There has been so much buzz surrounding Marissa Mayer’s and Sheryl Sandburg’s advice to women that it’s easy to forget that most working women are not going to their corner office jobs in an expensive suit.
Marissa Mayer’s message: “Get to the office.” I’m a bit of a skeptic about working from home with small children in the house, based on my own experience, but surely any prohibitions against more flexibility in the workplace is not a good thing.
Sheryl Sandberg’s advice for working women on the surface is a philosophy that’s a bit easier to take: don’t give up on professional opportunities before and after your children are born; instead, “lean in” to the challenges of balancing family and career.
Even before she launched the publicity tour for her new book, Sandberg’s three basic pearls of wisdom were well-known, particularly from her famous TED talk.
1. “Sit at the table.” Don’t be afraid to push against gender role stereotypes and be assertive in your efforts to excel.
2. “Make your partner a real partner.” Women should expect that their partners will participate in household work and childcare.
3. “Don’t leave before you leave.” Young women should not pull back on their careers in anticipation of getting married and having children.
Sounds good so far, right? All great advice, particularly for women whose life goals involve landing the corner office in a large corporation. Now Sandberg wants to start a network of “Lean In Circles” around the country to raise women’s consciousness about what it will take to reach their goals. Modeled loosely on 1970s-style feminist circles, each group meeting will include the sharing stories of success (not failure), videos, and instruction in get-ahead strategies, such as negotiation tactics and communication skills. The idea is, as Jodi Kantor in the New York Times points out, “half business school” and “half book club.”
Sheryl Sandberg’s true goal, as she has publicly stated, is even more ambitious and personally driven. “I always thought I would run a social movement” is what she stated for the PBS documentary series, “Makers.”
Well, before I sign up for one of your circles, I have a few questions for Sandberg:
- Who do you think are the drivers of real social change? Do you think that when women at the top and their interests are served, this advancement will “trickle down” to the vast majority of women? Sandberg’s “theory of change” is that improving the situation at the top will lead to change for women at the bottom. As she herself states in her book, “I believe that if more women lean in, we can change the power structure of our world and expand opportunities for all. More female leadership will lead to fairer treatment for all women.” In a world in which CEO moms like Marissa Mayer take two weeks of maternity leave, ban telecommuting, and install nurseries in their own offices, I don’t think that we can count on elite women to change the lives of working women. (For further cases to prove this point, check out the family/work policy platforms of Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann.) It’s difficult to believe that a woman with the life experience of Sandberg could understand the needs of women below her on the capitalist ladder and be motivated to act on their needs.
- Do you think that feminism is a movement or a “vanity project”? Sandberg’s perception of a “social movement” seems more like a “brand with a leader” to me — more concerned with marketing her products for her own profit — than an agenda to transform as many women’s lives as possible.
- Why do you think that women can’t handle stories of failure and frustration? As Melissa Grant argues in the Washington Post,”…When Sandberg asks the women in her movement to share only ‘positive’ stories (as the Lean In Circle materials stipulate), where women always overcome the odds through their individual mettle, when do women get a chance to identify the obstacles still in front of them, those structural barriers that do not melt before positive self-regard? Without naming that which is still not won, what is this movement actually struggling for? To make change, or to be celebrated as women who adopt the mantle of “changemaker” in Sandberg’s world?”
- What happens when women need accommodations for situations that don’t match your personal experiences? For many women, it’s not lack of ambition or personality style that get in their way. What about women who have complications during pregnancy, such as requiring bed rest, or face other common life challenges, such as infertility, an illness, or a sick child? When your solutions for women rely primarily on individual solutions — with no structural or policy support — a willingness to take on new professional adventures is not enough.
- Finally, what happens when you “lean in” and fall down?
I know that I’m probably not part of Sandberg’s implicit target demographic, but that’s part of the problem when your audience (in any meaningful sense) is limited to the professional elite.
I tried to “lean in” before I thought about having a child. I had been a doctoral student in sociology before starting a teaching career that ended up lasting more than a decade. I had always planned on returning to graduate school, but kept delaying it. Finally, in my thirties, I realized that I wanted to make sure that I advanced my career in a way that better aligned with my long-term goals before I contemplated having a family.
I won’t go into the whole story, but suffice it to say, I had my baby before I was done with my doctoral program and had to move to a new city when my son was only a few months old, all factors beyond my control. My son ended up having health problems in infancy — nothing serious, but enough to make me think twice about resuming a full-time career. In my situation, I could have kept trying to “lean in” until I basically fell over, but I chose to step off the path entirely for a while.
It remains to be seen how resonant Sandberg’s message will be to ordinary women. To me, she seems to be talking to women who don’t need much help to begin with.
Do you embrace Sandberg’s message?
Julie Chenell DeNeen says
Fantastic! I think you raise some really good questions for Sandberg and her ideologies. Damn, sometimes I think women are the strongest people in the world. We have so much pulling at us from all directions.
