Back and To On Leaning In

In Chats on March 16, 2013 at 9:09 am

The following is an email chat about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s high-profile book ‘Lean In.’ In the future, Work Stew might host similar discussions about other topics; it all depends on how this one goes.

Joining me (Kate Gace Walton, the editor of this site) in this inaugural effort is Lindsay Moran, a writer, former spy, good friend, and generous contributor to Work Stew. Future chats might involve more participants; for now, others are invited to weigh in via the comments function (below).

From: Kate Gace Walton
Date: Fri, Mar 15, 2013 at 6:41 PM
Subject: “Lean In”
To: Lindsay Moran

Hi Lindsay,

I’ll just start by saying that the last two weeks have been exhausting. Before reading Lean In, I joked on Facebook that a title more likely to resonate with me, personally, might be “Lean In, Gasp with Horror, and Run the Other Way.” Even though I work in the business world (helping to run a small company), I have a strong distaste for certain aspects of Corporate America. The exhortation to “Lean In” struck me initially as something you might see on a motivational poster, and for whatever reason, I react very badly to motivational posters.

Not long after making my glib comment, though, I was filled with regret. So many of the attacks on Sheryl Sandberg seemed so personal and so mean. No matter how I feel about the corporate world, I didn’t want to play any part in the so-called “backlash.” Like you, I know Sheryl Sandberg from college. I don’t know her well, but from the few interactions we’ve had, I believe her to be completely earnest in her desire to effect positive change. I respect what she’s accomplished, and I think she should be applauded for trying to help others. I’m sure it mattered to no one but me, but two days after my initial post, I found myself apologizing for commenting on a book without reading it first. I felt like an idiot for having done so.

I then decided to step off the emotional roller coaster I’d been riding; instead, I just buckled down and read the book. Frankly, I was surprised by how much I liked it. I think it contains a lot of good advice for anyone trying to navigate the corporate world, and the memoir-lover in me appreciated that it included a handful of good stories from Sheryl’s own experiences. My big question is how broadly will it resonate? To me, it seems to speak most powerfully to a) women b) who have, or want to have, children c) with a male partner d) while also aiming for a leadership role e) in a traditional corporate setting. Points a), b), and c) apply to me, and perhaps this is why I found much of the book to be thought provoking and useful, on a personal level. Points d) and e) do not apply to me, so in other ways it wasn’t a perfect fit.

What’s your take so far?



From: Lindsay Moran
Date: Sat, Mar 16, 2013 at 6:00 AM
Subject: “Lean In”
To: Kate Gace Walton

Ahh Kate – I am brought back to those college days when you and I were preparing for our final exam in the religion class “The Bible,” without having actually read, er, the Bible. I will admit to not having read all of Sheryl’s new book, but I did watch her on 60 Minutes, which I guess is sorta like you and I watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian before that final exam.

So the thoughts expressed in this exchange are definitely my take “so far.” The initial attacks—yes, both personal and mean—from important female voices, like Maureen Dowd of The New York Times (who also admitted to not having read the book) were disappointing to say the least. While entertaining to read, they were snarky, glib and, I believe, said a lot more about the women writing them than about Sheryl herself. I felt guilty—almost like part of a mean-girl conspiracy—reading some of the initial “backlash.”

That said, to be honest, if it were not for committing to this online discussion with you, I likely would not have bought (or attempted to read) Lean In. Why? It’s not because I don’t agree with Sheryl’s basic premise—that women should ask for more—from their partners, professional managers, etc. It’s just that I have precious little time—like many women, I am struggling to balance my professional endeavors and ambitions with the need (and desire!) to devote my time and energy toward my kids.

My reticence to Lean In to this particular movement stems from the fact that I have never ever ever EVER! wanted to be successful in the corporate world. And while I applaud the efforts of Sheryl (and others) who are paving the way for ambitious women in their paths, I don’t think these ladies need me or my vocal support. Of all the worthy causes competing for my time, energy and commitment—like global warming; violence against women and children; girls’ education; counterterrorism; medical research for fatal diseases that have claimed close friends; etc.—this is NOT one that “speaks to me.” In short—nothing against it; it’s just not my thing.

An analogous example, for me, is the choice NOT to join the PTA. As a kid, my mother was always PTA president, my father was always the Boy Scout Troop leader, and yet my husband and I have shied away from that sort of involvement. Simply put, we are not joiners. Also, we live in an area where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some mom (or dad) willing to go full throttle in these organizations; and so I feel the needs of my kids, and their classmates, are in good hands; just as I feel the “needs” of corporate women struggling to break through the glass ceiling are in the able and committed hands of people like Sheryl Sandberg. Likewise, PTA meetings—to me—represent precious time in the evenings that I cannot spend with my kids. I feel the same about Lean In circles—just not really interested.

Does my aversion toward PTA make me an uninvolved parent? Does my ambivalence about jumping on the Lean In bandwagon make me a less ambitious, less successful woman?

