Women at Work: Leaning In

Much of my research centers on women in the workplace, whether that be the home or a traditional office, and I look at women historically and in the current workplace.  So when Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (2013) was released last year, I was intrigued.  I got my hands on a copy from the library several months ago, but I didn’t get to it in time before it was due.  I just finished reading it this month, and I have to admit that I was a little disappointed.

Lean In cover

The book is a great conversation starter, and it covers many of the issues I have either researched or faced myself as a female worker and a mother.  While I appreciated this discussion of women’s issues at work, I felt it was cursory and just skimmed the surface.  For me, as somebody who has lived many of the issues and also studied them in depth, often using critical theory or feminist analyses, this book was like reading a primer on the issue.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that I wasn’t the target audience, and I’ve read books and studies that address this issue in more depth.

That said, I handed Lean In to my husband, and he read it in one afternoon.  He enjoyed it and wanted to talk about the issues it presented.  It was a great conversation starter with him, and it was accessible to him.  The first thing he said when he finished reading was, “What can I do to help out more?”  So, if you want more participation from your partner at home and you want to make that person more aware of some of the difficulties you face, hand them this book.  It is a basic and accessible nonfiction introduction to women in the workplace. I’d like to hand this book to a former employer.

Actually, I had an opportunity to “speak” to a former employer about the problems I faced as a woman, including maternity.  I recently answered a query for stories about the concerns I faced when working for this large corporation as a pregnant woman and a new mother.  I was able to share my story and air some of my grievances anonymously.  The researcher collecting the stories responded positively and noted that many of the heads of the company are eager to hear about what they can improve for working mothers.

This issue was discussed at the conference I attended in Toronto last summer.  A panel of female academics discussed motherhood and work. One of the major takeaways for me was how important it is for women and men to talk about their families at work and not to hide the fact that they are taking a sick day to be with a child or leaving early to attend a child’s game or performance. We should all strive to make families part of work culture.

Sandberg advocates this as well: “I am now a true believer in bringing our whole selves to work. I no longer think people have a professional self for Mondays through Fridays and a real self for the rest of the time. . . . I think we benefit from expressing our truth, talking about personal situations, and acknowledging that professional decisions are often emotionally driven” (p. 89). She shares a story of turning down a major job offer because of her desire to leave Washington, D. C. to avoid being near her ex-husband. While she could have told the man offering her the job a lie about her reasons, she instead told the truth. And when the time came, a year or so later, that she was ready to accept a new opportunity, she called the man back. It was an easy call to make because she had been honest to begin with. If she’d made an excuse for professional reasons, it might have come across as impulsivity or poor decision making.

Sharing our truths can help to change work cultures. Sandberg believes that “If society truly valued the work of caring for children, companies and institutions would find ways to reduce these steep penalties and help parents combine career and family responsibilities. All too often rigid work schedules, lack of paid family leave, and expensive or undependable child care derail women’s best efforts” (p. 102). This reminded me of another conference presentation I heard at Brigham Young University’s Women’s Studies conference. A young male sociology student argued that we should change our workplaces and our economies to fit the family, not the other way around.

Paternal involvement is part of this. Men should have more flexible work lives and be able to spend much-needed time with their children. Sandberg cites studies that show “When fathers provide even just routine child care, children have higher levels of educational and economic achievement and lower delinquency rates” (p. 113). We know that fathers are just as important to children’s lives as mothers are. This gives credence to the argument of the need for marriages to be equal partnerships . Sandberg shared research that shows this: “When husbands do more housework, wives are less depressed, martial conflicts decrease, and satisfaction rises. . . . It may be counterintuitive, but the best way for a man to make a pass at his wife might be to do the dishes” (p. 118). I know a lot of women who would agree with this.

