, the Grant Study concludes that happiness leads to both financial and professional success, and not the other way around. I suppose feminists can object to these findings, as only men were subjects. But would they have us believe that relationships are less important to women than they are to men?
The central question is this: how compatible is the feminist goal of women power with human happiness? Sheryl Sandburg contends that women will be happy if they “lean in” to their work. This is undoubtedly true on a basic level: professional excellence is a component of happiness. But professional excellence does not necessarily mean managing (or ruling) other people. There are many industries in which the top creators or designers in the field do not manage anyone at all. The feminists’ preoccupation with power or “being the boss” overlooks the accomplishments of many women who are thriving in their careers, but whose names are not listed in top management. Obviously, management ability and creative talent are two very different skills. There is no reason to celebrate the former and ignore the latter.
In fact, there are real drawbacks to being the boss. It is difficult for CEO types to maintain flexible work schedules, for example, as management positions require a physical presence in the workplace. Often, it is not possible for the manager to work smarter or more efficiently in order to shorten her workday. In order to succeed, management-types must “lean in” as Sandburg advises, sacrificing large quantities of family and personal time in order to put work obligations first. Sandburg assumes that women who fail to ascend to upper management do so unwillingly, in the face of discouragement or discrimination. Is Sandburg too self-centered to admit that different women have different interests and skills? Not everyone longs to manage other people. Perhaps these women value happiness over ambition, and relationships over ruling.