At and around the most recent Society of American Archivists annual meeting I heard and participated in a lot of great (and not so great), official and unofficial conversations about being a women in the archival field and being a female professional in general. Between the discussions about the availability of childcare and lactation rooms that happened in advance of the meeting, the Women Archivists Roundtable meeting that focused explicitly on helping women self-promote even in uncomfortable situations, and the Lean In Panel that prompted so much discussion, feminism became a sort of subtheme of the conference for me.
As it turns out, it is a pretty good moment to be talking about the intersection of women’s workforce issues, technology, and professional advancement. Whether it’s Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer’s two weeks of maternity leave or Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to young women to “lean in,” strong, professional women talking about workplace issues have been in the national news headlines with some frequency as of late. These women and their colleagues, commentators, and critics have sparked a healthy national debate and plenty of heated water cooler conversations.
I am thrilled that these conversations are happening. We all need to be willing to share our experiences, encourage our colleagues, and call out bad practice when we see it. I am also particularly gratified that these conversations are highlighting highly successful women with serious skills in realms often thought of as guys’ domains such as the tech world. What I am less excited about is how quickly we have accepted Sandberg’s “Lean In” model as the logical and appropriate framework for that debate. I cannot believe that encouraging young professionals to make some serious sacrifices in the areas of family, relationships, friendships, personal time, and leisure of all sorts and instead to go into professional overdrive all the time is the path to more equitable workplaces or happier, healthier professionals . Not all women have the ability to follow that path, and I seriously doubt that most of us want to.
I seriously question a model that asks us (all of us, women, men, black, white, religious, queer, ALL OF US) to figure out how to succeed in a system that doesn’t take our needs as workers and as people into consideration. Perhaps even more importantly, I find it very dangerous to posit a critique of structural, systemic inequities and then suggest solutions that are about individual action not systemic change. Sure, learning how to lean in will help many of us to assert ourselves more often, to negotiate a bit harder, and to promote our work more stridently, but honing those skills is not going to alter the wage gap, change parental leave policies, or eliminate all of the invidious, subtle forms of discrimination that we face in the workplace.
We don’t need to lean in as much as we need to change what it is we are leaning in to.