Last week marked the fiftieth
anniversary of Betty Friedan’s seminal book, The Feminine Mystique, prompting a glut of commentary by academics
and journalists reflecting
upon its socio-political impact. My seminar cohort was assigned to read the
text this week in a course on “The American Condition,” so the book is fresh in
my mind. Colleagues, friends, and my professor all cautioned me about how dated
this sixties-era tome would seem.
Not so. Not at all.
The enduring relevance of
many of Friedan’s observations astounded me.
It would be absurd to say
that things haven’t changed for women in the last fifty years or that her
research was without its flaws; still, I was disturbed by how many people
thought this book would seem so dated when many of Friedan’s perceptions struck
me as still pertinent in today’s world and reflect the still-contemporary call
for culture shift to improve the lives of both women and men.
The problem that has no name
Friedan defines the feminine
mystique as an image that has been imposed on females by a society that
prevents her from accepting or gratifying her basic need to grow and fulfil her
potentialities as a human being, a need which is not solely defined by her
sexual role as a housewife and mother.
Women, Friedan argued, can
only find their identity in work that uses their full capacities. I couldn’t
help but think of Julie’s Blog last week on what women’s careers mean to
them; she said that the women she
interviewed “explained that work contributed to their sense of self – a vital
source of confidence, fulfilment and accomplishment. Women respondents
experienced a sense of being valued at work that is, in some way, particularly
satisfying because it is not directly tied to others in their lives.”
I believe this claim goes to
the heart of what Friedan was saying about the need for women to have purpose
in their lives beyond managing house and children (and for that matter, the
need for men to have a purpose beyond being the breadwinner). Professional work
is not the only way a woman can fulfil her potentialities outside of the
wife/mother role, but it is an important one in today’s world and one that, as
Julie noted last week, provides another key need that women express – financial
stability amongst the vicissitudes of life and love, for both herself, and her
dependents, if she has any.
While unarguably professional
women fuel the global economy today in a way they simply didn’t in 1963 (60% of
graduates worldwide are women, and they make up half the workforce), certain of
Friedan’s observations remain pertinent, and I believe there is a danger in complacently
believing that the world has evolved as dramatically as we’d like to think.
Friedan’s observation: women earn less than men
Friedan talks about the
sixties-era pay differential in her book. More recently, Catalyst summed up the state of the pay gap glibly, by
tweeting: pay your daughters less pocket money than your sons to get them used
to working life. In 2010, women earned 77.4% of what men did in the US. Also
troubling is that women earn about five thousand USD less than their male
counterparts right out of business school. Gloria Steinem addressed the pay gap
just this week
and importantly, OECD statistics show that the gender pay gap prevails not only
in the US, but internationally as well.
Friedan’s observation: women experience subtle
discrimination which deters them from ascending the business hierarchy
Friedan says that
discrimination against women, to say nothing of the sex wage differential, is
still an unwritten law today, and its effects are almost as devastating and as
hard to fight as the flagrant opposition faced … the unwritten law makes the
men writers and editors, the women researchers … women were often driven
embittered from their chosen fields when, ready and able to handle a better
job, they were passed over for a man.
Research out of Harvard University has shown that people have blindspots about others that affect the way
they treat others, which in turn, influences the performance of those people. Diverseo also released research last year which suggests that people overwhelmingly continue to
associate males with leadership , even in the face of visible counter-stereotypes,
such as Angela Merkel.
In 2013, despite the fact
that women comprise half the workforce in the US, they make up only 4% of the leaders
of Fortune 500 companies. As women have increasingly entered the workforce over
recent decades, balance at the top has not happened organically as many assumed
it would. Although empirical evidence shows that companies with gender-balanced
leadership teams financially outperform those with homogenous leadership, the
message hasn’t yet taken root in daily life, suggesting that Friedan’s points
about the mystique are deeply rooted in society and culture.
