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Is the rise of women inevitable? The different stances of Liza Mundy, Sheryl Sandberg, Leymah Gbowee, and Hanna Rosin

The past year has seen a resurgence of feminism in Australian public debate – from mainstream media’s coverage of Julia Gillard’s ‘misogyny’ speech to social media’s appropriation of Alan Jones’ remark that women are “destroying the joint” into a cheerful mantra.

Internationally, Twitterverse tornados have formed around the likes of Anne Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,’ Lena Dunham’s portrait of contemporary females in Girls, and practically every move Marissa Mayer makes.

This is the landscape into which a series of high profile books about the success of women have been released: from the more triumphant, such The Richer Sex by Liza Mundy and Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men and the Rise of Women – through to the more hard-nosed Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

Of particular interest are the contradictory storylines embedded in these last two discussions.  In shorthand, the starting point for Mundy and Rosin is the coming triumph of women (and in Rosin’s case, the concomitant fall of men), while Sandberg’s perspective is that this triumph is much less imminent or inevitable.

Sandberg’s book is anchored in privileged America, but it does have slightly more global perspective than the others, which could explain its more negative view of women’s situation overall. Also, where Mundy’s book an interesting narrative statistical abstract, Sandberg’s is more of a personal account of her rise to power.

Reading Liza Mundy (who is a keynote speaker at our upcoming All About Women) and Sheryl Sandberg in quick succession is a slightly surreal process. Consider the following quotes:

“Women occupy 51 percent of managerial and professional jobs in the United States, and they dominate nine out of the ten U.S. job categories expected to grow the most in the next decade.”*

 

“The blunt truth is that men still run the world. This means that when it comes to making the decisions that most affect us all, women’s voices are not heard equally.”**

 

“Women’s earning power and the vitality and success it signals will lead to a genuine breakthrough in the relationship between the sexes.”*

 

“It has been more than two decades since I entered the workforce, and so much is still the same.  It is time for us to face the fact that our revolution has stalled.  The promise of equality is not the same as true equality”**

Can they both be right? Is it a half-full vs. half-empty scenario, or one of optimists vs. realists?

That Mundy is looking at demographic and earning patterns in the broad swathe of working women while Sandberg is concentrating on the ambitions of individual women could explain some of the differences, but the apparent dichotomy is a rich terrain for discussion. One is a look into the shifts that will come with money, while the other is looking at how to achieve that power.

What is the effect of such very different arguments on women, men and public debate? Does a more optimistic view make us complacent? Does power matter more than money anyway?

As it happens, Sandberg quotes Leymah Gbowee, one of our other All about Women guests, in trying to identify the root of her less-than triumphant perspective.

“The night before Leymah Gbowee won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to lead the women’s protests that toppled Liberia’s dictator, she was at a book party in my home.  We were celebrating the publication of her autobiography, Mighty be our Powers, but it was a sombre night.  A guest asked her how American women could help those who experienced the horrors and mass rapes of war in places like Liberia.  Her response was four simple words: “More Women in Power”. Leymah and I could not have come from more different backgrounds, and yet we have both arrived at the same conclusion.  Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.”**

Perhaps Sandberg, then, is arguably one of the women in leadership helping create the culture for female success that’s needed before the future envisioned by Mundy and Rosin.

If you have any questions for Liza Mundy, make sure you head along to All About Women for an in-depth discussion about the issues and contradictions discussed here.

*From Liza Mundy, The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family (New York: Simon and Schuster 2012)

**From Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (New York: Knopf 2013)

By Ann Mossop, Head of Public Programs at Sydney Opera House