Money, success and power are the hackneyed trinity of modern corporate life but they permit no room for other considerations like well-being and relationships.
It was inevitable that Sheryl Sandberg’s book: Lean In: Women, work and the Will to Lead (WH Allen, 2013) would attract monumental coverage; as Chief Operating Officer of Facebook (and Mark Zuckerberg’s representative on earth) she is one of the highest flying women in American corporate life. Her thesis, that women need to be determined to reach the top, is summed up in this curious phrase ‘lean in’, implying that women cannot afford to give less of themselves than men if they are to achieve their goals.
Some women may legitimately feel this is an understatement of the truth: that simply to achieve as well as men they have to be more committed, given the institutional and cultural barriers that still exist for women in the workplace, despite legislation to the contrary.
Equality at work remains a frustrating and at times divisive issue for some women, though most experience the workplace differently to Sandberg. As a Silicon Valley Super Mum, like Marissa Meyer, President and CEO of Yahoo who recently banned working from home to the dismay of parents who have children to look after one way or another, Sandberg inhabits a different universe to the average female employee who has few options over leaning in. Many women have no alternative to giving their utmost, as they struggle on poor pay and insecure terms just to care for their families. Being over-represented in service sector employment, they are most at risk of exploitation. The market, with ever widening differentials in pay, is most responsible for the discrepancies which exist between high-powered executives and those who work for them, suggesting that greater economic equality, though deeply unfashionable, remains the best way of ensuring women do well in the workplace.
In willing women to succeed in the corporate world like men, Sheryl Sandberg has laudable aims and her story may prove to be inspirational for some who wish to follow her particular trajectory. One unspoken question nevertheless underpins her narrative: is the goal simply to get women properly represented in the boardroom or is it to change the culture of the boardroom? Perhaps the assumption is that one will lead to the other, though this is by no means certain, given the suffocating grip of current practices. These include long hours, weekend work and endless accessibility, allied to a competitive spirit which wants to do better than everyone
else. This model of employment is a sacred cow of secular practice. Anyone who questions it is frowned upon as a heretic or a fool, yet it is dysfunctional in ways that do us harm. Bad workloads lead to poor health and life expectancy; those under stress take it out on others, in both the workplace and beyond; long working hours damage family life, rupturing marriages and neglecting children. These are such painful and personal outcomes that we are not prepared to talk about them in any depth. The preference for the material over the relational in the Anglo-Saxon world ensures they do not get debated with the seriousness they deserve.
It is likely there are many men who do not wish to lean in hard in their work because they have other competing priorities in life; they also wish to look at life differently. Money, success and power are the hackneyed trinity of modern corporate life and they permit no room for other considerations like well-being and relationships. Christians should welcome a debate like the one opened up by Sheryl Sandberg, not simply because it casts a spotlight on equality in the workplace, but because it allows us to formulate a different way of being.
The distortion at the heart of the corporate world is perpetuated by influence makers, mostly male, who think it is common sense to live like this. The goal of a society flourishing under God is one where relationships have primacy, and everything else is subordinated to this, as Jesus suggests when he speaks of loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves as the rule of life. This kind of re-orientation can take more than a generation to achieve, but it is worth the effort of men and women combined. By all means, lean in, but let’s remember to lean out, so we get the perspective God is calling us to.
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