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.
*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.