Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg (2013)
The Slow Living Summit is an annual June event in Brattleboro, Vermont. Its purpose is to encourage preservation of local farms and sustain rural landscapes. The parade through town includes little pink fairies, political activists, and Strolling with the Heifers. Youngsters walk along with their small calves donning flower leis; babies and big people join them in cow suits. This event offers a tremendous contrast and necessary addendum to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
Sandberg is the fast-paced, smart, insistent and very successful COO at Facebook. She explores issues for women in leadership in the 21st century. She cites YouTube videos, book titles and activists I admire, including the video of Riley bewildered by the color codes in the toy store. This clip is priceless. It says a lot about gendered marketing and proves how early the gender boxes begin. (http://jezebel.com/5871009/video-of-little-girl-getting-pissed-off-at-gender+specific-toy-colors-will-make-your-heart-swell). Marketers take heed. Young Riley is only four and she sees what is going on
Sandberg offers personal anecdotes as well as research and statistics about women in the workforce – but her passion really is with the high stakes, tippy-top leadership. She is aware of the whole spectrum of women working and consistently reminds the reader that most women dwell in environments that don’t offer flex time for parents, parking near the door for pregnant employees, or leave for elder care. A lot of women tone down their career goals or decide to stop working because their salary hardly covers day care for kids or elders, let alone any other expenses. Sandberg is sure that women could get these rights (I wonder if men would call them benefits?) if they had the power and designed equitable working conditions. She actually got the pregnant parking place by simply, while very pregnant, asking. Sandberg is quite concerned that women don’t even attempt to take on the top jobs. They capitulate before they begin. Returning home or working part time in order to provide care to family may be fulfilling and benefit society, but it sure puts a crimp in the women workers available to businesses, their earning power, and career advancement. A reminder: only 7% of American households are of the Father Knows Best design of the man going off to work to support the stay-at-home wife and kids. Sandberg wants us to struggle with all the complex and constantly shifting issues during our extended life span.
I appreciate this, as I’m all for struggling with the complexity of our lives and desires and innovatively figure out the dilemmas. But never once does Sandberg even almost mention that this creative realignment of the corporate world will require some major toppling of the patriarchal systems that have profited for thousands of years from the free and extensive labor of mothers, wives, aunts and grandmothers. The excitement and adventure of Sandberg’s career is the surface story. The undercurrent of this narrative is capitalism at its most dynamic: to succeed one must work day and night so figure out daycare, have a husband who shares in the child and house care 50/50 as well as supports your career 1000%. (She says that of course same sex couples have this equitable household management thing figured out already. -Oh how we wish this were so!) Sandberg offers details from her own life about how tricky it is to pump breast milk while on a conference call; and how subversive it feels to take a trip to the bathroom to send an email during a play date.
I am exhausted by her schedule and furious at a society that deems this “success” when such a small percentage of the population make salaries of so many digits, let alone a planet that can survive such consumption and exploitation. Balancing family and career has always been a juggling act, but Sandberg is saying that now it has to be both parents juggling—not just the woman. According to Sheelah Kolhatkar in the June 3-9, 2013 Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, this is exactly what men have struggled with all along while being expected to financially support everything. Men want time to be Dads too, Kolhatkar insists, but they just have been too darn busy. Debates reign regarding the Peter Pan syndrome and lad culture with men acting like boys, while certainly the mothers suing fathers for back child support might wonder about Kolhatkar’s claims. I’m glad to hear that men want in on fatherhood and the time it takes to really participate. I’ve been advocating men’s liberation for as long as I’ve been a feminist.
I also find myself wondering, why lean in when the work environments are so relentless? Not just the hours but the work climate and culture. For instance, according to Peggy Drexler in her March 2013 article “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee” in the Wall Street Journal, 80% of bullying by female bosses is directed at other women. Is this internalized sexism the consequence of so few women being in top leadership? Drexler adds that men use fear to advance and women will too until the day women are routinely in the top leadership as men. Sandberg acknowledges the Queen Bee syndrome and calls on women to recognize this warp in the wonder of women leaders.
But I think this is too limited a perspective and too demoralizing a definition of leadership. A real plentitude and integration of women, people of color, gay, lesbian, trans, people with disabilities, ethnicity, religious backgrounds, and body sizes will change the dynamics of leadership, change everything. Everyone will have to engage with new paradigms about work, civility, and have an ability to work across all perceived differences. To make such changes we need to topple patriarchy’s favorite misnomer that only the strongest survive. Cooperation beats competitive in the healthiest communities around our globe, above or below sea level.
I also find it quite interesting that all visible differences are invisible in the realms of the social medias in which Sandberg has been a leader (Google and Facebook). Ironically? But in the boardrooms, the meetings in face-to- face times—visual markers all still matter a great deal. Being a woman matters.
