Lean Whichever Way You Want: Women Are The Key To Drug Policy Wins

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Recently, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg of “Lean In” fame came under fire (again) for being an out-of-touch opportunist. Despite its founder being worth an estimated $400 million, someone from the “Lean In” organization posted an ad for an unpaid intern.

Thinking about the absurdity of a young woman providing unpaid help to an organization founded by a millionaire instead of, say, a financially struggling marijuana advocacy organization, I started to think about the “Lean In” theory in general and how it relates to the drug policy movement.

This is not another attack piece on Sandberg as a person, as tempting as that is to write. She seems charming enough, and no one would doubt she has worked hard to get to where she is. She has made a second career out of self-promotion, but then again, I self-promote a lot too (and think every woman should). And some of her most vile quotes, such as “I always thought I would run a social movement” were later found to be taken out of context. The full quote was, “I always thought I would run a social movement, which meant basically work at a nonprofit”.

But, of course, she ended up becoming the COO of Facebook instead. And maybe that’s why she is so dead wrong about the “Lean In” philosophy as it relates to drug policy advocacy, the social movement in which many Ladybud readers, including me, are deeply involved.

For those uninterested in buying the book (I plead guilty as well), you can watch Sandberg’s 15-minute TED talk for the outline of the “Lean In”. The basic theory begins with the problem that there are not enough women at top positions in businesses.

“Even in the nonprofit world, a world we sometimes think of as being led by more women,” she says, only twenty percent of top positions are held by women (I strongly suspect it’s even lower among drug policy organizations). The solution, according to Sandberg, is to keep more women in the workforce, and her approach to this has three parts:

1) Women should be more confident, more willing to negotiate for themselves, and speak up more. Sandberg calls this “sitting at the table,” and means it literally and figuratively. It’d be hard to find someone who disagrees with this (or finds it particularly revolutionary).

2) Make your partner do half the household work and chores – she includes child care here.  How this might work for the 1 in 3 children in the U.S. who are living without a father is not addressed in the TED talk.

3) Don’t leave work or “scale down” your work unless you absolutely have to. Presumably, women should be more like Sandberg, who says she mostly worked through her maternity leave, logging onto her work email from the hospital room the day after giving birth and breast pumping during conference calls. Currently, she gets up before 6am, leaves work at 5:30pm to eat with her children, and then goes back to work on her computer until bedtime.

Business mom with baby.Perhaps I’m sensitive – maybe even defensive – to the third instruction because I recently made my own choice to take a break from work during a very difficult pregnancy and then during my son’s early years.

By no means would I ever imply that my choice is the best choice or the right one for anyone else, but it’s right for me. I have no intention to participate in the media’s culture wars about whether women should work or stay home.

The pendulum of what’s cool for mothers swings back and forth every few years, but the ultimate truth never changes: the right choice is what’s best for the child and what makes each parent feel fulfilled, whether that’s full-time work, part-time work, no work, or something else.

When Sandberg says, “The pressure to do what’s best for the child is based on emotions, not evidence,” it’s hard to tell why that’s supposed to be a bad thing. Motherhood is an intensely emotional experience, and if that means deciding to take a break, there’s nothing wrong with that. Especially at a time when we’re all expecting to work until age 60 and beyond, taking some time off is not a life-ending or irreversible decision, especially for those of us who are privileged enough to have a choice to make.

For many female workers, a low income and scant benefits mean paying for good childcare isn’t an option. And for many in the domestic industry like Sandberg’s household staff and nannies – let alone unpaid interns – labor protections are even thinner than for other industries.

That’s the primary problem with both “Lean In” and the “mommy wars” in general: the discussion focuses on the lifestyles and choices of only one narrow segment of society: educated, privileged middle-to-upper class women with high salaries.

“That’s the primary problem with both “Lean In” and the “mommy wars” in general: the discussion focuses on the lifestyles and choices of only one narrow segment of society: educated, privileged middle-to-upper class women with high salaries.”

It’s a short list of women who have the type of job that would allow them to follow the “Lean In” strategy, including the ability to negotiate and the type of income that would allow them to afford good child care. Assuming a woman has a partner willing and able to take on half the housework narrows the list further.

What’s far more relevant to our culture and society than the choices of this small number of women are the structural issues that affect all women. Why, for example, is the U.S. the only industrialized nation not to mandate paid maternal leave? Why is it one of the only cultures that does not encourage a 30-40 day recovery period for new mothers? Why are our average out-of-pocket childbirth costs the highest in the world?

Ignoring structural questions about women is problematic in general, but for the drug policy movement, it’s a devastating failure. When women talk about how the War on Drugs harms us, we are talking about those of us whose children have been taken away for parental marijuana use, who have dealt with police storming in and raiding their house in front of their families, and who are drug tested and lose their infants, for example.

