On Women, Men and Work: Reading Sheryl Sandberg’s _Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead_ (2013)

Every few years a book is released in the business world that is insightful enough to transcend the boundaries between the worlds of business and society (business/government, business/academia, business/the arts, etc.) or (in my case) between such divisions as copywriter/client or editor/writer. As I earlier discussed in my blog, Seth Godin’s Linchpin: Are You Indispensable (2010) was one such book. In the next couple of blog postings, I’ll discuss why Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, is another (New York: Knopf, 2013). It warrants a close reading from me and from the people with whom I work.  Freelancers may be negotiating an alternative pathway from the mainstream business world (on that cf. Michelle Goodman’s excellent book, My So-Called Freelance Life [Seal, 2008]). But that pathway isn’t any less subject to what women and men often experience as ongoing gender inequalities. These issues are what Sandberg exposes and discusses.

Of course, as she readily says in her “acknowledgments,” such a discussion cannot reasonably be produced, in a reasonably short amount of time, by one person–particularly one as busy as the COO of Facebook. And, she openly states that she is “not a scholar, journalist or sociologist.” But a team of minds, including co-author, journalist Nell Scovell; and the sociologist and researcher, Marianne Cooper; (and with the input of numerous other women and men) have produced a manifesto for rethinking gender issues for the 21st century. Sandberg addresses women primarily (but not solely) in the West; and  people (men as much as women) in every field, be they single, partnered, married, divorced, childless, parents or grandparents. (The research is US-based, but Sandberg’s insights are wide-reaching enough to transcend many cultural differences, without denying that those differences exist.)

30 years after the work of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, whereby women became 50 percent of the college graduates in the United States, Sandberg takes as launching point the reality that the revolution has stalled and true equality has not been reached.  Men still hold, she says, the majority of leadership positions in government, industry and academia, so that women’s voices are “still not heard in the decisions that most affect our lives.” She says that she, like most children of the 1960’s and 70’s expected the glass ceiling to shatter after she started working in the early 1990’s, only to find “with each passing year, fewer and fewer of my colleagues were women. More and more, I was the only woman in the [board]room” (6).

The inequalities are even worse, globally, as she well knows, referring to the experience of  Leymah Gbowee, who received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to lead women’s protests that ended Liberia’s dictatorship. Sandberg says that when asked what women in America can help to overcome the atrocities against women in Liberia and the East, Gbowee said: have “More women in power.”  (My one criticism of the book is the lack of space it gives to explore more globally women’s disempowerment. But that could be another book or books, or several Ph.D. dissertations.) Daily American and Canadian news shows a limited tolerance in the West for exposing such atrocities as female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriages, in the East.

But to return to Sandberg’s argument, there are a lot of “external” gender inequalities still present, in contemporary Western culture. To mention only a few, there are not enough companies with “flex-time” hours for working parents who raise young children; child care and parental leave are inadequate or outright absent. Mentors and sponsors who could assist women to advance their careers at crucial times are often hard to find. (Famously Betty Friedan refused to work with or even shake hands with Gloria Steinem. And many women like me have found ourselves similarly “shut out” of power or authority by other, sometimes older, women.) Also, women continue to do most of the housework and to provide most of the child care, in addition to the “job” or “career” that they may have.

Sandberg describes the “chicken and egg” dilemma that most professional women face today. On one hand (the chicken): women need leadership roles to tear down external barriers and Sandberg urges us to do that work. But on the other (the egg): women need to eliminate those same external barriers in order for women to get into those leadership roles in the first place. And she fully supports women who focus on the “egg,” as she has done. These are the “external” gender inequalities she refers to.

But Sandberg also speaks of the “internal” barriers that women experience as ones that too easily perpetuate our inequality: women internalize the same kind of negative messages that we heard as children, throughout our lives. So we feel it’s wrong to speak up in class, be aggressive in pursuing what we want and to be more powerful than the men near us. She writes: “We tend to discount ourselves in pursuit of career goals,” because we try to accommodate a partner and children that we “may not even yet have.” We suffer disproportionately from the imposter complex, frequently underestimating ourselves. And women cite “hard work” and “help from others,” when we do well. By contrast, men are quick to take credit for their accomplishments, without such qualification.

To “lean in,” in Sandberg’s title phrase, is to be ambitious in any pursuit. Sandberg advocates (by this term) for women’s self-confidence, in common sense ways, such as “sitting at the [boardroom] table” (and not in the symbolically peripheral chairs around the room); in finding partners to do more of the work at home, “to make your partner a real partner;” and in shedding unattainable standards, such as “the Myth of Doing it All.”

