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The Push-Pull of Sheryl Sandberg’s "Lean In"


Published on: December 30, 2013

2951199_hiresOne hundred years from now, I wonder what the feminist texts and history books will say about this enlightened period we live in now — the one fueled by mommy wars, "have it all” debates, and countless books, blogs and blather devoted to a topic that seems to only go in one direction: round and round (and round)?

Is this merely the messy, early stage of a new global women’s movement — the one where we finally eliminate gender inequality, abolish the pay gap, offer all parents high quality subsidized child care, and get those progressive feminists in the corner office where they belong? Or does this near constant cacophony represent something else entirely — pointless infighting among a small group of self-righteous women suffering from too much privilege?

Well, since I’m a privileged woman with a degree from a private liberal arts women’s college, I really can’t resist this one. Today’s topic: Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, just published by Knopf.

Just to make sure we’re leaning in the same direction, though, here’s a quick roundup of the controversy thus far:

“Pompom Girl for Feminism:” Maureen Dowd has fun with Sandberg’s lofty goals: “She has a grandiose plan to become the PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots reigniting the women’s revolution.” (Except Sandberg doesn’t like PowerPoint – whoops!)

Whose Elite is it Anyway? This from op-ed columnist Melissa Gira Grant in the Washington Post: “the Lean In movement is “simply the elite leading the slightly-less-elite, for the sake of Sandberg’s bottom line.” (Is it still her bottom on the line if all profits from the book go to charity?)

Lean What? When one of Nancy Shatz Alton’s favorite daily Internet pit stops is all lean-in, lean-back, she wonders, “am I leaning in or leaning back or am I ignoring the clean laundry that is dispersed all over my family room floor for ease of sock-finding?”

Mocked as a Silicon Valley Marie Antoinette? In perhaps my favorite op-ed to date, Katha Politt in The Nation (“Who’s Afraid of Sheryl Sandberg?”) likens Sandberg’s read as “someone who’s just taken Women’s Studies 101 and wants to share it with her friends. Did you know that women apply for jobs only when they are 100 percent qualified, but men apply at 60 percent? That even incredibly accomplished women think they’re frauds about to be found out? That women are caught in a double bind between femininity and ambition? Have you read Alice Walker?”

I read the book. This is important, I think, because most of the early criticism has come from people who lashed out or took a side even before Lean In was released.

I’m not falling all over Lean In by any means, but Sandberg does do a good job of portraying an honest picture of her own rise to the top (via jungle gym, not ladder — let’s be clear) and what she sees are the real obstacles for women today. Her advice is practical and well-intentioned, and she has some great pointers for young rising women, which she delivers in a matter of fact tone that feels collaborative and empowering. She’s like your best friend’s mom who wants to see you succeed, so she takes you aside and gives you the straight scoop:

Don’t sell yourself short! Sit at the table! Smile! Use words like “we” and not “I.” Map out your 18-month goals! Don’t marry a loser who’s not willing to do his equal share! Lean in!!! It’s all backed up with solid data and research about success, likeability, and gender issues in the workplace. Again, very Women’s Studies 101, with a list of helpful takeaways for the reader.

And yet, mostly because Sandberg has positioned her book not as a memoir or a self-help business guide, but as a “sort of feminist manifesto” (her words) I don’t see the “Lean In” movement gaining much traction anytime soon. Here’s why:

1. Success and leadership are not one size fits all. Sandberg’s main assertion is that women should be more ambitious and that many of the world’s challenges could be solved if we had more female leaders. We should “lean in” to our challenges, fears and opportunities instead of leaning back, “off-ramping,” or opting out.

To be fair, she’d dedicated a few passages in there about how women who choose motherhood over work, or refuse to aim for the top, shouldn’t be judged for doing so. But the underlying message is this: In order to succeed, follow the old-school corporate model of success.

Sure, that covers plenty of worker bees, but what about the academics, the physicians, the specialists or the entrepreneurs? She’s all but ignored the recent rise of “mompreneurs” happening right now, and there’s no mention of the current economic conditions that make so hard to get and keep a good job in the first place.

2. These aren’t women’s issues. Men feel torn between home and work, too, but they are rarely given a culturally acceptable alternative option. When I started working on this assignment, a male friend of mine emailed me: “Man. Breadwinner. (Grunt). There’s no balance. Work or get replaced. Why does 'lean in' have to be gender specific?” Side note to all of you awesome enlightened working dads out there: Can one of you please write a feminist manifesto? We rarely get to hear the male’s point of view in these shrill women-centric debates, so it would be great if we could take it down an octave.

3. The war has already been won. In The End of Men, Hanna Rosin asserts that the only reason there aren’t more women in the highest realms of industry and government is because those last few old white guys haven’t had a chance to die or get hauled off to jail yet. Women are ahead and leading in nearly every other category, so it’s just a matter of time. In Sandberg’s anachronistic, limited view, success is measured by the number of women who currently hold those top corporate jobs and board seats. Which brings me to my final point …

4. Most of us don’t want those stinky top jobs anyway. As someone who has had her share of corporate leadership positions, I’m the first one to tell you that the higher I went up the ranks, the worse the job became. The stress, the politics, the constant leaning in was exhausting, incredibly uncreative, and soul-sucking. Good for Sandberg that she enjoys that type of work and thrives in such an environment.

Not me. I’m happily self-employed (though I do have my work at home challenges) and the other women I know who have “opted out” to start their own businesses, excel as individual contributors, or seek leadership positions outside of the corporate realm are enjoying a level of newfound joy, independence and success made possible in part by technological advances that we couldn’t have predicted a decade ago. (Note to Sandberg: the reason why women have made no progress at the top in 10 years is because the real pioneering leaders have discovered a better way). In my view, this new wave of feminism will be more about innovation and a redefinition of work than “leaning in” to an old model.

If there’s one thing Sandberg and I both agree on it is this: “Social gains are never handed out — they must be seized.” One of her proudest accomplishments is that that she got the Google execs to put in pregnancy parking under her tenure. I’ve got nothing against pregnancy parking, but my goodness, I’d be a lot more impressed if she enacted a groundbreaking family leave policy or generously subsidized childcare. But instead she devotes almost an entire chapter to the subject of why you should keep working even though your childcare expenses are two thirds of your salary, and she offers no solution other than “keep working because eventually your salary will go up.” Ugh.

Ultimately, these are complex issues that women have been discussing for centuries, and I certainly don’t claim to have any new answers. One of the paradoxes of the women’s movement is that even as we make gains, it is often other women who hold us back, and Sandberg is no stranger to this sentiment. “As a woman gets more successful, everyone likes her less,” she writes, almost anticipating her own backlash.

So go ahead and “lean in” or lean back, or opt out or pave a new path. No matter what you think of Sandberg or her book, there’s no doubt that she’s rekindled these smoking embers, and that’s a good thing. Controversy often leads to discussion, and with any luck, discussion can lead to change.

107Allison Ellis is a freelance writer and mother of two who lives and writes in Seattle. Read more of her work at AllisonEllis.

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