What I’ve Read: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
I haven’t been living under a rock (for the most part) so I knew a lot about this book before I started it. Countless articles with countless excerpts—I felt like I’d read most of it before I even had.
Sandberg examines women in the workplace and the plight of working mothers from a place of obvious privilege and while that context has generated the most criticism, I hesitate to judge the book solely on that. Of course she’s writing from a place of privilege. It’s her experience and her work history and it’s what she knows.
Therein lies the rub of almost anything I’ve read about the twin topics of women in the workforce or working mothers: it’s nearly always written through the lens of personal experience. And that’s okay. Personal experiences push this conversation into real places and that’s important. What is lacking, however, are personal accounts based not on the lives of the extraordinarily successful or privileged. In most articles or books about working mothers, for example, the examples of how the work schedule can improved for more flexible hours or how a superb company offers important benefits (such as paid maternity leave) are mentioned over and over again. While these are indeed important things to consider, there is systemic neglect of bigger issues that feed into the “privilege problems” that are encountered at a higher level. Sandberg’s first personal anecdote in her book is describing how she asked for pregnant mother parking spaces to be instituted at Google after she found the long walk from the parking lot to her office to be arduous. That’s great! She admits later that she is aware that her position afforded her the luxury of making such a request. Good! And again in the book she points out that if women in top positions at large companies continue asserting themselves and “leaning in,” eventually such a culture—one that pays fairly, offers working mothers additional benefits and treats female employee contributions equally—will trickle down into other industries or companies.
It’s hard not to be cynical about this outlook and, more specifically, about this book. Am I being overly critical because I’m not the COO of one of the largest companies in the world? Am I viewing these issues through a clouded lens because I am young and have not worked long enough or risen high enough to see it differently?
Of course I see the value in female employees “leaning in” on all the fronts she discusses in the book. But I view Sandberg’s advice as more of a “well, it can’t hurt” kind of template rather than a game-changing manifesto. The fact is that such advice cannot be applied universally across all companies or industries or jobs. The pregnant retail employee cannot lean in and request a stool behind the counter because her feet become so swollen a few hours into her 8 hour shift that she can barely stand. Well, she could request it. And she’d be denied. There are important nuggets to be gleaned from Sandberg’s advice, but it’s obviously a flawed book. We already knew this. YET! In addition to being a book primarily concerned with white working lady privilege problems, it’s also a book about white working lady in a progressive technology industry problems. Sandberg worked in DC for a while but she must have forgotten some of what it’s often like—speaking from my personal experiences and those relayed to me by coworkers or friends, of course. (Sandberg’s immense skill/intelligence landed her a job with a progressive male boss who actually wanted to see her rise—he later became her mentor.) I think DC is a good foil for Sandberg’s book as the city contains a deeply entrenched patriarchal dynamic within much of the workforce. I’d put money on the fact that every woman in a mid-level position in DC experiences regular and disturbingly overt sexist behavior from male executives, whether they are clients, bosses, strangers or men simply encountered at a meeting. Are they expected to lean in when their male boss says something inappropriate? Is that the right time? Or do they just swallow it and think of their yearly review and hope that the next job is better? The senior women at X company aren’t saying anything. They’re plugging away quietly and look where they’ve gotten! Earning respect and the right to be more assertive seems to be dependent on keeping your mouth shut for just long enough. It’s incredibly demoralizing, frustrating—I mean, insert a synonym for those here. They’d all apply.
So I’ve obviously gotten off topic, but you can see where my conflict lies. The advice Sandberg gives is good. Her example is inspiring. But my cynicism stops me short of saying it’s worth anything—because it’s not. The personal accounts that could make a difference are ones we’re not hearing. They’re the accounts of mid-level employees. The account of a hourly wage employee who needs to just go with the flow because the bills aren’t getting any smaller. If she leans in and demands more flexibility and loses her job to someone else who isn’t quite as demanding, well—she’s fucked. I’m tired of hearing about rich white lady privilege problems. Even the question “should I go back to work?” is ripe with privilege. I want to hear from women who had to go back to work one or two weeks after giving birth. Or from women who are experiencing gross sexual harassment in their jobs but can’t quit because they rely on the income and don’t know if they can find another job. Or women who are successful in industries other than technology or venture capital or fashion or public relations or social media or politics. Do they exist? What are their stories? How did they get where they are? Did they lean in or are we not hearing about them because they didn’t? Or can’t?
Where do I go from here? That was my first thought when I finished Sandberg’s book. What does this mean for me? I hope that my continued hard work and devotion to whatever job I hold will eventually afford me a measure of success where I can make a difference in the workplace culture for the women under my purview. I hope that I can reach a point one day where this book is applicable to my life. That day may never come. So what then? Instead of filling a gap, this book simply highlighted a void becoming ever more obvious. I hope someone can write something meaningful to fill it.
Have you read it? What did you think?