I wanted to talk about this book because even though I am only a handful of chapters in, it is supposed to be a widely loved and helpful book, and I’m having some difficulty with some of the messages and “helpfulness”. I am definitely not wanting to just say “this book isn’t as good as I thought it would be and I’m over it,” but rather open a dialogue about some of the core messages about feminism and career paths that I think need more exploring.
If you’re not familiar, Lean In was written by Sheryl Sandberg, a Harvard graduate who climbed the ladder through the Department of Treasury, Google, and now is the COO of Facebook with a feminist mission: women in the workplace are still vastly treated unequally, and they(we) need to “lean in”, “sit at the table”, and be just as much as a go-getter as men are. She recently helped to orchestrate the “Ban Bossy” campaign, urging people to stop referring to women in a managerial executive position as bossy, because if it were a man doing all of the same things, we would regard them positively as “ambitious” or “a leader”.
I was already on board with the Ban Bossy campaign, but once I saw her interview on The Colbert Report, I was sold on Lean In: For Graduates, an edition of Lean In with added chapters about beginning one’s career, interviewing and job hunting, salary negotiating, etc. I graduated nearly a year ago, and though I have a job and had some great temporary opportunities in the past year after graduating, am still hunting for something a little different. I also consider myself a feminist and keep up with women’s issues all the time. So here I am, 5 or 6 chapters deep into a book that supposed to help female recent graduates find a career all while seizing opportunities just as man would and fighting gender stereotypes and inequalities — how perfect and wonderful!!
Now here’s my beef, Sheryl:
- Sheryl talks a lot about the incompatibility of success and likability for women (hence, Ban Bossy) and how we women are hardwired to not outright ask for a promotion, or deflect to “I just got lucky” or “I had a lot of help from others” when receiving recognition or rewards, or anything else that make us come off as aggressive, looking out for ourselves, or bossy, when in fact men do this all the time with no reservations and little likability consequences. In fact, they are liked more. I agree with this, but maybe my hardwiring is not so hardly wired because the extent to which Sheryl takes this humility and desire to fly under the radar is just plain ridiculous. Pulling a favor with a friend that worked on your high school yearbook to get your name removed from receiving “Most Likely to Succeed”? Hiding the fact that you won a prestigious award along with a handful of your male peers, even though they were not only vaunting it, but receiving more opportunity and benefits from it? Feeling mortified and instantly begging your friends to take links of their Facebooks profiles to Forbes’ list of the most powerful women because you made the top 5? I am not some overly confident, ready-to-boast woman by any means, but I am definitely not that self-conscious and scared. I recognize the societal pressure for women to not be as aggressive about their accomplishments as men, and I value being humble above a lot of things, but if I had under my belt all of the accomplishments as Sheryl did at the time of receiving the Forbes recognition, not only would I not be surprised or shocked that I was being recognized (um, hello? If you’ve done all the work to get a certain praise, the ship has sailed on flying under the radar and deflecting away from climbing the ladder aggressively), but I would be proud, and deservedly. I am not just getting into this to disagree and say the author is being ridiculous, but ask: What am I supposed to do then? This aspect of growing a career and fighting for gender equality in the workplace is already so far a big part of Lean In, but if I would in no way would react to those situations like that, what am I supposed to do with this advice if I am not experiencing the apparently crippling self-doubt? She speaks of this attitude as if inevitable for women, but I wonder how damaging aggressively climbing the job ladder really could be compared to the alternative - cowering away from rewards and opportunity. And if muting my self-worth and not going for career opportunities that are a bit of a leap for me isn’t my problem, then I will have to wonder “What is?” if I still haven’t achieved my career goals in the future. I hope that this trend in her story-telling stops later into the book and this isn’t the only thing women are doing wrong to put themselves at a disadvantage in the workplace.
- Another issue I have is probably just because I am a little bit more intense about feminism and equality than most, probably thanks to a professor I had for multiple classes toward the end of my college career that could take anybody’s image of equality and blow it to smithereens, and have you walk out of the classroom thinking you could change anything about the world you wanted (love her!). My feminist brain has noticed some underwhelming thoughts on equality in Lean In. Little things like suggesting one day we could have just as much power in a certain area or field, “or even better — more.” This shouldn’t be so shocking of a notion. And other parts where I feel the author gives men too much of an out, like a man doing his part to achieve equality is an amazing phenomenon, rather than just something that should be the norm, which is how I feel. In a part of the book that discusses mentorship and sponsorship for career help, Sheryl literally writes: “It should be a badge of honor for men to sponsor women.” A badge of honor? Really? Call me “over it” but I am not impressed when men take simple steps toward equality, or do something for women that they do every day toward men. It’s great, obviously, but treating steps like this as some Nobel Peace Prize-worthy act of valor is not helping our cause, and I would find it patronizing to the entire gender to overly praise a male for doing such a simple courtesy. “You DIDN’T call me too emotional as a woman during my performance review - oh, thank you, sir! Thank you!”
- The only other issue about which I feel dialogue should be opened is the disparity between Sheryl’s experiences with men throughout her career and the reality, or at least mine. This may just be her luck of the draw or mine, or the fact that times are different now and some of the stuff Sheryl encountered early in career are disappearing, or maybe it was just in her specific field where this was more prevalent than in mine. She talks a lot about men’s unequal treatment of women in the workplace as if it were inevitable and I should just brace myself now because undoubtedly, the men in my professional life will, without consequence, put me down, dissuade me from taking risks and asking for rewards in the workplace, sexually harass me, bark “get over here!” from their desk when they walk over themselves to the desks of my male counterparts. Maybe it’s my field or the company I keep, but everyone I know is so supportive of my career growth, education, and professional decisions, and offer sponsorship, mentorship, and advice whenever they can or whenever I ask. I suppose it’s perfectly likely that I could one day have a superior that barks at me like Sheryl’s former supervisor, or puts me down in some way, but that is, and shouldn’t be, the end of that interaction, and I do not see myself ever letting anything like that fly. Sheryl does not claim to have all the answers, and I know that, but I think it’s worth opening a dialogue because everyone’s experiences with men and career jungle gyms is different, and women shouldn’t go into the career world bracing for some asshole to treat them like a child or an animal.
I want to reiterate that I am only about 100 or so pages into this book, and am brining up these issues not to challenge her book or discard her experiences or take on things, but rather present another side to them and another kind of woman who would have a totally different experience in the same situation. They are worth mentioning in order to make progress in these areas. Overall, I am really enjoying Lean In: For Graduates, honestly. I have already broken out the highlighters more than a few times, and am always excited for the next chapter. The studies and data and research that Sheryl includes is very valuable and reminds me that in other fields, and other parts of the country or world, things are very different and all deserve addressing. And I am genuinely enjoying hearing about Sheryl’s personal path and stories and piecing together her journey that brought her to where she is now.
It would be awesome if someone else were reading this book, or thinking about reading it, or had some input on these issues, but at the very least, I needed to get my thoughts in writing and flesh them out. :)