Feminist Valor

Here's a news flash: lots of really successful people, male and female, get canned for reasons unbeknownst to the outside world. It's an 'at will' world. No one is guaranteed a job except that last, ancient tenured professor being nibbled to death by 'at will' adjuncts.

Maybe Jill Abramson got fired because she pressed for a raise. Maybe her boss didn't like her. Maybe her boss had his eye on the next up and comer. I haven't read the New York Times reports since it seems to me to be weird and disingenuous of the Times to be covering its own navel. Shouldn't some other paper do that? Or do the other papers already understand that the folks in the press play with very sharp elbows and sharper knives.

Unlike a lot of folks, I'm not eager to make Jill Abramson a case study in sexism in the workplace. A person who ran the most prestigious news operation in the world doesn't meet my personal criteria for having been oppressed. I would rather think, and I bet I am closer to the truth than the folks pulling out their dry magic markers to make their protest signs, that Jill was a pretty tough customer. She didn't get to the top of the New York Times leaning in, likely her colleagues had to lean way out to make room for her and her justified ego.

I'm betting that she got into it with her boss, played hard to win, and got beat. It happens. You know, sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you. That's how it goes in the big city where everyone is wearing their big girl/boy pants and nobody gets to cry wolf if they lose. You play, you risk, you win, you lose. That's the game. She got to play it and I imagine she was one quite formidable foe.

So when I hear some folks suggest that Jill Abramson's departure from the Times somehow invalidates the premise of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In campaign, it seems a far and nutty reach to me. Poor Jill leaned in and look where it got her. What will happen if women across the country keep taking Sandberg's advice to stick up for themselves and they get fired? See, leaning in is an untenable strategy for women. Better to sit tight and wait for Christmas crumbs from the boss.

First, I doubt Jill Abramson had to read Sheryl Sandberg's book to figure out how to muscle her way to the top. And second, who said getting what one deserves in the workplace is without risk? A woman losing to a man isn't always about sexism and oppression. Sometimes it's about miscalculation and having fewer cards than one thought.

Practically every day I meet with younger women who I could just grab by the shoulders and shake. They're really smart but hang back, not visibly but in tiny little layers. They defer without consciousness. Risk is a foreign object their husbands took to the office that morning. If they hear about leaning in, they back up even further. Oh, Sheryl Sandberg is rich and has maids and someone to pick up her children from school. I could lean in, too, if I was rich. No, if you would shed those little veils of hesitation, be fully present and invested, you might actually get richer.

A competitive swimmer once told me that if she swam too hard, really swam to win, she would throw up. It was the cost of trying to win - puking. I'm thinking about that now and about times in my own life when I mustered the courage to take my ambition over the cliff in little ways and bigger ones, the times I didn't defer but spoke up, battled with people and got beat. Got beat bad. And how, after I got beat, I really felt at home with the idea that it was sexism that pounded me flat and not my own miscalculation, my own misuse of my weapons or maybe my own overestimation of my power and worth.

Maybe it's this: if I see every defeat as a function of sexism, I remain weak and a potential victim my entire life. If I see that I sometimes lose when going up against men who I believe are my equals, I am strengthened and made more substantial.

It is terrifying to risk everything, to swim all out and risk losing and puking at the end, but it's what women who aren't afraid do. I want to be in their number.



Jan Wilberg




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