The Feminine Mystique Redux


Is it a myth that women can raise a family while pursuing a career? While women may aspire to embrace both, getting ahead in the workplace is not easy despite the battles fought for gender equity. A recent Globe and Mail article warned that Canadian women hold fewer top jobs which could have negative implications for growth as women provide powerful input into the economy.

How to address this gap is the premise of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook.  Fifty years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and hard on the heels of an Atlantic Monthly essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” comes Lean In, a new feminist rallying cry which sits at number 1 on numerous bestseller lists.

femmystAs related in Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America, Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique “prompted a new way of thinking about sexual politics” that led the way to the advances of second-wave feminism. In the era of “Mad Men”, Friedan examined the post war “feminine mystique” which enticed many women to abdicate their jobs to returning WW2 vets and to assume the roles of housewives and mothers.  The resultant ennui and discontent dubbed “the problem that has no name” caused many women to ask “is this all?” The book inspired Gloria Steinem and others to fight against the barriers for women in academia and the workplace.

Despite the hard won advances by feminists, women still face obstacles. While more women are graduating with professional degrees than ever, only 10 % of directors on public company boards in Canada are women. The glass ceiling is still waiting to be shattered.

leaninSandberg’s thesis in Lean In is that “women need to more actively seek success and advancement in the workplace.” She believes that women self-sabotage by seeking perfectionism in the domestic sphere as well as the professional one.  Trying to keep all the balls in the air results in overwork and exhaustion. A misguided nostalgia for escape into domesticity, especially among highly educated women who can afford to do so, entices women to drop out of the workforce. Careers are abandoned and re-entry is rarely easy. The goal to be the perfect mother and excel in the office is unattainable and consequently the female input into making decisions that most affect our world is lost.

Sandberg argues that women are not aiming high enough – their ambition is stalled by their own low expectations and lack of confidence. “Women are compromising their career goals for their partners and children” and leaning back when they should be ambitious and aspiring to senior positions. They need to negotiate shared household duties with their spouses and not worry about “having it all.” Done is Better than Perfect reads her favourite poster on the wall at Facebook.

How much is women’s failure to advance a result of their own shortcomings or the fault of corporations? Women should not shoulder all the blame. Workplaces need to promote family friendly policies including a minimum number of annual paid leave days for child or elder care, flex time, telecommuting or even onsite childcare to ensure work/life balance issues are addressed.

For further advice on career/family issues try:

valueKnowing your Value : Women, Money and Getting What You’re Worth looks at the ways women get in their own way and gives inspiring advice from prominent women.

shouldnt   I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This offers practical strategies from asking for what you want to owning the room to being the boss of your personal life too.

conflictThe Conflict : How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women is a “scathing indictment of a stealthy zealotry that cheats women of their full potential.”

At the very least, books like these cause women to think again about redefining success, changing expectations and asking more from others in order for both genders to “have it all.”


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