Katie Roiphe's wrong -- counting women matters

Tallying women's representation is way more than "bean counting," and women need more places they can "lean in" to

Published August 29, 2013 6:30PM (EDT)

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook            (Reuters/Stephen Lam)
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook (Reuters/Stephen Lam)

Given the frequency with which commentators point out the glaring underrepresentation of women, people of color and other marginalized groups in media, politics and corporate America, you might assume there is some kind of pleasure to be had from all this tallying. Such is not the case. Counting is not about pleasure. It is not about deriving mindless satisfaction. It is not about quotas. It is not about running on the same old hamster wheel of frustration or outrage. We’re beyond outrage and well into boredom, if not resignation.

At best, such counts are dreadfully banal. Here we are again, pointing out the unchanging obvious. At worst, and we’re often at the worst, these counts are a reminder of how deeply embedded these imbalances are and how little those perpetuating the imbalances care about effecting change. We count because we’re forced to, because the omissions are so consistent, so long-standing, and so blatant that we have no choice but to notice and count and make some noise.

If we were talking about a random instance or two of exclusion, that would be one thing. That would be an aberration, easily overlooked. We’re not dealing with an aberration, though. We’re dealing with too many organizations and systems perpetuating the same nonsense, year after year. If we say nothing, we have to bide our time by bashing our heads against the glass ceiling. If we say anything, we’re often regarded with derision or contempt.

Over at Slate, Kate Roiphe offers a strangely timed, tepid piece about “feminist bean counters.” See, if you want to say something insulting, simply use the word "feminist" and you’re halfway there. Those damn feminists are always stirring up some kind of silly trouble. Roiphe says, among other things, “To think in the abacus mode, where we simply tally up the numbers of every crappy piece written by a woman, seems less compelling than noting and encouraging exceptional female talent.” As you might expect, Roiphe completely misses the point. Women are multitasking — working hard while not losing sight of what many people are up against no matter how hard they work. Wanting to see more diverse representation, in any realm, isn’t about elevating mediocrity. It’s about recognizing the excellence we damn well know is out there. How many times does this need to be said?

There’s no denying that raw numbers tell us only a fraction of the story. Numbers cannot account for context. In the context of the literary world, we could theorize about women and how they pitch and take risks and more. Let’s go out on a limb and assume that women are not the problem. When you look at nearly every significant publication and whose voices are privileged, numbers may not tell the whole story -- but they are saying something. Numbers make sense. Einstein said, “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” Perhaps these numbers we keep talking about are the poetry of the logical idea that people who live in the margins deserve access to the center.

There has been no more misrepresented book in recent memory than Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In." People have taken a fairly good but flawed book written for a narrow group of women and are applying the “lean in” philosophy broadly and indiscriminately. Too many people assume that “leaning in” and taking chances and being more aggressive are universally applicable or available choices.

As many critics have noted, if some women, most notably working-class women, lean in any further, they will fall right over. This actually holds true for most women. We’re leaning pretty hard. And, of course, there are many circumstances where there is nowhere to lean. Roiphe suggests we need a Sheryl Sandberg in the literary world. We don’t need a new Sandberg. Those women exist; they are legion. The literary world needs the gatekeepers who made it possible for Sandberg to lean in and achieve her success. We need more places where leaning in is possible and, more importantly, encouraged.

Editor and writer Ann Friedman offers an incisive critique of Jack Shafer’s post about the men in journalism who have successfully built influential media platforms. Friedman says, “The narrative that these men are self-made media brands is some libertarian-bootstrapping bullshit. Each of these brothers didn’t build an independent empire. They were hired for staff jobs of increasing prominence by higher-ups (most of them, I’m going to wager a guess, also male) at established media organizations.” These men not only “leaned in,” they leaned in to welcoming environments.

Friedman also highlights women journalists with significant followings who haven’t built the same vertical platforms as, say, Nate Silver or Bryan Goldberg. She speculates about the ambition gap between men and women and she is spot on. Women are ambitious. We have goals and grand ideas. We often nurture our ambitions quietly because too much ambition in a woman, well, it’s unseemly. We also have far fewer models for what our ambition can become. This brings us back to numbers and why we count. If you don’t want to acknowledge the numbers and the truths those numbers represent, you’re welcome to look the other way. That strategy has gotten us this far.

By Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay's writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Oxford American, the Rumpus, the Wall Street Journal and many other publications

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Katie Roiphe Lean In Sheryl Sandberg Women Women's Representation