Should Men Lean In To The Debate?

Robert Waring navigates the conversation on gender.

Lean in? Opt-out? Man up? Dial down? Are you keeping pace with the latest debates on gender in the workplace? Robert WaringStaff Attorney at East Bay Children’s Law Offices in Oakland, California, and author of Upside Down: The Paradoxes of Gender in the Twenty-first Century, cuts through the buzzwords and zeroes in on what's important in today's guest post.


The past nine months have seen huge growth in the number of voices in the national debate about expanding opportunities for women. It’s a challenge for MARC members to keep up with the differing views about how best to expand opportunities for women, in order to effect “real change” (as opposed to something inauthentic). A brief recap may help you find your place in the discussion. Even if you’ve been following the conversation very closely, there are some links here to essays that may surprise you.

In June, Professor Anne Marie Slaughter’s article, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, started a dialog, with some lining up in support of Slaughter’s arguments that workplace policies need to change, and others complaining that Slaughter’s “whining” was limiting women’s aspirations. Because of her disagreement with parts of a TED talk Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg gave in 2010, several prominent commentators suggested that the two meet and work together, but it was not to be.

Traditional and social media lit up again when new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced she was taking only a two-week maternity leave, and denounced feminism. Most commentators did not know what to do with this information, and so cheered her on, while at the same time complaining that she risked imposing her choice on many less powerful mothers.

In September, Hanna Rosin’s book, The End of Men, ignited a firestorm, by promoting the idea that the gender wars were over and women had won. Some agreed that men should be worried. Critics complained she had her facts wrong, and risked killing the motivation behind the women’s movement. Others accused feminists of reflexively rejecting her message.

Relative calm ensued for a few months until CEO Marissa Mayer was savaged for ending telecommuting at Yahoo. Critics pointed out that Mayer had resources for being a working mother that few others could claim. But soon, Slaughter defended Mayer - as did others.

During the same week, COO Sheryl Sandberg’s soon to be released book Lean In was attacked and defended, with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd one of the snarkiest prosecutors. Some of Sandberg’s supporters attacked Slaughter, despite Slaughter’s efforts to distance herself from Sandberg’s critics. One feminist, attacked by others for criticizing Sandberg, decried what she called “feminist on feminist hate.” Criticize her campaign as a clever ploy to remake feminism into a corporate tool if you must, but Sandberg is the only high level corporate leader willing to proclaim she is a feminist. A measure of her notoriety is that although @sherylsandberg has tweeted only 17 times, she has over 62,000 followers.

Some critics complained that “Sandberg is behaving too much like a man, and speaking too much for other women who do the same thing.” A supporter responded that “@sherylsandberg's detractors are male in their complaints” because of their “zero-sum” thinking that only one idea or movement can prevail. If nothing else, the exchange illustrated the hazards of being male in this debate.

So what are men to make of all this conflict? One could ignore it and wait to see if a winner is declared 1, 3 or 20 years hence. But a wiser strategy is to pay close attention. The ground has been shifting, and could portend larger quakes to come. For example, Pay Pal, Tesla and Space X founder Elon Musk created the wrong kind of buzz at SXSW - that perhaps he could have gotten away with a year ago - when he said he does not spend much time with his five children.

If you want to take sides in the debate, here’s a short guide that might prove useful. If you are a dedicated feminist, and describe yourself as such when discussing gender issues, your choices in this debate may seem clear. You can criticize Mayer and Rosin, perhaps Mayer more so if you are passionate about workplace flexibility. You may at the same time complain about the pushback towards Sandberg, if you nuance it well. But if you reject feminism or agree, as Rosin wrote, that feminism is dead (citing as authority Mayer’s rejection of feminism), then Mayer and Rosin may be your patron saints.

If you don’t see women and workplace issues through the lens of feminism, the next question is whether you see problems in expanding women’s opportunities more in terms of individual initiative on the one hand, or systemic obstacles on the other. If it is the former, you’ll want to lean in to Sandberg, and perhaps object to Slaughter for questioning women’s ability to “have it all.” If it’s the latter, you may praise Slaughter and complain about Sandberg’s failure to embrace specific proposals for systemic change. You might earn extra points if you can navigate the contrasts and argue that there is room for them all be right.

The gender and workplace debates have been challenging for me, in part because my background in legislative advocacy steers me towards policy solutions. But many people focus instead on the impact of gender on individuals and on how to create change on an individual level. One thing I've learned from observing and participating in this discussion is that some of the resulting acrimony stems from the difficulty the policy and individual initiative camps can have in understanding one another. By analogy, it's not unlike the fights liberals and conservatives have over government versus individual responsiblity - conflicts political psychologist Jonathan Haidt (author of The Righteous Mind) asserts stem from differences in core beliefs about the nature of society. If someone like Haidt were to turn their attention to studying how the opinions of the various camps within feminism were shaped by their core beliefs, we might all better understand each other.
Posted by Mike Otterman on Apr 5, 2013 11:24 AM America/New_York

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Robert - I am struck not only by the increasingly growing number of men becoming fully engagd in this discussion but also by the growing number of men who want to but don't know what to do. They are not apathetic but genuinely have not found a way to "lean in" comfortably.

Understanding each other (and the various beliefs) better is certainly key, as you mentioned. Acknowledging that there is room for multiple methods and ideas to combat the issue, I hope is part of the continued evolution.
  • Posted Thu 11 Apr 2013 04:44 PM EDT


Do you know a man who has taken more than 10 days of paternity leave?

Not sure

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