Lean In Where?

This week sees the publication of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In”.  The book, and her thinking, have already received much attention as part of both a recently revived focus on feminist goals and a regressive policy change at Yahoo.  I am pleased to have read her book, having known her ideas only through interviews and articles about her. 

Sandberg is clear in her objective.  She believes that women have not achieved true equality, that the feminist revolution has stalled, that “a truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and men ran half our homes”, and that this would be a better world.  She wants to increase the number of women in positions of power and to encourage and help women increase their chances of reaching the top in whatever their chosen fields.

Sandberg points out that while there are barriers to women’s advancement placed by society, “women are also hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves”.   Her focus is on these internal barriers which alter women’s behavior.  She describes, and gives examples of how as women we hold ourselves back by our lack of confidence, by “not raising our hands”, by failing to put ourselves forward, and by internalizing the negative message we receive that it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men.  Although Sandberg’s focus is on how this applies to the work world, many women can identify with the way these internal barriers operate in life generally.

 The discussion in “Lean In” which perhaps most relates to a more general concern for women, is that of the “myth of doing it all.”  Sandberg writes that girls growing up today “watched their mothers try to ‘do it all’ and then decide that something had to give”, and “that something was usually their careers.”  In addressing this problem she points out the reality that each of us makes choices constantly between work and family, between making time for others and taking time for ourselves, and that being a parent means making adjustments, compromises and sacrifices every day.  This is an important point which often is not understood by new parents and can be a source of distress.

On the other hand, it is in the nature of these compromises and sacrifices that have to be made that differences are to be found, and here Sandberg is hardly representative of most women.  Although she recognizes the advantages she has, she does not seem  fully to appreciate the role they play in many of her recommended solutions.  Taking control by deciding on what is important to do at work and what is not, leaving at 5:30 no matter what the expectations (your own or others), asserting your needs as a parent at work, might all prove costly – especially for women who are financially dependent on their jobs.

Also, her choices reflect her stated goal of career advancement, and do not truly recognize another set of values that would lead to different choices.  The problem of child care is essentially not addressed here.  Sandberg expresses the feeling of many working mothers who worry that their children are worse off because they are not with them full time.  She tells how it pierced her heart when her son at eleven months cried for his nanny instead of her when he hurt himself.  But how many mothers can leave their children with nannies they trust, can take their children with them on a corporate jet to go to a business meeting, or have Mark Zuckerberg playing with them when they are brought along on a meeting at his home?

Sandberg uses research data to reassure herself that children are not worse off when mothers work, and refers to a report which concluded that “children who were cared for exclusively by their mothers did not develop differently than those who were also cared for by others.”  But who are the “others” who are caring for the children?  Can mothers “lean in” at work if they are worrying about where their children are, or keeping track of them through cell phones?

Sandberg describes the things she has missed in her children’s lives and tells feeling sad when she misses a dinner or night away from them.  Her husband doesn’t worry about these absences and she sees their different points of view as gender based.  She talks about mothers’ guilt which is clearly universal.  At the same time, it is something other than guilt, or worry about harm to their children. that leads some women to make different choices in the tradeoffs between work and family life.

An anecdote in the book, not about Sandberg, tells about a child introducing her mother at school saying, “…she wrote a book, she works full-time, and she never picks me up from school.”  Many mothers have told me about their children expressing such feelings.  This mom attributed it to social norms that make her child feel odd because her mom doesn’t conform to those norms.  My own view is that this has to do with a child missing mom, not with social norms.  Children would like a parent’s attention 24/7 (except when they wouldn’t.)  

Women are more than mothers.  But for many women, motherhood is more than something they are trying to fit into a career. Children’s needs and feelings are part of the equation, as well as their own.

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