Sunday, January 16, 2011

A response to Sheryl Sandberg's TED talk: why women should stop worrying and be the leaders they already are

Several of my friends have now posted this TED video by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, talking about how more women can become leaders in their careers.  At this stage in my life, I've been giving a lot of thought to the topic of women and careers.  So I feel compelled to comment on what I see as misguided advice that successful career women often give their younger counterparts.

I won't spend much time nitpicking at Sandberg's delivery, but I can't help but groan at her business-jargon-infested style, which reminds me of a verbal version of powerpoint.  I think her main goal is to encourage women to be strong and believe in themselves, which I'm completely in favor of.  And she does give many useful pieces of specific advice.  But her broader message is garbled and ambiguous, and troublingly values-free.

She recounts a story of her brother boastfully predicting that he would ace an exam despite shirking in the class, while she and a female friend nervously fretted in self-doubt.  Her lesson from this story is that women need to correct our under-confidence problem.  But implicitly, she's also saying that we live in a world of over-confident men, and in order to succeed in that world we have to be more like them. 

I don't like this implication.  I value the fact that I don't think I'm right all the time, and don't boast about being the best at everything.  I do ruefully acknowledge that overconfidence is often rewarded as much as substance.  But I don't have any desire to be like her brother in the story, even if it would help me get ahead. 

Sandberg's most compelling story involves giving her talk about women and leadership at Facebook.  After her talk, she said she would take two more questions before concluding.  While all the women put their hands down after she answered the last two questions, she continued taking questions from the men who kept their hands up.  Her lesson for women is to "keep your hands up," and she views the men's behavior as "reaching for opportunity."  I view it as being obnoxious, and I think Sandberg’s perspective disempowers the women who respected her own stated wishes by viewing them as timid and weak. 

More emphatically than in the first story, Sandberg encourages women to elbow our way in, demand higher pay, and become more like men in order to beat them in the career rat race.  I've heard the type of advice Sandberg gives all too often: "be selfish," "ask for more," "resist your maternal instinct."  But I think what's really holding women back is not that we're not aggressive enough, or that we don't negotiate for higher pay.  It's that we frame ourselves into a position of weakness instead of owning up to who we are and the choices we make. 

The pay gap is a prime example of how a statistical fact can be viewed to either empower or disempower women.  Under one view, women who are paid less are inferior and less worthy, because pay is the measure of one's worth in society.  But Dutch women view it a different way.   Instead of wasting our time in a pissing contest over who gets a higher bonus, women are focusing on whether our jobs lend meaning and fulfillment to our lives, and enable us to connect with and help others.  Under this view, women who refuse to compromise their values to get higher pay are asserting their identities, not cowering in self-doubt.

If selfishness and arrogance are the main reasons for the male-female pay gap, as Sandberg implicitly suggests, we should start talking about another lurking inequality: the asshole pay gap.  Perhaps the male-female pay gap has nothing to do with being a woman per se.  Rather, climbing to the very top of any profession might simply require traits that are primarily expressed in a small subset of men: raging assholes.  The studies Sandberg cites are consistent with this conclusion.  Men tend to over-estimate their ability, they tend to negotiate harder for higher pay, and they tend to bulldoze social norms in order to grasp for their own gain.  I haven't seen an econometric test of the asshole pay gap hypothesis, but if it were true we'd find that it's not just women who receive lower pay and are shut out of the top jobs, but a large subset of men as well.  If men get paid more by being assholes, they can keep their pay gap, and I'll keep my dignity.

So if we stop looking to men as our role models for leadership, who can we look to?  I think that feminist-y, career-oriented women like me could take a cue from conservative women like Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell.  Not ideologically, but in the way they present themselves and the choices they've made.  Politics aside, I find it incredibly refreshing to see these female leaders presenting public images that fully embrace their femininity and motherhood/singlehood instead of wringing their hands at all of the compromises they've made, talking about how hard it is to juggle all of their goals and responsibilities, and feeling guilty about their choices (notice how the words we use make us appear and feel weak?).

