THE BLOG

What Sandberg and Slaughter Have in Common

04/12/2013 07:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2013
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A lot has been written about Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In, and much of that has been in relation to Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic article, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All." To read some of it, you could be forgiven for thinking these works were crafted on opposing sides of a wrestling ring. What caught my eye, though, was how much they have in common. I found them to be far more complimentary than the reviews implied. They don't necessarily conflict so much as they address different aspects of a widespread and pervasive problem. Indeed, if more women "leaned in" while more men helped out at home, and more institutions became more family-friendly, we'd be much, much further along. Well, some of us would. While full of thoughtful insights and useful advice, these new works are are of, by and largely for the already successful. If this is the new, fourth wave of feminism, I'm afraid a lot of us will be left ashore.

To be fair, both Slaughter and Sandberg clearly state that they are writing from their own perspectives -- that of a highly-educated women with a wealth of resources (and actual wealth). Also, a lot of what they discuss will -- or at least can -- resonate with women of all economic backgrounds. Women do need to negotiate their salaries more (extra kudos to Sandberg for giving specifics on how do it as well), and we can all benefit from having a mentor. Furthermore, organizations need to work on creating more family-friendly environments. And women should never feel like feminist failures for wanting to be home with their children. On these points and others, their messages resonate beyond income brackets.

But for those of us who do not come from a substantial level of privilege and opportunity, wealth and education, much of this new feminist debate is lost on us. I can only lean in so far to a job that will never pay me enough to pay off my student loans. Also, I'm single and childless, so the question of a supportive partner is irrelevant. Which brings me to another point.

I don't know if I want kids, but I do know that if I decide to try, it will only be when I can afford it. As it currently stands, I am nowhere near that point. I've seen how hard it can be to raise kids without enough resources (I often refer to it as my childhood), and I refuse to take that route. I suspect I'm not alone.

So much of what Slaughter and Sandberg write about are problems that you can only deal with once you've gotten past the problems of affordable education, inequality and archaic standards of what constitutes a good work ethic -- with a huge dose of sexism thrown in. I only went to school because of student loans. I got a Pell grant and some scholarships too, but not enough to cover the entire cost -- and I went to a state school. As someone who did well academically, and really thought that maybe she could make a difference, I later decided to bite the bullet and get a Master's degree. I say bite the bullet because it was going to take more loans to go. But my career wasn't going anywhere and I considered the M.A. an investment. That's what they say, right? Well...

I am doing better in my career, but not without some bumps on the road. Sure, these bumps are often referred to as life (or shit) happening. They also came at a cost. In Lean In, I believe this would be the jungle gym reference. Regardless, it's taking a hell of a lot longer to get up the damn thing, and in the mean time, my absence of a safety net (read: parents, partner, trust fund, benefactor, lottery ticket, or pot of gold) is starting to weigh on me.

To be clear, I know I am not hurting as much as other women in our society, and I am sure my Master's degree is helping that, but it feels a lot more like an albatross than a meal ticket most days. And it's because of my financial situation, limiting my options and inhibiting what I think is realistically possible for me, that both Sandberg's book and Slaughter's article feel like they were written on the other side of the glass ceiling. Because here's the truth: I don't care about whether or not I can have it all. I'm still working on having enough.

I don't want to have to marry my way into financial security, or get lucky in a contest. I'd really like to work my way out of debt and into a stable career. Yet, despite my education and hard work (and yes, I have negotiated my salary), I am still not there. I'm sure there are better choices I could have made along the way, but I also don't think that I've strayed as far from the path of responsibility as my debt-to-income ratio might suggest.

We need to talk about what women can do to better their circumstances, and I am glad that Sandberg wrote her book. She could have just written a memoir, or nothing at all, but she chose to offer up some very honest moments in her career and give some valuable advice. Likewise, I am glad that Slaughter wrote her article. We need to work on the institutions and structures (only some of which are visible) that keep far too many women away from fulfillment. Moreover, neither of these women is under any obligation to help, and neither presumed that their levels of privilege applied to all women. Nothing applies to all women. Because of them, we are having more conversations about work-life balance, and I suspect that the old 'F' word is becoming a little less stigmatized. But before we celebrate all these new conversations, let's remember the women who are not participating, not because they aren't smart, or don't want to be leaders, but because their starting point has left them at the back, and you can't get to the top without reaching the middle first.