I appreciated Sandberg’s candid treatment of crying at work. She admitted to having cried, and she wrote about dealing with criticism. Nobody likes to be criticized, and she has faced it on a mass scale in the public eye and social media. She shared what Ariana Huffington said, that it is not “realistic or even desirable to tell women not to care when we are attacked. Her advice is that we should let ourselves react emotionally and feel whatever anger or sadness being criticized evokes for us. And then we should quickly move on” (p. 49-50). This is a hard lesson to learn, for I tend to dwell on the negative things people say to me. However, I’ve learned (through blogging and in my Ph.D. program) that it doesn’t matter what other people think. I just need to be true to myself and let the rest slide off my back.

Criticism of Sandberg’s book is that it solely represents the views of a privileged white woman; she ignores many racial and multicultural issues.  This is true.  She does admit her own privilege and she is aware of how of much she doesn’t know and cannot possibly understand because of her position.  While her book is a conversation starter and certainly skims the surface of women at work and in leadership positions, we need more voices sharing their experiences, especially from women of color, women who aren’t getting paid more than minimum wage, and women who aren’t being recruited by the biggest tech companies in the world.

Another criticism is Sandberg’s approach of telling women to make their own success, and that women can change some of their own actions to increase their opportunities. I don’t have a problem with this sort of rhetoric, as long as we recognize that contextual factors also play a role. In some cases, a person can do all they want to make their own destiny, but if social structures don’t allow it, it might not ever happen.

One example she gives is that girls outperform boys in school, but “while compliant, raise-your-hand-and-speak-when-called-on behaviors might be rewarded in school, they are less valued in the workplace” (p. 15). She says, “Career progression often depends upon taking risks and advocating for oneself—traits that girls are discouraged from exhibiting” (p. 15). In my own family, I’ve tried to encourage my daughter to speak up for herself, especially when things at school get rough or when she feels as if some wrong has been perpetrated against her. It is really hard for her to do so, and she sometimes feels as if she can’t. With my prodding and some practice, I hope she learns to be better at using her voice than I have been in the past.

This problem is related to the fact that research shows that “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less. This truth is both shocking and unsurprising: shocking because no one would ever admit to stereotyping on the basis of gender and unsurprising because clearly we do” (p. 40). I’ve experienced some of this in my current situation at school. I excel in my Ph.D. program (no surprise, given that females exhibit those valued traits), but I’m not liked for it much by my colleagues. We all get along okay, but there’s not a lot of camaraderie, especially since I’m the only female in my cohort.

Because I exhibit the traits of doing well and following instructions, I tend to suffer from what Sandberg calls Tiara Syndrome. This is an idea from Carol Frohlinger and Deborah Kolb, who say that women “expect that if they keep doing their job well someone will notice them and place a tiara on their head” (p. 63). Instead, they argue that women should advocate for themselves and speak up when it is necessary to being noticed. Sandberg says, “this must be done with great care. But it must be done” (p. 63). I often expect that my hard work will be noticed and pay off. At school, this is true, for I have an annual review and a close relationship with mentors who are interested in what I’m doing. But I don’t tend to advertise my achievements. I tend to think that it is more impressive for people to hear about what I’ve done through the grapevine. While this is a more humble approach, it may not get me very far in a workplace.

I do recommend this book, with some hesitation.  If you are already well versed in feminist issues and women’s workplace concerns, this book will be a review to you and might not seem to do an adequate job of talking about the issues.  If you are a working woman who has some inkling of the problems you face but you don’t quite know how to talk about or address them, you’ll probably connect with this book.  If you are a husband or a partner, you need to read this book for perspective and as a way of gaining some empathy and understanding of how fraught women’s lives can be when they try to “have it all.”

We know that having it all is a myth, and Sandberg certainly debunks it, but we also know that many of the stereotypes and criticisms facing women are not applied to men.  Sandberg’s book is a glimpse at this and other issues that many need to be aware of in order to make the workplace better for families. I consider all women to be working women. Whether you stay at home with children or spend your day in the boardroom, you work. I think ideas from this book can resonate with everybody.

Overall, I appreciated her definition of success. She wrote, “If I had to embrace a definition of success, it would be that success is making the best choices we can . . . and accepting them” (p. 139).  I continue to make choices for my academic success, and I’ve made choices in the past for my parenting success. I hope to continue to make those two things work together and to be satisfied with the choices I’ve made.