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I Want To Climb My Way Up To Middle Management
October 9th, 2012

Do you remember the first Monster.com commercial?  It shows a series of children telling the camera in a defeatist, dead-pan tone what they want to be when they grow up.  They say things like “When I grow up I want to file all day long,” and “I want to climb my way up to middle management.”  For a job-posting website it was pretty brilliant because coming out of the mouths of babes we adults were harshly confronted with what a lack of aspiration looks like.  No one tells their fifth grade teacher they want to climb their way up to middle management, and yet that is what so many of us end up doing.

This commercial came to mind the other day as I read this article from The Daily Beast about how women should stop trying to be perfect.  In it the author, Debora Spar – a 20-year professor at Harvard and now the president of Barnard – laments that today’s women were essentially snookered by feminist liberation movement of the 1960′s; what was to have been a breaking of chains has since become a shackle.   She comments:

Indeed, rather than leaping with glee at the liberation that has befallen women since the 1960s, we are laboring instead under a double whammy of impossible expectations—the old-fashioned ones (to be good mothers and wives, impeccable housekeepers and blushing brides) and those wrought more recently (to be athletic, strong, sexually versatile, and wholly independent). The result? We have become a generation desperate to be perfect wives, mothers, and professionals—Tiger Moms who prepare organic quinoa each evening after waltzing home from the IPO in our Manolo Blahnik heels.

I’m with her, to a point.

Reading the above passage and much of the rest of Spar’s article I felt ambivalent.  On the one hand, Yes!  Amen!  We’ve saddled ourselves with unrealistic expectations.  Let’s acknowledge that so we can properly deal with it.  On the other hand, Wait a minute!  Who ever said I wanted to be all of these things, much less at once?  That, for me, is the rub.

Spar holds up in her article Condoleezza Rice, Hilary Clinton, and Marissa Mayer as examples of women who’ve tried to “have it all” and failed.  Condi fails in the romance department.  Hilary fails in the style department.  And Marissa fails in the work-life balance department.    Yes, these women are easy examples because they are highly visible, public figures, whereas housewives in suburban Cleveland live much more anonymous lives.  (No, Bravo!, that was not a suggestion…)  Nevertheless, by holding these women up as the example of “having it all” they (whether intentionally or not) become the yardstick by which the rest of us are judged.

As I scrolled through the comments left in response to Spar’s article one in particular struck me.  The commenter calls out the same organic quinoa/Manolo Blahnik passage that I quoted above and responds with the following points.

  • While these women’s struggles are valid, they are the elite of the elite and do not represent the common struggle of the contemporary woman. I’m sorry, but the average woman trying to have it all and striving for perfection cannot afford Manolo Blahnik heels…
  • [Spar] seems to lose sight of (or at least not fully define) what “having it all” means. In my life, having it all does not mean- high powered job, fancy clothes, clean house, happy husband, kids in private school, head of the PTA or all the other socio elite examples given.
  • There are all kinds of women, mothers, and wives out there and there is room for all kinds of lifestyles. A woman could easily feel she “has it all” when she makes $30,000/yr as an art teacher, has a hard working a loving husband who is a construction worker, and two children in public school and after school programs.

And most importantly:

  • According to this article though, we are lead to buy into the idea that this woman still doesn’t have it all- because she doesn’t make much money, and doesn’t own her home, and doesn’t have a huge fund for her kids future Harvard education.

That is where I think Spar does all women a huge disservice.  Only if we’ve achieved the success that she dreamed of in her life have we achieved success at all.

So what about that Monster.com commercial?  What about working your way up to middle management and stopping?  What if you don’t gun for the VP slot that opened up because you know it will take a toll on your family life?  What if your kids are happy enough sharing a bedroom because the less demanding, lower-paying job also means you can be home to read them stories at bedtime each night?  What if you’re happy in clothes from Kohl’s instead of Kors?  What if you’ve achieved health and happiness and balance without all the pomp and circumstance of a high-powered career?  At least in that light middle management doesn’t look so bad.*

Near the end of her article Spar notes that,

Feminism wasn’t supposed to make us miserable. It was supposed to make us free; to give women the power to shape their fortunes and work for a more just world. Today, women have choices that their grandmothers could not have imagined. The challenge lies in recognizing that having choices carries the responsibility to make them wisely, striving not for perfection or the ephemeral all, but for lives and loves that matter.

I think what she’s missing is that many women have already made that choice quite wisely.  Many of us don’t feel pressured into the definition of perfection that she describes.  But somehow I walk away from her article not feeling that I’ve accomplished something if I’ve found happiness without her brand of perfection.  Rather, I feel that I’ve settled for something with which she herself (the article kicks off with her own impressive professional pedigree) never would have been satisfied.  In the same breath that she tells us all not to give in to the myth of perfection she somehow manages to perpetuate it.

We need this national conversation.  But we need it to be honest.  It doesn’t serve anyone’s purpose to talk out of both sides of our mouths.  To be fair, Spar makes many excellent points in her piece.  But the one she drives home the most – both implicitly and explicitly – is that perfection has a single definition.  And that is the point I find most damaging.

