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Why Nicholas Kristof Gets My Goat
Nicholas Kristof. (Photo: World Economic Forum / Flickr)

Why Nicholas Kristof Gets My Goat

Nicholas Kristof. (Photo: World Economic Forum / Flickr)

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof worries a lot about women. This week, his Sunday column was all about the paucity of women in corporate leadership. A couple of weeks ago, his topic was rape; sex trafficking is one of his chosen beats. Together with his wife, journalist Sheryl Wu Dunn, Kristof’s written a whole book about women survivors-of-violence-turned-leaders. That book, Half the Sky recently was made into a multi-part documentary on PBS. Kristof clearly cares about violence against women and girls. He’s won two Pulitzer Prizes and written about whisking women sex slaves out of brothels. So why does the New York Times star sexual violence crusader irritate me so much?

I’ll try to put my finger on it.

Inspired by a panel he’d been part of at the fancy world’s economic forum in Davos, Kristof’s column this Sunday considered Sheryl Sandberg’s thesis that women in business hold themselves back. Sandberg is chief operating officer at Facebook.

“In America, only 17 percent of American Fortune 500 board seats are held by women; a mere 3 percent of board chairs are women,” writes Kristof.

Corporate obstacles and chauvinism are partly to blame, but Sandberg believes women don’t push themselves as aggressively as men. They don’t “lean forward,” she’s written in a forthcoming book Kristof quotes. That lack of leaning is a problem, for women and for corporate America, he concludes: “Let’s encourage young women to ‘lean in,’ but let’s also change the workplace so that when they do lean in and assert themselves, we’re directly behind them shouting: ‘Right!'”

Oh please. Perhaps it’s the amount of ink spilled on the problems of CEOs that’s so irritating. It should come as no surprise that corporate life comes in for a lot of attention in corporate media. Who do we think is reading the paper of record – what’s left of it, between the Tiffany ads?

Kristof certainly dedicates plenty of words a year to the women at the bottom of the heap. But that’s another part of my beef. A classic Kristof story portrays a former prostitute-turned-businesswoman who’s lifted herself and her children out of grinding poverty. Watch his PBS series and it’s packed with this sort. There’s abuse and grinding poverty and then there’s the woman who gives her bootstraps a tug. It’s a similar narrative to the woman with the ho-hum career in the macho business – and then there’s Sandberg, who by dint of leaning in, rises to the top of Google, then Facebook.

What are common in Kristof’s stories are heroes. What are rare are movements or groups. A hero like Sandberg can win a prize, break a record, even crack a glass ceiling, but change the working conditions for all workers?

When Sandberg joined Facebook, there were no women on the board of directors. A year later, she’s still the only one. It’s apparently hard enough to change the boardroom. It’s even harder to change working conditions down the food chain.

The troubles of those at the top-of-the-corporate ladder make for diverting talk at Davos, but most women aren’t struggling to lead, they’re struggling to feed their families, working too many hours for too little pay in fast turn-over jobs. In thousands of factories across Asia, poor women in Asia are leaning in – and going blind making computer components.

Even a woman who isn’t aggressive deserves not to be destitute. That’s what collective bargaining is for. Yet Kristof seems to like unions less than heroes. Peruse the long list of “ways to lift women out of poverty” at the Half the Sky program web site and collective bargaining doesn’t receive a mention. Last fall, when the 87-percent female Chicago Teachers Union went out on strike, Kristof came out strongly against. In a blistering column, he wrote, “Some Chicago teachers seem to think that they shouldn’t be held accountable until poverty is solved…. “

In a question and answer session on Reddit, when a reader made the point that most teachers in Chicago get laid off for financial, not performance reasons, Kristof declined to comment.

In These Times reporter Mike Elk discovered that earlier in his career, Kristof was a member of the Newspaper Guild and benefited from the job security protections in its contracts. He left the union upon becoming a columnist and as recently as last year refused to support his fellow workers when they were facing cuts. When over 600 Times employees signed a letter in support of overseas workers’ pensions, Kristof refused to sign.

Those who get to chatter at Davos may not agree, but even a woman who is not a leaner deserves not to be destitute, to enjoy the means to support her family. Collective bargaining exists to change working conditions, not for a feisty few, but for the lot.

It’s great that it is possible for women to advance in business these days (if they’re assertive), but even that required a movement. Harvard business school didn’t admit women until 1978.

A survey of 535 restaurant employees and 35 employers by the Restaurant Opportunities Center in New York, Behind the Kitchen Door, revealed that kitchen staff barely if ever get a chance at promotion, even if they “lean in” for all their worth. Especially if they’re immigrant, or a person of color, or some said, have an accent,

“Many workers described a “glass ceiling” between the back-of-house and front-of- house positions which was extremely difficult to break,” according to ROC. “Once hired in back-of-house positions, workers are essentially trapped.”

Leaning is nice, but having rights is better. Having movement power at your back? As MasterCard would say, “That’s priceless.”

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