Sandberg writes from the perpetually precarious perch out there on the gender limb. She is reviving many of the Second Wave feminist requests of the seventies but as a Third Wave feminist, she has so much going for her. She has access to a much larger tree of life, with many branches. Sandberg could be more convincing if she realized how inclusive and complex gender really is and how traditional and confining her framework remains. As an example, Sandberg writes that “First, women must come across as being nice, concerned about others, and “appropriately” female”(p.46). The quotation marks around appropriately are nerve wracking. Does this mean that tall women, petite women, traditionally built women (to use Alexander McCall Smith’s definition of his main character in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series), lesbians with short hair, and women with a preference for clothes generally marketed to men need not apply? My mind, despite myself, goes directly to two options for women in business: Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima—both purely fictional and updated over the years to reflect more “modern” or “appropriate” standards.
She admits that she was terribly disappointed when the Speaker of the House, the revered Tip O’Neill, patted her on the head rather than complimenting her hard work as a youthful page in Washington, D.C. She argues that Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and men like her husband, Dave Goldberg, are proving that men in business are now striving as much for women as themselves. This is really exciting and hopeful, as the potential for balance, equality, and cooperation truly exist —for women and men—with the sensibility of such leaders.
So the really scary thing is that queen bee syndrome that Drexler’s Wall Street Journal article points out. It’s also highlighted in the 2004 film, Mean Girls (check out the website of 40 Mean Girl quotes). It’s scary that high school behavior is so evident and unattractive in adult women in high places. That’s internalized sexism, and it exists with vengeance, especially when draped in power.
Sandberg cites studies that show women who are strong, clear, articulate, good at business, achieve and lead, are put down as “acting like a man” while just conducting good business. Women can’t win: to act like a man is be a b*&^h. No in-between options (remember 2008 Mrs. Clinton vs. Mrs. Palin). People don’t like this; many folks don’t know what to do with a strong, insightful, creative woman, especially if she doesn’t look like a Barbie doll or act like a sex toy (neither to be taken seriously either). So let’s go back to our young radical Riley in the YouTube video, who asks with great exasperation, “Why does all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different colored stuff?”
Young Riley clearly rubbed off on Sandberg, who dared to give the Ted Talk “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” Despite countless speeches on business and marketing, this one provoked concerned tweets and phone calls. Sandberg is reaching out to women. Go ahead: dare to disrupt the status quo, dare to sit right up at the corporate table, really split house and child care with your partner, dare to incite change in your organization so everyone, including the bottom line, benefits. Dare say, profits.
Sandberg truly wants women to have an equal opportunity to take the leadership positions and have a family life. Everything will work out—busy but happy, kids, career trajectory, school soccer games and dinner at home some nights. But again, she doesn’t take her analysis far enough into the complexity of our times. We know that whites hold the big jobs in disproportionate numbers (also listen: “Job Searching While Black: What’s Behind The Unemployment Gap?” NPR, May 25, 2013). Sandberg cites the statistics: of the Fortune 500 CEOs only 21 are women, women hold 17 percent of the board seats and comprise18 percent of our elected officials. She points out that women of color are more than 10 percent below those numbers Still, people think the workplace is a meritocracy, even though men are unaware of the benefits they receive just by being men, and women believe men are entitled to be there, and the hiring process is racialized and gendered.
In this context, is leaning in even possible? Is Sandberg writing about capitalism at the most extreme with a splash of estrogen? Or is this something we ought to question, like Ariel Levy’s wondering about Girls Gone Wild in Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005)–is all that sex, drugs, and booze really liberation? Is Superwoman success creating new workplaces and transforming leadership? Can we balance everything so magnificently if we just sit at the table, keep our hands raised for questions, and persevere?
Miss Representation (2011), a documentary written, directed, and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is a perfect companion to Lean In. Many of the same celebrities and icons of the contemporary women’s movement are captured on film. The film show how especially intense advertisements are that diminish women, illustrate their bodies as beer bottles and airbrush their limbs into twigs. Such footage offers insight into how we are besieged with mixed messages about our bodies as we evolve from girl into woman. And as importantly, how boys are taught to see women as they become men.
We’ve come to expect Sandberg’s level of commitment and endless performance from entertainers, government officials, public school teachers, staff, administration, and corporate executives, as well as ourselves. It seems inhumane to be so 24/7. Are there ways to get the work done and still smell the coffee and the roses? Use our skills? Love our living? Do I want my daughter to lean in, take the risks, and go for the top? And my son?
If Sandberg and the next generation of leaders actually blend cyber speed and strolling with the heifers–it may just work out.