For us to make the same mistake as Sandberg and ignore these women is fatal. It’s our duty to find those of us who are often used to being invisible and figure out how to empower them so their stories are at the forefront of our movement. And if these women who are the primary targets and survivors of the Drug War can’t manage to come to our meetings (or sit at Sandberg’s proverbial table) or afford to hire a nanny, or if they can’t make their husbands cook dinner because their husbands are one of the 1 out of 18 men in the U.S. under correctional control, then we need to work around that.

So here is what I think the key is for women in drug policy. It’s not to try to “lean in” and become more like a man. It’s to harness our unique power to create change. As women, that’s something we have innately.

We’re not just men with bigger bumps and prettier faces; we’re trusted because we are nurturers and protectors, and we matter in social change. Don’t take my word for it – look at who the winning coalitions behind last year’s marijuana legalization initiatives chose as the face of their campaigns.

Dale Sky Jones, President of Oaksterdam University was pregnant while being the lead spokeswoman for the Prop 19 Campaign.

Dale Sky Jones, President of Oaksterdam University was pregnant while being the lead spokeswoman for the Prop 19 Campaign.

I-502 and Amendment 64 were represented in the media by the great Alison Holcomb and Betty Aldworth, respectively. Look at Dale Sky Jones, the face of the Prop 19 campaign which led the way for last year’s victories. Would we have won without these women and the collaboration with new groups they helped ignite?

We all know the story of Rosa Parks, the tired seamstress who decided one day not to give up her seat on the bus. Except, of course, that’s not how it happened at all – Ms. Parks, the secretary of her local NAACP branch, was deliberately chosen as the courageous icon to stage the incident and start the boycott which sparked the civil rights movement. Women are trusted when it comes to other social policies, and that includes drug policy.

Savvy organizers are realizing more and more that women are a key to success in drug policy reform. Sure, it’s no secret that women in our movement have faced sexism for a long time — when I first became involved as a college student, my female friends and I quickly learned there was a dark side to the wonderful welcoming nature of people in drug policy.

Those who wanted to get jobs in advocacy organizations had to quickly learn an extra skill in addition to resumes and interviewing; how to fend off overly friendly men, often prominent male leaders, looking to take advantage of young or naive women.

A few of these few “bad apples” behaved so badly that they lost our movement smart and valuable women, permanently. Meanwhile, it’s also well-known that many companies in the marijuana industry utilize the sexual appeal of women (some may call this objectification) for advertising and sales.

You’ll find differing opinions on how this affects our industry, but we can all agree that we wish women had the same type of visibility in more high-level positions in both marijuana companies and drug policy advocacy groups.

But all of this is changing quickly, because successful organizations, including the men within them, are recognizing the power of women and the crucial need to have their opinions, skills and influence. If there are still leaders out there who refuse to adapt and wish for the good old days of white men alone representing the movement to change the drug laws, then they will make themselves irrelevant and ineffective entirely on their own.

One of the smartest things movement leaders and influencers can do if they want to win, especially looking ahead to 2016, is to figure out how to attract more women (as well as people of color and those most directly and profoundly affected by the Drug War) and start collaborating now.

How to do that right is another article – or book – in itself, but start with this: recognize that the goal of diversity is not enough. Don’t be that organization that makes a hasty call to a mothers’ group or a women’s group (or a people of color or formerly incarcerated people group) to ask them for last-minute help sending a representative to attend your press conference, sharing your email blast, or otherwise moving your agenda forward.

Instead, think about your long-term strategy to share power with the groups with whom you want to collaborate. As Rinku Sen puts it, make the leap from a commitment to diversity to a commitment to equity and you’ll create a much greater basis for collaboration. Think about those women Sheryl Sandberg is ignoring, and how you can share your power with them so that they create the agenda with you.

This brings us back to why, as women in our social movement, we don’t need to solve our lack-of-women-at-the-top problem by “leaning in” and putting other people’s needs ahead of our own. What we need to do instead is recognize our power and strengthen it by continuing to recruit and mentor women. And we need to make our movement a welcoming place for them.

This week, when we saw a gigantic victory for our side, I have to admit part of me wished I was still working at my office where the phone would surely be ringing off the hook. I felt a little bit wistful missing all the high fives and watching my colleagues do fantastic interviews in the media. And I wished I saw more women (or even one) reacting to the victory on the news. But – and I aim this at you, Sheryl Sandberg – that’s my longing to have, because of the choice I made for what’s best for me, and I get to own that.

See, the solution to the lack of women leaders representing our movement this week wasn’t for me to “lean in” against my own wishes and go waddling out to TV studios in my maternity pajamas.

Let Sandberg think that the revolution is about designating special parking spaces for pregnant women working 12-hour days against their better judgment; those of us on the ground have an actual revolution to run.

The real solution is for all of us to change our movement so that we have fulfilled, well-prepared and passionate women around the country ready to grab ahold of this momentum and run with it. The solution is to find women who aren’t all about looking out for themselves, but rather looking out for the most vulnerable in our society, and to make our activism and industry something they want to be a part of.

And the solution is for us to be women who aren’t looking to change ourselves in order to succeed in this world, but want to make the world itself better. If we can do that, then winning is a foregone conclusion.