September 27, 2013 2:07 pm

The hard climb to the top

‘After rocketing up the ladder, these women realise that they are more alone than they expected’
Illustration for Gillian Tett's 'The hard climb to the top'©Shonagh Rae

Books, it seems, sometimes operate like buses: for years, nothing notable on a particular subject comes along, and then three (or more) on the same topic turn up at once. Right now, one such flurry is emerging around women in America. Earlier this year Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, published a high-profile and controversial book, Lean In , that urged women to chase their career dreams – and argued that the paucity of women in senior roles should not be blamed solely on institutional issues but also on the self-sabotage of bad career choices.

Some women hated the book and resented the wealthy Sandberg for offering any advice; others (including myself) found it persuasive. Either way, Lean In shot to the top of American bestseller lists and has now sold more than one million copies worldwide, a quite remarkable feat. Thousands of so-called “lean in” circles have been created to support women at work.

But hard on the (glamorous-but-functional) heels of Sandberg, another tome will soon emerge which is co-authored by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former US state department official. This is also likely to cause a buzz, since Slaughter wrote an equally high-profile and controversial article last year that took a subtly different tack from Sandberg. Most notably, Slaughter insisted that there were still profound institutional impediments that prevent women from getting “to the top” – and argued that these were so powerful that it was a fallacy to expect women to rise just by trying hard – or “leaning in”.

But even before Slaughter’s book appears, a third glossy text is now circulating, this time from Debora Spar, the charming president of Barnard College in New York. Her work – with the catchy title Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection – is written in a wonderfully lively, personal style. But like the other two, it tries to answer a key question: why do women remain relatively rare in the top echelons of the western corporate and political world, given that they have “enjoyed” vast improvements in their legal rights, educational opportunities and career options in recent decades.

Sadly, Spar does not offer any entirely easy answers or solutions. Essentially she steers a middle course between Slaughter and Sandberg, by arguing that while some women do sabotage themselves, many others are overwhelmed by institutional impediments. However, her most memorable piece of advice is that women should not simply “lean in” but also chill out. Instead of striving to be perfect, they should accept the fact that they cannot match all the glossy images that they have been fed in ads, women’s magazines or, I daresay, some of the debate around Lean In. “My generation made a mistake. We took the struggles and victories of feminism and interpreted them somehow as a pathway to personal perfection. We privatised feminism and focused only on our dreams and our own inevitable frustrations,” she writes, arguing that women now need to kill “the myths of female perfection, replacing them with more attainable and flexible dreams ... that acknowledge both women’s aspirations and the obstacles to them that women will inevitable confront.”

. . .

It is profoundly sensible stuff. And I hail the fact that Spar and Sandberg have both written in such a commendably honest, personal style. Spar starts the book, for example, by relating her own unglamorous adventures with a breast pump; that will ring a profound chord in every woman who, like me, has ever grappled with one of those unseemly gadgets in an office.

But to my mind, what is most interesting about these books is what it suggests about a wider structural trend: namely that the degree to which the feminist cause (like these three authors) is approaching a midlife bout of soul-searching. When Sandberg, Slaughter and Spar were growing up in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, they were repeatedly told that they had opportunities their mothers could have never dreamt of; they were also so talented they assumed that they would be able to compete on equal terms with men. Now after rocketing up the ladder, they look around at their colleagues, and realise that something has not worked out as they supposed; they are more alone than they expected.

So will the publication of these books actually change anything? Not quickly, alas. Even so, I am thrilled that they are at least sparking more debate, particularly among younger women. I just wish that there was a similar flurry of discussion in Europe. Having worked in both London and New York, what is really striking to me is just how much more socially acceptable it (still) feels to be a working woman in America than London, particularly at senior ranks; and how much more common. So what I would dearly love to see next is the eurozone’s homegrown version of Sandberg, Spar and Slaughter writing their own personal and provocative books. All eyes on Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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