I don’t think so, and it bothers me that any voiced uncertainty about joining “the movement” smacks of women-versus-women backlash. I don’t like that one’s feminist creds are cast into doubt if you don’t fully embrace the Lean In movement.

Sheryl writes, “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” I have no doubt that—to someone in the corporate world—my professional life looks like a woman who did not “lean in.” Since the births of my sons, in 2005 and 2006, I have cobbled together a variety of “professions”—writing, teaching, consulting—never making much money, but always afforded time with my boys, as well as time to pursue personal and professional projects, and causes that are meaningful to me. While I’ve not leaned in to the corporate world, that has been a choice, not a resignation.

Sheryl writes, “If I had to embrace a definition of success, it would be that success is making the best choices we can…and accepting them.” For sure, I feel I’ve done that. So why do I feel judged?

Because, I deliberately did NOT Lean In. In fact, I made a choice to…Lean Out? In 2003, I left a male-dominated professional milieu in which I was a rising star—at the CIA, I was being groomed as a future manager—to follow a different path. Does that mean I am not ambitious? That I held myself back? That I lack self-confidence?

I don’t think so. I decided that the CIA was not an organization in which I wanted to lean in and/or move up.

Personally, I think the time has come for a broadening of the definitions of ambition and success—for both men and women. My husband is a freelance photographer who, like me, has made adjustments and compromises in his professional life in order to maximize his time and commitment to our family. If he were a woman, he might be accused of lacking ambition—saying no to travel assignments, holding down the fort as a full-time dad when I’ve been away from home. As two “freelancers” trying to raise a family, yes, we face near constant financial uncertainty. We are both stratospherically far from the glass ceiling, and yet I consider us successful…constantly leaning in—to the particular life we have created together.



Note from Kate: Round 2 of this exchange is now up and can be found here

  1. Hi Kate and Lindsay: i’m on page 55 and working through it, though am reading non-linearly, a lot like a i do “professional stuff” and live life… i read the back pages 2nd, dove in to find quotes from my ex-husband on page 114, then back to 2nd chapter and progressing forward.

    The book is funny if you know sheryl personally, don’t you think? i can hear her wit and sincerity in so much of the tones and stories. also in the amazing command of psychological and sociological data. She harnessed the considerable talents of Stanford’s feminist thinkers in helping her research and write- which is illustrative of Sheryl’s talents for harnessing the talents of others to get things accomplished.

    I am wondering what the most fruitful target audience is for her book. i suspect she is targeting a younger generation than us! is using “mighty bell” and facebook as it’s principle outreach platforms- which already tells me that the likeliest viewers and users will be younger than those of us in our 40’s…

    also, i think the most receptive time I would have been able to read her messages without defensive reactions (which i admit to having had several of, while also applauding her overall initiative), would have been me in my late 20’s, just after graduating business school. Before kids, marriage, full bore accelerating into my career and “accomplishing” things in the external world.

    what do you think?

  2. PS: I am NOT reading her message as an exhortation to join corporate america. Instead, i read as an exhortation to LEAD and take initiative to take powerful roles in powerful places– and speak your mind– much like i see you both doing on a regular basis in your writings.


  3. ANNNDDD– i cannot help but notice aloud the total obvious: her message is inspiring so many of us to THINK. And write. and react. she has located a nerve in all of us, and we are crying out with opinions!!

  4. I find Lindsay’s explanation of her priorities very refreshing. To be a successful mother, and at the same time to hold down a working career, seems to me to be as much a “success” as reaching the dizzy corporate heights that Sharon Sandberg has attained. I also agree that there are lots of strong corporate women well able to defend the aspirations of corporate women struggling to break through the glass ceiling. I worked as a lawyer, in a corporate context, for 35 years (and 15 of these were spent on the greasy ladder of corporate advancement). I have never been able to bring myself to read a book about corporate organisation, or corporate “life”: I would much rather read about the “balance” that Lindsay has been able to strike.

  5. A basic tenet of sharing help and advice is that you take what you can use and leave the rest. What I hear in Ms. Moran’s comments is that she thinks that when one woman speaks all other women must respond in kind; that somehow disagreement is not allowed — that all women are required to behave in the same way as all other women in order to be defined as a woman.
    In listening to Ms. Sandburg and reading her work, I hear her encouraging each woman to independently choose her own life, as men have always been permitted by society to do. I find it disturbing that so many women appear to be unwilling to join Sandberg in embracing each woman’s ability to choose the life she wants — even to go after it hammer and tongs if you so choose — and to be able to get the advice that will help you succeed at it from one who has done it and succeeded, like Ms. Sandberg. And to also accept that no one needs to approve your choices to make them valid and appropriate for you.

  6. Hi Lindsay!

    I like your perspective.

    Sheryl always had amazing energy and she clearly has excelled at a certain kind of professional path. More power to her!

    I like that you are making every effort to broaden how we see the issues of balancing work and family, whether one is male or female, and how we can all make lots of different kinds of choices.

    Next time you guys watch LIFE OF BRIAN I’m in!!!

