Back and To On Leaning In (Part 2)

In Chats on March 17, 2013 at 7:39 pm

Editorial note: this is the second installment of an email exchange about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, ‘Lean In.’ The first part of the discussion is here. (If you’re growing weary, take heart—we’re wrapping this up after the next round!)

From: Kate Gace Walton
Date: Sun, Mar 17, 2013 at 9:01 AM
Subject: “Lean In”
To: Lindsay Moran

Hi Lindsay,

I agree wholeheartedly that we, as a society, need broader definitions of ambition and success.

As you know, my husband Chris and I used to live in Hong Kong, thousands of miles away from our families. Now, we live near Seattle, on the same small island as my parents, my brother and his family, my brother’s mother-in-law, and my mother-in-law, who recently moved here from Montana. (It’s hysterical—after 13 years of dating a Taiwanese-American and breaking up in part over cultural differences, his family lives strewn across three continents and four countries, and my family ended up in a traditional Chinese set-up: three generations agitating each other on a near-daily basis.)

One could argue that Chris and I limited our career options by making the move to Bainbridge. One could also argue that we’ve helped our careers, because the support network we have here makes it easier to devote time to our jobs. In reality, both statements are true, but to me anyway, they also miss the point: one of my ambitions, truly, was for our children to know their grandparents well. That’s now the case; our kids, ages 5 and 3, have inside jokes with our parents, and to me that feels like success.

Coming back to the book, though, I don’t sense that Sheryl would take issue with my personal notions of success. As ready as I was, initially, to take offense at her message, which I feared might be very “judgy” and prescriptive, I ended up taking lines like this at face value: “This book makes the case for leaning in, for being ambitious in any pursuit. And while I believe that increasing the number of women in positions of power is a necessary element of true equality, I do not believe that there is one definition of success or happiness.”

After seeing this, and many similar statements, my hackles were smoothed, and I felt like I could read Lean In as I would any book—taking from it what I can use, and then just getting on with the business of charting my own course. And there were things that I felt I could use. In one of my first jobs, I was such a weak negotiator that the HR department came to me six months after I joined the company and informed me that they had to double my salary, just to make it conform with their standard compensation schedule. I wouldn’t want that to happen to either my daughter or my son, so I’d recommend that they read the advice of successful negotiators, Sheryl included.

Aside from the over-arching message to be more assertive than might feel comfortable (something I definitely need to hear more than I think you do!), another part of the book that “spoke to me” personally was Chapter 8: “Make Your Partner a Real Partner.” Chris and I have a relatively egalitarian marriage: we both work full-time outside of the home, and we split household chores pretty evenly. Reading that chapter, though, I was reminded that I could ease my own stress significantly, without adding to Chris’ stress much at all, simply by recognizing that he’s just as capable with the kids as I am, often more so. (Case in point: our daughter Anna was having a really hard time getting to sleep one night; while I tossed and turned, worrying that maybe daycare was a bad choice for her, Chris walked down the hall with a black Sharpie pen, drew a small dot on the beam of her bunk bead, and told her to stare at it for as long as she could. She was asleep in about three minutes.) Honestly, the man is a child-rearing Ninja, and I would do well to remember that more often.

So that’s some of what I, personally, got out of the book. That said, I’m not much of a joiner either, and I’m way more preoccupied with the broader question that Work Stew normally tackles—namely, how any of us figure out what to do with our lives. So although I have a positive take on the book, I can’t see myself participating in the follow-on “Circles.” I don’t have a problem with them if they work for other people; they just don’t sound like my cup of tea.

I’m curious, though…when you asked, “Why do I feel judged?”—did you mean judged by the book, or judged more broadly?

Also, since the issue of target audience has come up—in our exchange, in the comments, and in lots of good writing about the book—what do you make of the criticism that Lean In fails to speak to the vast majority of working women, women who, unlike us, do not have the luxury of choice and are mainly just struggling to get by?

My view on this: I think it’s fair to criticize the media as a whole, for putting too much emphasis on issues that are arguably specific to the well off (and, yes, irony noted: Work Stew, too, needs to get on to other issues ASAP). But so long as an author doesn’t claim to have the Full Answer for Everyone, I don’t think it’s fair to fault any one person for choosing to focus where they feel they have some expertise and can make a difference. After all, there are only so many hours in a day, right?