To take a broader view on women and careers, I’ll point to the growing evidence that women are better adapted to the demands of the modern workplace (see this much-discussed article entitled The End of Men, and this study of labor market trends by MIT economist David Autor).  Women are better at staying in school, have higher social intelligence, and are better at communication, and part of these valuable skills may be attributable to the very traits that Sandberg portrays as weaknesses that women should overcome.  In light of the unmistakable trends toward female economic domination, advice that women should adopt the behavioral tactics of men seems like a relic from an earlier feminist era.  Leaders like Sandberg would do better to think more about how they can reward women for the talents they possess, rather than encouraging them to conform to a declining and mal-adaptive male archetype.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Is Chinese parenting really superior? A case study

A Wall St Journal article by Amy Chua has been circulating recently about the superiority of the Chinese parenting method at producing high-achieving kids.

I could critique the article (poorly-written and completely devoid of a logical argument, much less evidence) or submit my own speculations (the approach is very good at producing kids who succeed along certain dimensions, but it is far from a universally superior strategy that all parents should adopt).  But perhaps it's more illuminating to offer some evidence based on my own childhood.

I grew up in a smallish town in Arkansas (i.e., it only had one Wal-Mart when I moved there in 1993).  There were five Chinese families with kids within a year of my age - four boys and one girl.  All of our parents utilized the traditional Chinese parenting method with a moderate degree of variation in strictness.  A decade after we finished high school, how did we all turn out?

Three of the five achieved arguable academic superstardom.  One attended college at age 16, later graduated from a top-five medical school, and is now a successful surgeon.  Two of us attended top-ten private universities and recently received our PhDs from MIT.  One of us achieved conventional career success, attending a midwestern public university and law school and now working as a successful attorney.  But one of us struggled.  He and I were both in the same class, and at age 16, we were academically identical.  I remember him scoring one point higher than me on the ACT, only one point lower than perfect.

But he often went AWOL in college, disappearing for weeks at a time from classes and hopping from school to school for a number of years, finally graduating from university last year.  And he certainly had the brains to achieve as much academic and career success as any of us.  Would he have been better off with a more-forgiving parenting style that encouraged academic potential but gave him the autonomy to make his own choices in school and in life?  I simply don't have deep enough insight into his personal feelings and family life to say.  But from my interactions with the family, his parents seemed the most draconian of all five Chinese families, and once afforded the freedom of college he lacked the intrinsic desire to pursue the academic goals forced upon him for so many years.

So the results are, four out of five of us became conventionally successful.  But one out of five - arguably the one with the most traditionally Chinese parents - seemed to be troubled and oppressed by the very parenting system that helped the rest of achieve academic success.  This example attests to some of the highly successful aspects of the Chinese parenting method, but it also indicates its limitations.  More isn't always better, and this method does not fit all kids in all circumstances.

Most importantly, I want to emphasize what outcomes like degrees obtained and salary earned do NOT capture.  Are the children of Chinese child-rearing happier?  Are they more likely to achieve their own goals and dreams?  Do they do more to enrich the lives of those around them and contribute more to society?

I've always thought that the defining characteristic of Chinese culture is pragmatism, a trait that's reflected our parenting style.  Chinese parenting produces kids who are extremely good at maximizing measurable outcomes, but who often fall short when it comes to deep and creative thinking.  Think of the many Chinese applicants trying to get into American universities who can get a perfect score on the TOEFL but who can't speak English.

Critically, we need to ask whether we would really want more parents to adopt the Chinese approach.  The Chinese method is very good at producing people who possess skills that are financially rewarded in society today.  But skills and education are not enough to make a well-functioning society.  My feeling is that there are many models of parenting which produce different types of people, and that is a very good thing for a country like ours.

Even the worst of the American style that sometimes encourages irresponsibility, overconfidence, impatience, and recklessness play a role in giving rise to the great art, music, and entrepreneurial ventures that make American culture great (if imperfect).  This culture underlies the economic growth that caused so many of us to come to America in the first place and that has made China's rise possible.  I, for one, would hate to live in a world where everyone in it were like me.