Saturday, March 23, 2013

Lean In

It's been a quiet spring break around these parts, with the nasty weather conspiring to keep me mostly indoors watching Marx Brothers movies and plowing through three solid months' worth of magazines. (Side note: when did magazines become so impossible to keep up with? oh, right: around the time I started wasting my life on the internet). But in the midst of that feverish whirl of activity, I also found time to read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In.

In brief, it's awesome. I actually and literally don't understand most of the criticism it's attracted, almost all of which seems to have been written by people who haven't read the book: she's blaming women for not getting ahead! She denies there's any need for structural reform! She's denigrating women who stay home or who just aren't that ambitious! She's another privileged white lady who doesn't realize that most women have other problems!

In fact, Sandberg addresses all of those objections pretty thoroughly. Now, I'm also a (relatively) privileged white lady, and I don't have kids, so maybe I just missed the part where Sandberg told women who've stepped out of the rat race that they totally suck and deserve what they get. But frankly, I think those invested in the "mommy wars" (I can't believe I actually typed that noxious phrase) just made assumptions about what Sandberg was probably saying or where her blind spots must necessarily be.

The core of her argument is that structural reform is urgently needed, but in order to achieve it we also need more women in positions of power. Moreover, when Sandberg was in college and grad school, she heard a lot about the external obstacles to women's advancement, but nothing about the internal ones: the ways that women unintentionally slow-track themselves. So that's what she's focusing on.

Sandberg isn't the least bit dismissive about the attractions of staying at home and raising kids; in fact, she spends a lot of time talking about the importance of having a satisfying domestic and personal life and is supportive of whatever choices a woman ultimately makes. But she wants women to have real choices, and while some of those choices are dependent on structural matters outside of their control (like whether their employer even offers a paid maternity leave--as mine, for example, does not), others aren't: whether you have a partner who is willing to fully pull his or her weight at home; whether you're willing to ask your partner to step up; whether you asked for what you needed to be happy at your job, or just assumed it wouldn't be available. I found especially compelling Sandberg's argument that people who are really excited about and challenged by their jobs are less likely to leave.

And maybe most importantly, all women, whatever their economic status or their work-life decisions, benefit when more women are in positions of power. So while no woman should feel obligated to keep working or to aspire to leadership just for the good of the sisterhood, we should all care about making sure those who want to rise can do so. And the more women there are in positions of power, the harder it is to dismiss any one as a "bitch," or "ball-breaker," or whatever: it's the rarity of women in power that attracts the vitriol and the who-does-she-think-she-is?

But to talk about Sanberg's "argument" in some ways misrepresents the book, which, although it's making a serious point, is also warm and generous and extremely funny, with lots of practical advice for negotiating around, neutralizing, and drawing attention to sexism in the workplace and the home. It's also chock full of fascinating research. It's an easy read but an inspiring one, a work of big-tent, unapologetic feminism.

Have any of my readers read it? What did you think?


Flavia said...

Actually, I do have one criticism: I totally hate the book's cover. And I don't really like the title.

On the other hand, the typeface is gorgeous, as are all the other design decisions. The book is so handsome it's almost distracting, or at least a bit incongruous for the subject matter.

undine said...

I haven't read it--I read the cover story in Time magazine-- but appreciate your take on what she is actually saying. I'm puzzled by why some feminists have a hard time with her message, since it is really classic feminism (more women in positions of power, call out structural inequities) reinvented for this era, and that's a good thing.

Janice said...

I do want to read it. I'm interested in both what her perspective is and what the criticism is really reacting against.

When my partner and I got together, he gave up a lot, career-wise, in order to enable mine and that's only increased over time. I leaned in which meant that he had to lean out which still wracks me with guilt.

Steph said...

I'm still halfway through, but I'm in agreement with all the points you highlight here, Flavia. I also love how she fully claims the position of producing a feminist manifesto. I know I had mentioned to you that I was worried that reading it would make me feel bad for not being more ambitious, but it's actually having the opposite effect on me: I'm realizing the things I've done that are ambitious and are effective and where I can do more of that.

Janice, can I ask why you feel guilty for your partner doing something that (I assume) he was willing to do?

Anonymous said...

Here's another review by another academic blogger:

Flavia said...

Undine: exactly!

Janice: I second Steph's request. If it's not too personal.

Steph: actually, I'd like to hear more about that, too--what it made you realize about your ambitiousness/accomplishments, etc. (Likewise, if you're willing to share.)

Historiann said...

Flavia: thanks for this sane review.

I think you, Janice, undine, and your other readers will appreciate what Gloria Steinem said about Sandberg's book (from the 3/25/13 New Yorker): "I think it's positive, and she's had such a backlash. . . . Only in a woman would success be seen as a barrier to giving advice. Meanwhile, Trump, whose brain is deteriorating under the heat of his toupee, is fine giving advice."


Anonymous said...

I haven't read it, but I was convinced by this essay's criticism of Sandberg's argument:

Flavia said...

Anon 5.58:

I've seen that essay, and I'm simply not convinced by it, after having read the book.

I'd be happy to say more about why--but since most of my readers seem not yet to have read the book, a detailed critique of the essay doesn't seem productive right here and now.

scr said...

Having read Kate Losse's review but not the book, she seems confused and relatively inexperienced. She seems unable to decide whether she dislikes corporate America, tech companies, or capitalism. She keeps coming back to the fact that she felt 'underpaid' after having her salary doubled. Yes, certain positions pay better than other positions, but anybody who has worked in tech knows that you don't get more money by staying at the same old company. If you get huge raise from your current employer, it will almost certainly be the last huge raise you ever get from them -- it doesn't matter that she had a change in title, that's just the way it works.

Of course, her counter-argument would be that the Sheryls of the world have no such problem getting huge raise after huge raise, which is a fair point, but not particularly related to gender.

The lack of women in technology is a problem, but the fact that a non-technical position pays less well than an in-demand specialized position is not a gender issue.