Friedan’s observation: Women are cast in the domestic
sphere, men in the professional one
Friedan interviewed college-educated
women, many of whom had filled out the U.S. Census questionnaire with
“Occupation: Housewife,” to better describe this problem that has no name. In
the book, she reproduces a memo from an advertising agency at the time:
buying is … based on … the woman’s yearning to know how to be a more attractive
woman, a better housewife, a superior mother, etc., use this motivation in all
your promotion and advertising. Take every opportunity to explain how your
store will help her fulfil her most cherished roles in life...
The prevalence of television,
print media (and now online) ads that manipulate women into spending on beauty
products, weight loss treatments, and the like, has been discussed ad nauseam,
so it’s hardly necessary to point out that this has changed little since the ‘sixties.
What did surprise me, was how
alien certain advertisements aimed solely at women, or featuring them, felt to
me when I moved back to the US in 2011. I’ll describe three briefly, to give
you an idea of what I mean.
One, for a cleaning apparatus,
shows a woman dancing around her home gleefully with a mop and duster – the
image could have been right out of Friedan’s book. I see many, many similar ads for cleaning
products and household appliances (featuring women) and all strike me as wildly
anachronistic. Most of the single and coupled women I know either hire
professional cleaners or share the housework with a partner, or a combination
of both. My mother was a stay at home mom with three kids for some of my
childhood and far too busy to do the tango with a mop. These commercials feel
right out of another era to me.
Another ad for insurance shows
a suit-and-briefcase clad father happily leaving the house for work, while his
wife and two children lounge on the couch and watch television. I’m not sure
what message this is supposed to send about families, women, or children, but
it’s not a positive one. In the third commercial, a woman, having worked in a
corporate office all day, commutes home to cook dinner for her husband and
children, then leaves to volunteer at a homeless shelter in the evening. The
commercial is for vitamins. And no wonder she needs them with that inhuman
All of these commercials strike
me as anomalous if you take even a moment to think about what they imply about
gender roles and expectations. And they are playing on televisions not in 1963,
Friedan’s observation: Women are hesitant to embrace
Friedan noted that women are
reluctant to commit themselves to work requiring initiative, leadership and
responsibility. You might argue that this is ridiculous in the face of the plentiful
successful and bright women you see around you and in the media. However, Facebook’s
Sheryl Sandberg makes an almost identical claim in her book due out March 11,
entitled, Lean In (PwC US is among the Lean In community sponsors). Many
might even say that Sandberg has ferreted out the problem with no name for
Sandberg believes that women
have taken themselves out of the running for high-ranking professional jobs
even before the opportunity materializes; she believes that they fail to “lean
in” to their careers early due to the mere anticipation of having children
later on in life, and rigid HR policies ensure that speaking about planned
pregnancies is a taboo subject. Sandberg urges women to insist their partners
split housework equally, create an early vision for their career, take risks
when appropriate, and connect with other women who have lofty career ambitions.
We’ll be blogging about her much-discussed book in the coming weeks, but for a
preview you can watch the Ted Talk, in
which she articulates many of her views.
I see in Friedan’s work and
its echoes in 2013, the massive implications for both genders. The abnegation
of self – both by women who feel compelled to drop out of the workforce due to
ambivalence or social pressure, and the men who feel obligated to stay in tedious
jobs because they alone shoulder the burden of the family economic burden – is
not only unnecessary, but is a largely unacknowledged and ordinary tragedy of squandered
potential. I think that as a global society, we can do better – we can create
an environment where people can make the right choices for themselves, no
matter their gender, whether that means working in or outside of the home, or
some combination of both.
I sat down with Dennis Nally,
our Chairman yesterday. What keeps me optimistic about the future of women,
men, and work, is his (and other leaders’) acknowledgement that work must be
done radically differently than it has been in the past, and their assiduous,
sometimes very public, but often very quiet work behind the scenes to foster
change. Dennis, along with other PwC leaders, will lead a celebration of International
Women’s Day (8 March) next week.
We believe that the dearth of
women in leadership roles has dominated the conversation for too long and that
to foster more women in leadership roles in a sustainable, realistic way we
must expand the conversation to focus on junior talent now, to get them the
right experiences for future leadership roles.
Stop by pwc.com/women next
week for a series of tools, podcasts, and video vignettes.
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