Who run the world? (Part 2)

Part 1 can be found here.

I finished Lean In and resolved to obey the command. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be ambitious or more confident in my abilities – and that applies to all of us, whether our domain is the White House, the home or the boardroom. 100% recommended reading.

However, I would still like to question the ‘will to power’ that I mentioned in my previous post about gender equality, which the wider feminist movement pushes us to pursue. Even where Sheryl and others show great respect for those who dip out of the workforce permanently, there is still an encouragement to attain and be comfortable with our political and financial power, our klout in the business community and sway over our inferiors; to ‘empower’ ourselves, as the buzzword says.

The familiar phrase that power corrupts may seem simplistic, but I think it’s quite true. We have political checks and balances, and the separation of powers, because we don’t trust that the holders of power (or those to whom we delegate our power) will use it rightly. Some people reacted badly to the ending of the Hunger Games series, because the ‘strong female protagonist’ who fought and led a revolution ends up removed from public life, sporting a baby at her breast. Yet this is not a capitulation to the patriarchy but the logical conclusion to a series that portrayed all power as inevitably corrupting, in which even the revolutionary leaders ultimately acted no better than the brutal dictatorship they overturned. The mistreatment of prisoners at the hands of Western soldiers during the Iraq war surely demonstrates the same. I’m not sure anyone should ever be comfortable with power; we should constantly be questioning whether we are exercising it correctly and doing right by those who depend on us.

Work is something that provides us with power and is for that reason desirable, even when it is not financially necessary: it trains us in new skills, provides social status, something to talk about over the dinner table, opinions on new topics and additional vocabulary (‘I see the Dow Jones is down a few points today’; ‘we’re leveraging APAC this quarter’); it’s seen as our saviour from domestic drudgery and boredom, from having ‘nothing to do all day’.

Or so they would have us think. Despite these advantages (and it is great to have a salary), it’s quite likely that the fact of your employment empowers the corporation more than it does you: you will always make your company more money than you make for yourself in doing so. While technology may well be automating the boring tasks that once might have kept us in numb submission, many people still find themselves ‘wage slaves’ to the masters who dictate how they spend what seems the majority of their waking hours. So if you turn your nose up at the stay-at-home mother ‘chained to the kitchen’, you must also scorn the working father who is equally ‘chained to the corporation’. Friends in large organisations have reported that the struggle for independence and personal advancement at work is a struggle to ensure that their needs are not trumped by their employers’; and individuals cannot simply bulldoze over the latter in service of their own interests because they do need work. No one can be totally independent. We are at the mercy of a job market that we pray will continue to need our skills; of the stability of the wider economic market and our industry; of our employers’ management decisions (e.g. to facilitate greater growth by cutting jobs here and investing elsewhere) and good will in indulging our needs when they might conflict with theirs. There is no way of generating an income for ourselves that does not rely on other people. Even those who create value from nothing, the Facebooks and Airbnbs of this world, or those who draw resource from the land, are at the mercy of uncontrollable external forces: drought, ill health, war, the ‘acts of god’ of our insurance policies. The 9/11 attacks wiped out 18,000 small businesses in the blink of an eye, for example.

The other huge problem with the will to power and prestige, and the encouragement to put all our eggs in the corporate basket (or in the corporate freezer in some cases) is that for the vast majority of people in this world, including men, work will not be the fulfilling fun-fest it’s purported to be. Scraping other people’s chewing gum off the pavement, cleaning the sewage plant, changing diapers for the incontinent elderly, picking up your boss’s laundry, defusing bombs in Syria, or tending to Ebola victims – these are all (bar one) extremely necessary and valuable jobs, but also revolting, mind-numbing or downright dangerous. Equally, leaning in may have limited effect for those people for whom reduced market opportunities or their own circumstances (and not lack of confidence or misogyny) may still inhibit their advancement. Only a small minority of people will benefit from a boardroom quota or from attending Super Amazing Fortune 500 Women conferences (which are bloody expensive!).

It appears that the gender wars began with humanity’s Fall from grace. When God sniffs out Adam & Eve’s disobedience, Adam blames Eve for giving him the apple (classic), and the tyranny of men over women begins with their subsequent punishment: ‘he shall rule over you’. But while woman’s punishment for eating the apple was pain in childbirth, we must remember that man’s was WORK:

cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you

This might not apply if you’re Jennifer Lawrence, J.K. Rowling, jet-setting travel writer, Indonesian island caretaker, the CEO of your own company – but for many many people I suspect that this kind of blood-from-a-stone struggle (to market a dull product; to get adequate resources for vulnerable adults in your care; to maintain your egg business after the fox has been round) will ring true.

One solution to the women ‘problem’ is to have us all leaning in to the boardroom table. Another is for both men and women to reject the prestige & power paradigm altogether. We shouldn’t need to lay sacrifice to the idols at the Temple of My Career. Empowerment is illusory and the will to power dangerous; more important is doing what’s right and best for our communities, families and ourselves. Whether we run the world, a company, a country, a home, we should take care to lean in – to a good life.

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