In Defense of “Davos Feminism”

Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook delivers a keynote during the Digital Life Design conference at HVB Forum on January 24, 2012 in Munich, Germany.

Photo by Nadine Rupp/Getty Images

This line of criticism of Sheryl Sandberg from Judith Shulevitz really bugs me:

Sandberg and most of the other women discussed in Lean In, on the other hand, are anything but average. They camp in the dormitories of Harvard, occupy offices at McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, and wind up in Palo Alto and the Upper East Side. They inhabit a tiny transnational bubble floating out of reach of the middle class, which itself is slowly vanishing.

Competent female executives run better companies than incompetent male executives, but they’re no more likely to make universal day care the law of the land. If Davos Woman had dominated feminist discourse when the Triangle Shirtwaist fire killed nearly 130 female sweatshop laborers in 1911, would she have pushed for the legislation that came out of that tragedy—the fire codes and occupancy limits that made workplaces safer for women, and men, for generations to come?

I think it’s difficult not to be struck by the fact that we’ve never had a woman president. Or a woman Treasury Secretary or Defense Secretary. Or a White House Chief of Staff. Or that the Supreme Court has never been mostly women. Or that there are 30 Fortune 500 companies with no women on their boards and zero with no men. Unless I’m mistaken, there’s exactly one Fortune 500 company (Avon) with a majority-female board. Women are a small minority of US Senators and a smaller minority of big company CEOs. It is quite true that the vast majority of Americans, regardless of gender, will never occupy any of those roles. But I think it’s naive in the extreme to think that women’s underrepresentation in the narrowest and most elite swathes of the elite is somehow irrelevant for everyone else. Sandberg’s book and the particular issues facing high-level women in the business world don’t address each and every problem in the world, but women’s underrepresentation at the highest levels of economic life isn’t some trivial aside.