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To “Lean In,” Women Must Abandon the False Moral Ideal of Selflessness

Young Businesswoman Adjusting Her Tie

“Gender inequality is the problem of our generation,” declared Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her 2011 Barnard College commencement address. Her remarks there have since reignited debate about sexual discrimination, pay inequality, and the role of women in the workforce. Even since her inaugural TED Talk, she has been spearheading a campaign to empower women in the workforce.

Sandberg’s most controversial claim is that women are the ones holding themselves back. In her recently released book Lean In, she implores women to take a “seat at the table” and “not leave before they leave.” At the same time, Sandberg leaves unchallenged the problematic claim that sexual discrimination is what is holding women back, and fails to explore the deeper causes of the psychological barriers that inhibit women in their careers.

A commonly held belief maintains that for every dollar earned by a man, a woman only makes 77 cents. The usual suggestion is that when a man and woman of equal qualifications are given the same job, the man receives higher pay simply because he is a man, i.e., because of sexual discrimination. Many also believe that there are fewer women in the workforce—especially in leadership positions—because men are chosen over women.

This apparent income inequality is largely a misconception. One of the chief reasons men have higher-earning jobs is because they stay in the workforce longer and so are more likely to acquire seniority. Sandberg and others do not consider that before Fortune 500 companies can hire more women in leadership positions, there need to be more qualified women competing for these jobs in the first place.

Many women choose to leave the workforce to have children. As a result, they are not able to put in the time needed to strive for higher paying jobs. When this and similar factors are accounted for, it turns out that the 77 cents-on-the-dollar statistic is not exactly accurate. When a woman works the exact same hours as a man in the exact same profession, her median earnings are 91 percent compared to his. That is still a nine percent gap, but it is drastically different from a 23 percent one.

Generally, women earn less in gross income because they choose to. Why would women choose to earn less than men? Many see it as their role and selfless duty to raise children–that, in order to be a good mother, they must stay at home. Psychologically, some women hold themselves back by believing that they must play the role of “nurturer,” a moral ideal which is reinforced by longstanding Judeo-Christian cultural standards. Even so-called advocates of “women’s rights” say that women are specially tuned to an “ethics of care.”

On the other hand, not having children and instead pursuing a high-income job is considered selfish. Since selfishness is thought to be bad, many women choose to be “moral” and so decide not to pursue jobs that would allow them to earn the same high salaries as men.

The reason why women should be allowed to pursue high-income jobs and not be discriminated against on the basis of their sex is that they are not doing anything wrong in pursuing such careers. Pursuing an advanced career is a productive use of one’s life—and it is also selfish. To be selfish means to be concerned with one’s own interests, and being productive is in one’s own interest. If it is not wrong to be productive, then why is it wrong to be selfish? Likewise, it is in the self-interest of employers to hire and retain the most productive individuals they can, so it is in their self-interest to treat both men and women justly. If this principle of justice is morally right, then how can the selfish motive underlying it be morally wrong? (See “Morality: Who Needs It” in this issue.)

Sandberg says in her book that “rather than engage in philosophical arguments” she wants to provide practical solutions, but what she fails to consider is that philosophical ideas are at the root of what is really holding women back. Her book acknowledges that it is a prejudice that women should have different goals than men—that they should want to contribute to society and improve the lives of others. But she does not address why so many women have felt pressured to adopt these different goals. Women have felt an obligation to contribute to society and to help others because they embrace the baseless philosophical ideal of selflessness.

Having a child can be a selfish choice, granted that it in one’s own interests and aligns with one’s values. Having children can be an investment, just like putting more hours into work each week. It is an opportunity to nurture and cultivate the long-term development of another in the image of one’s own values. Like any other relationship between two individuals there are many benefits to be gained from the interaction, but not every relationship or friendship has the same value or any value at all. Therefore, whether one should have a child or not depends on the individual.

Selfless parenting is bad parenting. When one does something not because one wants to do it, but because one feels it is one’s duty or obligation, one often doesn’t do it well. It is not unlike being asked to complete a task at work that one thinks is pointless, or which doesn’t have any long-term value and is not in one’s self-interest. Parenting is too important to be done reluctantly and drudgingly. Parenting out of duty leads to resenting one’s children, not loving them.

If we want women to move forward in the workforce and strive for greater success, we all need to lean in. Namely, we need to lean into the task of thinking for ourselves and seeking only what will be of value and of long-term benefit to ourselves. We must abandon the ideal of selflessness on philosophical grounds and embrace the morality of rational self-interest. The problem of our generation is not one of gender inequality, but rather of oppression by invalid moral ideals.

Sarah Martinson is a journalism student at Columbia College Chicago.

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