  7. I agree with Adrienne that Lean In is probably aimed at a younger audience. Beyond age, it is definitely making us think about decisions that we are making. And each one of us – women or men – will look at our own lives from our own lenses and realities. That doesn’t mean we should not be nudged or stretched. In my sphere, I find that I steer clear of gender-based discussions/books. But that is not so with society nor corporates. I think it’s great that Sheryl Sandberg is nudging every woman to make independent choices, and not allow these choices to be determined by the world-at-large.

  8. I think Sheryl did get her message out to a bunch of 40 year old Moms and Dads as well as those 20 something’s. Everyone who has commented did” lean in”.

    Like many of you I work in a field that is 94% male( orthopaedic surgery), and I consider myself lucky to have had the mentors( who like Sheryl had were all male because there were NO WOMEN) to help me cut my own path and be respected for my own spirit. But as I age and struggle to balance work and family, I realize that this is not just a “women’s issue” but one of our generation and the next. The culture of the corporate world, or academia, or even our country cannot change to reflect the values that Kate and Lindsey espouse as well as what Sheryl represents without us “leaning in”. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to make the choices we each have made and we all lead whether it is at our family dinner table, or our small business, or the operating room, or the board room.

    I never want to be a chair of a department, or president of some society, frankly because I would rather spend my precious free time with my kids or just having fun than on endless conference calls and in meetings. But, I realize that being the rare woman in my field sometimes puts me at some interesting places where I have a chance to speak up. Early in my career I did not always embrace these. I did not want to stand out or be recognized only for being the token woman. There were opportunities lost for me to make a culture change not only for me but for my male peers and I missed them. When I first started as an attending surgeon I was asked to attend a meeting to express what the faculty felt were impediments to productivity and promotion. When they got to me I said, ” on campus child care that matched our early and late hours and gave us access to drop off care for our kids when they might be sick or not have school.” The response was” that is a women’s issue so we will bring it to the diversity committee”. And that was that. I had no kids yet, and I let it go. Now in the same forum, I would need to ” lean in” and ask if there were no men on the entire university faculty with a child because I know this issue effects both me and my husband and our work choices.

    At a recent AAOS orthopaedic leadership meeting we got a presentation on private practice vs hospital employment and the speaker lambasted the ” young partners” who are choosing hospital employment for a more regular schedule as being lazy and unambitious. He said, “You need to accept that you will miss birthday parties, and ballet recitals to do the job you have chosen.” Older and wiser, I had to ” lean in” and comment that like many of my peers, BOTH parents might be professionals and SOMEBODY has to be able to go to these events. Possibly even, BOTH parents might WANT to attend. As a generation my male peers AND my female peers are making different choices to accommodate their families and the world has to change to embrace these choices. The incoming president of the AAOS later commented to me that he could see that the young surgeons he was training and almost all the young faculty ( under 45) struggled with their spouses and children to find this balance. We need to change some of these things from the top, and sometimes you need to use your seat at the table.

    I am never going to sit on any corporate board, or choose the next great candidate for President, but I am going to try to ” lean in” more when the opportunity comes around so that my daughter AND my son will not be fighting these same battles 35 years from now. I no longer mind being the token woman that the residents or the medical students see because I really enjoy taking care of patients, and being a Mom. I may not be the greatest I could be at either one, but I make a difference in the lives of a lot of people. We all do, and we should not be afraid to asses a value to that and help others along the pathway make and achieve their own choices.

    If I can help the woman who wants to be the society president or department chair, then I need to open the door and help her walk through. Or the man. And they can say they did have a woman mentor.

    • Bravo, Susan Bukata, and well-spoken! I think you should be “on the board” to get these views across. The important thing is to listen to the rational priorities expressed by anyone, man or woman, and to accommodate these to the extent that the organisation can do so, in the interests of optimizing life/work balance for that person.

  9. Quote from Andrew Sullivan in the Times, London, today (article entitled “Lean In, they say, to succeed; lean back, I say, before you topple over”):
    “My objection to Lean In is neither the class critique nor the question of gender. My objection is to the premise: that life’s greatest rewards are money, career success and power and the way to get those goodies is to devote yourself to more and more work.”

  10. […] second installment of an email exchange about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, which started here. If you’re growing weary, take heart—we’re wrapping this up on the next round! From: […]

  11. […] email exchange about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, ‘Lean In.’ The discussion started off  here, and the middle part is here. Thank you to all who chimed in by using the comments function (below […]

  12. […] few weeks ago, when so much of the conversation about work (here and elsewhere) was being dominated by talk of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, I was […]

  13. Good for you, and yes, I agree, often it’s more important to be there and be seen than to be pcuodrtive frustrating, but oh, so true.I think as women we tend to spend less time thinking about “face time” than men. Generally speaking, men more quickly recognize things like posturing and politicking while women are thinking about the stuff that has to get done, so I do have to remind myself that playing the game is, in fact, also part of my job.By the way, I loved, loved, loved that interview, not because I agreed 100% but because she was so candid and thought-provoking.

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