Saturday, May 17, 2014

Most Women Can’t Afford to ‘Recline’

Rosa Brooks wrote an engaging and refreshing take on the Sheryl Sandberg revolution for Foreign Policy, telling women to sit back in their LazyBoys and recline. Brooks says that our work culture is toxic, promoting the idea that more work hours are better, and that being burnt out is somehow better for us than having the breathing room to innovate. In many ways, I couldn’t agree more.

I know how it feels to be tired, because I worked a 5a.m. to 2p.m. day and went to sleep while I could still see daylight peeking out from the curtains. In my spare time I would interview sources for freelance pieces, so that I could cover all of the topics I found interesting and make extra money. And I went on dates that I almost fell asleep during because I had forced myself to be awake for 20 plus hours.

That said, my life may have been less overwhelmed with work than someone who worked two jobs, or a job combined with an entire course-load, or someone married with kids who runs the section of national news organization. But I know how it feels to long for that day when I can take a deep breath and cut myself some slack.


I think we need to consider how unrealistic it is to ask some women to stop going and going like Energizer bunnies. The truth is that only a few, select women have the privilege to zonk out at the end of the work day, and it doesn’t simply depend on whether or not they have children or a spouse.

It reminds me of the way in which a certain segment of the population insists we stop voting or vote for a third party candidate to send a message to the two respective parties. It’s all well and good to say that. I’d love to send a message to Democrats and Republicans that their blithe acceptance of to full exuberance for money in politics is despicable. But I know it’s not realistic until we become more organized in our response to money in politics.

Young white men usually push for this simple response, but I rarely see it from women of color, LGBTQ people, or anyone else who really has something to lose if the candidate supporting their interests cedes ground to another because the third party candidate won, or no one turned up at the polls.

Brooks can talk about doing this, but I think she and others need to present it in a way that tells us (besides asking our significant others to help out more) how women and men alike can demand flexibility from the workplace, whether it’s white collar or blue collar. It has to be part of a greater labor movement if it were to work for most people. If you are upper middle class, you can decide to spend less time at work, and you may not get the corner office Sandberg speaks of, but you may have a comfortable life anyway. You may still have free time to read books, try out new recipes and enjoy a spa day now and then and maintain a decent salary at the same time.

That’s not an option for someone who isn’t young, poor or faces discrimination or all three. Then it isn’t optional to lean back. If you’ve already made it, and earned a reputation, a title, and gone through most of the milestones we expect of women (however unfair those expectations are) , you’re in a much better position to lean back.

I know Sandberg’s book has always been seen as a book for the elite, and I understand why. It speaks to a white-collar office culture that not everyone works inside. In fact, most of the media representation of office culture is centered on the hierarchies of cubicles vs. corner offices, and leaves out restaurant work, construction and maintenance and housekeeping work.

But there are some ways in which Sandberg’s hyper-energetic, use-every-moment-of-the-day-to-your-advantage-lifestyle speaks to more women’s realities than Brooks does. If you’re young and just starting to pay off loans, or if you came from an impoverished to lower middle class background, and no one could help you afford that internship, you need to always be on. There isn’t a choice.

You must pay your bills on time. You must make the rent. If that means taking on a night job to pay for the necessities while you take on that unpaid internship, so be it. If that means writing for $12, because it’s better than having zero visibility and writing nothing, as you wait tables and go to school, so be it. And if that means taking on two jobs just to feed your kids and keep the lights on, then, “Oh well.” You just don’t have time to think about taking any time off. Leaning back would actually hurt you. And it’s hard to tell women to recline when they’re the majority of minimum-wage workers.

You could lose your job if you don’t follow the unwritten rules of your work culture. You could lose extra income if you decide to stop and smell the roses.
You could be the first to go if jobs are on the chopping block and you’re the one young person who decides to leave on the dot, even though you don’t have kids.
You need to pay off your loans, so you take on extra work, even at the expense of your relationship.

The problem isn’t with the core of what Brooks is saying: That our workplace culture needs to change and respect its workers. We have to stand up for ourselves. But we need to look at the debate from more than one perspective, and typically the perspective we see is from middle to upper middle class married (mostly white) women with children who have much less to lose. It leaves out a large swath of people - Millennial women, single women, childless (or childfree) women, women of color and LGBTQ women, all of whom face greater hurdles to finding a “room of her own.”

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