The day after Jill Abramson was fired from the New York Times, I got an e-mail from an old acquaintance—let’s mix things up a bit and call her 聰明的女人, yeah?—wondering if we could talk. She is the mother of two young children, is highly educated with a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from top schools, and is on the verge of leaving a professional, high-level job that had offered her flexible work hours.
And she was wondering what to do next.
A mutual friend had suggested to her that she talk to me, since I was in this same position nearly five years ago, and had made some very conscious choices with regard to being a woman and a mother in the professional world.
So, 聰明的女人 and I got on the phone, and she told me she was looking for something that would pay well, allow her to be with her children when they needed her, and that would be intellectually stimulating, and…Why doesn’t this exist? Why is it so hard for women?
And I remembered thinking, Oh. This is sad.
Because there were two things going on in that conversation.
One, that the struggles over pay equality, expectations of women’s behavior, and burdens of women as primary caretakers are problems that so many women don’t even know about. It’s easy to forget, in the self-selected community in which I exist, that a significant portion of the female population might have a suspicion that something isn’t quite right, but they’re not aware of what that something is, and the relatively small knowledge about where we stand as women is still more than what others possess. And that was the situation I found myself in with 聰明的女人. She was only beginning to realize. Before this shift in her life, she belonged in the teeny weeny tiny segment of the population that might possibly maybe benefit from Sheryl Sandberg’s advice in Lean In (If you have not read this book, there are parts that are interesting and worth a read, but also parts that made me laugh out loud at how literally impossible the suggestions in there are for most women to act upon.)
Anyway. The point is that, in so many ways, these kinds of realizations are moments of crisis that are unique to a woman and a woman’s experience, and they’re not her fault. No matter how much onus books like Lean In try to place on the woman, herself, to change the entire system that is in motion around her, it’s not her fault. But it’s easy for it to feel that way when one doesn’t know the subtle-but-heavily-ingrained expectations that we, as women, fight against every day.
The second thing going on in that conversation was that, despite the evidence in front of her, 聰明的女人 really had expected that reaching for new opportunities was all she would need to succeed. She listed off a bunch of folks she knew who were in powerful positions, who might be able to help her find exactly the kind of job she wanted. These connections could all lead to opportunities, and she was initiating their creation.
Except all of the people she listed were men.
And when we hung up, it was clear that she still had at least a little of that expectation. She’d been really fortunate in the past with that same approach. And, to be fair, maybe it will work for her. She’s brilliant, well-educated, experienced, and tough. I admire who she is and I am grateful that a woman like her had that moment of realization, that This is more than just a feeling that something is off. It’s an ongoing struggle with a mass of knowledge behind it that is waiting to be discovered. Sitting at the table is great—when there is a table. Finding a true partner is fantastic—when you have an adequate pool of partners from which to choose. Leaning in is only possible when there’s something there to lean against, in the first place. Otherwise, you just end up falling on your face.
I hope that doesn’t happen to 聰明的女人. I hope she ends up getting everything she wants. But I also hope that this shift in her life changes the way she looks at all of the opportunities she has, at how hard she had to work for them precisely because of her sex, and how the discrimination is rampant at every level of professional and social interaction. If it can affect someone like Jill Abramson, that says a lot.
I’m not trying to be all, This sucks so let’s just give up. Not at all. This post is more of my own personal catharsis, to be honest. To have felt sad to see a smart woman feel stupid. To process the regret that comes with seeing a female go through something that women have been experiencing for centuries. It’s hard, and it’s never not jarring. It’s one of the reasons why I love the romance community so much. We are predominantly women. We are mostly extremely supportive of one another. When we lean in, it’s because, for the most part, we know that we are leaning on a caring shoulder. We know that we are leaning into a strong hug. Leaning is not about a fight. Should not be about a fight. And I’ll continue to rely on that perspective to get through the moments of crisis.