Mary Kathryn says
I think for the handful of women (percentage-wise) that are zealous about an impressive career in their chosen field, probably her advice is wise. Very driven people will succeed, even if it kills their marriage, their parenting, and themselves eventually. But if that gives them satisfaction and joy, so be it. For most women though, a whole life made entirely of the stiff suit in the corner office is not what would bring happiness. Women should also consider that their dreams will change, and decide pragmatically when to do what. The 40s are not an optimum time to have children. The 20s are best for that. Marry early, have your children in your 20s when you’re healthy and have energy. Get your degrees as you can, and charge into a career later. Women don’t do that b/c they’re scared to do it.
Mary Kathryn, I think that this path that you propose — early parenthood and flexibility in reaching your educational and professional goals — is definitely not how our society has traditionally been set up. And more women should think about what is really going to be important to them, at a younger age. (I know many women, for example, who lived with their college boyfriends, got married fairly early, but didn’t have children until much later. And I know some who waited too long, despite the fact that they had already found a spouse.) But I also don’t think that a lot of women have found a partner or even know what their goals would be in their twenties. (I didn’t even get married until 35.) The problem, however, is the fact that whatever choices women and their families make, there aren’t enough policy and structural supports to help them, no matter how they end up ordering their lives.
The problem with letting these executive women lead the conversation is that their definition of success is what they have – an executive position. They are willing to sacrifice time with family, nights and weekends to achieve that. Most people aren’t – AND THAT’S OK. But they should understand that even people who only want to work full-time, not spend every waking hour working, deserve to be able to support themselves and their families. In many workplaces, the expectation is that you will chip away at your off hours just to keep your job, and to me, that is wrong. Family time should be MORE sacred than work time, period. But that’s just the way I think.
I do think that we as a society need to conversation about the sheer number of hours that professionals of all levels and types need to work. Americans are intensely productive, but that’s because we work more. I too think that so much is gained from living a rich life outside of your job.
Lisa Bernstein says
Great article! Lean In is a how to manual for women who want to be successful capitalists, and part of the 1% a how-to guide for becoming a “mistress of the universe.” Its a lovely, very female way of saying hey girls I did it, you can too. Jack Welch wrote that kind of book too. But that ain’t what the feminist movement is about. And it sure ain’t what’s going to create a work life balance. And those of us who believe in social justice and are unhappy with the course of our country’s growing income inbalance are just not going to get behind this “social movement” are we?
Kathy Slattengren says
Raising children is time intensive. While you can hire out some of the work, your kids will notice. You only have 24 hours in a day and how you invest that time says a lot about your priorities.
I was fortunate that my husband stayed home with our kids for a few years when they were young. The best thing I did with regard to my career was set limits on the amount of time I would put in each week (typically 40 hours unless there was an emergency). While my boss definitely wanted more of my time, setting a limits did not effect my career (although I was also not aiming for the corner office).
No, if you couldn’t already tell from my post, I don’t think I’ll be joining either! But I am interested to read her book, when it comes out. And I do think that the idea of women supporting each other is a good one. But feminists can do a lot better than Sandberg’s “Lean In” circles if we want to help all women be better off!
Kimberly Bither says
What a great post, Jessica!! Loved reading it!
I think it also can lead into the argument of why is it that people still base success on income or status? A woman can stay home, raise children, and write all day (like bloggers do), garden, whatever makes her happy, and as long as she feels fulfillment in her life, that is what should matter.
One of the problems with Sandberg’s argument is that she is still advocating the message that corporate success is what feminism is about, when it isn’t. Success is spending your life doing what you love, and feminism should promote the idea that no matter what you choose to do with your life, you are respected.
I wonder if arguments like her’s actually create more division among women than actually bringing us together on equal footing.
Delphine Padillia says
If you are contemplating what you want to do when you leave school or further education a great piece of advice is to do something that you are passionate about. You are going to be working a long time and you are now in a position of power. By laying down some carefully planned foundations now, you will be able to start out your working life, doing a job that inspires you and is interesting to you. Fashion is an interesting subject to choose for many reasons. One of the advantages of taking up a career in fashion is that there are so many branches to the subject and different roads you can choose to go down. ;
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I was looking for more reactions to the “Lean In” discussions and was happy to find this. Before I even knew I wanted kids, I spent years leaning in. Then in 2011-2012, I experienced something life events that completely changed my perspective. I’m tired. I can’t lean in all the time and deal with how it impact my mental health. Especially when I was constantly working with women who tried hard to keep out other women. I was putting all of my other goals aside to achieve a “career” goal that didn’t even suit me well. Unfortunately, when I try to express that experience to others who are fans of the books, they disagree, arguing I’m not trying hard enough. But honestly? The advice only seems to fit people on a certain career trajectory who know what they want to do early on. I’m 32 and just figuring that out, after spending 10 years trying to have the perfect job.