Last week, Barbara Ehrenreich took self-help guru Marcus Buckingham to task for his ideas about women's happiness. Now he's all over Business Week, telling women how to enjoy their lives and careers, so we decided to take a closer look.
Today's women may be unhappy (at least, that's the claim), but Buckingham must be pretty psyched — in addition to his Huffington Post column, he's got a book excerpt, a panel discussion, a top ten list, and a video clip up on Business Week's website. Here's the video:
Buckingham may be a leeetle smarmy, but he's not horrible — he doesn't think women belong in the home, nor is he one of those people who think feminism causes unhappiness (a position Judith Warner handily attacks on her NY Times blog today). He does think women are kinda miserable — as evidence he cites not just the popular Stevenson and Wolfers study, but also the nifty-sounding "Eurobarometer analysis." But the solution isn't a return to some notional age of pregnancy and pie-baking — we just have to work smarter!
According to the video, the happiest women are those who don't multitask or "juggle," because "if your entire life is spent as a juggler, you never really get to hold onto any moment long enough to feel it." I decided to multitask a little by actually juggling during the video, and I think it made me a little bit happier, but then "spending your entire life as a juggler" actually sounds pretty sweet to me, so maybe I'm not Buckingham's target audience (note to the at-home juggler: I like to use balled-up socks). If I really want to be happy, says Buckingham, I need to stop doing so many things at once.
It's a message echoed over and over again in his writing, and in his interviews with professional women. Over at HuffPo, Buckingham quotes Billie Williamson, senior partner at Ernst & Young, who proudly admits that she doesn't arrange photos of her daughter in scrapbooks. She's also "the queen of outsourcing." Buckingham writes,
House cleaning, grocery shopping, kid's birthday parties, all outsourced. You can't do everything, so don't fall into the trap of trying. Instead, find the moments in each aspect of your life that invigorate you, and imbalance your life toward those.
So one key to happiness is having servants. Another is not letting your digressive ladybrain get in the way. At BusinessWeek, Susan Peters, chief learning officer at General Electric, says to Buckingham,
I know you've all done this, where you're writing the list of what you have to get done for Thanksgiving dinner while the colleague next to you is making the big presentation. You have to discipline your mind to stay where you are and stay in the moment. I would argue that our male colleagues are in the moment, and if we're not, that's a huge disadvantage.
Men don't think about dinner when they're busy with affairs of state, and neither should you. Just outsource it. Of course, some things, like pregnancy, are harder to outsource. So just put off thinking about them for as long as possible. At HuffPo, Buckingham paraphrases Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg:
Time and again she has seen highly talented women turn down challenging career assignments because they are thinking about having a baby. Not that they actually have a baby. They aren't even pregnant. It's merely that they are thinking about it. And this thinking turns to planning, and the planning leads them to the conclusion that now isn't a good time to take on anything new. Sheryl's advice: Enough with your planning. You are on a fast career track right now, doing as much and earning as much and wanting as much as your colleagues, so stay on this track for as long as you can, and wait to see what unfolds.
Buckingham's basic thesis seems to be that women sabotage themselves by thinking about too much stuff, and if they could just think about less — perhaps by paying other people to do it for them — they'd be happier. His advice isn't stupid — if you're a successful middle-class woman. There is something empowering about refusing to manage a whole bunch of household crap, especially if you can afford to get someone else to take care of it. And it's probably true that women with the luxury of maintaining laserlike focus enjoy their jobs more. But not all women have what Buckingham calls "an excess of choice" of things to pay attention to. Plenty of women have lots of obligations and little help or money, and "quit juggling" isn't particularly good advice for them.
There's really a bigger problem at work in Buckingham's advice, one Barbara Ehrenreich hints at in Bright-Sided. She says that making people feel artificially happy about their circumstances discourages them from trying to change them. Similarly, telling women that the way to get happy is to change their individual thought processes ignores the idea of collective action. Judith Warner is as skeptical about women's large-scale unhappiness as I am, but she does identify some major problems:
The wage gap persists, particularly for mothers, who now earn 73 cents for every man's dollar. Our workforce and education system is still sex-segregated, operating along generations-old stereotypes that steer most women into low-paid, low-status, low-security professions. Women pay more for health insurance than men, have more extensive health needs than men, and suffer unique forms of discrimination in their coverage. (Women may be denied coverage because they had a Caesarean delivery or were victims of domestic violence - both "preexisting conditions.") Regardless of the number of hours they work, they continue to do far more caretaking and housekeeping work at home than do their husbands. And discrimination against mothers (but not fathers) in the workplace is all but ubiquitous.
Women aren't going to solve any of these problems by saying "in the moment" or by putting off thinking about kids as long as possible. In fact, these techniques actually make systemic change less likely, because (again, as Ehrenreich says about positive thinking) they make it seem like any woman who isn't happy is just doing something wrong. It's revealing that Buckingham lists the wage gap as one of his top ten "myths about the lives of women:"
The oft-quoted 77¢ on the dollar figure is accurate. But almost all of the gap is caused by different levels of experience. Women interrupt their careers and that leads to being perceived as having less experience.
Buckingham may not believe in the wage gap, or in other social problems keeping women from achieving parity. But those of us who do see the large-scale social ills Warner enumerates understand that we're not going to fix them by looking inward at our own brains. We need to turn outward, and join forces with other women, women whose troubles are bigger than not having the time to scrapbook. Ehrenreich said it well: "the threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world." Even if it involves a little juggling.
How Women Handle Success [BusinessWeek]
Words Of Wisdom From Strong Women [Huffington Post]
When We're Equal, We'll Be Happy [NYT]
Ten Myths About The Lives Of Women [BusinessWeek]
Why Are Women Unhappier Than They Were 40 Years Ago? [BusinessWeek]
Marcus Buckingham On Strong Women [BusinessWeek]