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
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.