Leaning In - Been There, Done That

posted May 28, 2013, 10:33 AM by Tia Karelson   [ updated May 28, 2013, 10:56 AM ]
April 23, 2013

Leaning In - Been There, Done That

Sheryl Sandberg deserves applause for writing “Lean In.” I’ve read it twice now, and both times came away feeling conflicted. Clearly, so have many others based on all the discussion the book has generated. Life is messy. You have to live with your choices.

Sandberg encourages women to make the choice to lean in at all stages of life. I believe she wants to believe that if we just lean in, women will ascend to leadership ranks.  She states up front that there is a chicken/egg issue when it comes to this issue. On the one hand, the egg (aka society) needs to change. On the other hand, the chicken (aka the woman) has to fight for the change. “I understand the paradox of advising women to change the world by adhering to biased rules and expectations. I know it is not a perfect answer but a means to a desirable end.”  

Sandberg and I are the same age, born nine days apart. I am envious of her. Not of her education, status, or wealth. No, I am envious of her early life obliviousness. She acknowledges that in her youth she would never have labeled herself a feminist. She believed that the heavy lifting was done. Wow. Really? How did she get by unscathed? How did she not notice her surroundings? Sandberg says, “I figured if sexism still existed, I would just prove it wrong. I would do my job and do it well. What I didn’t know at the time was that ignoring the issue is a classic survival technique.”  

I recently listened to four successful women speak at a leadership conference. They ranged in age from 30-50+ with jobs as company presidents, media broadcasters, and financial services executives.  Every single one had stories of blatant sexism in the workplace. The 30-year old president of a multi-million dollar company shared that when she asked a client what the company could do to better serve its clients, his response was that she could raise her skirt.

Each woman said that the negative experiences made them stronger. They worked harder to earn respect. This makes me so angry. Working harder is not the answer to ending bad behavior. The idiot who behaves badly does not deserve that power. Guess what? If he’s an idiot with you, he’s an idiot with others. We all end up playing our individual games of whack-a-mole and the damn moles just pop up in someone else’s game. In high school, there was a social studies teacher who winked at the girls, but never the boys. Several of the girls discussed it, decided that we did not like it, but didn’t know what to do about it. One day in class in front of everyone, I asked, “Mr. D, can you help what you’re doing, or is the wink an involuntary response?” He never winked at me again. He still winked at the other girls. The whack just helped my game, not theirs.

How many times have we heard phrases like, “We’ll let them play if they can prove themselves?” or “Sure. If they think they can do it, then why not?” It’s put forth as egalitarian, but it’s asking girls and women to perform above and beyond without support, coaching or camaraderie. If we can’t produce immaculate results, then we do not deserve to play. In middle school, I joined the school chess club. I was the only girl. I was intimidated out of the club by a boy two years older and twice as big as me who deemed, “No girls allowed.” If memory serves correctly, he threatened physical harm if I dared to keep coming to meetings. I was a mediocre chess player, but wanted to get better. I thought joining the club would be fun and a good way to improve. I stuck it out for a few weeks, but the torment became too much. My parents bought me an electronic chess computer. His name was Alex. He let me play with him.

There were countless episodes in middle and high school of overt sexism. During senior year, I was up for a $1,000 scholarship, a significant sum in 1987. Two scholarships were to be awarded – one to a boy, one to a girl. Four men conducted my interview. Three were middle-aged probably in their 40s, maybe one in his 50s. Then there was an older gentleman who kept falling asleep. I do not remember any other question, except for this one: Did I plan to work or stay at home with the children? I was confused. What did this have to do with winning the scholarship? Were the boys being asked the same question? I rambled some answer that straddled the line. Like Sheryl Sandberg, I too would rather be liked that disliked, and didn’t want to offend any of them. I was behaving in the classic female mold.

After the interview, the other three girls in contention confirmed that they too were asked the question. The guys, however, were not asked whether they planned to have careers or stay at home. Surprise, surprise. This gnawed at me, so I asked my history teacher Mr. Sandberg (no relation to Sheryl), an incredible man, whether the question was acceptable. I never knew what happened behind the scenes, but the girl awarded the scholarship was the one of the four who told them that the question was not appropriate. I was so proud of her bravery. She did was I afraid to do, and she won the $1,000 scholarship. I received a $200 scholarship for an essay about the golden rule….do unto others.

I believe many women of Sandberg’s generation, my own generation, leaned in. I have a deep sense of sadness that sitting in the middle ranks of corporations are many women with enormous talent who for whatever reason did not fully realize their potential. They are not the women who stayed home, or held themselves back, or did not ask for assignments as Sandberg would have us believe. They are the spines, the backbone of corporate entities. If they stopped doing their jobs for just one day, their organizations would crumble. They are not the queen bees, but the worker bees.

Over the years, they’ve heard statements like, “You’re too valuable doing what you’re doing. We need you in this role.” Or, “You don’t want that job. It’s really not that great. You don’t want to be in all those meetings.” They were told to wait for a tap on the shoulder that never came. Maybe they were even slipped an under-the-table bonus occasionally to keep them going. Not that I’d know any of this from personal experience.

Many of these women are overstressed, overtired, and in some cases, overmedicated. They are done. They leaned in, and got nowhere. Their reward for doing their jobs well was more work, not a promotion or a pay raise. The image in my head is that they’re crunched up against a corner with their faces pushed against both the ceiling and the wall. They ran out of places to go.

Sandberg concludes the book by encouraging women to bring their whole selves to work. “I think we benefit from expressing our truth, talking about personal situations, and acknowledging that professional decisions are often emotionally driven.” The “Lean In” conflict is that she spends much of the book offering helpful advice about changing the world by changing how we respond to the existing framework, but then tells us to bring our whole selves to work. Be yourself but not too much of yourself. That is a delicate balancing act.  

The healthier you are, the more productive, and happier you are. While Sandberg does call on men to do their share, she does not take on our 24/7 work culture. What is the cost of never stopping? I’m glad Mark Zuckerberg plays with her kids when she brings them to the office. That’s awesome. But bringing kids to the office is not a realistic option for most folks, moms or dads. Redefining our work culture will go a long way toward feeling as if it’s worth leaning in. This part of the book was so disappointing. Sandberg made headlines when she shared that many nights she leaves the office at 5:30 p.m., but she feels the need to justify her actions by declaring that Facebook is available 24/7, and so is she.  If you are available 24/7 to an entity, what hours are you available to the humans in your life?

Despite my own experience, I want to believe that the current and up-and-coming generations will fare better. Sandberg concentrates on leaning in to corporations and government entities. Those are the worlds she knows. An opportunity for women is to lean in to start their own organizations. Perhaps working for well-known entrepreneurs, Sandberg will find ways to encourage and support women with founding their own organizations. Starting from scratch is a way to thwart institutionalized barriers and the 24/7 work culture. Sometimes you don’t have to just change how you play the game; you have to change the game.

TED Talk Link:

Sheryl Sandberg – Why we have too few women leaders