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*There are tradeoffs, naturally.  If your middle management job makes you want to put your head through a wall then that’s a different story.  But just because a job is mid-level doesn’t necessarily predicate from also being interesting and engaging.

8 Responses to “I Want To Climb My Way Up To Middle Management”

  1. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    This is a really interesting post, Gale, and a topic that I think deserves a wide discussion.

    Did you read Anne Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic that went viral this summer on the idea of women “having it all”? In it, she looks at some women and notes that women who do, indeed, have it all have to be superwomen in order to manage. It’s worth noting that the women she discusses are the same high-flying women that Spar does.

    So I’m interested in your argument about the “rest of us,” the ones who either through choice or ability aren’t president of Barnard or Secretary of State. I’ve always thought that one of the great gifts of the women’s movement for women of our generation was the choice to opt in or opt out, to say what “all” is for ourselves.

  2. Gale Says:

    Kristen – Thanks for your comment.

    I did read Slaughter’s article over the summer. (I tried to work it into this post but couldn’t manage it without getting way too long…) I felt that she took a much more balanced approach to the topic and recognized that there are many women who could never manage to “have it all” due to the fact that they don’t have the money or support systems and that no one can do it alone. Nevertheless, the unstated understanding is that everyone wants the “super-life” that these authors describe. No one seems to mention that so many women have found insurmountable happiness with less. The implication is always that they’ve made their peace with less, but that given the choice they would opt for more. And I just find that to be an intellectually dishonest view.

    The other issue I take with both Spar and Slaughter is that they both came to these conclusions after dedicating their adults lives to juggling high-powered careers with their role as mothers. I don’t fault them for that choice – it was theirs to make. But I take exception to the fact the fact that they both begin their articles with their professional and educational backgrounds. I’m sure that tactic is to establish their credibility on issues of work-life balance, but it comes across a bit like, “You should listen to me because I’m probably smarter and more successful than you.” I also find traces of hypocrisy in their retrospective approach to this advice. Perhaps it’s just that they’ve gained this 20/20 clarity in hindsight (as is so often the case), but are they also having their cake and eating it too? They’ve both gunned through high-powered careers for years only to now sit on the top of the mountain and tell the rest of us how we’re doing it all wrong. Something about it just rubs me the wrong way.

    Perhaps I’m being prickly. I don’t intend to. I just think that a life with less is also a very full life for many, many people. Sure we have progress yet to make in the arena of getting women into positions of power, etc. But women who are happy where they are shouldn’t be made to feel inadequate because of it.

  3. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Hear, hear!

    As Kristen mentions the Anne-Marie Slaughter slew of articles (I had plenty of commentary on those myself), I will return to the Atlantic coverage, and the fact that “infrastructure” to support families was touched on, but remains largely ignored as a factor – best I can tell.

    And infrastructure – including decent schools, availability of childcare, options for those without an “employment relationship,” and so on – affect women at all levels, and far less, those who are at the top.

    But in getting to the top, wouldn’t most women need those infrastructure supports in place? And aren’t they harder when women are still earning roughly 77 cents on the dollar?

    I am plucking this bit from your post above:

    Feminism wasn’t supposed to make us miserable. It was supposed to make us free…

    But I would modify that phrase to say freer. We kid ourselves when we think we are able to find some blissful state of utter freedom. That would mean no cares, no worries, no responsibilities except perhaps the self. And what kind of life would that be – really?

  4. BigLittleWolf Says:

    By the way – love the shoe. It’s a classic. The one from Sex and the City – the Movie, no?

  5. Gale Says:

    BLW – Indeed! It is the SATC Movie shoe. The pair that she leaves at the penthouse, but has to retrieve before it is sold. I thought it an appropriate choice given the mention of Blahniks and discussion of having it all!

  6. Jan Says:

    The underlying assumption seems to be that a high-paying job with lots of authority and prestige is the “more.” Then the discussion takes off from there. I don’t consider a 12-hour office workday supported by staff and nannies to be “more” in the first place. That’s beginning the issue with a value judgment that may or may not be valid. It’s not where I place the most value. But I am obviously out of the loop; I didn’t know The Shoe was anything but a metaphor!

  7. Laura Taylor Says:

    Gale,

    It has taken me a while to come back to this post because of the craziness of life! That, in and of itself, explains my problem. I am constantly running, and aiming for that goal she is talking about. But it is making me miserable. The nights on the road without the baby are no fun. Yet, to even acheive middle management, which isn’t her dream, requires that I make these sacrafices. Thank you for this post! I really appreciate it.

    Laura

    Happy Halloween!

  8. Gale Says:

    Laura T – You’re so welcome. There is so much talk in the media about the lack of women in corporate executive roles and other leadership positions. The feminist in me wants to stand up and say that I will do my part to change this paradigm. But then I have to stop and think, “Do I care enough to do it at my kids’ expense?” One of the columnists mentioned here (I think it was Slaughter) mentioned that men are simply more willing to sacrifice time with their kids in order to commit to a high-powered career. I really believe that sacrifice is just harder for most women. I think Supreme Court Justices Sotomayor and Kagen are telling examples of what women have to give up in order to have a realistic shot at reaching the pinnacles of their chosen fields. It’s a tough battle.