From: Lindsay Moran
Date: Sun, Mar 17, 2013 at 11:04 AM
Subject: “Lean In”
To: Kate Gace Walton

You’re right to ask why I posed the question, “Why do I feel judged?” since Sheryl herself makes the case for women being ambitious in any pursuit and the truth is that, personally, I don’t really feel judged (so good on you for calling me on that!)…but what if I were a woman armed with two Ivy League degrees who chose as her “pursuit” full-time motherhood, or homeschooling, both perhaps the extreme form of Stepping Back or Leaning Out? Is that fine? Or would that be a badge signifying lack of ambition and self-confidence?

Again, let me reiterate that I agree wholeheartedly with the premise of the book—that women should ask for more—but the debate stemming from the “book-as-a-movement” hearkens back to the Mommy Wars, a large-scale public catfight (more like a brawl actually), which I found destructive, depressing and, ultimately, boring.

It’s frustrating that efforts to work toward equality seem always to devolve into a bitter debate among the ranks of those most affected—in this case, women. None of this is Sheryl Sandberg’s fault or intent, obviously, but it’s part of what makes me hesitant to align myself with the Lean In movement because—no matter the leader’s intentions—it does somehow feel exclusionary and divisive.

Re. the criticism that Lean In leaves out the vast majority of working women who are struggling to get by, as opposed to women like us who have the luxury of making career choices, Sheryl is right to point out that the book and the advice she offers is “not for everyone.” And why should it be? Except that Lean In is presented not just as a book, but as a movement, a “revolution that will occur one family at a time.” It’s hard to lead a movement or revolution without vast ranks of support from “below.” And I do think much of the advice Sheryl offers is not particularly applicable to working class women, single mothers, women in the armed forces, women who do not have a male partner, etc.

For sure, Sheryl has, on occasion, been the recipient of undue criticism—and  ridiculous questions—from the press, questions that a man in her position would never have to face. I personally loved it when, during her 60 Minutes interview, Sheryl countered the “all of this is easy for you to say” criticism with the apt retort: “It is easy for me to say. That’s why I’m saying it.”

However, I also would like to have heard some statistics and data that prove how Lean In is being implemented at Facebook, where Sheryl is second in command. How many women are managers there? How do their salaries compare to their male counterparts? Are all the women there afforded the latitude to leave work at 5:30, without that reflecting any lack of commitment to their jobs?

One of my favorite champions of women is the founder of the Bin Laden unit, former CIA analyst and author Michael Scheuer, who staffed his office almost entirely with women. According to Scheuer, “Women have an exceptional knack for detail, for seeing patterns and understanding relationships, and they also, quite frankly, spend a great deal less time telling war stories, chatting, and going outside for cigarettes than the boys. If I could have put up a sign saying, ‘No boys need apply,’ I would’ve done it.” I love that Scheuer “put his money where his mouth is” in terms of actively recruiting women for this critical branch of the (very male-dominated) intelligence apparatus. The female-heavy Bin Laden unit ultimately led the CIA to its greatest success of this century. So I guess I would like to see how Sheryl is making Leaning In possible—and even profitable—for women at Facebook? (And I definitely should add: all those women in the Bin Laden unit likely were pulling 12-15 hour days. There’s not a doubt in my mind that compromises to their personal and family lives were made; and no amount of leaning in—or speaking up for their particular needs—could or would get around that.)

Let me close by saying there’s nothing at all I oppose about Sheryl Sandberg or her message. I applaud it at every turn. I assume that people like you and me are part of her target audience—several women I know in defense, security, law enforcement and other sectors, when queried had never heard about her or the Lean In movement. So I pose these “devil’s advocate” questions in large part as a way of trying to determine if and how we can create a movement that truly does empower women from all sides of the socioeconomic spectrum and of differing advantages, ambitions, and aims.


Editorial note: The third and final part of this discussion has now been posted; it can be found here.

  1. Women and men who care are right to talk up this book, and parse the meaning as it applies to themselves. Since the two sexes are inextricably intertwined in business, in life – I feel entitled to make a comment on all this. I have six sisters and one brother: we were the vast minority in all things family, yet held ground fairly well. In social and business situations, I’ve seen women, in minority or running solo, move cautiously, carefully, aware of the male dynamic that prevailed. When more and more women moved in, however, those same women would become more assertive, leaning in and grabbing responsibility and moving up in status. We humans don’t like to ‘take on City Hall’ all by ourselves, usually. It helps to have allies around – just like women need a few women around in those ‘lean in’ moments. I am a little braver the older I get, and might take more chances, now. Perhaps older women who’ve survived in the same atmosphere of change are like you two: strong-willed. I can appreciate that.

  2. […] 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 each post), or by joining […]

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