“Sitting at the table:”

What’s less expected is that Sandberg recognizes areas of gender difference, so that, for instance, she sees that  there is no one definition of “success” or ”happiness,” even though true equality can only be won by increasing the number of women in positions of power. She rightly observes that not all women want careers or children or both: “We have to chart our own unique course and define which goals fit our lives, values and dreams.” And she notes that “some of the most important contributions to our world are made by caring for one person at a time” (10). But the reality remains that more women will be able to make ends meet and care for their families, if they wish, when there are more women’s voices heard at the highest levels of our societies.

“We can reignite the [gender] revolution by internalizing the revolution. The shift to a more equal world will happen person by person. We move closer to the larger goal of true equality with each woman who leans in” (11).

Generational differences also complicate gender inequality. Women born in the late 1960’s and 70’s like Sandberg have found it harder to integrate professional and personal goals, because we weren’t the ones to negotiate men’s equal involvement in housework and childrearing. So, as Sandberg found on the birth of her own son, women have been having “two, full-time jobs.”

Millenial women (born between 1980 and 2000), after watching their mothers struggle to “have it all” and suffer in that struggle, have too often decided against pursuing a strong career altogether. Yet in the 2010’s, 57% of undergraduate and 60% of Master’s degrees in the US are earned by women. Millenial girls describe themselves as being as “ambitious” as men, but lack the confidence to view themselves as “leaders,” “visionaries,” “self-confident” or “willing to take risks” (16). Since women face barriers in faltering confidence, childrearing and homemaking, more men land leadership roles. Men are the ones left standing in the application line.

To succeed in a career, Sandberg says that girls must be raised to be willing to take risks and to advocate for their own interests, which is not happening. Entry level jobs are full of women, but further up the hierarchy, leadership roles are predominantly filled by men. An American McKinsey & Company survey discovered that 36% of men and only 18% of women aspire to be CEOs in their fields, early in their careers.

The lack of confidence among new generations of young women is perpetuated by cultural mores, whereby to describe a woman “very ambitious is not a compliment.” Women’s accomplishments “come at a cost” when men are applauded for their ambition and success. Sandberg illustrates the problem by citing the T-shirt sold to American teenagers by J.C. Penney in 2011 that says, “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me” (19). Confidence will remain elusive for women, so long as they give ground to such philosophy. Confidence should not be equated for women with frivolity or with arrogance, and therefore be subverted. But too often it is.

Sandberg wonders aloud what it is that causes her to feel guilt or shame at hearing stories of her confidently organizing her siblings’ play, when she was a girl. Here the book would do well to discuss the “angel in the house” (once discussed by Virginia Woolf) that Bernard Brandchaft terms “pathological accommodation.” Women internalize the misogynistic values that they must take care of everyone else’s needs, while effacing their own and themselves. As a child, Sandberg says that she zealously controlled neighbourhood kids’ (and her siblings’) behaviour, telling them what to do.  Now a grown woman, she could take pride in her ability to adapt a more mature form of that authority at work, instead of cringing, as she does, at the thought that she wasn’t (or isn’t) “nice.”

She recognizes that women’s success is seen to compete with her likeability. Sandberg cites Mark Zuckerberg telling her after her first six months at Facebook that she wouldn’t make enough progress at work if she always wanted everyone to like her: “If you want to change things, you cannot please everyone.” While most cultures believe that women should be nurturing and kind, the belief that women should be nurturing above all else precludes them from being successful–or even competent–at work.

Sandberg argues that women differ from men in feeling self-doubt, deeply and profoundly, that is completely wrong or unbased in reality. Women with ambitious careers are more likely than men to fear that they are constantly heading for failure. Opportunities have to be seized and sought out, and are not bestowed on someone who is passive. Offered a challenging opportunity, women think themselves unqualified, while men leap at a chance and are impatient to grow into the work. Given a job description that is above their current vocational capacity, the majority of women decline to apply, seeing no “fit,” while men who find even 60% of a fit, rush in.

Cultural depictions in popular media, television, movies and social media often depict women who have powerful careers as being miserable, harried, unhappy, and neglected by peers and suitors. Sandberg notes that even the term “work-life balance” constructs the two concepts as diametrically opposed (23), when women can “thrive” in doing both.

These are some of Sandberg’s thoughts on women’s need to “sit at the table” –the boardroom one, and not only or necessarily the kitchen one. In my next blog posting, I’ll review and critique her argument on women’s need to find real partners who meet them half-way (at home and with the kids) and her argument that no one of either gender ever “has it all,” or can “do it all.” Meantime, what implications do Sandberg’s thoughts have for your business? How firmly entrenched is gender equality in your workplace or home?

To be continued . . . . .

3 Replies to “On Women, Men and Work: Reading Sheryl Sandberg’s _Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead_ (2013)”

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