If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?

EXCERPT: Advice for loud, smart women in turbulent times

Imagine hearing the phrase: “Wow, you’re just like one of the guys!” Then imagine hearing the phrase: “Wow, you’re just like every other woman!”

Now decide which phrase is a compliment.

That didn’t take very long, did it? “Just like one of the guys” is usually high praise indeed. For most girls and women, it implies she’s independent, trustworthy, candid, and fair-minded and understands what it means to “code” (or at least get in touch with someone who does).

“Just like one of the guys” means she can throw fast and speak up, where, in contrast, the “acting like a girl” means she can speak fast and throw up.

Even for girls who never wanted to be a boy and never envied their brothers, or those who grew up in rare households where the phrase “gender equity” was thrown around as casually as “pass the salt,” the cultural association of masculinity with freedom, independence, and the ability to choose one’s own destiny without interference from biology (now often translated into the apparently benign and yet treacherous work/life balance mantra, espoused by those who reject the term “feminist” in favor of the term “humanist”), remains the blueprint for twenty-first-century America.

It’s impossible to escape the fact of masculine privilege. For those who identify with men, they see this cornerstone as a building block rather than a stumbling block. Like Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, or the Rules Girls, they escape the straitjacket of conventional femininity while lacing the stays on their sisters more tightly.

Even if you grew up in a house free of Barbies or devoid of Disney movies, no one can be raised in a vacuum. It’s like being allergic to houseplants or pets: Your own home can be free of cats, dogs, or philodendrons, but at a certain point you have to step outside. You can’t escape the atmosphere. You breathe it in, like pollen.

Isn’t it odd that only a rare woman wants to hear herself com- pared to a member of her own sex, as if it’s an insult beyond reconciliation? “Don’t call me ‘woman,’ ” snaps a character from one of Dorothy Parker’s stories, to which her paramour replies, “I’m sorry, darling, I didn’t mean to use bad words.”

We have internalized the idea of what I see as a kind of “Female Exceptionalism” so entirely that we don’t even notice it anymore. A smart, capable, alert, and confident girl or young woman will often, whether by her family, by her teachers, or by her bosses, be told that she belongs to the small elite group who are not like other members of her sex. This is meant—and is usually accepted—as an accolade.

For all the “Grrl Power” videos and songs, I’m not convinced much has changed since I was a teenager. Conspicuous as my Love’s Baby Soft perfume and twice as irritating, my scorn for other girls was unmistakable. They were getting beauty tips from Seventeen magazine while I was singing along to “At Seventeen”; they were bopping along to “Love Will Keep Us Together” while I was reading Looking for Mr. Goodbar, a literary novel about a woman’s desperation.

Growing up, I had eyebrow-raised contempt for those lesser creatures who spent all their time perfecting lip gloss and curling their hair—at least, I had contempt for the girls doing this. The cross-dressing guys in my school were far better at it. That’s one reason I maintain, to this day, the only ones who are happy to hear “You’re just like a woman!” are contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Forty years later, smart, hip female students queue up outside my office by the dozen to talk about how their best friends are male, how all the women they meet want to discuss only what’s trivial, and how their friends are bopping along to Taylor Swift while they’re reading Gone Girl, a literary novel about a woman’s desperation.

They repeat the catechism I used with few alterations: “All my best friends are guys. Guys just get me, you know? It’s not a sexual thing; we’re just friends. I have a boyfriend, but he doesn’t actually even hang out with my guy friends. But I can only really talk to my male friends because other girls are just, like, too jealous and weird and competitive.”

When I suggest that they connect with the other twenty-three women loitering in the hallway who feel precisely the same way, they shrug it off. They think I don’t get it.

But I get it: Like them, I longed for the imprimatur of masculine approval. My immediate family consisted of a father and a brother; I attended what had been an all-male college; I was promoted to full professor before menopause. I know what it’s like to live in Guy World and be encouraged to seek the tiara of the Woman Who Is Unlike Others.

How are we taught this? By the scene in Jane Austen novels where you learn to recognize the heroine because she is distinct and placed above her shallow, insignificant sisters. By the scene in every romantic comedy where the charming hero gazes at the female protagonist in wonderment and murmurs, “I don’t believe there’s another woman like you in the whole world.” By the fact that entry into a “man’s world” remains a ticket to what’s considered the “real world” or “professional world,” as if women are not quite people and are always amateurs.

In her short story “Man from Mars,” Margaret Atwood describes such a woman: “[S]he even had a kind of special position among men: she was an exception, she fitted none of the categories they commonly used when talking about girls: she wasn’t a cock-teaser, a cold fish, an easy lay, or a snarky bitch; she was an honorary person. She had grown to share their contempt for most women.”

Here’s the question: Can a woman run with the big dogs and avoid being thought of as a bitch? Not until women stop pretending to be what we aren’t and cross-acting (if not cross-dressing) as guys.

Until the reaction to hearing “You’re just like a woman” is “You mean I’m clever, creative, dynamic, and empathetic? Thanks!” we still have work to do.

