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Book Review: Sex and Power, by Susan Estrich


By Meg Urry

June 2002

Meg Urry is currently a Professor of Physics and the Director of the Yale Center for Astronomy &
Astrophysics. She does research on active galaxies, notably multi-wavelength studies of blazars. During
her decade-long tenure at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD, she was the chief
organizer of the 1992 STScI conference on Women in Astronomy which led to the Baltimore Charter.
She is currently the chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (of the American
Astronomical Society) and a member of the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (of the
American Physical Society), and has been co-editor of STATUS since 1998 (with Lisa Frattare).

 

AS A GRADUATE student and postdoc, I thought the rewards in life came automatically to the deserving — for
example, that the smartest, best scientists would do well in their professions. The notion of having
to ask for anything was, well, unseemly — it was too forward, too pushy. Even describing one’s
own work to colleagues felt uncomfortably close to bragging. Yet experience teaches that merit is
not always the deciding factor, if only because it is so hard to evaluate. Instead, those who act
deserving — who ask for honor and for power, explicitly or implicitly — seem to get it most easily.


I still meet young women today who, like me (or like I used to be), are reluctant to put
themselves forward for positions or honors that they nonetheless believe completely that they
deserve. In her book Sex and Power (Riverhead Books, 2000) Susan Estrich asks why women
continue to play by different rules — rules that disadvantage them in the workplace. “American
women have enormous power at their fingertips,” she points out,“... if [they] choose to use it.” So why don’t they?


She has asked this same question of herself. In her book, Estrich describes hosting a weekly
talk show on LA radio. When offered a chance to move her popular show to a higher impact,
daily time slot, she hesitated because it would dislodge a fellow employee and friend. He and
his wife were extremely grateful to Estrich for alerting them to the offer (he had been
completely in the dark), and the move never happened. Then a year or so later, with no
warning, the same friend took over Estrich’s slot, and her show was canceled. He didn’t hesitate and
certainly didn’t clue her in. Furthermore, the man’s original slot was taken by a right-wing
talk show, not a direction Estrich wanted to see talk radio go. What should she have done in the
first event? Act “like a man” and seize her opportunity, bringing her ideas and liberalism to
the wider public but possibly hurting a friend? Should she condemn his later action or emulate it?


Estrich is well known on several fronts: she was the first woman president of the Harvard
Law Review, the youngest woman to receive tenure at the Harvard Law School, and the first
woman to head a national presidential campaign, for Dukakis in 1988. (In her book Estrich notes,
“You still read about the first woman ‘this’ and the first woman ‘that.’ Why?” Good point!)
Currently Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California —
interestingly, a position she took at least in part to facilitate having a family — Estrich has spent many
years in the public arena and is well-known for her generally Democratic leanings. She is a prolific
writer and an insightful observer of modern life.

Sex & Power starts strong — with a reprise of the process of nominating Madeline Albright to
be Secretary of State — and is compelling throughout. Although the book is about women in society
generally, the issues are what women in science think about, and Estrich asks all the right questions.
There are only three women heads of Fortune 500 companies, she notes. “Is it because there are only
three women in America qualified to head a large corporation? Or is
it because qualified women don’t get recognized as such?” Translate “Fortune 500 companies” to
“top 10 university physics and astronomy departments”, and the point hits home.


Apparently getting ahead in law has everything in common with succeeding in
science. “I vividly remember sitting in Harvard Law School faculty meetings and hearing one
professor after another extol the virtues that he had in common with the would-be hire; the
Ph.D.’s always thought a Ph.D. essential, while former Supreme Court law clerks would
always focus on that particular line in the resume.” This can’t help but sound like our
hiring committees. Estrich gently skewers her former colleagues, and exposes their elitist
practices as largely unconscious but implicitly discriminatory solipsism.

There are more parallels. Estrich talks about women in corporate America, who, “first and
foremost ... cite a record of always exceeding expectations. Because less is expected, more is
required.” My female science colleagues say this consistently. At the recent international meeting
on Women in Physics (See STATUS Newsletter, June 2002, page 1), delegates argued over the
factor by which a woman’s performance had to exceed her male colleague’s in order to reach the
same level of success: 2.5, said Sweden. 10, said Russia! No one thought that it was sufficient to
be “just as good.”


Estrich tackles a variety of areas: corporate America, law, motherhood, and politics. On
motherhood she may draw the strongest reaction. She is impatient with women who opt out of
professional careers to stay home and care for young children. Partly, she deplores the waste of
talent and education, and, also, she insists that this path is not a simple time-out. “The problem
of the ‘mommy track’ isn’t that it represents a detour,” she argues. “A detour would work. The
problem is that it’s a dead end.” Yet this also is a woman who potentially compromised her own
career, giving up a tenured faculty position at Harvard in order to live in the same city as her
husband. She knows the cost and wants us to make what compromises are necessary, but to hang
in and stick with it and rise to the top. When I look around the halls of academe for the occasional
female colleague, I want only to cheer her on.


She has a way of putting her finger on the precise point, better than most of us are able.
About families and careers she says, “The assumption is that a man with children will work
harder to support his family, while a woman with children will work less to be with her family.
The assumption is that men are ambitious, that work is what matters most, and that women
are more concerned with balancing their lives than with getting ahead.” As she points out,
assumptions are not truths. Our job is to define the new truths.

 

WORDS OF WISDOM FROM SUSAN ESTRICH'S BOOK SEX AND POWER

A SUMMARY OF SIGNIFICANT POINTS:

To younger women who have not yet encountered discrimination and do not think they will:
“It is a measure of how far we have come that so many young women
today could believe that they don’t face discrimination.”


On the difficulty of identifying discrimination: “Given the subjectivity of judgment at
this level, how do you prove discrimination? There will always be some
other factor that can be invoked, not only by the decision-maker but by the
woman herself. Maybe I just wasn’t good enough, we say to ourselves.
Maybe it’s just me.”


On the unavoidability of the “woman issue” for women in male-dominated professions: Early
in her career, Estrich avoided teaching gender-related law, so as not to be
pigeon-holed as a feminist first, law professor second. But, she says, she
“learned an important lesson along the way [in her career], one that has led
me to teach gender discrimination for the last decade or more: If that’s the
way they see the world, they’ll see you that way, too, no matter what you
do.” You can take extraordinary steps, compromise your family, put your
job first, produce unprecedented results, “be extraordinary — and by and
large, it still doesn’t work. They still look at you and what they see is a woman...”


On the goal of feminist action: “The purpose of recognizing discrimination is not
to become a victim, but a revolutionary.”

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