Monday, May 5, 2014

You've gotta fight for your right to a seat at the table

Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg
Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In:  Women Work, and the Will to Lead is very, very popular.  I suspect that every corporate women's network has had a presentation of some sort that is based on the lessons of this book, and many women have been urged by friends, family, and co-workers to watch Sandberg's TEDTalk.

Sandberg is the COO of Facebook.  She has been in the news for many reasons, not least because she's a female executive.  You might remember all the news reports that came out after she said that she always leaves the office at 5:30pm to be home for dinner with her kids.  She probably wishes you remembered her for other reasons, but alas ... that's what you get as a woman in a position of power when reporters want a soundbite.

In her book, Sandberg delves into the gender imbalance in the workforce, specifically at the top of the workforce, sharing personal stories, hard facts, and the continuing difficulties that confront working women.  She gives some tips on how women can try to bridge the gap between men and women in the office and at home.  And she talks a lot about how women need to step up (lean in) to get what they want from their careers and their lives.

Sandberg's book is in no way universally applicable.  She acknowledges that.  She was raised in a pretty well-to-do home, went to Radcliffe, then went to Harvard Business School, and was probably making 10 times my current salary by the time she was 35.  While Sandberg didn't write this book for corporate bigwigs and tech industry giants, it's also true that she didn't write it for waitresses, store clerks, and baristas.

This is probably extremely frustrating, especially since "Lean in" has become such a catchphrase these days any time a woman tries to negotiate a better deal for herself.  Still, I think that the book is extremely helpful for the people Sandberg is trying to reach.

Let me tell you a story.

I visited the Facebook headquarters with work late last year, and Sandberg talked to us for the last fifteen minutes or so.  Not about her book, of course, but about her job and how our company should use Facebook much more than we do. Afterward, I got back on our bus and sat next to one of the women  I work with, a 23-year-old who was completely starstruck.  I thought she was thrilled because Sandberg is such a vocal feminist and is pushing for women to ask for their rights.  But I was astounded when she told me she was just excited because Sandberg is so powerful.  She had read Sandberg's book but thought "it was pretty obvious and nothing really new."

This conversation is seared in my memory because it completely bowled me over.  When I graduated college and started working, I am pretty sure I thought exactly the way this woman did - that obviously, if I saw unfairness in the workplace, I'd speak up about it and demand my rights.  I would be a torchbearer if I needed to be, but honestly, I didn't think it would be necessary.  I was coming into the working world in the 21st century.  People weren't sexist any more!

But as I've gotten older, I've become less confident.  Maybe it's because of this economy, but I don't want to rock the boat and risk losing my job.  Maybe it's because I've read other books on gender, but I'm sensitive now to people who tell me that I'm "approachable and friendly" but that I really need to work on my confidence during presentations.  I sent an email to my manager with no punctuation except periods, and she called me immediately to express her concern; she thought I was angry because I hadn't used any exclamation points or smiley faces in my email.  In contrast, my co-worker who "leaned in" and asked repeatedly to move to a different role has now been branded as having an attitude problem and being too defensive and negative about her job.  My company changed its maternity leave policy to one that gives women less time off and less flexibility when they come back to the office; they did this with no announcement, and there has been no backlash.

So now, I get it.  Yes, women as a group need to push for our rights, but the only way that will happen is if there are individuals who stand up for themselves first.  The bus boycott that symbolizes the American Civil Rights movement today only got started after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat (that one time she refused, anyway.  She did a whole lot more than just that).  Thus, Lean In isn't about looking out for #1, it's about pushing for things that matter to you because that gives everyone else the ability to push for things that matter to them.

Lean In does not present a lot of new information; much of its content is available in other books such as Delusions of Gender.  However, it's a sad fact that many women and even more men will never read Delusions of Gender or other books about gender inequality, but a whole lot of people will read a book by Sheryl Sandberg or a book that was on the NYT best-seller list or a book that everyone at work refers to.  So, for that reason alone, I think Sandberg has advanced the cause of feminism - she's getting people to read a book about how being a feminist is awesome!

I read this one on audiobook and thoroughly enjoyed it.


  1. As a college professor I am bombarded yearly with young women who are completely oblivious to the reality of gender inequality - both in the workplace and in life. I am continually disheartened by their naive and adamant belief that men and women are equal, and that anyone who says they aren't is just a, and I quote, "bitter feminist". I will add this one to my list of books I like to recommend to those students.

    1. I would love to learn what other books you like to recommend?

  2. Yes, it would probably be nice for her to be remembered for something other than eating dinner with her family every night! Hopefully this book will help.

  3. Agreeing with you and Kailana. Not that being home for the children isn't important, but she has done a lot more than that. I didn't like the book all that much, I found it too exclusive, but there was a lot of good information and thoughts to take away.

    1. What did you find too exclusive? That it was written for women who are in similar positions to Sandburg? I understand that, but I don't think that means the lessons she tries to share are not important. I actually prefer the approach of going after a small group of people and then trying to widen the reach rather than going after everyone with much more generalized and less applicable suggestions.

  4. I haven't been too interested in reading this one, and am still not very convinced, but I have TBR'd it anyways. I do however want to read Delusions of Gender, so I'm going to try and get my hands on that.

  5. I'm reading Delusions right now.


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