Women are still working on getting hold of the map, or the keys, or at least the GPS coordinates to our most deeply cherished dreams. While multimillionaire Sheryl Sandberg’s slim volume, Lean In, seems to be offering a Google Earth picture of where women want to be—a place where men share parenting and homemaking responsibilities equally with their female partners, where gender-balanced workplaces are unremarkable, and where, by age forty-three, you’re worth hundreds of millions of dollars and running a couple of Fortune 500 companies—I think Sandberg’s offering more of a mirage than a map.

Sure, it sounds lovely: a place where Glinda the Good Witch not only wears Prada but also is COO of Prada and hires her green sister to work in human resources because women have to learn to work together. And I sure do appreciate that Sandberg uses the f word—“feminist”—to describe her work and her perspective; “feminist” is still the most intimidating f word in America. Lots of young women avoid the f word. I’ve had female students trip all over themselves to avoid using it: “I’m getting a doctoral fellowship from NASA after I complete my NEA grant, although I hope it’s the work I did for girls in Tanzania in the Peace Corps that’ll be my legacy. But I’m not a feminist. I like lipstick and want to get married one day.” They fear feminism is about wearing your hair in braids and yelling slogans blaming men for stuff.

(There are six women in Berkeley still doing this. They’re fabulous and I’m grateful to them for getting the whole thing going.) I’ve argued that feminism is the belief that women are human beings. I simply assume everybody  I meet—men and women alike—is a feminist because I give people the benefit of the doubt. You’re using cutlery? You don’t wear T-shirts saying “Men: no shirt, no service; Women: no shirt, free drinks!”? You don’t think women are just a man’s way of making more men? Then, honey, you’re a feminist.

It’s my version of feminism, which is sort of like a hip nun’s version of Catholicism—affirming to all and not guided by rulebooks or doctrinal declarations—that makes me uncertain whether to applaud or denounce the ruckus going on within what is unnervingly called the Mommy War. I always start by explaining that I’ve never raised young children. I have two terrific stepsons—now at that absolutely adorable age where they are attorneys—and that’s why I rarely weigh in on motherhood discussions. I’m not a card-carrying member; mine is a proxy vote.

Yet what gets me is this: Why do women feel unqualified to comment on subjects beyond those we know firsthand—as I do when talking about raising children? Ever notice the number of experts on women’s issues and motherhood—not just parenting, but motherhood—who seem to be men? They’re not apologizing for not having firsthand experience. Women waste a whole lot of precious time trying to judge ourselves and evaluate our worth. We have to stop competing with other women, as if women who make other choices in their lives are our adversaries.

Checking to see if you’re better or worse than other women is the moral and ethical version of trying to catch a glimpse of yourself unawares in a storefront window; it hardly ever works. The view is always distorted.

Current cultural clichés insist today’s woman is either trying on negligees while having the nanny deal with the triplets or else having her bunions shaved, the ones caused by wearing steel-toed, hardworking shoes.

It’s not that easy.

At certain moments, Sandberg sounds as if she doesn’t understand how nickeled-and-dimed women really live and work. She sounds a little like an ace pilot giving a pep talk to baggage handlers. If you’ve never been on a plane, it’s a little hard to feel the wind under your wings—especially when you’re handling valuable goods ultimately going to other people.

When Sandberg talks about “forcing” herself to leave the office at 5:30 so she could go home and have dinner with her kids, for example—because otherwise her new job would prove “unsustainable”—I’m thinking about those friends of mine who work as sous-chefs, taxi dispatchers, and sales associates. What if they told their bosses their work/life balance would become “unsustainable” if they didn’t leave earlier than everybody else?

I doubt their employers would have employed the language of Mark Zuckerberg. Sandberg’s boss cheers his colleague for having “an extremely high IQ and EQ,” thus praising both her brains and her emotional acumen.

When I asked the taxi dispatcher whether her EQ came into play at work, her reply was as follows: “If I even said the term ‘EQ’ to one of these guys, their immediate response would be, ‘Yeah? Well, EQ too.’ ”

What did she think about Lean In?

“At my job, if I lean in, guys just look down my blouse.”

For many of us, reading books about wildly high-profile women is a form of masochism. It’s like tearing off your cuticles. We turn pages and wonder, “Why can’t I be more like her?”

Then we think what we could have done better.

If only we’d been more focused as teenagers. (That probably would have been possible.) And if only we’d done our senior thesis at Harvard with Larry Summers, who’d have coached us to get our MBA at Harvard and then hired us at twenty-nine to become chief of staff at the Treasury Department. (Maybe slightly less possible.) I’m just saying that not everybody has access to the same playing field as Sandberg and that point needs to be recognized.

Some people are still on the public bus trying to get to the field where the game is being played; it takes a longer time if you have to transfer from one route to another.

The lives of all adult human beings are awkward, messy, and full of glandular issues. As human beings, women are no exception. Yet we keep thinking we should be; we keep thinking we are not included in “all adult human beings” but must be separated into increasingly smaller categories.

But until every woman has access to employment at wages equal to her male colleagues, until women are not told, as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, that women should trust “the system” and rely on “karma” to reward them financially and not ask for raises (as if that’s worked really well up to now), and until every child has a stable secure home, everything else sidesteps the real issue of equity.

Excerpted from If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse? by Gina Barreca. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

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