Lean On Me

Guess who had the geekiest, hottest ticket in DC last Thursday night? I will give you a hint: it was me. That’s right, I saw the lovely Mee-chele Norris from NPR have a heart-to-heart with Sheryl Sandberg about Sandberg’s “sort of manifesto,” Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Spoiler alert: there was no Tory-Burch-briefcase-throwing, but since it was a room full of women, there was lots of hysteria, crying, and talking about hair. Obvs.

Sandberg’s message was mostly noncontroversial: women (and men, too, but esp. women) need to recognize the stereotypes we have about ourselves and our abilities, stop selling ourselves short, speak up, and expect equal treatment in whatever we do. I had seen her TED talk so I knew Sandberg would be engaging and interesting – and she was. Her responses to questions were well-rehearsed, and she described several entertaining anecdotes from her book (which, for the record, I haven’t read yet – I find that criticizing is way easier when you’re not tied to things like “facts,” am I right?!). It all felt a little canned and routine, but hey, she was on stop number five of a book tour and had her spiel down. It didn’t bother me, but she was much more believable when she dropped the “fake sincerity,” as one of my friends described it. Also, one of my other friends might have described her presentation as being like “Tammy Faye Baker televangelism.” And she did not mean that as a compliment about her passion and bold eye make-up.

There has been a lot of criticism about Sandberg’s message being inapplicable to normal women – you know, those slacker women who didn’t get two degrees from Harvard and don’t have an outrageously impressive resume. That criticism doesn’t resonate with me. She is brilliant and dynamic, and has taken risks and worked hard for her success, and I don’t think she should be discounted for that. But I did feel like she was out of touch for a different reason: she presented a lot of the issues that my lady colleagues and I have talked about for nearly a decade now as if they were new, and as if women hadn’t been wrestling with them before Lean In. Which is just blatantly untrue, at least in my circle. The way she described the problems women face wasn’t surprising to me at all. Don’t we all know that women often earn less than men because we just don’t ask? And don’t we all know that men who are aggressive are seen as leaders, while equally aggressive women are seen as bossy or bitchy? Don’t we all know that women often downplay their achievements, while men are more likely to bask in the glory of theirs?

But I guess her point is that while the women who have experienced these things – who have been called sweetheart or girl in a room full of male colleagues, who have been the only woman lawyer in a huge deposition and asked, “Are you the court reporter?”, who have been told by male supervisors that we can’t have lunch together at a bar because it will make people suspicious – need to make the shift from just talking to one another about it to talking to the world about it. And demanding better.

But I think with Lean In, Sandberg is presenting an over-simplified solution to an extremely complex problem. Two women who asked questions (questions that Sandberg largely dodged) got to the heart of my frustrations with her message.

First frustration: a feisty senior member of the audience (who was accessorized with some serious green jewelry) got up to the mic and introduced herself as an “original feminist.” And I believed her. Just the sound of her voice made me want to rip off my bra and burn it. She said Sandberg’s message was “fine,” but in her many years as an attorney in DC she had seen thousands of impoverished women who didn’t stand a chance of getting out of their circumstances just by “leaning in” and asserting themselves – what they need is meaningful legislation and public policy that helps them just get on the ladder, much less climb those last few rungs. The audience cheered for the green-bejeweled-feminist. Sandberg responded that she supports policies to even the playing field, but that “public policy on its own isn’t enough.”

And this is when it got realz.

Sandberg cited Scandinavia as an example of why we can’t rely on public policy to create equality. Apparently Scandinavia has enacted super progressive women’s rights laws, and yet, only 1% of its corporations are run by women. Persuasive, right? WELL, the green bejeweled woman immediately threw some Scandinavia stats RIGHT BACK AT HER – something about, “Well, yes, but that is balanced by Scandinavia’s legislative quota system, which requires significant female membership on all boards.” What the WHAT? Who can just spontaneously throw out facts about Scandinavian gender quota systems? That original feminist lady, that’s who. Sandberg recovered nicely from the Scandinavia smackdown and stood by her response – what she is doing is a complement to necessary changes in public policies and legislation, and isn’t the entire solution. (She also referenced leanin.org for the, oh, 4,000th time right about here.)

Second frustration: another woman stood at the mic and basically told my life story (minus the irrational fear of opossums and obsession with celebrity gossip). Her question was something along the lines of: how am I supposed to “lean in” at a job that is sucking the freaking life out of me, and also, why would I want to? She was (shockingly) in corporate law at a big law firm, had two little kids, and said that her job required long hours and travel on short notice, and it wasn’t worth it to her to lean in and stick around to get a management position. A management position that would continue to suck the life out of her, with a slightly bigger paycheck and a significantly higher level of stress.

At this point, all of my BigLaw expat lady friends grabbed each other’s hands and wept, and then called out to invite her to join our sisterhood.

I was psyched to hear Sandberg’s answer to this one. I totally leaned in and was ready to get some wisdom dropped on me. And do you know what she said? Something along the lines of the best way to get the flexibility that you want and need is to be in management. And that in major corporations and big law firms, the CEOs and partners call the shots, and the underlings respond.

Um. First of all, I don’t even know how true it is that CEOs and partners have tons of flexibility – in any high-paying client services industry, there is always unpredictability and the need to immediately respond to your client’s requests and needs, no matter what your level. But even if it is true, what about the years and years of pain and daily sacrifice leading up to that? What about all that work that might land you in the corner office but leave you with nothing satisfying outside of that fancy office – no relationships, hobbies, kids, etc.? What if “leaning in” to the workplace means sacrificing your chance to travel, fall in love, get married, have kids, and just live your life? (Look here for an interesting take on that issue from Erin Callan, former Lehman CFO.) She had no real response for that.

Maybe she would say that until we get women in those management positions, things aren’t going to change for the better for women. So we need women to sacrifice and make it happen if we want things to change. I don’t know. But her response reminded me that while she’s getting everyone talking, her advice about “leaning in” isn’t the whole solution.

I think the best thing Sandberg is doing right now is getting people talking about feminism again, and giving me an excuse to go out for overpriced drinks with my lady friends. But she doesn’t speak for everyone and “leaning in” isn’t a cure all. Not even close. I’ve made my peace with Sandberg’s message by being grateful that she is bringing the discussion to a national audience, and especially to high-profile men who are in power positions. She has the access and the street cred to literally pick up the phone and call the old white dude CEOs of major companies and get them talking about how to get women leading, which is amazing. Because when I tried that, they all just hung up on me.

But I hope the discussion keeps going and involves even more women from different backgrounds and perspectives. Like that green bejeweled lady – she has some things to SAY, I just know it. If I can’t find her to interview for my next piece, I will at least try to post a picture of her jewelry. Or a picture of me burning my bra in solidarity with her. Look for a teeny, tiny puff of smoke, that will not signal that a new pope has been chosen, but will tell you that I have found some grrrrrrl power.

One thought on “Lean On Me

  1. I have Lean In, fresh from Amazon, still in it’s cozy brown box on my nightstand. I’ve read the mass of op-eds on this, but plan to read it and make my voice heard. Thanks for the report!

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