Work Isn’t Everything, But It Touches Everything Else

April 30, 2013 0 Comments

In case you missed it, Sheryl Sandberg’s brand of feminism continues to draw controversy, which as we know from Gloria Feldt is a good thing as controversy draws attention to a cause and nudges us all toward greater clarity. In response to Sandberg, Elsa Walsh just wrote an interesting op-ed, “Why Women Should Embrace a Good Enough Life,” offering a new generation of women alternative visions for how to balance work, marriage, and motherhood.

I appreciate Elsa’s piece because she acknowledges what feels helpful about Lean In, and then pushes the conversation forward. The public debate about women and feminism is centered largely on paid work, she says, “as though feminism is about nothing more than becoming a smart and productive employee and rising to the top.” She continues, “The debate has become twisted and simplistic, as if we’re merely trying to figure out how women can become more like men.” She suggests that instead we ask, “How can women have full lives, not just one squeezed around a career?”

At 29, unmarried and a little too in love with work, I read these words and breathed a sigh of relief.Yes, there’s more to life than work. We are not cogs in a machine! Thank you for reminding me what’s important. But right behind this reaction came the same thought that’s been tugging on my sleeve for years now: maybe feminism keeps coming back to work because work connects to everything, it is so much a part of American culture, so much of where we spend our time. Maybe women and work is one powerful starting place because work makes visible so many other things we don’t know how to talk about yet.

Everywhere I look women are redefining what work is, how it functions, and how work can support other areas of our lives rather than detract from them or cause harm. The same is true for money.

Fundraiser and thought leader Kathy LeMay is out there, most recently with See Jane Do, talking about Voice, Activism, and Money, sharing concrete stories of women who combine their efforts to create systemic change. This month, Katie Teague’s film Money & Life, which explains the opportunity the economic crisis has presented us, premiered to rave reviews and will continue to tour the country. Nilofer Merchant and Fast Company’s Ellen McGirt are hosting discussions aboutwomen, invisibility, and “onlyness” in the workplace. Just down the road in Newark, Kimberlee Williams and Tamara Fleming of FEMWORKS are redefining marketing and communications in service of local economies, focusing on communities they say “have tremendous impact, but are still being ignored.” In New York, Sarah Jaffe is shining a spotlight on the fight for a living wage in the fast food industry.

So there are multiple sides to the women and work conversation, only one of which is about women climbing the ladder for the purpose of their own individual success. Another is about how women are shaping our ideas about work and our work systems. This could be why we keep coming back to it.

Smart players in this field of work and systems, or any field for that matter, will create space for women to hold half of the top leadership positions and take responsibility for half of the thought leadership. For example, as part of my own work with The Lean Enterprise Institute, I recently attended the LEAN UX NYC conference, an event drawing entrepreneurs, designers, developers, and user experience professionals to see what’s next in lean thinking. The organizers (all men) made a point to have women give half of the presentations and workshops. This gender balance wasn’t just the right thing to do; it meant richer, more interesting and generative conversations.

Reading Elsa Walsh’s op-ed, I felt a little like I imagine she did when she read Lean InYes, this part rings true. No, this part doesn’t. As a queer woman who doesn’t know if I want to get married, I challenge the idea that young women like me will eventually “come around” and find the bulk of their life’s meaning in being a wife and mother. I may, but that’s not the point. Would anyone bat an eye at a man who found his greatest satisfaction in being a public thinker, artist, politician, or activist rather than a husband and family man?

The conversation around women and feminism so often does feel twisted and simplistic, Elsa’s right. In response to last week’s blog on power, someone raised the question of what more becomes possible if we really see each other with all of our difference. What do we need to do to allow for complexity in the women’s movement and still move forward? What do you think?



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